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Pbs and The Vienna State Opera


Readers of this happy Corner who can recall the golden days before the Harriet Miers nomination may remember that about two weeks ago I posted a bleg on Hayek.

Preparing to appear on a panel the day after tomorrow to discuss the future of PBS (about which panel, see below), I was sorting through my thoughts, attempting to decide whether PBS should even exist. A quarter of a century ago at Oxford, I noted, one of my tutors, John Gray, told me that Hayek supported heavy subsidies for the Vienna State Opera. Such subsidies were not objectionable in and of themselves, Hayek taught, but only if they crowded out competing private activities. Since the Vienna State Opera coexisted very happily with countless other Austrian cultural institutions, many of them privately funded, there was no problem.

Seeking a parallel between the Vienna State Opera and PBS, I asked whether any reader could give me a citation, showing me exactly where Hayek had made this argument. Whereupon my inbox instantly filled with dozens of emails.

The upshot:

1. Half a dozen correspondents wrote to tell me that although I may have lost track of him once he left Oxford, John Gray now teaches at the London School of Economics. I sent him an email. I’m still waiting for a reply from that lovely, knowledgeable man.

2. Nobody was able to give me quite the citation for which I was hoping, but one emailer, Cole Kendall, who must have memorized the complete works of Hayek, sent me this quotation, from p. 224 of the current paperback edition of The Constitution of Liberty:

“[A]ny special advantages, including subsidies, which government gives to its own enterprises in any field, should also be made available to competing private agencies….what is objectionable is not state enterprise as such but state monopoly.”

That sounds close to John Gray’s remark to me all those years ago. But it has nothing whatever to do with the Vienna State Opera.

3. A couple of dozen correspondents wrote to tell me that it wasn’t Hayek who had supported the Vienna State Opera but Von Mises. Then another couple of dozen wrote to say that it wasn’t Von Mises, either. In the words of Gary North: “Maybe you have heard the story that Ludwig von Mises once said that he favored privatizing everything except the Vienna State Opera. No one has located the document in which he said this.”

4. Hayek or Von Mises, Von Mises or Hayek. Pondering this, I heard from Milton Friedman—yes, the Milton Friedman:

Dear Peter:

I believe your memory is playing tricks on you. It was Ludwig von Mises who was notorious for supporting state opera. I never heard that Hayek was a fellow sinner….

Re my view on PBS, I believe the government has no business running a propaganda mill, by radio, TV, or in print. I would completely privatize PBS. Because of history, perhaps gradually –cut funding by 1/3 for each of three years….

Sorry not to be able to be with you at NR golden birthday. Give Bill [Buckley] my best.

Yours, Milton

5. No sooner had Milton asked me to give his best wishes to Bill than I heard from yet another correspondent. Hayek may never have argued for state subsidies to the arts, the correspondent informed me, but Bill Buckley most certainly had, as witness this exchange from an episode of “Booknotes” in which Brian Lamb interviewed our hero:

LAMB: We’re used to seeing you play Bach at the Phoenix Symphony or write about Bach, but in this Appreciating section you have a column that is Beethoven, A Monument. What’s that all about?

BUCKLEY: Well, that’s a very interesting point. Adam Smith said that the state can legitimately do certain things. And those are a very short list. It can look after the common defense and it can be the custodian of monuments. So I asked myself the question: Does the authority of Adam Smith attach to a state enterprise that takes dead musicians and makes their music available? I had specifically in mind something that happens in Switzerland. In Switzerland, for about, like, a buck a month or whatever it is, you can plug your telephone line into six channels, and one of those channels, if you push button number three, has nothing but classical music day and night.

It is simply a marvelous amenity. So I was trying to manipulate conservative orthodoxy in such a way as to suggest that a monument need not only be something chiseled in marble, sitting in the middle of a park, but might also be keeping alive a musician and providing the wonderful amenity.

6. PBS, a “monument,” akin to the works of Beethoven? Here, to conclude, a very sensible email that nicely sums it all up:

Dear Peter,

I don’t have the info you requested but if you’re interested in an opinion from a Canadian planning to become an American one day, here goes.

What is the government’s role? This sums it up well: to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. I just don’t see government support of the arts in there. I am willing however to make an exception for the Marine Corps Band.

Everybody is invited to the panel discussion in Los Angeles on Friday evening—and Corner readers are invited to march forward to introduce themselves to me and the moderator, NR’s own Rob Long. Note that, although admission is free, you must reserve a seat by , emailing [email protected] or calling (310) 364-2002.


“Finding the Future of Public Television”

Friday, October 14, 8 PM

Mark Goodson Screening Room

American Film Institute

2021 N. Western Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027

Free parking on campus


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