Globalization and Culture
ritics of globalization contend that, even if increased trade promotes material prosperity, it comes with a high spiritual and cultural cost, running roughshod over the world’s distinctive cultures and threatening to turn the globe into one big, tawdry strip mall. George Mason University economist and Cato adjunct scholar Tyler Cowen has for years been one of the most insightful and incisive debunkers of that view. At a recent Cato Book Forum, Cowen discussed his newest book, Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Cowen squared off against political theorist Benjamin Barber of the University of Maryland, one of the most prominent skeptics of globalization and author of the best-selling Jihad vs. McWorld.
of offering some commonly diverse choices. So today you can buy sushi in either France or Germany. This makes France and Germany more alike, yet in my view this is closer to being an increase in diversity than a decline in diversity. If we think of societies that have very well developed markets—for example the United States—what we find happening is not that everyone, for instance, buys or listens to the same kind of music. As markets have allowed suppliers to deliver products to consumers, we’ve seen a blossoming of different genres of music. In the 20th century the United States evolved rock and roll, rhythm and blues, Motown, Cajun
Tyler Cowen: The core message of my last few books is that markets support diversity and freedom of choice, that trade gives artists a greater opportunity to express their creative inspiration. The preconditions for successful artistic creativity tend to be things like markets, physical materials, ideas, and inspiration. When two cultures trade with each other they tend to expand the opportunities available to individual artists. My book Creative Destruction outlines the logic of what I call a “gains from trade” model, and much of the book is devoted to a series of examples. I go back in history and look at some examples of poorer or Third World countries that have been very creative, and I find that trade played an important role in those artistic revolutions. So if we look, for instance, at Cuban music or reggae music, we find that Cuban music was produced largely for American tourists who went to nightclubs in Cuba in the 1950s. Persian carpets started being produced in large numbers again in the 19th century, largely to sell to European buyers who sold to North American buyers. The blossoming of world literature— writers from Mahfouz to Marquez—the bookstore, the printing press, the advent of cinema around the globe are all cases in which trade has made different countries, different regions, more creative, given us more diversity. Countries do look more alike, but they look more alike in the sense 8 • Cato Policy Report May/June 2003
instance, the pygmies produce splendid music; it’s truly beautiful. But the pygmies really have just one kind of music, and the richer societies with more markets have given us more diversity, more competing kinds of music. What globalization tends to do is increase difference, but it liberates difference from geography. We’re used to a certain pattern or model of difference. Different peoples are different, and they live in different places. So there’s what Tibet looks like, there’s what Mexico looks like, and there’s what Indiana looks like. We rapidly identify difference with locale. But that’s only one kind of difference. Another kind of difference shows up in the paths we choose to take through our lives, and I believe that individuals will always wish to choose different paths for their lives. It may be the case 300 years from now, if the world globalizes enough, that Mexico, Tibet, the United States, and Thailand won’t necessarily be so geographically distinct. Crossing a border may be less of a shock than it is today. But I think we will still find other...