It’s hardly the biggest deal in the world, but I think the Simpson-Bowles proposal to start charging admission at Smithsonian museums is a great example of a kind of pennywise and pound-foolish thinking about spending that often afflicts the political system.
Here’s the thing. Building these museums, acquiring the collections, and keeping them running is a fairly expensive undertaking. There are some real benefits to having a National Gallery of Art, but there are also costs associated with it. However, the marginal cost of having an additional person visit the National Gallery is extraordinarily low. And presumably “people might visit the museum” is high on the list of possible benefits of having a National Gallery of Art. What you would ideally do with these kind of public services—be it a museum or a subway or whatever—is take a good hard look at whether or not you really believe in providing the service. And if you do, you provide it for free so that as many people as possible can benefit. If you develop a problem of overcrowding, then you start charging admission to ration capacity. And if you decide the tax burden involved in continuing to provide the service is too high, then you shut down or privatize the thing in question.