I talk about globalization a lot on this blog. I think it’s a critical force to understand. There are many facets to examine and one of the most fascinating to me is the cultural. How are the world’s cultures changing?
Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason and must-read blogger, is in many respects my intellectual hero on this front. He writes with persuasive eloquence. I suppose I’m breaking my own rule of "seek out opinions which differ from you own" when I read Cowen’s book Creative Destruction, but that doesn’t mean I won’t recommend it whole-heatedly to you! (I also recommend this new piece in the New York Review of Books on all these topics.)
You first must know that Cowen is a cultural sophisticate if there ever was one. He samples cuisine and art from all over the world and talks as fluidly about New Zealand cultural products as those of Canada.
Cowen is a cosmopolitan (in the tradition of Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah) of a libertarian bent. What does this mean? Cowen believes markets and trade are friends of unique culture and aesthetic quality.
This is not a popular opinion. Many claim globalization is pulling producers away from niche production and instead appealing to a bland popular culture. Many charge "Americanization" as diluting the best of international flavor. Most of these critics use markets / trade / corporations as their method of bashing. I never like to see wrong-headed attacks on capitalism go unchecked. To defend markets in the context of culture is considerably more difficult than in other circumstances, though the case for markets, as Cowen shows, is as strong as ever.
Some Of His Basic Assertions
The concept of cultural diversity has multiple and sometimes divergent meanings.
Are you talking about diversity within a society or across societies? This makes a big difference. They move in opposite directions — when one society trades a piece of art to another, diversity within society goes up (more consumer choice) yet goes down across societies (they become more alike). Many Americans like to go to another country and complain that it’s not very different than our own. Alas, this is using the "naked eye" test with geographic spaces instead of wondering whether individuals within the society have more and better cultural choices.
Operative diversity differs from objective diversity
How effectively can we enjoy the diversity of the world? The world was diverse in 1450, but it was hard for individuals to benefit from it. Markets disseminate cultural products in ways we can enjoy.
Cultural homogenization and hetereogenization are not alternatives or substitutes; rather, they tend to come together.
Some parts of the market become more alike while other parts become more different. Partial homogenization creates the conditions necessary for heterogenization. "High and low food-culture have proven to be complements, not opposing forces. Paris and Hong Kong, both centers of haute cuisine, have the world’s busiest Pizza Hut outlets."
Cross-cultural exchange, while it will alter and disrupt each society it touches, will support innovation and creative human energies.
The creative destruction of the market creates a plethora of new artistic innovations that expand the menu of choice and provide more high-quality genres of output.
Cowen then discusses a range of local cultures and how they have adapted the exports of rich cultures to make their own special kinds. True, some unique niches of culture are lost during trade, but they are replaced by different outputs which can be better than the original.
Broad and Narrow Ethos
The spread of newspapers and magazines weakened American cultural regionalism such that when I visit Georgia they will seem so drastically different than my California brethren. "At the same time, the communication of information across space allowed for the mobilization of new constituencies — not geographically centered — with unique outlooks in niche areas of culture." I find this really exciting: people organizing themselves into diverse groups based on interests and values rather than geography.
The Paradox of Diversity
A growing menu of choice in a particular society may limit the menu of choice for the world as a whole.
Charges of dumbing down, "throw away culture," "commercial culture"
Some truth here, but what we are seeing is a diversity of consumption methods. Sure, one can have "bad taste," but it’s also easier than ever for someone who wants to sample a range of cultures intensively to do so. High quality taste has shown great resilience in today’s globalized world. Increasing variety and diversity raises all boats: high and low quality culture.
Should National Culture Matter?
With those points out of the way, let’s think about one of the most interesting aspects of this whole issue: should national culture matter? Should I value American culture and products higher than others? Should I first trade with my geographic neighbor? I strongly believe we should be treated as individuals, not as society’s cogs. And for individuals, globalization has greatly expanded choice and value. But as Cowen points out, most people don’t care as much about choice as much as identity. Here, some cultural sameness is essential for their sense of identity. Trade, then, bears diversity from this sameness because so many cultural producers emphasize difference (either for intrinsic — identity — purposes or for the extrinsic fruits of diversity).
What’s bizarre about many so-called national cultures, moreover, is that many are synthetic products. Few cultural identifications are truly national in their purity. "[People] would rather have a larger personal stake in something closer to them, rather than a smaller personal stake in something that is grander but also more distant."
The Main Conclusions
Cosmopolitan multiculturalism calls for the elevation of individual "free speech" — the voluntary exchange of goods that may transform cultures into a more synthetic variety as a whole but pave the way for more and better choices for that individual within his own society. Cowen doesn’t as strongly insist — as Appiah has done in his writing — that it’s condescending for rich Americans to shame the spread of global cultures. He still touches on it. Cowen says, "Poorer societies should not be required to serve as diversity slaves…Insofar as anyone feels the loss of diversity, it is the richer countries. Bringing a shopping mall to Papua New Guinea gives the Papuans more choice, but it may give the American collector of Papuan sculpture less choice, if it weakens the inspiration behind those sculptures by changing the underlying social ethos." For me, this is an acceptable trade-off — the Papuan gain is more important than our loss.
The twist Cowen lays out in the end is provocative: he says that cosmopolitanism cannot take center stage because in many ways an individual focus on the particular is the driver of the this larger theoretical framework. Cultural exchange is so effective because the producers don’t all hold strident cosmopolitan views. (Just like the stock market is so efficient because many investors believe it is inefficient and thus try to find bargains.) So, rather than advocate for the desirability of a universal cosmopolitan worldview for all, Cowen argues instead that cosmopolitanism is a useful metaperspective to understand contemporary culture.
So I say, we cannot enshrine cosmopolitanism in the fo refront of our consciousness, but we must not lose sight of it either: after all, leave the analysis to collectivist nostalgia and the great cultural successes we have experienced and we will continue to experience will be slowed by the timid ignorance which grips so much of the first world population.