As adamz said, cheaper to replace the filter than the front element. But beyond this...the front element has a coating potentially and it does not like to be touched. I do not clean lenses. Occasionally, I will blow the dust off with a special bottle of air, and if for some reason the front element (in my case the filter) gets a finger print or other oily substance on it, I blow the dust off and then carefully clean the spot using appropriate cleaning swabs.
But every lens I purchase, I also add a Hoya UV filter to the front. The only downside is that with the very wide angle, e.g.., the 24mm f/3.5 PC NIKKOR, the addition of the filter will cause vignetting. Ah well... I can take it off for a set up shot avoiding the problem. But, I have dropped cameras into the gravel, had water and other liquids splash on them, and have had subjects put their tongue &/or fingers on the front element (filter). So, I like my glass protected.
And NIKON actually does recommend the protection in every instruction booklet that comes with a new lens, "To protect the the lens surface from dirt or damage, the use of an NC filter is recommended at all times."