Wilfred McClay, professor of history and humanities at the University of Tennessee, relates an interesting story in the Wall Street Journal today: “On Dec. 1, Kentucky Gov. Steven L. Beshear announced that the state would provide tax incentives to support the construction of Ark Encounter, a sprawling theme park on 800 acres of rural Grant County. Under Kentucky's Tourism Development Act, the state can compensate approved businesses for as much as a quarter of their development costs, using funds drawn out of sales-tax receipts. It's a considerable sweetener to promote development and jobs.”
We’re getting some ugly economic cavities from all these “sweeteners.” McClay goes on to describe the developers of Ark Encounter as tied to “a Christian ministry called Answers in Genesis, which promotes "young-earth" creationism—the belief that the account of creation provided in Genesis is scientifically accurate and that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.” It’s just frosting on the controversy cake that many taxpayers would find the specific beliefs of this group absurd. They’re perfectly entitled to their beliefs, and other people are entitled to denounce them as foolish. But why is every taxpayer in Kentucky obliged to subsidize their theme park?
This is an even more direct subsidy than the usual tax breaks – it’s an actual remittance drawn from sales taxes, which means technically anyone who buys anything in Kentucky would be subsidizing the Ark Encounter.
McClay addresses the constitutional issues doubtless leaping to the minds of many readers: “… Over the past two decades federal law has moved toward nondiscrimination against religious organizations. This began with the "charitable choice" provisions in Bill Clinton's welfare-reform package, which sought to allow religious groups to receive government-funded social services. The trend continued with the Bush administration's promotion of faith-based initiatives, which the Obama administration has extended in barely modified form.”
This really isn’t just a religious issue. The religious component serves to irritate people who strongly disagree with the views of Answers in Genesis, and perhaps evoke sympathy in the mind of a reader who is less hostile to young-earth creationism, or tired of seeing Christianity kicked around by an official culture that is far more solicitous of certain other religions. Abandon those emotional reactions, and we’ve got another case of government (in this case, at least, a state government) exercising control through subsidies.
I find it somewhat unlikely the developers of the Ground Zero Mosque will get a slice of those sweet sales-tax subsidies if they decide to relocate their project to Kentucky. Surely many other endeavors, not associated with religion in any way, have been denied subsidies as well. Defenders of the Ark Encounter project say it will create jobs, and bring in tourists. So would a mosque, or building a huge theater to host live performances of Larry the Cable Guy’s movies, or digging a gigantic hole in the ground for no particular reason. Massachusetts actually tried that last one.
The First Amendment says the government cannot stop Answers in Genesis from building a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, provided it meets community and safety standards. (I’ve often wondered how many people refused to be saved from the Great Flood because they approached the Ark from downwind.) If these standards are met, the builders can put together investment capital, and happy crowds proceed to turn it into a profitable tourist attraction, that’s great. Massive state subsidies corrupt this process even when they don’t turn into dishonest boondoggles.
Every subsidy is a penalty to those who don’t receive it. Tax money is infinitely fungible. It doesn’t really matter that Ark Encounters will get a piece of the sales tax from every book of atheist literature sold in Kentucky. What matters is that the government takes from some, and gives to others. We have to keep our feelings about the recipients, or the providers, from interfering with our distaste for the procedure.