Your merit good is not meritorious, therefore it has been cancelled

By skepticlawyer

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.

Crowding out

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.


  1. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Wow, didn’t take long for Campbell Newman to make a positive impression.

    Can’t wait to see what he does next.

    Any princesses upset at the scrapping of the Premier’s literary awards can dry their tears and perhaps write books that, you know, people may actually want to buy.

    They’ll certainly be a very different type of book than those written to appeal to the numpties on literary award decision panels.

  2. TerjeP
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    The article you cite as evidence that Tony Abbott hates woman does not provide any evidence of hatred at all. I find it to be a very odd claim. Tony Abbott could be accused of being an old fashioned male chauvinist or a Christian conservative with an irrational opposition to abortion, however it takes a giant and somewhat untenable leap of logic to say he hates women.

    As for axing taxpayer funded literary awards I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the theory that it is vindictive. It is in fact somewhat entertaining listening to the shock and outrage of entertainers. If we can create such an amusing spectacle whilst also saving the taxpayer a few pennies then what a bonus. What can be done to make it a regular event?

  3. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] You’re a bad man but I like you 🙂

    Denying women control over their own fertility is both a driver and exemplar of misogyny. But I am not sure supporting the doctrine because you are a serious Catholic demonstrates personal misogyny.

  4. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Terje, all the way!

  5. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    It is in fact somewhat entertaining listening to the shock and outrage of entertainers. If we can create such an amusing spectacle whilst also saving the taxpayer a few pennies then what a bonus. What can be done to make it a regular event?

    Terje, your claws are showing!

    That apart, it can be quite dangerous to alienate storytellers, a point Andrew Norton has made repeatedly over at his place. Very often powerful and evidence-based classical liberal policies have been jettisoned by unworkable leftist or conservative ones, simply because both the leftist and the conservative are generally better at narrative, especially when they deploy it in what Richard Epstein calls ‘the tragedy of the individual case’.

  6. Charles Richardson
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post. Some quick comments:

    1) Whatever its motives, I think the abolition of the awards is exactly the right decision. As you say, it’s just not something govt needs to do or is any good at.

    2) Describing Hicks as a “traitor” seems to lack any support – I’m not aware of anything he’s been accused of that would fit that description. He may well be guilty of something less, altho of course he’s never been convicted of anything. And I’m quite willing to believe he’s a “foul misogynist”, altho that’s not actually a crime.

    3) It seems to me that a lot of public policy and people’s views thereon really are “the result of malice or a desire for vengeance” – on both sides, left and right. (I don’t know if this is one of them or not, but seems pretty plausible.) No doubt each side notices those motives more on the other side than on its own.

    4) I don’t think it’s a double standard to care about Abbott’s misogyny but not about Hicks’s – no-one’s proposing to elect Hicks to govern us.

  7. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    If we are going to treat Tony Abbott as a moral adult, then I think we ought to treat David Hicks as a moral adult as well, not as some sort of moral mascot deserving of excuses. My irritation at the double standard is discussed very nicely here:

  8. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    “They’ll certainly be a very different type of book than those written to appeal to the numpties on literary award decision panels.”

    Read many of the latter, have you, SATP? And if you haven’t, how would you know? Either you’ll have to admit that you have, or you’ll have to admit that you haven’t. Either way you’re gonna look silly to someone.

    I might also point out that your hostess won a number of the awards you so deride (despite the fact that you appear to know nothing about them or how they are judged), and that you are therefore being dreadfully rude to her. Do you really think she was writing with an eye to pleasing us numpties?

  9. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Do you really think she was writing with an eye to pleasing us numpties?

    I wish I knew how to do this, but alas, it is beyond my skillz 🙂

    Seriously, the third at Kempton Park is a better bet, especially for the Miles.

  10. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Riirrrr. ….. the caterwauling has commenced!

    Terje is right, it is a lovely sound.

  11. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    SATP, perhaps you’d like to make an actual argument?

  12. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I made it above PC. They can write books that attract readers.
    Or not. Suit themselves.

  13. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    SATP, you can do better, I know you can. If the distinction you wish to draw is between publicly and privately funded literary awards, then make that argument. There are plenty of people of all sorts of persuasions on this blog who can make decent arguments either way, as well as other arguments.

