The RAP Tax vs. Agency and the Separation of Art and State

The Recreation, Arts, and Parks Tax—the RAP Tax—is a one-tenth-of-one-percent sales tax levied by Cedar City, Utah on all purchases within the city. One third of the tax money is spent on what the government considers good art.

This tax forces individuals to pay for specific works of art against their will. The RAP Tax is a form of socialized art, displacing freedom in art. Socialized art is wrong for the same reason that socialized medicine is wrong. The RAP Tax is wrong for the same reason that Obamacare is wrong. Like Obamacare, the RAP Tax must be repealed. Now.

The Rap Tax is not good for artists and art lovers any more than Obamacare is good for doctors and patients. The Rap Tax allows some artists with influence in government to gain money that they did not earn, and to place other artists at a competitive disadvantage. The RAP Tax is the government picking winners and losers in art.

Unfortunately for me, I was not born in southern Utah. I moved here less than six years ago, after having lived in New York and Los Angeles most of my life. I moved here for political freedom, and I have stayed for freedom along with the arts, culture, and friends. If I were to write or speak about morality in New York or Los Angeles, I doubt that most people would read or listen. Most people I met in those places were too cynical to think of ethics or to think in principle. But I have discovered that most people here do think in such terms. Therefore, I will review briefly the principles underlying legitimate government.

When an individual makes a mistake or even acts unethically concerning his own life, he harms himself, but he does not violate the rights of others. Other individuals might try to persuade such an individual to change his ways, but no one has the right to force him to do so. We have no right to force someone to be virtuous. We have the right to use force against an individual only in retaliation to that individual using force against us or against our property, which is an extension of us.

But even the use of retaliatory force must be limited in a civil society, because a mistake in the use of retaliatory force harms not only the individual who acts but also the one acted upon. Therefore, in civil society, every individual must turn over—except in emergencies— to a deliberative body his right to retaliatory force. That deliberative body is government.

The sole legitimate purpose of government is to protect individual rights by retaliating against the use of force, in accordance with objective laws and objective processes of deliberation such as trials in court.

The RAP Tax, in contrast, entails not the retaliation of force but rather the initiation of force: the forcing of citizens to surrender their property to pay for art that others want but have not earned.

It does not matter that the majority of voters voted for the RAP Tax. The majority does not have the right to violate the rights of the minority, taking money from the minority by force and financing art that the minority does not support and might even abhor.

The RAP Tax was authorized by voters for a period of ten years. That is, the law contains a sunset clause by which the law expires in ten years unless it is reauthorized. But a sunset clause does not make a law immune from repeal before the sunset clause takes effect. A sunset clause specifies a maximum duration, not a minimum. The law can be repealed now, and it should be.

The City Council should repeal the RAP Tax forthwith. It does not matter that the RAP Tax was enacted through referendum. The law-making authority of the voters via referendum merely augments, but does not supercede, the law-making authority of the City Council. The City Council still has the authority—indeed the responsibility—to repeal a law that violates rights, no matter how the law was initially passed, and no matter how popular the law may be. That is, an ordinance must be judged in the present solely on its virtue or viciousness, not on its popularity or the circumstances of its past enactment.

In American government, in the tradition of a system of checks and balances, no branch of government may defer its independent judgment to another branch. If Congress judges an elected official to be derelict in his duties, then Congress must impeach and convict that official, no matter how many citizens voted for the official in an election. If the Supreme Court judges a law to be unconstitutional, then the Court must strike the law, no matter how many Congressmen voted for it. At the federal level, the check on the electorate is so strong that referenda are not even allowed.

Similarly, if the City Council judges the RAP tax to be a violation of individual rights, then the City Council must repeal the law.

But there is something about the RAP Tax that makes it an even more vicious violation of rights than a typical socialist law such as Obamacare. The RAP Tax is an intrusion by government into the spiritual life of individuals. The RAP Tax is like a tax to finance ideas, fundamental ideas such as ideas on philosophy or religion. The RAP Tax breaches the separation of art and state, a separation every bit as crucial to man’s well being as the separation of church and state.

In the tradition of Western philosophy, there are only five branches—five subdivisions—of the full subject of philosophy: metaphysics (the study of the nature of the world and man’s relation to it), epistemology (the theory of knowledge), ethics, politics, and esthetics. Esthetics is the theory of art.

