Kirchner’s Critics Can’t See the Statist Forest for the Trees

By: Contributor - May 26, 2015, 7:29 pm
El espacio, inaugurado recientemente en Buenos Aires, ha sido criticado por su alto costo. (Centro Cultural Néstor Kirchner)
The recently inaugurated cultural center has come under attack over elevated costs. (Centro Cultural Néstor Kirchner)

EspañolBy Alejandro Sala

Independent media in Argentina have lashed out at President Cristina Kirchner’s recent inauguration of the Néstor Kirchner Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, named after her late husband and predecessor.

While the political opposition remain silent, Argentinean daily La Nación writes: “The current cost almost triples the initial budget: in six years it went from AR$926 million to $2.469 billion,” while Clarín reports that “some 30 percent of the construction remains to be done. Private calculations put the final price tag at AR$4 billion,” some US$320 million all told.

Some have resorted to the same old comparison between the center’s total cost and what else the government could have done with the money. La Nación pointed out the Kirchner administration could have built instead “between 123 and 224 schools.” The underlying theme in these kinds of analysis is that if only the cultural center had been cheaper and the project had remained within budget, then it would have been okay for the government to do it.

This approach omits dealing with the substantive aspect of the whole enterprise. It remains stuck within the statist paradigm that reigns supreme over social planning considerations and intellectual criteria in Argentina, and indeed the rest of the western world. Those who criticize the scale of spending, the inefficient management of resources, and the lousy prioritizing, never stop to think whether the state should in fact be financing cultural activities or not.

Seen in this new light, the criticism could be much more radical than what we’re used to hearing. The problem then isn’t that the Argentinean government has executed the work poorly and it should have done a better job. Instead, it never had to business meddling in culture to begin with. What no one is arguing, not the media nor much less politicians, is that financing cultural enterprises is not a task the state should undertake but rather one best left to the private sector. Businesses and NGOs relying on voluntary donations should instead do the job.

Why? Is it not a good thing that the state fosters cultural advances? I don’t think so.

I realize this view is in stark contrast with the dominating intellectual paradigm. It seems completely “reasonable” for the state to support cultural events and to hand out free tickets so they can be within everyone’s reach.

This line of reasoning is fallacious, but it has become so engrained that it’s extraordinarily difficult to challenge. That’s why criticism usually centers on management aspects, not on the bigger discussion about the state’s proper role regarding these initiatives.

The fact that the state finances cultural activities means such events are paid for with taxes — money extracted from citizens by force, allocated to uses their legitimate owners probably wouldn’t have chosen themselves. If culture was indeed so important for citizens, they would spontaneously devote resources to produce and consume cultural goods.

Furthermore, the state’s taking charge proves that people’s real interest in such activities is inferior to the cost of producing them. They are therefore not justified, and the same resources would be put to better use by satisfying needs that are more valued by economic actors.

So the issue isn’t the government’s mismanagement and overspending of funds, or that it should have channeled them instead to social relief programs. Instead, government spending on culture should be immediately wiped from the national budget and taxes proportionally reduced. The destination of those resources should be left to citizens’ individual decisions.

Despite being well-intentioned, critiques of the Néstor Kirchner Cultural Center are misguided. They fail to address the address the structural, conceptual, and ideological root of the problem.

Of course, they’re in tune with the dominating statist worldview, a flawed model that should be replaced with a liberal system rooted in individualist foundations. That, however, is still a long way off.

Alejandro Sala is a writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the author of El Espíritu del Mercado.