    And Andrew Norton’s point is well worth keeping in mind.

  14. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Correct me where I am wrong, but I’d thought this thread was about the Qld Premier’s literary awards. Privately funded literary awards can do what they wish. I don’t contribute to them, thus have no axe to grind.

    I don’t mean to upset anybody, but it is such a pleasure to see a Premier of Qld making commonsense decisions. (For a change).

    Though once I sponsored a (minor) private literary award of my very own. But that is another story. Though a good one for any writers who have a sense of humour.

  15. Charles Richardson
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: I don’t regard David Hicks as a “moral mascot”, whatever that means, and I certainly prefer to treat everyone as a moral adult. My point is simply that Abbott’s moral failings are a matter of public concern in a way that Hicks’s are not, because Abbott is a contender for public office, and that it’s not “hypocrisy” to point this out. (No doubt some of those who point it out may in fact be hypocrites, but that alone isn’t enough to show it.)

  16. Ken n
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I agree with you on Hicks v Abbott though I am not sure how this got into the discussion.
    And I would rather you did not use “moral failings” to mean ” things he says that I disagree with”

  17. kvd
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    To borrow a term from Lorenzo’s linked piece I think this decision is a ‘policy mascot’ for the new government. A further depressing thought is that it won’t surprise to see the same sort of early move from an incoming Abbott-led national government.

    It is difficult to take seriously a government ‘initiative’ which will save maybe the cost of a 60 second ad slot at half time in the next State of Origin series. And to defend the decision requires a level of ideological purity which would be quite laughable and harmless were it confined to just one small corner of politics. Unfortunately, the dogma of the right elites is mostly mirrored by that of the left, at great cost to what should be the real business of government. And what is ‘the real business’?

    From the Courier Mail link: “Freshly sworn-in arts minister Ros Bates refused to comment, saying she didn’t even have an office set up yet.” Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right.

  18. bh
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    Why the gratuitous kick to tony Abbott and comparison to David Hicks? Calling him a misogynist just because he disagrees with you on abortion is a bit juvenile, in an otherwise thoughtful article.

  19. Posted April 5, 2012 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks, LE – just had a lengthy discussion on this issue with the Roman lawyers at Edinburgh! You will be chatting to Dr Dan Carr on Roman law and Roman law rules on this … you have been warned!

  20. TerjeP
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Legal Eagle – To your point. I recently gave cash to a Kickstart project pitching to make a TV quality documentary about Thorium as a nuclear energy source. The guy making it was after $20000 to cover some production costs. He put together a promo asking for the cash. He had the necessary backers in under two weeks. If creative people are so creative why can’t they be creative in raising funds for things they care about?

  21. Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    If creative people are so creative why can’t they be creative in raising funds for things they care about?

    Yes. Yes.

    There have been a number of public examples in the last year and a half of publicly-funded arts ventures having their public funding pulled, and therefore being in danger of becoming non-existent. There was Island Magazine, which lost funding from the Tasmanian government; there was TINA festival, which had, if I recall correctly, about half of their funds pulled by the Newcastle Council… and there are at least two more that occur to me, offhand.

    The tendency in all these cases has been to criticise the government body responsible for withdrawing money, and call for that money to be reinstated. But surely this is part of a larger problem: the distribution of taxpayer money to the arts is always going to be strictly limited, and subject to changes in government. To become reliant upon government funding for the ongoing existence of an artistic institution is a dangerous thing, and a change of attitudes on this matter would be timely. If we value the existence of the arts, then we should not just be reliant upon public moneys; we should be vigilant in seeking out other paths – philanthropy, money through private enterprise, advertising, etc.

    I notice on Facebook yesterday there were some objections to author Michael Condon floating the idea of some alternate literary awards – the ‘Queensland literary awards – because it would be seen by the LNP as justifying their decision. Well really, who cares what the LNP thinks? The important point is the survival of a literary institution, and how this survival can be guaranteed over time in changing political and economic circumstances. It’s not what one thinks of the LNP.

    (Or is it? Because the possibility remains… has some of the outrage at the axing of the awards been because it is politically expedient to be outraged, as a left-winger, at this action by the LNP? In some cases, I’d say this is what has motivated the outrage.)

