Do Markets Destroy Culture?
Critiques of markets come in a variety of shapes & sizes. A couple of months ago, I discussed the moral critique of free markets. Sure, markets might provide us access to a wide variety of goods and services – and at cheaper prices than we’d previously thought possible. But what if our morals are corrupted in the process?However, the fact that billions of people across the globe are living longer, happier, and more fulfilling lives thanks to the spread of global markets can, in itself, be considered to be a type of morality.
Today, I’m tackling a different concern regarding the spread of markets: the worry that the spread of markets will destroy the uniqueness of existing cultures. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the capitalist system is creative destruction – that old businesses and stale social systems are constantly being destroyed by new ones. When it comes to something like the iPhone replacing the Blackberry (which replaced the Palm Pilot before that), we applaud the process of creative destruction. Yet when we see McDonald’s or Starbucks replace the previously-existing local flavor in Costa Rica or Morocco, most people tend to see that as a sign that the tendrils of markets have spread just a bit too far.
There are a couple of problems with this critique. For one, it ignores how the people in those countries feel about the expansion of markets into their world. In economics, we often point out that exchanges will not occur unless both parties view themselves as being better off as a result of the trade. People in poor countries tend to like when companies like McDonald’s are willing to set up shop there. Not only does it give them a taste of Western fast food, but it also signals that a large, multinational company views the country as having reached a level of wealth that justifies an investment of this magnitude. And, it’s not usually the case that the new McDonald’s replaces the best kibbe or tamales. The best versions of a country’s culinary expertise will still pass the market test even with the new chain restaurants around the corner. The lowest performers, or the least popular establishments, will be kicked out when the newcomer arrives, and that is okay.
Sure, you might say, but it’s not just the local cuisine that’s impacted. As people in other countries are exposed to Western cultures, their music, movies, and entire lifestyles might change. Once again, that’s true. But we still need to consider how the people in those countries feel. If they like exposure to Disney movies and Hip Hop, then it’s rather disingenuous of us to insist that they hold on to their traditional forms of entertainment. And, once again, the best forms of culture aren’t going anywhere. Bollywood still produces a great many films because they pass the market test.
Which brings me to my next point. Not only are other cultures made better off by the spread of markets, but we’re also made better off when markets export things from other cultures to us. People all over the world watch Bollywood films. When I lived in Northern Virginia, my life was immeasurably better off because of the Lebanese restaurant a block away from my apartment. Thanks to Apple Music, I can listen to the beautiful music of Ravi and Anoushka Shankar whenever I want. And these are just a few things that wouldn’t be possible without the spread of global markets.
Though this topic is somewhat controversial amongst some groups of foodies, fusion food is another thing that would not be possible without the spread of global markets. Some of my Texas colleagues would deem it heresy, but I am a major fan of brisket tacos. This delightful food, which is ubiquitous in North Texas, wouldn’t exist absent a clash of cultures. There’s also an Asian fusion place near me that makes some delicious Thai spiced chicken wings – another delicacy for which we can thank culture creep. Don’t even get me started on music. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” wouldn’t be the same song without the influence of Ravi Shankar and what he deemed “the great sitar explosion”, which had been ignited by the Beatles a few years earlier.
In fact, we can take the argument one step further. All existing cultures are, to some extent, the result of different cultures coming into contact with one another. A lot of traditional music is played on instruments that were imported from other countries in a prior era. Art historians commonly note non-indigenous influences on so-called indigenous artwork. Indeed, economist Tyler Cowen argues that globalization is not leading to the great homogenization of cultures, but rather allowing more cultures to flourish than ever before. So if having a Starbucks in a Prague Castle is the price to pay for poor kids in Southern Illinois having access to steel drum music from the Caribbean, I’ll take that tradeoff any day. And I think everyone will be better off for it.