A Footnote on Art, Facts and Values

In art, it is impossible to call a spade a spade. A spade, as Readymade, is many things. A commodity, perhaps, and therefore an example of ‘Commodity Sculpture’, or a useful item, and therefore an example of ‘The Art of the Everyday’? A spade in the garden shed is not a metaphor, but in an art gallery it may be. Also, a spade in the work of Robin Rhode cannot but refer to the snow shovel that Duchamp famously gave the title ‘In Advance of a Broken Arm’. What’s more, it must remain an open question whether Duchamp’s use of the snow shovel has a significant relationship with Gustave Courbet’s revolutionary painting of stone-breakers. For this argument it is irrelevant whether Courbet’s work played a causal role in the production of Duchamp’s work, which would identify the latter as of the former in some way, for this inquiry would not determine in any way the kind of relations that can be constructed between the two after the fact. Following this we might take a different view of Magritte’s well-traveled statement ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (this is not a pipe) inscribed within a painting entitled ‘La Trahison des images’ (The Treachery of Images) under a picture of a pipe. The conventional response that the apparent paradox gives way to a realization that he is referring to a painting (of a pipe) not a (real) pipe, is a positivistic oversimplification. Similar simplifications, such as Foucault’s decipherment of the paradox as referring to the mutual irreducibility of images and words, might underline that such a work deals a blow to the certainty that the pipe is a pipe, replacing certainty with ‘a play of transferences’, but to frame this uncertainty within the epistemological discourse of the relation between thoughts, words and images, is to rationalize the uncertainty far too much, tying it down to the job it performs so well. No, not only is a spade not a spade in art, it is not a well-formulated philosophical statement of the fact that a spade is not a spade, either. A spade is not a spade in art because facts are riddled with values and riddled with the controversies that those values carry like a virus.

A Note on Merit Goods

The arts, David Throsby says, ‘might be deemed a merit good in Richard Musgrave’s original terms, and that, if so, this would provide normative grounds for collective action.’ But, of course, Throsby does not believe, ultimately, that art is a merit good, so there are no grounds for collective action, and we are left, instead, with market mechanisms (and non-market mechanisms such as the Booker Prize which he treats as market-like in the long run). Throsby seems not to have read Musgrave very carefully, arguing that ‘a number of the characteristics that might be ascribed to the arts as a merit good can actually be explained as generalized externalities or social goods. For instance, a belief that the arts are socially beneficial when held by people who do not themselves consume the arts directly, or the acceptance by some individuals of the desirability of others’ consumption, can be accounted for in this way,’ (p.23) when Musgrave specifically argued that merit goods were those goods which people should be able to consume not only regardless of the ability to pay but also regardless of whether they actually regard it as beneficial. What is important, here, is not whether Throsby persuades us that the concept of merit good can be deleted from the lexicon of economics, but that, subsequent to arguing that art is a standard or near-standard economic activity, he attempts to clean the board of all suggestions that art might be economically exceptional in some way. Externalities do not pose insurmountable problems for neoclassical economics, so Throsby redescribes merit goods as goods with externalities.

According to West and McKee, on the other hand, ‘Musgrave carefully distinguishes the public good-externality case from merit goods’, explaining

The former relate to social wants whose satisfaction is subject to the principle of consumer sovereignty … catering for merit wants on the other hand is directed, not to the satisfaction of consumer sovereignty, but to the interference with it.[1]

In fact, Musgrave never referred to merit goods; he theorized three new concepts of ‘want’ as part of a major contribution to the theory of public finance, or the role of the state in economic matters. In his book, ‘The Theory of Public Finance’ from 1959, Musgrave argued that the state had three objectives to budget policy: allocation, distribution and stabilization. This is the broader context in which to understand the concept of merit wants or merit goods, as they have become known. Merit wants constitute one of three kinds of want included in the first of the three objectives of public finance. The main objective of the public finance of allocation is to allocate needed resources to the satisfaction of ‘public wants’, ‘social wants’ and ‘merit wants’. Taken as a whole (that is, not considering the differences between public wants, social wants and merit wants), the first objective is ‘to provide for the satisfaction of public wants free of direct charge’. (p.334)

Whereas demand schedules for the satisfaction of private wants are revealed in the auction process of the market, such is not the case for the satisfaction of public wants. Since the same amount will be consumed by all, individuals know that they cannot be excluded from the resulting benefits. This being the case they are not forced to reveal their preferences through bidding in the market. The “exclusion principle”, which is essential to exchange, cannot be applied; and the market mechanism does not work.[2]

Public goods, according to the doctrine, are non-excludable and non-rival in consumption. Clean air is an example of a public good, since everybody benefits equally from its provision. Providing the instruments, manpower and facilities for democratic elections can be included here too. Musgrave’s examples are flood-control, sanitary campaign, judiciary, and the armed forces. Since there is no way for the market to ensure that those who pay for flood-control are protected while those who refuse to pay or can’t pay will not be protected, then social wants of this kind ‘cannot be satisfied through the mechanism of the market’.[3]

Rather than arguing that health and education are public goods in this formula, Musgrave devises the category of merit want. Merit wants are to be supplied by the public purse regardless of ability to pay but also regardless of consumer demand. So, while it is clear that education is both excludable and rivalrous – private education is not available to non-fee payers and, if there are limited places, then one fee-payer excludes a rival potential fee-payer – so it cannot be a ‘public good’ in the strict sense. However, if society believes that education ought to be available for all children regardless of ability to pay and regardless of what pupils or their parents demand, then, Musgrave argues, there is an argument for providing such goods publicly. When we do, the state supplies ‘merit wants’. Merit wants, then, can be supplied by the market and consumed in the standard way, but there is a case for arguing that everyone ought to enjoy the good equally nonetheless. That is to say, the market must supply goods unevenly and unequally according to demand and ability to pay, but some goods, such as education, ought to be supplied universally and equally. Merit goods are not supplied by the state in response to market failure, then, but to (normative, social, political) problems arising from market success.

West and McKee suggest that the public supply of merit goods ought to be temporary measures. If, they argue, those who are uneducated are less likely to demand education in the open market, then supplying education services to them will raise their education and, presumably, show them the value of education, leading to an increase in demand for education. And they regard the fact that universal free and compulsory education still exists as proof that the merit want arguments and the policies they have fostered have failed. To make this assessment they first have to convert a hypothesis into a condition. Some merit goods, we might speculate, can be supplied by the market once the state’s provision of them as merit goods has created the demand for them. However, subjecting the education of our children to market forces, in which ability to pay and willingness to pay are determining forces, is clearly to give advantage to the wealthy. Even in Higher Education, which has no claim to be universal, it is wrong to have candidates for study preselected by their ability to pay rather than their ability to excel. The point of recognizing and funding merit goods is to ensure that every member of society has access to those benefits that society deems to be universally valuable and should not be restricted to those who can afford them. The argument that merit goods ought to have a shelf life depends on changes actually taking place in society to remedy the situation that public policy was introduced to remedy. If we still have universal mandatory education this is not because merit goods don’t work, but that society has not become more equal in the meantime and the provision of free universal education is more urgent now than it has ever been.


[1] West and McKee, ‘De Gustibus’, p.1112

[2] Richard Musgrave, ‘A Multiple Theory of Budget Determination’, p.334-5

[3] Richard Musgrave,  The Theory of Public Finance, McGraw-Hill, NY, 1959, p.9