Of the entirety of mankind’s body of knowledge, philosophy is the most basic part. All religions, for instance, have at their base an answer to the questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Why does philosophy, mankind’s most basic subject, include only the five branches I just mentioned, including the theory of art? Why are other fundamental subjects, such as physics and mathematics, not fundamental enough to be included in philosophy?

Part of the answer is that the five branches of philosophy are the only parts of a man’s body of knowledge that must not be delegated by one man to another.

We can rely on experts for answers in physics, mathematics, medicine, and so on. But we must not let anyone choose our ideas on religion, or choose our view of the nature of the world, or choose and develop for us our very method of knowing, or decide for us what is right or wrong, or decide for us how to choose and pursue our highest values. We do not delegate to others our basic ideas of politics; that is, we do not delegate our basic right to vote, or our basic judgment on the proper role of government.

Similarly, we do not delegate to others what we choose to love in art. That is why esthetics is a branch of philosophy.

We do not delegate to others our evaluation of a novel, or a painting, or a movie, or a piece of music. We do not delegate to others what paintings we hang on our walls at home, what music we listen to in the car, what songs we choose to sing with our family, or what movies we take our family to see. We may listen to suggestions from others, but the final decision is always our own.

It can be argued that there should be a sixth branch of philosophy: the study of romantic love. Virtually all of the great philosophers have written about love. Like our response to art, our romantic love for another person is a response to the deepest values—the deepest philosophical values, the deepest spiritual values—in the person we love and in ourselves. As in the other branches of philosophy, we do not delegate to others our choice of romantic partner.

Art and romantic love are the most beautiful aspects of life created by man. They are beautiful when they are created, offered, and accepted by the free will—by the agency— of the individuals involved. But when you introduce compulsion into either art or love, you transform the most beautiful into something more ugly than words can describe.

This is why government, the institution of physical force in society, must never be involved in choices regarding religion, or love, or art.

If you allow government into one of these realms, then you are in principle inviting government into all of them.

The majority must not dictate to individuals what church to support or attend, or whom to marry. For the same reason, the majority must not dictate to individuals what theatre to support or attend, or what paintings to buy.

Government deciding what art an individual should support or enjoy is a violation of an individual’s spiritual independence. It is an affront to an individual’s agency. It is an immoral act.

These are the principles involved regarding the RAP Tax. I have written about principles, because I know that most people in southern Utah think in such terms, as I do. Most people here understand that there is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical. If you use your agency to act with virtue, then you will reap the rewards of virtue. If not, then there will be an awful price to pay.

I cannot identify all of the unhappy results that have already occurred because of the RAP Tax. I cannot point to the businesses that could have been started with small portions of the millions of dollars that were taxed away from the rightful owners; those businesses were never allowed to come into existence for me to point to. Similarly, I cannot point to the lives that might have been enhanced or transformed by the purchase of one great book or one musical instrument, or one hour off from work to think of the next great invention.

I cannot predict all of the unhappy results that will occur because of the RAP Tax. The great thing about ethics is that it enables us to know what is right and wrong in principle and thereby know whether the practical outcomes will be good or bad, even if we cannot predict the specifics of these practical outcomes. But here are some specific practical outcomes from the RAP Tax that I do predict, if they have not already begun to occur.

A free country attracts immigrants yearning to breathe free. A welfare state attracts immigrants looking for a handout. The same principle applies on the scale of a town. If you offer government handouts to artists, then you will attract to the town artists who are looking for government handouts, and you will alienate artists who love freedom. Moreover, the anti-freedom ideas of the artists you attract will be reflected in the art that these artists create. Many of the artists you attract will be cynical snobs who look down on the ‘local yokels’ who are not ‘hip’ enough to ‘get’ their ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’ art; these artists think of themselves as the cultural elite who have an ‘in’ with the few government operatives who do ‘get’ it. And then the town will wonder why there is a dissonance between the long-time residents who respect rights, individual judgment, wholesomeness, and beauty, as opposed to the newcomers who trash all of our values.

If instead the town upholds freedom in the realm of art, then you will attract artists who know that to sell their art, they have to offer real value to the individuals who will buy it. You will attract artists who respect the individuals who already live here, whose art celebrates virtue and beauty, and who offer such values to those individuals who purchase their art voluntarily.

In other words, if you are virtuous, then you will attract the virtuous and repel the vicious.

