This is the 44th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.
A few days ago, the respected theatre artist Nadira Babbar spoke to the newspaper DNA about the state of theatre in Mumbai. She felt that there weren’t enough good auditoriums in the city. “My appeal to the government is to build small, simple auditoriums with basic infrastructure,” she said. “I am seriously thinking of meeting the chief minister and put before him certain stark realities of the state of theatre. Some of my proposals are to subsidize the rates of the halls. Secondly, it would be of great help if they subsidize the rates of placing advertisements in newspapers; not only for the theatre events, but also for other cultural events.”
Most of us would sympathize with her. The arts are essential to a civilized society, and deserve our support. And there are many neglected areas of it, besides theatre, where an infusion of funds would help. Traditional folk arts are dying out, literature in regional languages gets a raw deal, and so on. So, naturally, many of us turn to the state.
But should we?
We appeal for government spending much as children appeal to their parents. “Dad, I’m thinking of taking guitar classes, it costs X.” Or “Mom, I want to learn Bharatanatyam, the fees are Y.” And Mom and Dad evaluate if it’s good for us and fork out the money.
But parents spend their own money, money honestly earned. It’s not so simple when it comes to the government.
The money that our government spends does not come from the skies. It is taken, forcibly, from millions of ordinary citizens in this country. Those include not just you and I, who are effectively slaves of the government for three or four months of every year, depending on what percentage of our income our total taxes come to. They also include my maidservant, your building chaprasi and the girl who sells flowers at the Haji Ali traffic signal, all of whom contribute to the government coffers when they purchase a bar of soap or a chappal.
I’m not taking the extreme view that the government should not tax us. We need a government to protect our rights, and for a handful of essential purposes. For these, taxes are a necessary evil. But we should question its use beyond these necessities, for taxes come at a high cost.
The French writer Frédéric Bastiat had once asked, “Does the right of the legislator extend to abridging the wages of the artisan, for the sake of adding to the profits of the artist?”
Let me paraphrase that question in the context of Mrs Babbar: “Does the right of the legislator extend to abridging the wages of my maidservant, your building chaprasi and the girl who sells flowers at the Haji Ali traffic signal, for the sake of adding to the profits of the theatre groups of Mumbai?”
Ah, I can already hear the protests. “But theatre is a worthy cause, and deserves to be promoted,” the howls come. Indeed, but my maid may find uses for her money that she thinks are worthier. Her tax burden—and ours— could be eased considerably if the government stopped taking from Peter to give to Paul. And even if you insist on parting her from that money, it could be argued that the government itself could do worthier things with it. After all, tens of millions of people in India still lack access to clean drinking water.
I am reminded here of something the American Congressman Ron Paul once suggested. Paul was the sole dissenting vote when the US Congress voted to give the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks, and also voted against giving it to Mother Teresa and the Pope. His point was not that they did not deserve it. He simply saw no reason why the taxpayer should cough up the $30,000 each medal is estimated to cost. Instead, he proposed that every member of Congress who supported the award pay $100 from his or her own pocket towards the cost of the medal.
Similarly, I suggest that those who support all sorts of worthy causes should consider funding it themselves instead of demanding it of me, my maid or your chaprasi. It is easy to ask for other people’s money to be spent to support causes you support—but is it moral? Also, such short cuts to nobility are often hypocritical—if everybody who supported government funding for Mumbai theatre actually went and watched some plays, my guess is that there would be no need for a subsidy.
There are all kinds of good causes in this world that deserve our support, and we should not hesitate to support them if we feel strongly about it. But we should be careful of what we ask from the government, for it involves other people’s money. Instead, we should put our own money where our mouth is, and have the self-respect to refrain from demanding other people’s dosh.
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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.
And my occasional series: Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25. Also see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.