The Larger Lesson To Be Learned From The GSA’s “Art In Architecture” Program

On her September 8 show, Greta Van Susteren was dismayed over the fact that the federal government is going to spend about a half of a million dollars on art work for an upgrade project to the border crossing for the San Diego –Tijuana region.  You can read the text of her justified rant here.  The overall project is to cost $735 million and it seems the General Services Administration allocates one half of one percent of construction projects to “art work” pursuant to the GSA’s “art in architecture” program.  In short, Greta is incensed by the fact that this is the same crossing where Sergeant Tahmooressi made a wrong turn and ended up in Mexico.   Greta asks rhetorically why the government wouldn’t spend that money on improving the road signage so people stop making wrong turns into Mexico.

Her frustration is justified because it is unjust for the federal government to tax American citizens or borrow from future generations to purchase artwork for anything, not because the government failed to improve the road signage.  If the GSA spends one half of a percent of every construction project on “art in architecture”, how many millions of taxed or borrowed taxpayer dollars are spent on art overall?  Worse, the big picture implications are far more severe.

We are often incensed at relatively small and insignificant injustices that are tangible but seem oblivious to larger problems that are less obvious.  The purchase of $500,000 worth of art for a border crossing is a specific, tangible, actual event we can all appreciate and evaluate on its own merits.  It is relatively easy for us to size up this issue and make a human judgment that it is wasteful and improper to tax citizens or borrow from future generations to spend money on something as frivolous as art for a border crossing.  It’s harder to consider the implications of such waste and inefficiency on a grander scale.

Here we have one, certain isolated event—the GSA is spending $500,000 on art for a border crossing.  We also have a slightly less specific, but far further reaching and equally certain series of events—the GSA spends one half of one percent of every construction project on art.  Certainly, the magnitude of the GSA’s spending on art dwarfs the $500,000 to be spent on the border crossing.  More broadly, we have hundreds of government programs spending taxed or borrowed money on tens of thousands of different expenditures.  We can not begin to know much less evaluate each agency, each program or each expenditure.  Despite the certain, isolated examples of government waste and inefficiency we see on a daily basis, we too often ignore the larger implications.  Somehow many among us remain convinced that government can do a better, more efficient job than the free market in providing services we need or desire.

Individual citizens do not have the wherewithal to conduct the exhaustive research of a well funded political think tank or a major university.  But individual citizens can think for themselves.  If a parent has a child that mismanages his own money by spending it wildly and regularly misplacing or losing it, that parent would not be inclined to trust that child with taking charge of the family bank account and paying the mortgage and the other monthly bills.  Yet that is exactly what we do as a society when we give a wasteful, inefficient government control over more and greater aspects of our lives and well being.

Too many of us trust in the promise of the good that government might do if given the opportunity but close our eyes to our actual experience. Our actual experience is that the free market delivers goods and services extremely efficiently and progress in the improvement of those goods and services is swift and consistent.  Our actual experience is that the government delivers services expensively and wastefully and progress in the improvement of those services is slow or nonexistent.  Let us be frustrated with the $500,000 to be spent on art for a border crossing, but let us be frustrated for the right reasons.  It is but one of thousands of examples of our misplaced reliance on government.

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