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Freeman Essay #48: “American Culture”

In the April 2000 Freeman I challenged those opponents of free trade “who insist that American culture is hegemonic—that without protectionism, people around the world will mindlessly adopt bland, boring, and monochrome American culture.”  My challenge is below the fold.

Among free trade’s most vocal opponents are those who insist that American culture is hegemonic—that without protectionism, people around the world will mindlessly adopt bland, boring, and monochrome American culture.

Put aside the breathtaking arrogance of those who yearn to use the state to prevent people from spending money in ways that elites think are gauche. Instead, consider the very idea that there is an American culture. It is far more accurate to say that there is a world culture formed in America. In other words, what is called “the American culture” is the ever-evolving amalgam of influences from around the world.

To demonstrate, let me share with you some notes on an ordinary day in the life of my wife, Karol, our 2-year-old son, Thomas, and me. I use boldface type to identify just some of the products, people, and ideas that, on this normal day, affect us from outside of the United States.

* * * * * *

On awakening to Beatles music blaring from my Sony clock-radio, I shamble to the kitchen to brew Guatemalan coffee in our trusty Krups auto-drip coffee maker. It’s then off to the shower where I lather up with soap milled in France. Following the shower, I put in my soft contact lenses (the invention of a Czech scientist), shave with my Braun electric razor, and splash on some French cologne.

I then dress Thomas and myself. Following our breakfasts, I succumb to Thomas’s plea that he be allowed to watch his favorite video: Thomas the Tank Engine, a character as British as Buckingham Palace. We then drive to the babysitter’s home in our Nissan. I pop in a CD (invented by the Dutch company Phillips) to enjoy the original and best-selling Three Tenors recording —made, by a British company, in Rome of selections from Italian, German, English, and American operas, sung by a Catalan, a Spaniard, and an Italian. The tenors are backed by an orchestra conducted by an Indian.

After dropping Thomas off, I stop at the bagel store owned and operated by Hondurans. In addition to a bagel, I buy another cup of coffee, this time a cappuccino made with coffee grown in Ethiopia.

At my office I begin my workday by booting up my Sony computer. Among my tasks this particular morning is to find someone to translate from French into English Frederic Bastiat’s collected correspondence. Later that morning, while writing a talk, I consult books by the Austrian F. A. Hayek, the Scotsman Adam Smith, the African George Ayittey, the Hungarian Michael Polanyi, the Italian Bruno Leoni, the Swede Eli Heckscher, the Canadian David Henderson, and the South African born in Britain of Lithuanian parents, Israel Kirzner.

All this work makes me hungry, so for lunch I wolf down some moo goo gai pan. Karol and I then spend a fascinating afternoon playing hosts to visitors from Argentina and Ecuador. We introduce our guests to FEE’s interns, one a Bulgarian, another a Mexican, and the third a Sri Lankan.

That evening, Karol, Thomas, and I dine at a popular nearby Indian restaurant. (Thomas, incidentally, is crazy about papadam.) After leaving the restaurant I stop to fuel our car at the local Shell (as in Royal Dutch Shell) gasoline station. On our return home, we bathe Thomas, dress him in his pajamas decorated with images of Britain’s enormously popular Teletubbies, and then read to him some of the delightful children’s stories penned by Beatrix Potter, an Englishwoman.

With the little one fast asleep, it’s time to relax. While I put on some Stan Getz and João Gilberto bossa nova music from Brazil—played on our Japanese-made CD player—Karol pours each of us a glass of Chilean wine. Life is good . . . but our days are tiring, so we soon go to bed. Before turning out the lights, though, we each read for a few minutes—me, an article by the Australian economist Geoffrey Brennan, and Karol some pages from the autobiography of the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov.

What’s going on here? We Boudreauxs aren’t an unusual American family (although Thomas has yet to be swept up in the nationwide mania for the Japanese Pokémon characters). Yet a review of an ordinary day in our lives reveals that all three of us—from the moment we awaken until we fall asleep—continually enjoy comforts, conveniences, culture, knowledge, and entertainment created by people from around the world.

The answer is that America’s culture is in fact a world culture. It’s a delicious gumbo of global influences. And it’s also dynamic. The same openness and freedom in America that attract people, products, and ideas from across the globe also ensure that tomorrow’s gumbo will differ slightly from today’s gumbo. A new insight or inspiration from a Korean, an Indian, a Portuguese—no less and no more than a new insight or inspiration from a Californian, a Minnesotan, a Virginian—will further improve the mix. And consumers worldwide will each have a meaningful say in deciding whether or not that new insight or inspiration is worthwhile. (No Peruvian or Algerian is compelled to eat at McDonald’s or to read Tom Clancy any more than any Pennsylvanian or Alaskan is compelled to eat at a Mexican restaurant or to read Milan Kundera.)

Is it senseless, then, to label the cultural milieu in bloom from Maine to Hawaii as “American”? Not quite. While in one sense this culture is truly global and resists a nationalist label, in another sense it is indeed uniquely American. But it is uniquely American precisely 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 to 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! Truly, it is a world culture.

Recognizing that American culture is not a homogeneous glob of fast-food-eating, blue-jeans-wearing Ally McBeal addicts will not calm the fears of the world’s cultural snobs. Indeed, these self-appointed elites are frightened by American culture precisely because it is so vibrant and variegated—and, hence, attractive to millions of ordinary people. Elites do not and cannot control it; it has stripped them of their exalted status. Finally extinguishing the power of elites to control the lives of ordinary people might well turn out to be America’s great contribution to the 21st century.