The False Freedom of Art Vouchers
Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, ubiquitous columnist and blogger, is a unique economist who advocates progressive policies framed in terms of free-market ideals. In a manner reminiscent of the Chicago School of economics, he has no fundamental compunction about state force but has an affinity for laying a glossy veneer of market concepts over the cheap particleboard of brute interventionism.
Baker often makes trenchant observations regarding the negative effects inherent in governmental distortions of voluntary interactions, but he prescribes solutions that similarly violate self-ownership and private property.
Baker is known for his stance (peculiar among progressives) against those government-granted monopolies, copyrights and patents. This is a commendable perspective; it's certainly unreasonable for the state to try to change nonrivalrous goods into rivalrous goods in a sort of misguided attempt at alchemy. Stephan Kinsella, Roderick Long, Jeffrey Tucker, and other advocates of liberty have widely crusaded against the injustices of intellectual property, but to find someone upholding these ideals who has authored a paper with Paul Krugman is rare indeed.
Despite Baker's refreshing stance on IP, however, he lacks a robust knowledge of the historical irrepressibility of human ingenuity and creative drive, claiming — in knee-jerk fashion — that "in the absence of deliberate government policy, there probably would be under-investment in innovation and creative work." Baker opposes copyright schemes, but has a low view of human capability to effectively respond to natural incentives. He has conceived of a system that is Goldbergian in its absurdly complex approach to pursuing results that can simply be produced by a fully free market.
Baker's Artistic Freedom Voucher (AFV) concept is a quintessential example of his brand of economic advocacy. This "Internet Age alternative to copyrights" would foist upon all US taxpayers, regardless of their willingness, the ancient patron model of funding artistic production. Essentially a broad expansion of the National Endowment for the Arts with a democratic twist, the Artistic Freedom Voucher system would usurp 20 billion taxpayer dollars to create a fund which would be paid out to artists who agree to repudiate copyright restrictions on their work for a significant period of time.
The allocations of such payouts would be determined by public vote, with each adult allotted a vote directing around $100 of the fund. Undergirding Baker's claim that the AFV is 100% voluntary is the idea that individuals wouldn't be required to vote in this system; yet, an individual's $100 wouldn't be returned upon refusal to participate. It seems Baker is utilizing the term "voluntary" in the same tortured sense used by the IRS to describe the federal income-tax system.
Institutions with force-backed restrictions on opting out distort individual preferences by their very nature. Baker predicts the AFV system would result in greater artistic diversity. This may well occur. Yet such coerced support could easily bid up the value of artistic products in aggregate beyond a rational level, since the AFV would create an artificial price floor for these products.
Not everyone values art, and even those who value art highly may place greater importance on paying their rent or feeding their children. Consumer preferences in art are made manifest only when individuals are left free to support artists of their choosing out of their own discretionary funds or to support no artists at all in favor of otherwise using their resources. Baker's starting goal for the AFV system of supporting 500,000 artists on an annual salary of $40,000 could be wildly generous — or wildly stingy; such goals are utterly arbitrary because they come from outside a market price system.
Dean Baker's Artistic Freedom Voucher concept is an example of that vulgar, subtle foe of supporters of freedom, the "practical" program that pays lip service to "competition" and "choice." Creators would compete, but only among themselves and not with the broader universe of spending choices available to the discerning public. Individual choice would be respected — unless the choice is to refuse yet more funding to Leviathan.
Like school vouchers, the flat tax, and other pretenders, the AFV assumes the necessity of state intervention and tries to bend liberty around such strictures. Freedom isn't so forgiving to such manipulation. The recent enormous expansion of support for voluntary exchange underscores that those who wish to be truly progressive should consider aligning themselves with the intellectual revolution that advocates true artistic freedom with no need for vouchers.
 Baker, "The Reform of Intellectual Property," Post-Autistic Economics Review, no. 32 (5 July 2005).