Sell the Smithsonian Museums Now

Visitors to Washington, D.C., have long enjoyed touring the wonderful Smithsonian museums as part of the trip. Not today. The partial shutdown has affected things that regular people actually use and love.

They are all closed: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Museum of American History, the Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Art and Industry (one of my favorites!), the Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Castle and Gardens, the National Archives, and even the National Zoo. It’s only a matter of time, but, yes, the Washington Monument will close.

Sometimes people wonder what precisely they are getting from government. These institutions are all delightful and something you can point to and say, at least there are these! But now look at it: the government can’t even reliably keep them open for you and me, and the rest of the world that comes to D.C. to visit. This is absurd and pointless. And it can be fixed, starting today.

How? Think about it.

There are many important museums you can still visit. The Holocaust Museum is a life-changing experience and one of the most important institutions in the country. You can still visit it today. You can visit the Museum of the Bible; I haven’t, but I’ve heard fantastic things. You can go to the National Geographic Museum. The fabulous Newseum is open. Don’t forget the Folger Shakespeare Library. There’s also the Phillips Collection, the National Building Museum, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and the Woodrow Wilson House. You can even go visit Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington himself.

These museums are all privately funded, whether by a foundation, by a nonprofit, or commercially. That makes them no less essential to national life. And we are learning right now that private funding is a more reliable source of support. Back when these things were first created in 1846, perhaps people didn’t entirely understand how ridiculously nonfunctioning the federal government would eventually become. Now we know.

There’s a fascinating history behind why the government owns them at all. In 1835, the British scientist James Smithson gave his personal fortune of 104,960 gold sovereigns to establish the museum. Andrew Jackson sent a diplomat to England to get the money but confusion ensued once he returned. The money was invested in Arkansas state bonds and the state defaulted. Congress voted to restore the funds with taxpayer dollars. Still, it is highly likely that the original investor imagined that it would be a private foundation to begin with.

Today, then, is a good day to sell them. Sell them all.

The Board of Regents can look at the applications and make a decision by the end of the day. Just imagine: Elon Musk would love the status of being the owner of Air and Space. I’m thinking that Apple could be owner or sponsor of Art and Industry. There are hundreds of private foundations that would jump at the chance to sponsor the Castle and Gardens. There are profits to be made, possibly, but we’ve also learned that these things don’t need to be profitable. There are privately owned gardens, museums, concert halls, art houses, and more, all over the country and world.

I’m not sure what the legal process would be here. The president could perhaps test his powers with an executive order. Perhaps the Board of Regents would need to approve. Regardless, it would be an absolute delight to see the idea floated. For goodness’ sake, real estate and consumer attractions are what Trump does well. It’s perfect for him. He could perhaps buy one or two himself.

You will hear the claim that this somehow compromises these great institutions that belong to everyone. This is an absurd claim. Is the Holocaust Museum less ours because it is privately owned? Mount Vernon? The National Cathedral? Utter nonsense. Private owners make them more responsive to the people because private owners desire visitors and would never close the doors while thousands of people are begging to get in.

The same goes for other necessary government services that are currently operating only partially, such as data collection, food inspection, processing of travel documents, and so on. All these things are being cut back, but somehow the Mueller investigation, food stamps, and the post office are still running. For that matter, it’s a good day to sell the whole of the post office too. There are willing buyers standing there screaming: shut up and take my money.

These government shutdowns have become a huge and pointless distraction. Let this be the last of it by putting these institutions and services into the private sector. No longer will the public be blackmailed by politicians. No longer will nationally important institutions be held hostage by the petty whims of demagogues right and left.

The model of government ownership and management is an anachronism. Change the fundamentals. That way, we can look back at these days and say with confidence: we did good.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn