Tyler Cowen. 2002. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Pp 179, $19.57, hardcover.
Are globalization and international trade destroying local cultures and diversity? Does the market expand our positive liberties and increase the menu of choice? Does trade in cultural products support the artistic diversity of the world or destroy it? More generally, are market exchange and aesthetic quality allies or enemies?
These questions draw conflicting responses, although the often-heard answer seems to be that globalization has resulted in a "dumbing down" of societies everywhere. American movies, TV shows, music, fast foods, and clothes are usually cited as examples of global products that have replaced or destroyed local products and cultural traditions. This book addresses the issue by focusing on trade in cultural products across geographical space. The particular aspects of culture treated are those creative products that stimulate and entertain us (i.e., music, literature, cinema, cuisine, and the visual arts).
The author brings an economist's perspective to the discussion. He is Professor of Economics at George Mason University, where he directs the Mercatus Center and the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy. But he also draws on his "diverse experiences as a cultural consumer," citing examples of steel bands in Trinidad, Indian and Navajo hand weaving, dance music in Zaire and Cuba, Persian carpets, the colorful cloth designs of the Kuna Indians who live on islands off the eastern coast of Panama, Haitian painting, and Tuvan throat singers from Mongolia. Trade and cross-cultural exposure impacts all of these, and the author's background and experience permit an examination of these effects in a lucid and informative way. The topics discussed are sampled extensively rather than intensively; "specialization, while it has brought immense benefits to science and academic life, is by its nature ill-suited to illuminate the diverse production and consumption made possible by the market economy.
What lessons does the author offer? Three stand out.
Cultural diversity has multiple meanings. Diversity within a society refers to the richness of choice within that society. Globalization focuses on diversity across societies, that is, whether societies are becoming more similar. Cross-cultural exchange tends to favor diversity within a society but not across societies. Trade tends to increase diversity over time by accelerating the pace of change and bringing new cultural goods with each era or generation.
Cultural homogenization and heterogenization tend to come together over time. That is, although chain restaurants take an increasing percentage of restaurant sales, growth in dining out has led to an expansion of specialty food opportunities. …