Why, in our society, should the state spend the money collected from many taxpayers to subsidize the few who attend the opera and ballet, and consume the works of avant garde artists and writers?
Respecters of tradition connect these subsidies with the state’s support of higher education. They don’t object to the state performing the patronage role that the aristocracy and the church used to play in former times. On the other hand, many critics believe that the state unknowingly identifies its interests with those of the leisure class. The state, they say, is being a snob.
In Canada, there is no universally accepted theoretical basis for these subsidies and no one is demanding one. But since the ’sixties, and especially in these days of debt-induced austerity, old assumptions are increasingly being questioned.
There is a new way of looking at this problem, which does not raise the spectre of elitism. It’s not a matter of cultural policy at all, it can be argued – it is a matter of social policy. Whenever market forces are proving inadequate, the state should assist the maintenance – and creation – of socially useful communities that contribute to human well-being. Opera-lovers are a community, so are gallery-goers, so are readers of books. And so are supporters of public broadcasting.
In Canada, when common sense does not offer an answer, a committee consisting of Companions of the Order of Canada, of judges, doctors and union leaders could, if necessary, define what is meant by “socially useful.”