  22. Mel
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Well this particular lefty clicked his heels and did a jig upon hearing the good news. Personally I would like to scrap all government elite arts and sports funding. I would redirect some of the arts funding to poorer schools as I think the arts including music are great gifts and shouldn’t be denied the underprivileged. Ditto with sports funding.

    A real test of whether Campbell Newman is sincere or not will be whether he also takes the axe to elite sports funding. My guess is that he won’t and that an element of vindictiveness is involved in his decision. But impure motives don’t invalidate a good outcome.

  23. TerjeP
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I agree that sport should not be let off the hook. And whilst we are at it let’s axe taxpayer funding of political parties.

  24. Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Yes – me three. Good point Mel.

  25. Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Mel: Off topic, but I thought you might enjoy me taking on a mad internet “Austrian” here.

  26. kvd
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Just for the record. Mind you my eyes took that in as “better latte than never”.

  27. Posted April 6, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    A further depressing thought is that it won’t surprise to see the same sort of early move from an incoming Abbott-led national government.

    And you question the savings of the measure. I have a very similar proposition for Abbott with massive savings. Sell the ABC!!

    The ABC has done itself no favors in the recent past. From simple bias at election times over the Howard years to an unending diet of anti-right output now, they have swung markedly. My preferred listening/watching is the ABC because I don’t like ads but I hate the politicisation of the product and increasingly find myself shutting off. If the Drum website is representative of ABC viewers/watchers, Abbott will be losing no friends if he dumps the carrier, so it’s win/win, save massive amounts of cash, only upset those who despise you anyway and rid yourself of a partisan commenter into the bargain.

  28. kvd
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Henry! I questioned the savings only because I doubt that little if any savings were actually made by the particular decision. It seems to me that for a paltry sum of $250k the government was providing just a little bit of grease for the wheels of the arts industry, and I think that’s a good thing. My further point was more on the attempt to justify the decision by reference to ideological purity, when Newman himself baldly stated that it was to ‘save money’. Me, I agree with LE that it also was a deliberate poke in the eye by him.

    SL often mentions the difficulty of holding two concepts in one’s brain, and I admit to similar feelings about the ‘elites’ in any field. I believe that society in any form only really progresses through the achievements of and support given to its elites. My only issue is that this is support provided by society for general advantage, and not regarded as some sort of basic entitlement by the elites themselves. Mel also mentioned sports, but again I don’t think you can simply dismiss the support given through national and state academies as useless; there are genuine benefits flowing back to the lower levels of sports through the advances made in training, diet, and health research attaching to those gifted athlete programs.

    I’m saying fair enough – by all means cut something if it is too costly or produces no society benefit; but when you do please ensure you are aware of (and valuing) all the ‘returns’ generated by the expenditure.

    As to the ABC, I dunno. It seems to me that if it were to degenerate into another commercial enterprise, complete with Australia’s Biggest Loser, and Dancing With Whoever the F* Is That, then we are all the loser. A more interesting question to me is how or why this phenomenon of broadcasting being ‘captured’ by the Left occurs in the first place? Look at the BBC in the UK or the derision with which Americans seem to regard their mainstream media. It is not just an Australian issue.

  29. kvd
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Also Henry, I’d like to point out that Mr Newman’s 100 day plan mentions the creation of about fourteen new boards, authorities, commisions, etc. plus one new government department. Back in I think 2008 the previous government decided to rationalise the then 500 quangos.

    I hope they were successful, so let’s say, including Mr Newman’s newbies, there are now 400.

    A Chair is on a per diem of $500-600, while a lowly member is on $400-500, I understand. Now do the math to see just how paltry that arts $250k is…

  30. kvd
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    And lastly (as I am the only one with a keyboard this a.m.) I’d also observe that SL’s consideration of the policy implications involved in establishing any government program are fine by me.

    But I tentatively question if those particular policy imeratives are actually the same in play when you are considering downsizing or discontinuing any particular program? Just a thought.

  31. Posted April 6, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    It pained me to have to write what I wrote above. This is MY ABC we are discussing.
    Like most bushies, this was the only radio and tele available. It used to do good work.
    Or maybe the ABC is just continuing with past practises.
    For instance, the ABC used a daytime radio soap called ‘The Lawsons’ to educate farmers on modern farming methods. This became ‘Blue Hills.’

