7 April 2020

More cash for services is just one argument for selling off council artwork


According to Times columnist James Marriott, local councils should “think twice” before selling off their collections of Venetian paintings, Egyptian pots and Roman coins to raise funds.

His case sounds reasonable enough – that depriving the Great British public of the wonders of the ages is too high to be justified by being able to pay for mere council services. “Who knows how many people loved those artworks or were inspired by them?” Mr Marriott asks?

I fear, however, that in this particular case he is missing a crucial point about how the world works.

It is not that the public do not deserve to see the finest creations humanity has to offer, nor about the fact that we already have a system to expose them to those things – namely schools, colleges and universities. It’s not even that we should concentrate purely upon monetary value rather than those ephemera of subjective opinions about civilisation. Rather, it is a point about what it means to make a place richer in a truly rounded and important sense.

What we call GDP is the value added in this time and place. It’s not turnover, it’s not economic activity, it is the value added by our collective efforts. Moving ‘something’ from a lower valued use to a higher is adding to the value created. GDP is also, by definition, the aggregated consumption of everyone. So, if more value is created by that movement of ‘the something’ then all are able to consume more – all are, in aggregate, richer. Not to mention that, in the case of Northampton Council (one of the examples given in the piece) selling an Egyptian statuette for £15.8 million will provide cash for vital, life-saving services that the council might otherwise struggle to afford in this time of crisis.

This holds true about pretty much anything held by the State. For example, the method used to deal with spectrum radios held by the Ministry of Defence is a case in point. Of course, they need it, military radios are entirely necessary things. But that same electromagnetic bandwidth also has value for broadband, for TV, for telecoms. The correct method of deciding who has which segment of spectrum is to assign it to the uses of greatest value overall. Having some for when the Faroe Islands invade again and the troops need to talk to each other is indeed of value. But does the Ministry of Defence actually need quite all it’s got?

The solution is to charge the ministry the market value of the spectrum it holds. Even though our Defence budget is simply increased to cover that payment, the mere washing of money around a financial report has the effect of concentrating minds wondrously. Because the valuation is objective and explicit it is possible to do the sums, to work out what is the most valuable use of the scarce item or resources.

As with museum collections, so with any other asset. Council flats are another fine example, where local authorities can sell off units that have massively appreciated in value and buy a larger number of less expensive ones.

As for museums, you could charge them an annual rental of the value of the collection. If the value created by displaying the items is less than that rental fee, then sell the stuff off. Again, you’d be making the country richer by moving items from lower to higher valued uses.

Of course, the great rejoinder to this line of thinking is that it commodifies culture, reducing it down to the simple pounds and pence of civilisation itself. That’s true, but it’s also the whole point of the exercise, to make valuations commensurable so that we can make decisions.

Assets, whether they be companies, candelabra or coins should flow to those who value them most. The movement from low value to high is the process we want to encourage – the fact the fees can pay for public services is no more than a welcome side-effect.

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Tim Worstall works for the Continental Telegraph and the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.