I meet lots of people who say you can’t measure the intrinsic value of the arts – only extrinsic or instrumental side effects. I meet a fair few people who say that even trying, or measuring the instrumental benefits as well, is actually damaging to the art. Most of both sets still feel that public and private money is well-spent on the arts though – ‘for its own sake’, as the saying goes.
This often feels like a reductive and circular discussion to get into. If we can’t talk about the value of the arts in some kind of way that allows that value to be compared to the value of other things – tanks, traffic lights, speed-bumps, care for people with Alzheimer's, doctors, nurses, education, MPs' salaries, whatever – we are forever beholden to ‘supporters of the arts’. Whether we like it or not politicians have to do that invidious job of comparing apples and oranges and bricks. We need to help them, not ask for an exemption.
Mission Money Models have just published an interesting paper by Hasan Bakhshi, Alan Freeman and Graham Hitchen, entitled, simply, Measuring Intrinsic Value. This argues for greater use of cultural economics to explore the value of the arts and help with that difficult comparison. Two metholodologies are suggested as key to this: ‘contingent value’ (roughly speaking, defining the value the public put on things they may or may not actually use themselves) and ‘willingness to pay’ (measuring how much we'd be prepared to pay for things - though I think this can often be overstated, or not align with our voting patterns.) Measuring public estimates of these, the authors argue, can free ‘the value of the arts’ from the advocacy mode instrinsic value often sits, or the reductive mode of direct economic measurement or instrumentalism, and allow a new statement of the case for the arts.
It’s a challenging and useful paper – and, being far from an economist, I may not have grasped it all and may have simplified the key concepts horribly. My main challenge to it would be this. If the problem is, as the authors argue, that the arts are damaged not by economics per se but by bad economics, what confidence can we have it’s possible to shift to good economics – given that to the untrained eye there seems to be a dearth of good economists in positions of power?
Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood the last year or so completely…