Taking my money to fund a National Health Service is unjust interference. But at least 90 year old Betty can be saved when she hits the floor clutching her chest after a life time of burgers and fries. Taking my money to fund education is a breach of my ownership rights (over my own life and my own property), but at least young Billy can learn and go on to make something of himself. But taking my money to fund an arts festival? Now, that really pisses me off.

The Belfast Telegraph newspaper has just launched a campaign to save the Belfast Festival. The Belfast Festival is an annual arts event here in Northern Ireland. Last year it made a loss of £150,000, or three times what I owe on my mortgage. In past years this deficit has been made up by government funding and Queen’s University, which largely hosts the festival. Unfortunately for festival organisers, government funding has been drastically cut and Queen’s University has stated that it can no longer afford to plug the gaps. The upshot is that if the festival organisers can’t find the money by the end of January this year then the festival will go the way of the Dodo.

The Telegraph has featured its campaign every day, and all sorts of folks have crawled out of the woodwork to jump on the bandwagon – from politicians, to poets, to musicians, to comedians. All seem to share the same sentiments, sentiments expressed by one local politician like so: “The Festival is of vital importance in terms of our culture and arts and our heritage. If people are worried about money, the fact is that every pound spent on this is well spent, because of the economic benefits for tourism in Belfast.” Almost everyone has made the same point: The festival benefits the economy, it is of great importance for the arts, and therefore government should give extra funding to it. It’s really become a mantra: the arts are good, the festival benefits people, therefore the government should fund it. What a crock of retarded, illogical swill. Lots of things are good, important, and of benefit, in a whole host of ways, but to conclude that this means government should fund it is highly irrational. If these folks are so in love with the arts on display at the festival they are free to spend their own doubloons in gift donations or ticket purchases. And yet, that just never seems to happen.

To be honest, I’m sick, sore and tired of listening to insane babblings like “the government should do this or that,” or, “the government should fund that or this,” “the government…the government…the government…the government.” Shut. The. Fuck. Up. Oh wait. How rude of me. Allow me to rephrase: pretty please, with sugar on top – Shut. The. Fuck. Up. It’s as if the government has a big magical money pot from which it benevolently bestows on those who shout the loudest. Here’s a little tip. Every time you hear a statement like: “government should fund X,” interpret it as: “working citizens should have money forcibly taken from them to fund X, whether or not they actually have any interest in X or attach any value to it, because we, the righteous and intellectual minority, know what’s best for everyone.” That would be more accurate regarding the truth of what is going on.

The fact of the matter is that the Belfast Festival should be treated like any other business or provider of goods, services, or entertainment. It either funds itself or it has no right to exist. If there is a market for what they want to put on to entertain then the odds are in their favour for making enough money to do so. When any group cries out for government funding it simply shows that what they are doing cannot command the free interest of enough people to stand alone. So, what they are actually crying out for is for the values of the majority to be bent to satisfy the tastes of a minority. If the Belfast Festival is as popular as it is claimed – and last year it experienced record box office takings – then it really should be able to fund itself. Two of the main ways it can do so are: box office takings, and private business sponsorship. If the festival cannot fund itself based on these pillars then organisers needs to ask why. Are they not charging enough for tickets to the events? Are they supporting events that no one is really interested in? Are they holding events in big expensive places that they can’t fill? Are they holding some events in venues too small when they could make much more money in a bigger place? Are they over-paying performers? These questions need to be answered. But, you can’t even hear these questions being asked through the chorus of cries for government funding. Very often in business if there is a problem the worst thing you can do is throw money at it. The solution often lies elsewhere – usually in increasing efficiency or slimming down a little. A much smaller and better run festival might be the answer.

Very often when it comes to the arts the solution lies in finding events which command enough support and interest from a wide range of people. But, it is all too often the case that eccentric artsy types insist on a bunch of esoteric rubbish that interests very few people, and such events are always going to throw money down the drain. For instance, one event a few years back was billed as a piece of religious art. What it turned out to be was a slow motion video of a man emerging buck naked from a pool of water. It lasted 20 minutes. Now, admittedly a busty young female would interest me, but is it “art?” Is it something that could possibly make more money than it loses? Why should the vast majority of normal people have to pay for this rubbish?

Ticket sales should cover most of the basic running costs of any entertainment event, and sponsorship is an important extra. The trouble with artsy-types is that they are typically inept when it comes to business. You’ll even hear some of them argue that artists should be free to create and not be strangled by business concerns. What a grossly irresponsible attitude. They should be free to do whatever the hell they like and people like me should have to pick up the tab for it? Because they’re “artists?” And, of course, for many “artists,” business is a dirty capitalist word in a sector that is strongly left-leaning. But, if businesses really do benefit from the festival – as it is claimed – then these businesses could be approached for sponsorship – not to donate out of altruism, but with regards to their own self-interest. If I run a café which makes £10,000 more in profit during the festival, then I might just donate £1000 as a marketing investment, especially if I stand to lose £10,000 if the festival dies. If businesses really do benefit from the festival then the organisers must do the hard work of identifying them, and persuading them to give financial backing.

When all is said and done it is true that money really does make the world go round, and if you can’t make enough of it to fund your pleasures then there is no rational basis to have me compelled by statute to help you out. Why should I – as a working citizen – have money forcibly taken from me so other people can indulge their artistic – and often esoteric – tastes? I don’t expect hand-outs to pay for my cinema trips. If you want to enjoy a night out at an Irish folk music event then you had better be prepared to pick up the tab for it yourself. The irony about government funding is that if government funding for such events as these were to be cut, then we wouldn’t have to be taxed as much, which means each working citizen will have more disposable income, and thus each of us has more to spend on the arts. Most importantly, we will have more money to spend on those arts we actually value. Government funding for the arts simply robs us of making our own choices about artistic value and merit. It puts us at the mercy of someone else’s values. If we have no interest in something then we do not have to fund it; if some piece of art has no merit in our eyes then we can take our money and spend it elsewhere. Granted, this might mean that many arts events are scrapped, but that’s the price to be paid in a free market for providing goods, services or entertainment that no one actually wants. Esoteric events will still take place – but they will be few and far between, and probably expensive. Those who wish to put such events on would have to take the risks of so doing themselves. The risk is no longer a “communal” or “public” one, so if an event fails it has not been a royal waste of tax-payers money. And perhaps this might mean that organisers are forced to be better business people. When the consequences of failure land squarely on one’s own shoulders you find that people are much less likely to piss good money up the wall. Arts groups would have to provide events of fairly popular interest in order to do well, and isn’t this so much better for most people?

Our government should do the decent thing and cut all remaining funding of the festival. But, I suspect they’ll continue to indulge the art of theft.

Stephen Graham