Cultural Appropriation: The Nontheft of Something No One Owns

  • September 11, 2023
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When I was at the university, I once objected to a classmate’s lazy use of “public goods.” He had used it to favor his policy position, as a shorthand synonym of what’s good for society—only a thinly veiled euphemism for what I want to happen.

“Public goods are things that are nonrivalrous and nonexcludable,” I said, almost sputtering off a nearby economics textbook. “The ones you’re talking about are neither.”

He rolled his eyes in boredom. “Yes, yes, but that’s not what people mean when they say, ‘public goods.’”

Strangely, I think he’s right. These days, the economist’s clear and rather demanding criteria of so-called public goods are largely swept aside in favor of something like “What I think would be good for the public.” And that little linguistic slip opens up a world of economic policymaking from which we still haven’t recovered.

Everything these days are public goods. In a New York Review of Books piece by Helen Epstein we learn that money printing isn’t just important for government spending but “for improvements in health care, education, transportation, the power grid, and other public goods that might foster development.”

To proponents of government services, everything that carries even a whiff of external benefits to someone, somewhere, is therefore transformed into a “public good”—which must be provided by government. We might have excused such convictions, chalking them up to ignorance, if it weren’t for economists at the pinnacle of the profession embracing those views; Nobel Prize winner William Nordhaus is a case in point.

We have to dig about three hundred pages into Nordhaus’s book The Spirit of Green before we get an admission that government failures can be worse than the failures that ostensibly run amok in private markets. Otherwise they’re just technocratic solutions: rainbows and unicorns, public goods this, public goods that. Everything is an uncorrected externality—from the keyboards we write on to gas stations, hospitals, landlords, and the English language.

If all you wield are government solutions, everything looks like a private-sector nail in desperate need of a hammering. In his book, Nordhaus argues over the merits of internalizing external effects from pollution and then extends the logic to sin taxes on gambling, smoking, drinking, and firearms use. Like pollution, they impact other people too, and so a benign social planner must intervene. Having already convinced his audience of the need for governmental correction for an invisible gas with invisible future damages, the rest follows as a matter of course.

What’s clear is that despite holding the most prestigious award in the economics profession and being the author of a long-standing economics textbook, Professor Nordhaus doesn’t understand even the basic economics of property and rivalrousness. For public good’s two criteria, it’s the competing use of rivalrousness that has societal (and thereby economical) implications.

Property and ownership, not in their legal concepts but in their economic functions, come about only under conditions of scarcity. Scarcity means that goods and services have secondary use—opportunity costs. With unlimited abundance, property and ownership (perhaps apart from your own self) play no role: There is enough to satisfy everyone’s wants at any given time. In everyday life we don’t price oxygen in the air because there’s enough for everyone all the time, and Earth’s natural processes make more of it. It’s a nonscarce resource; therefore, its price is zero, and it makes no sense to try to establish ownership over this or that air molecule. (While the use of a breath of air is rivalrous in that nobody else can use the lungful of air I have just inhaled, the ever-present amount around is enough so that the good “air” becomes nonrivalrous.)

Another misunderstanding of nonrivalrousness is the anti-intellectual charge of cultural appropriation. Cultural traits, ranging from fashion to music, art, language, innovations, or traditions, are unowned and intangible things. Yet the unenlightened wokesters of the world have decided that all traits belong (in perpetuity?) to whichever group historically wielded them.

What they overlook is the basic economic concept of rivalrousness. My use of English—a language that isn’t my mother tongue and that I have thereby thoroughly “appropriated”—does in no way prevent another person from using English, or changing English in any which way they prefer (think teenager neologisms). My applying a decades-old recipe for tonight’s dinner in no way strips someone else from the pleasure of using that same recipe. My use of some far-away tribe’s dance, song, or belief system in no way prevents them from dancing, singing, or believing that same thing.

Cultural expressions are unowned, unownable, and more importantly, unlimited. They are nonrivalrous in the public-goods sense in that anyone can don a Mexican hat, grow dreads, pray to a foreign God, play the traditional instruments of some faraway tribe, or, closer to my own heart, practice yoga.

It repeatedly happens that—entirely hypothetical, of course—a young, woke, anticapitalistic woman complains about some feature in modern-day yoga as practiced in the West. We all know the character (and if not, the recent outburst by Anita Chaudhuri in the British newspaper The Guardian can serve as a decent approximation).

Sweaty from a class with dozens of other like-minded and culturally sensitive students, this hypothetical woman’s commitment to not culturally appropriate something that other humans have once made is undermined no less than three times by her own very actions. First, she’s speaking English, a language that culturally appropriated words from everything from Old Norse to Frisian, Norman, and Germanic languages (not to mention its exportation across the world in the last century or more). Second, she just came out of a physical, aerobics-like sequence of fast-paced flows that many people in the West treat as a physical workout; that is emphatically not what yoga was like for most of its five-thousand-year history. Third, she’s a woman (women feature only scantly in the historic records of yoga), and her practicing of this ancient art would have been looked down upon by most of the very cultures she seeks to uphold.

Performative contradictions are powerful, but the lesson goes wider: a practice—like yoga or food recipes or fashion or songs—made in whichever time, place, or people, belongs to nobody. They are nonrivalrous goods. They can change and incorporate different things from anything else in humanity’s vast array of emergent, cultural, and artistic traditions. Mozart’s symphonies may not only be performed by white Europeans in the splendid halls of Vienna; cars and car culture are not only wielded by those demographics that contributed to its invention. Nobody owns cultures; nobody rules cultures; and nobody can shut you out from wielding them. Therefore, you can mix them and change them any way you like.

One would think that the sort of person attuned to celebrating diversity, praising tolerance for one another’s differences, and embracing melting pots should understand that. Alas not.

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