Instead of doing, you know, actual work last night (how do I hate thee HMRC, let me count the ways), I spent quite a bit of the evening reading articles and responding to the news that new Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has cancelled (I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but never mind) the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards:
The Premier refused to comment on his decision but a spokesperson released a statement which said the LNP Government had been “clear in communicating its plan to control government spending, return the budget to surplus, revitalise frontline services and lower the cost of living for all Queenslanders”.
“In light of this, the Queensland Government has decided not to proceed with the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2012,” the statement said.
But Brisbane Writers Festival director Jane O’Hara said the Premier’s Literary Awards offered paltry savings.
She hoped that the scrapping of the Premier’s Literary Awards would trigger a state, national and international debate.
The piece above is a straight news story from the main Queensland daily, the Courier-Mail. This piece from its online rival, the Brisbane Times, gives a decent summary of the arts community response. If you want a bit of background, read both before moving onto my comments.
Arts, politics, merit goods
Now, one of the small burdens I have to bear is the reality that there are very few right-leaning writers (in Australia, I suspect I am in a club of one when it comes to living Miles Franklin Award winners), so when I was arguing on facebook with various lefty and literary friends on this issue, I was pushing a certain substance up a very steep hill with a pointy stick. However, I think it is worth setting down — at least in outline — why a conservative or classical liberal would want to cut a relatively inexpensive line-item in the state budget (the figure I keep seeing quoted is $244,000, although I’ll stand corrected on that).
Very briefly, funding merit goods (in economic terms, things people ‘ought to want/have’) with public money is very, very difficult to do well, and the line between the merit good and positive outcomes needs to be exceptionally clear in order to justify the funding. Vaccinations are a good example of a publicly funded merit good where the causal link is very strong. Literary awards, not so much. You would need to make a ‘positive externalities‘ or ‘spillover’ case akin to Milton Friedman’s arguments for state funded education. Always remember that although Friedman advocated vouchers for education administration (to facilitate choice), he never wavered from supporting state funding for it, due to the large positive externalities generated. His arguments on point are worth reading because they are evidence-based, and don’t assume (as many education-boosters do) that education is a per se good. It is this point that Nick Earls (in an otherwise excellent piece) fails to appreciate. The case for supporting apprentice plumbers (based on positive externalities) is stronger than the case for state funded literary awards; this is in part because apprentice plumbers fall under the broader ‘education’ umbrella.
Funding merit goods publicly crowds out the private/charitable sector. If you must fund merit goods publicly (using Friedman’s state funding of education as a model), far better to give the money to the Miles Franklin Trust or – even better, the new Stella Trust. That has the benefit of keeping the transaction at arm’s length (so there is no hint of political chicanery or partisanship) and shows that the government body trusts private citizens to make good decisions with respect to quality. It is well-known that literary taste is largely (although by no means wholly) subjective. Within a given framework, it is quite possible to like many different things/genres/styles/etc. This also acknowledges that government is probably not in the best position to work out what is actually good in an objective sense. Private and charitable sector funding will reflect a greater diversity in taste, and allow for the adoption of political and social positions outside the mainstream: always remember that the serious study of Australian literature in Australian universities came about in the wake of individuals (like Miles Franklin) taking the country’s literature seriously. Governments — by their very nature — are slow and ponderous. Private persons can be quick.
A political tin ear
This point is specific to the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, but needs to be assayed in order to make at least one aspect of the cancellation clear. It is this: the Qld body made a huge blunder when it shortlisted David Hicks for a major award. It was a classic example of people on the political left evincing the most colossal tin ear when it comes to understanding their opponents’ perspectives and arguments. Jonathan Haidt’s work on this issue is outstanding and very thoughtful; I recommend it highly. I have linked to one of his academic papers rather than his popular work (the latter gets a bit twee and suffers from fairly serious oversimplification).
In short, Haidt’s research shows that many left-liberals mischaracterize conservative and libertarian views on various issues as being the result of malice or a desire for vengeance, just as many religious conservatives assume that atheists have no morality, or that all women who have abortions are sluts. In other words, people who are very liberal (US definition) are often as incapable of understanding their opponents as people who think taking the kids to the Creation Museum for a family outing is a good idea. As the bulk of left-liberals are considerably better educated than the bulk of Creation Museum attendees, the left-liberals have less excuse. I saw a great deal of this last night. ‘This stems from the LNP hissy fit at David Hicks being shortlisted last year. And general Tory bastardry. Retribution and destruction are the names of their game’ opined one friend (for whom I otherwise have a great deal of respect, I might add).
Actually, there are very good arguments, both against publicly funded literary awards per se and David Hicks being shortlisted for one of them in particular. These arguments can be made without malice or a spirit of vengeance.
Hicks is a traitor (not to mention a foul misogynist of the first water). That said, it is perfectly possible to think this and to think that he should not have been in Guantanamo. He — like anyone else in a similar situation — ought to know the substance of the charges against him, is entitled to due process, and also enjoys the presumption of innocence. He was denied much of that in Guantanamo, a monstrosity of which the US should be ashamed. As a corollary of this, it is also perfectly reasonable to want him in an Australian gaol for a very long time. Further, people who decry Tony Abbott’s misogyny (which is real, they are not making it up) and then engage in excuses when it comes to an individual like Hicks are really quite appalling hypocrites. That this is not immediately obvious to those in the business of handing out literary awards constitutes a strong prima facie case for extending Haidt’s findings to Australian politics.
In the alternative…
There are, of course, strong arguments against the position I have given in outline above, most of them in Nick Earls’s piece. His point about the Unaipon Award in particular is well made, as the money for that prize comes from a private trust, and was only administered by the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Campbell Newman may find himself having to deal with the board of trustees, and the situation may provoke some thought about the distinction between public and private support for the arts, as well as patronage more generally.
Finally: we have both written in considerable detail about the use of private trusts to support literature and the arts, in a longer piece on the new Stella Prize and the history of the law of trusts.