David R. Henderson  

Boudreaux on Free Trade and Culture

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The wealth, freedom, and diverse experiences of a commercial culture liberate artists and educators both to be more creative and to cater to the demands of the general population. In a poor society in which only a small elite has wealth and leisure, artists and educators cater only to the elite's desires. Art forms disliked by elites, as well as knowledge not useful to them, do not thrive. But as trade creates greater and more-widespread wealth, the range of tastes and opportunities that are available to support and influence art and education grows. With the elites no longer being the exclusive supporters of art, the artist who previously found no support for his musical compositions or his poetry might now find sufficient support from the middle classes. Likewise for the teacher who, earlier, found no market for his knowledge.
This is from Econlib's Feature Article for November, "Free Trade and Globalization: More than 'Just Stuff'" by George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux.

In the article, Boudreaux argues that not only does free trade give us freedom and more stuff, but also free trade gives us more cultural choices. He also writes:

Consider the life of an ordinary American family in the early 21st century. This family has a home filled with electronic products made in Japan and China and a cabinet full of music CDs--which were invented in The Netherlands. Mom and Dad drink coffee grown in Columbia or Ethiopia and brewed in a coffee maker made in Germany. They shower using soap milled in France and wear contact lenses that were invented by a Czech scientist.

The children watch a TV episode of Pokemon, one of Japan's many successful exports to America. The family shops later that day at the Swedish furniture store Ikea; they drive to Ikea in a car made in Korea and fueled with gasoline purchased from a (Royal Dutch) Shell station. For dinner, they debate between Mexican, Indian, or Thai. Later that evening, Mom and Dad enjoy wine from South Africa while listening to bossa nova music from Brazil--or, perhaps, they watch a movie starring the Canadian actor Jim Carrey, while their kids lose themselves in the latest Harry Potter novel by British author J.K. Rowling. And before finally turning out the lights, Mom reads several pages from a novel by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and Dad finishes a book written by the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa.


When I edited the piece, I argued with Don that this "ordinary American family" seemed a little upscale. But he convinced me, good by good, that I was wrong except possibly for the wine and the bedtime reading.


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CATEGORIES: International Trade



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Tariq Scherer writes:

There's been some in depth research of the effect of trade liberalisation, especially over intellectual property, in assisting the spread of enlightenment philosophical ideas through-out Europe.

I suppose, I'm not saying anything too new here, but it is impressive to see how particular companies (early media multinationals if you will) became fulcrum points in pushing forward ideas and discussion over the European mainland during the 18th Century.
The Société typographique de Neuchâtel is such an example: their collection of books or free-flying printed sheets and the incessant trading of these assisted the creation and development of ideas.

The archives of the STN are accessible here.
And the following website actually reviews the trade-flows that helped broaden and democratise the founding ideas of the enlightenment: The French Book Trade of the Enlightenment.

Tariq Scherer
http://www.24-something.com/

Colin k writes:

True, but many artists, particularly in the so-called "fine arts," are more interested in being liked by the elites than anything else. If anything, popular success seems to be a quick route to being dismissed by the cognoscenti - this is especially noticeable in publishing, where many of the best-selling authors are dismissed as "genre" writers. Mind you, I think Thomas Kincaid is a schlocky hack, but that's because of what he paints, not how many prints he sells ...

agnostic writes:

That is definitely an upscale family. Lower and most middle-class people don't drink coffee because it's too bitter, which only the higher classes enjoy, whether on a deep-down level or as an affectation (see Paul Fussell's book *Class*). Lower and middle people drink soda and fruit juice. They surely don't own German-made kitchen products.

Ditto French soap and probably even contacts. Myopia is strongly related to IQ, so a high prevalence of contacts is only going to be found in a smartie neighborhood.

They don't drink wine (see above about bitter or sour tastes) or even know what bossa nova is, let alone listen to it. Americans listen to almost nothing from a foreign culture, except for British music. And lower / middle class people don't read much at all, certainly not a Who's Who list of world literature. It's like with music or movies -- mostly Americans and a handful from other Anglo countries.

Of course we'd still be enjoying the cultural products of Anglo countries even if we were all part of a mercantilist British empire.

But some of the items mentioned are right. Lots of cheap junk from China, some of it usable. Mexican and Chinese food (not Indian or Thai). Japanese cartoons and especially video games.

By and large, though, most Americans don't care at all about world culture, whether high or low. It's the elites who are interested in that stuff, and they who benefit from free trade in global culture, which undercuts his populist argument.

agnostic writes:

Libertarians should really let go of these arguments to convince the public of the benefits of free trade. It's pretty obvious that free markets do little to create spellbinding cultural products. That's true for high culture -- better before the 19th C -- as well as lower culture -- at least for Anglo people, who make most of the globally viral culture.

(That argument would convince the public in Spain, though, which produces very little that has gone viral across the world.)

Such arguments are trying to make a liberal economy take on too much. What's so wrong with "just stuff"? Not as a source of meaning in life, but as the goal that we set for the economy? No economic arrangement is going to give us a more exciting culture -- those forces lie almost entirely outside of economic life.

So the plea to the public should just be: "Hey, be glad that there's more stuff, as that's the best we can do. As for creating Shakespeare or Judas Priest, you guys are on your own."

Hyena writes:

That's a pretty well-off family. I'd bet they graduated from at least mildly competitive schools and took lower paying but "more fulfilling" jobs. Their parents probably describe themselves as "well off but not rich", though land comfortably in the top 5%.

I'd wager they live in Northern California, but Boudreaux seems well ensconced in the South. That would be other trade-related news: just how similar upper class lifestyles are across the US and world.

Komori writes:

@agnostic

If lower and middle class people didn't drink coffee because it's bitter, then McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts wouldn't sell anywhere near as much coffee as they do.
They may not drink it _straight_, but that's what sugar and creamer are for.
I've known plenty of lower-middle-class people who wouldn't think of starting their day without at least a cup or two of coffee.

Including my parents. When growing up, mom was a house-wife and dad was a truck driver. We had lots of books, and reading was my primary entertainment.

Sorry, but your stereotypes don't fit with my experience any better than Boudreaux's do.

liberty writes:

Yeah, agnostic sounds like the elitist. I have lived in many poor urban neighborhoods, and coffee is sold in every bodega, latino take-away, fast food restaurant, gas station, etc - as well as all the harlem diners, and london breakfast cafes. Of course poor people drink coffee. Have you ever met a poor person??

For the rest of it - poor people do care about culture, film, music, books, etc even if it may be different music than you, and different films, etc. It's incredible how snobbish you sound. And remember - many of the poor in America do not remain so poor for long, but build a better future, work toward providing more for their children, etc. This tends to be related to learning more about culture & history, etc.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Folks, it's pretty obvious that agnostic is engaging in sarcasm. I mean, really, who could possibly claim that lower and middle class people don't drink coffee?
And his second post is even more sarcastic. After all, if libertarians didn't believe in the principle of free trade, they wouldn't be libertarians.

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