NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Myth of "Native" Cultures

September 19, 2003

Antiglobalization activists often complain that globalization inevitably leads to "American cultural hegemony," but free trade not only makes countries materially richer but culturally richer as well, says economics professor Tyler Cowen in his new book, Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures.

Cross-cultural exchanges tend to increase diversity within cultures and reduce diversity among cultures, says Cowen. For example, when Chinese teen-agers add American pop music to their cultural mix, they enjoy more musical choices, and the differences between Chinese and American cultures decrease.

Many activists claim that such exchanges constitute a "contamination" of "authentic" foreign cultures, but Cowen shows that no culture is completely pure and free from foreign influence:

  • The steel drum music commonly associated with Trinidad developed when American soldiers brought the drums with them during World War II.
  • The striking designs of Navajo weavers were copied from the ponchos of Spanish shepherds living in Mexico, who in turn adapted them from the Moors.
  • Gandhi considered only Indian weaving "authentic" and encouraged Indians to burn their foreign garments -- but Western technologies "provided critical pieces of the economic network behind Indian handweaving."

Western antiglobalists assert that they merely wish to protect Third World nations from the ravages of western cultural influences, when in fact such a stance denies those countries the opportunity to pick and choose which aspects of different cultures they want to adopt.

Poorer societies, says Cowen, should not be required to serve as diversity slaves.

Source: George C. Lee, "Creative Destruction: Cowen Explodes Myths of 'Native' Cultures," Carolina Journal, July 2003, John Locke Foundation; based upon Tyler Cowen, "Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures" (Princeton University Press, November 2002).

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