“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.”
The typical economic argument for free trade focuses on the increased material prosperity that trade creates for nearly everyone. While this argument is powerful and backed by overwhelming empirical support, it tends to leave many people cold. A common reaction to free-trade arguments might be: “You economists care only about low prices and more stuff; there’s more to life than things.

In fact, though, the case for free trade and globalization is not exclusively, or even ultimately, an economic one. There are two deeper justifications for free trade. One is that people should be allowed to do anything that’s peaceful. The other, which I focus on here, is that free trade civilizes, enlightens, and enriches. Consider, for example, Thomas Cahill’s description of ancient Athens after that city opened itself to trade:

As these familiar clustered settlements, known to agricultural societies throughout the world, grew into cities—with demarcated streets, temples and other official buildings, marketplaces and other gathering centers, import-export warehouses, and docks where exotic cargoes and even more exotic foreigners were unloaded—power shifted somewhat from landed aristocrats to the better-placed urbanites, who controlled trade and who in the diversity of their experience began to think new thoughts.1

Cahill’s mention of Athens calls to mind my first trip to that city, in 2000. Standing atop the Acropolis looking down on the city of Athens, I saw—amidst the ancient ruins and modern buildings of Athens—a huge balloon in the shape of Ronald McDonald. Gazing at the contrast between the modern world’s most famous clown and some of the most famous ancient ruins, I wondered what archeologists 2,500 years from now will conclude when they uncover the remains of the golden arches. Will those future archeologists realize that McDonald’s was a fast-food chain? Perhaps they’ll mistake it for a church, with Ronald McDonald as the head deity who was worshipped by billions of people around the globe.

Some other tourists, standing beside me and also observing this jarring contrast, were noticeably agitated by the image of Ronald McDonald against the backdrop of this ancient city—floating there for the contemptible purpose of persuading people to buy more burgers and fries. Such agitation is understandable. When tourists visit the Acropolis, they want to be taken back to ancient Greece—to imagine that they’re listening to Pericles’s funeral oration or watching Socrates and Plato debate an important point of philosophy. They don’t want their view of Athens marred by the sight of a large, garish balloon representing modern global commerce.

But what would a resurrected Pericles or Sophocles think? He might find the McDonald’s balloon curiously appropriate. As Cahill emphasizes, international commerce was crucial to Athens’ flourishing not only economically, but also intellectually and culturally.

Discussing ancient Athens, Will Durant described the same happy consequences of trade:

Foreign commerce advances even faster than domestic trade, for the Greek states have learned the advantages of an international division of labor, and each specializes in some product; the shieldmaker, for example, no longer goes from city to city at the call of those who need him, but makes his shields in his shop and sends them out to the markets of the classic world. In one century Athens moves from household economy—wherein each household makes nearly all that it needs—to urban economy—wherein each town makes nearly all that it needs—to international economy—where each state is dependent upon imports, and must make exports to pay for them….

[I]t is this trade that makes Athens rich, and provides, with the imperial tribute, the sinews of her cultural development. The merchants who accompany their goods to all quarters of the Mediterranean come back with changed perspective, and alert and open minds; they bring new ideas and ways, break down ancient taboos and sloth, and replace the familial conservatism of a rural aristocracy with the individualistic and progressive spirit of a mercantile civilization. Here in Athens East and West meet, and jar each other from their ruts. Old myths lose their grasp on the souls of men, leisure rises, inquiry is supported, science and philosophy grow. Athens becomes the most intensely alive city of her time.2

See also Arts, by Tyler Cowen in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and Tyler Cowen on Liberty, Art, Food and Everything Else in Between, a podcast on EconTalk.

Aristotle, Euripides, Thucydides, Grecian urns, the Parthenon, and most of what we rightly celebrate today about the learning and culture of ancient Athens would have been impossible had it not been for that city’s extensive foreign commerce. Economist Tyler Cowen notes: “It is no accident that Classical civilization developed in the Mediterranean, where cultures used sea transport to trade with each other and learn from each other.”3

Learning and rich culture require wealth—what the abovementioned critics would call “more stuff”—for their growth and sustenance. They also require exposure and openness to different cultures. Such wealth and exposure are promoted by trade, which enables an extensive and productive market-directed division of labor.

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 trade-fueled process results not only in a more literate society, but also in immense cultural enrichment. Culture takes on many more dimensions: not only orchestral music, but also rock’n’roll, rhythm’n’blues, and rap; not only portraiture and landscapes, but also Andy Warhol soup cans and abstract paintings; novels not only by Virginia Wolff, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner, but also by Nora Roberts, J.K. Rowling, and Clive Cussler. Movies cater to high tastes, dull tastes, and vulgar tastes. Likewise for music, theater, television, dance, photography, and—more recently—websites and blogs.

Commercial culture not only fuels art forms aimed at different tastes, but also makes high culture more widely available to the non-elite. Not until the 20th century was it possible for anyone to listen to a symphonic performance without actually attending the concert. And such attendance was time-consuming for anyone not living in a city. Today, in contrast, even the poorest and most rural citizens of commercial societies can listen to Bach cantatas, Mozart string quartets, and Verdi operas— along with music by Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Rihanna—just by turning on their radios or iPods. And the performers get it note perfect every time.