    Should it have to be a slave to the left or to the right?

  32. kvd
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I understand and in fact identify with your feelings regarding OUR ABC.

    As to your question, I don’t think it actually is a slave to either side. I think that is more a perception of some on some issues, rather than the reality. I’ve seen pollies of all hues sometimes complain of bias, and I actually find that quite reassuring.

  33. Posted April 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    omg, just saw that the yet-to-be-released “review” of the NSW Premier’s awards was headed by Gerard Henderson. Talk about tendentious. You can just imagine how many ancient grudges he will have a go at reviving and paying off along the way.

  34. D L White
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Cutting the Literary award falls into the category of fiddling in Queensland’s micro-economy. Newman may be able to chip many more small pieces off the tip of this particular iceberg and so make it float a little higher in the water but the macro-economic test is whether he and the LNP administration can do anything of significance to increase the size of the particular iceberg to which we are all clinging. This is a simple analogy compared with the actual complexity of governing but it is an important question. What can any state government do to change our reliance on cheap imported consumer goods? Are they going to re-introduce protections for our labour-force so they can compete in their own market or perhaps alternatively introduce free trade zones as in Asia where labour is forced to accept $2 a day? What can the LNP do to change the royalty/licence system which so heavily favours the foreign investors in the resource extraction enterprises? 85% goes offshore, 15% net gain to Australia I believe. FDI will increase the size of the industry but will it really add much ice to our berg. Furthermore, I fear that the warmer air flowing from increased extraction and burning of coal and gas may well finish up sinking us all.
    May the American GOD be praised. DEN71

  35. Patrick
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    My take on government funding of arts is that the vast majority of my favourite art (well all of it that I’m aware of) was created by private patronage and personal endeavour (with a couple licks of Catholic sponsorship).

    So I just don’t see any need for governments to encourage people to ‘follow their stupid f***en lazy dreams’, if they wanted to do art they could, as Steve says, just do art people wanted.

    I love sport and probably wouldn’t personally axe sporting programs but I would struggle to defend them if someone was suggesting it 🙁

  36. Posted April 15, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    The only valid functions of “The State” are to provide security in the form of police, justice in the form of efficient courts, universal and free education, universal and free health care for those who take reasonable care of themselves. [Yeah, impossible to determine], and through legislation [not grants, exemptions or hand outs] to facilitate the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens, and to ensure their economic security by not permitting the importation of goods produced by ‘slave’ labour. All this while legislating to maintain and secure the natural heritage and species diversity of the state.

  37. Posted April 15, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Since December 1991, Australian employment has increased by 949,700 [3,851,400] people, the participation rate has increased from 63.1% to 65.4% and the unemployment rate has fallen from 10.4% to 5.2%. (Data from here.) Whatever problems the Australian economy has, a need to “re-introduce protections for our labour-force so they can compete in their own market” is not the issue.

  38. Posted April 15, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink


    Assuming the figures you use make good the cheerful prognosis you propound, could it be that 1991 an unduly flattering start date? Wasn’t that when we were having the recession we had to have? I remember that my commencing salary as a solicitor in mid-92 was cut by $5K (from $37K to $32K) between the when the job was offered and when the job started. We all thought we were lucky that our jobs were still there.


  39. Posted April 15, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] It was not the peak of the recession in the sense that unemployment peaked at 12.2% in July 1992. I was taking it from the last time the economy shrank for two consecutive quarters. In other words, the last 20 years of growth without a recession. But any start period has some objection.

    We could take it from February 1993 when employment bottomed, July 1992 when the unemployment rate peaked, December 1989, the previous unemployment low (5.8%; participation rate 63.3%, 7,828,000 folk employed compared to the current 11,491,000, a growth of 3,663,200–I was a column off, that was full-time female employment in my previous comment, I have corrected).

    The point remains the growth in employment has been massive and the rate of unemployment has fallen.

One Trackback

  1. By Skepticlawyer » Queensland Literary Awards on April 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    […] sorts or arguments both for and against state-sponsored literary awards, some of which I canvassed in my post on this issue. However, there is everything to like about a private body using the law of trusts to achieve the […]

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