Another unhappy result of government-supported art is that government-supported religion will follow. On numerous occasions, I have witnessed Christian prayers on the stage of the government-owned, government-run, and government-subsidized Heritage Theater. Many plays by Shakespeare, performed by the Utah Shakespeare Festival—a recipient of large grants financed by the RAP Tax—contain themes related to the Christian Church, Catholic popes, and many other Christian characters. The Neil Simon Festival, named after a Jewish playwright who writes of many Jewish characters and Jewish themes, is another recipient of large grants financed by the RAP Tax. It is only a matter of time until agitators representing other religions—from Islam to devil worship to just plain hatred of Christianity—demand equal time and equal subsidization from the City, correcting more than a decade of imbalance. And then the city will also have to review every potential renter of the Heritage Theater for religious content.

There is nothing that certain political Leftists would like more than to harass and bankrupt a thriving town with a large LDS population. What will be your argument against such scoundrels?

But there is a worse unhappy result. Consider the lesson that you are teaching your children who are in the arts. You are teaching them that capitalism is fine for the average folk in plain old industries such as manufacturing, but when it comes to something ‘important’, such as the arts, we need socialism. You are teaching your children in the arts that they owe their career, their life’s work, to the welfare state. You are teaching them that they are society’s elite, above the rest who must work and trade in the free market for an honest dollar. You are teaching them to become the cynical snobs that I wrote about above.

New York City, where I spent most of my life, is crawling with such ‘artists’. That is why I left.

Some proponents of the RAP Tax argue that the tax is small. But people who think in principle know that such an argument is invalid. A small wrong does not make a right. Moreover, robbing millions of dollar by robbing a few pennies at a time from thousands of people is still robbing millions of dollars. Much mischief can be caused by millions of dollars given to people who did not earn the money. Millions of dollars spent on art can create a great deal of beauty or a great deal of hatred of beauty.

Furthermore, money spent by government on art has a great deal of leverage. A few years ago, I attended a meeting of the City Council regarding the possibility of diverting some RAP Tax funds for maintenance, thereby reducing the amount of grants. Several representatives of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, along with representatives of other recipients of grants, were there to speak against these reductions. In contrast to the city, I spend between $500 and $1,000 a year on the Utah Shakespeare Festival, to attend its brilliant shows (not its obscene shows). If I were to cut back on my spending, would several representatives of the Festival ask to come to my home to try to change my mind? Of course not; nor would I expect them to. But because of the RAP Tax, the government of Cedar City has become one of the Festival’s biggest—and most influential—‘customers’. It is by steps such as these that government gains control of an industry, and vice versa.

The final argument by proponents of the RAP Tax is that most people want the art and need the art. But again, it is not the purpose of government to give to the people—whether a minority or majority—what they want or even what they need. The sole purpose of government is to protect rights by retaliating in a deliberate and objective manner against the use of force.

Fifteen years ago, a poll might have indicated that a vast majority of the citizenry—a far greater majority than the voters for the RAP Tax—wanted an LDS temple in town. Does that mean that government should have funded the building of a temple? We all know that such an action would have been wrong. Consequently, fifteen years ago, a temple was not built. But now an LDS temple has been built and is open. It was built in its right time: when enough people who wanted the temple were willing and able to pay for it with their own money, with no coercion of the minority who did not want it.

Fifteen years ago, local government built the Heritage Theater. It was wrong to do so. What would have happened if government had not built the theatre? Perhaps the town would not have had a theater at that time. Perhaps fifteen years would have gone by before a theater would have been built privately, like the LDS Temple. Or perhaps the majority of people who wanted the theater would have built a smaller theater, a more efficient theater more tailored to the needs of the people who were willing to pay for it. In either case, the people who wanted the theater would have lived within their means.

Instead, we have a cavernous theater that I have attended many times but have rarely seen full, and that never will pay for itself. Moreover, the theater is a barrier to entry against any private entrepreneur who wants to build a better theater for the people in town. Similarly, government subsidizing of artists is a barrier to entry against artists in search of freedom instead of a handout.

Government subsidizing of an industry is a sure way to destroy the industry. If you want the best in art, then stand for freedom in art. America is “a nation of immigrants” not because we subsidized immigrants, but because we offered freedom to immigrants and thereby attracted the greatest minds from around the world. If you want to attract great artists—along with private investors in great art—from around the country and the world, then offer freedom: make Cedar City a government-art-free zone.

I think that the next Renaissance in the arts will take root in the city that steps up to become “the freest city in the freest state in the freest nation.” Cedar City could be that city.

First, we must beat the RAP Tax.

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