One of the chief concerns expressed by anti-globalization activists is that freer trade leads to worldwide cultural homogeneity. Paris, France, according to this view, will become just like Paris, Texas, and both will be dreary. Travel will become pointless. Why travel if every place you can visit differs little from where you are now?

This concern has some merit. A century ago, there were no internationally franchised restaurants in Paris, France or, for that matter, in Paris, Texas. A century ago, residents of neither Omaha, Nebraska nor Birmingham, England could find sushi restaurants near their homes; today, sushi restaurants are all over the Western world. A century ago, blue jeans were not the international fashion that they are today. A century ago, the typical man’s business suit worn by New York lawyers and London bankers was not widely worn in Africa and Asia, as it is today. In many ways, global commerce has indeed made the world more homogeneous.

But look more closely. While the differences between Paris, France and Paris, Texas are fewer than they were in the past, the cultural richness of each of these places today is far greater than it was just a few years ago. For a resident of Paris, Texas, circa 2010, the richness of the cultural smorgasbord available to him or her right at home is vast. A Texan can stay in town and dine on Vietnamese, Italian, or Greek food—or on barbeque. A Texan can listen to German symphonic music or medieval chants or Irish dance music or Edith Piaf—or country and western. A Texan can buy French neckties, English raincoats, and Italian scarves—and cowboy boots. Likewise a Parisian can choose croissants or New-York-style bagels. A mere century ago—even thirty years ago—the cultural diversity of both places was much less than it is today.

While greater cultural richness at home might remove some of the excitement from traveling, it nevertheless creates greater cultural diversity. It expands and enhances the ordinary individual’s cultural experiences. As French economist Daniel Cohen concluded after examining the record of globalization’s effects on culture: “[E]conomic integration does not at all entail the eradication of cultural diversity.”4

Another, related, concern is that globalization will allow America to overwhelm other cultures with its own. Obviously, the far-flung familiarity with Coca-Cola, Apple computers, blue jeans, and Matt Damon fuels this fear. Again, though, closer inspection reveals a more nuanced and attractive picture. This inspection shows that there is no singular American culture. What’s called “American culture” is an ever-changing amalgam of influences from around the world.

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.

What’s happening here? Such experiences of a typical American family are routine. They reveal that from the moment ordinary Americans awaken, until they fall asleep, they enjoy comforts, conveniences, culture, knowledge, and entertainment created by people from all around the world.

America’s culture is a gumbo of global influences. It’s also dynamic. The same openness and freedom in America that attract products, people, and ideas from across the globe also ensure that tomorrow’s gumbo will differ from today’s gumbo. A new insight or inspiration from a Dane or a Korean—no less and no more than a new insight or inspiration from a Delawarean or a Kansan—will further diversify and improve the mix. And consumers worldwide will each have a voice in deciding whether or not that new insight or inspiration is worthwhile. (Mexicans and Russians are no more compelled to dine at McDonald’s or to read Tom Clancy than Pennsylvanians and Alaskans are compelled to dine at a Mexican restaurant or to read Vladimir Nabokov.)

So, is it mistaken to label the cultural milieu blooming from Maine to Hawaii as “American”? No. While, in one sense, this culture is global and, hence, resists a nationalist label, in another sense, it is indeed uniquely American. But it is uniquely American in a way that reveals the distorted perspective of those who fret about American cultural hegemony. What justifies labeling this culture “American” is that America contributes the essential openness and freedom for millions of people from hundreds of nations to add their inspirations and efforts to help to fashion it, both as its producers and as its consumers. America’s culture is unique because, in its details, it is not principally an American culture: it is a world culture.

Recognizing that American culture is not a homogeneous glob of fast-food-eating, blue-jeans-wearing, Julia Roberts admirers will not calm the fears of the world’s cultural snobs. One reason that elites look with contempt on popular American culture is probably because it is so vibrant and variegated—and, hence, so attractive to millions of ordinary people. Elites do not and cannot control it. Dramatically reducing the power of elites to control the cultural experiences of ordinary people might well turn out to be America’s great contribution to the 21st century.

Listen to Don Boudreaux’s podcast on Globalization and Trade Deficits on Econtalk, along with podcasts with Don Boudreaux.

The fear that globalization makes the world less interesting culturally is baseless. The effect of free trade is twofold: first, it gives us more prosperity and, second, this prosperity creates diversity and dynamism. Both of these effects are good reasons for opposing the antediluvians who would obstruct international trade.


Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), p. 109.

Will Durant, The Life of Greece (New York: MJF Books, 1939), pp. 275-276.

Tyler Cowen, Creative Destruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 59.

Daniel Cohen, Globalization and Its Enemies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 136. Cohen continues: “In view of the cultural diversity of the Swedes, the Italians, the Germans, and the French, or even the Portuguese and the Spanish, one should not fear that an integrated global market erases the world’s plurality.”


*Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He is the author of Globalization, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008, and he blogs (with Russ Roberts) at Cafe Hayek.