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The problem with cultural appropriation and public goods

Summary:
Not that we generally turn to Rod Liddle here:Everything that is good about us as a species has been enhanced and enriched by cultural appropriation, and you would think that the internationalist left would concur. But instead the left insists that we must all squat inside our respective ghettos, because no exchange between us can ever be quite pristine and equal. It is an absurdity.While there’s many a truth spoken in jest Liddle’s position as the dyspeptic jester - say, the Jack Dee of the broadsheets - does leave him usually some way from our own interests. However, here we’ve half of something that has long puzzled us. The varied and opposite claims made about public goods and cultural appropriation.A public good is, in the economic jargon, something that is non-rivalrous and

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Not that we generally turn to Rod Liddle here:

Everything that is good about us as a species has been enhanced and enriched by cultural appropriation, and you would think that the internationalist left would concur. But instead the left insists that we must all squat inside our respective ghettos, because no exchange between us can ever be quite pristine and equal. It is an absurdity.

While there’s many a truth spoken in jest Liddle’s position as the dyspeptic jester - say, the Jack Dee of the broadsheets - does leave him usually some way from our own interests.

However, here we’ve half of something that has long puzzled us. The varied and opposite claims made about public goods and cultural appropriation.

A public good is, in the economic jargon, something that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Once it exists there’s no way to stop someone from using it - excludability - and their use of it doesn’t diminish the supply available to others - rivalry. As the supply is therefore unlimited it’s something very difficult to make a living out of producing in the first place. Knowledge being exactly one of these things - once something is known then other people can also know it without reducing the supply to the originator.

All of this is well known within the hallowed halls of social science and it’s the argument in favour of government subsidy of basic research, the existence of patents and copyrights to produce excludability and so on.

It’s also the argument that we in the rich world should be doing all the spending upon vaccine and drug development, renewables research and design, all these sorts of things, then be giving them away to those poorer. Once the thing has been thought up, invented, designed, then humanity is made richer by it being free to use for all.

Well, OK.

But all of these cultural quirks that we must not appropriate are also public goods. The design of a hat - Liddle mentions the sombrero - or the making of a curry (and do leave aside that the vindaloo is an adaptation of the Portuguese vin d’alho to start with) is something which is done once and can then be enjoyed by all. It’s a public good in that economic sense.

At which point we seem to have the same people, for it is largely the same people who make both arguments, arguing that the drug which costs $1 billion to design and test in the first place should not have excludability created via patent, but the tweak to a recipe that was a few minutes of happenstance must be so protected by social conformity against appropriation.

We can’t help but think that there’s a certain illogicality to that stance. Even, that it has the entire thing wholly backwards. For public goods are lovely things, it is indeed true that their spread advances civilisation. Someone has a good idea, we all copy it, we’re better off. The only restrictions we might want upon this, even then only for some limited time like the effective decade of a drug patent, being to encourage the creation in the first place.

If people do invent these things for free anyway then why would we want to limit their spread?

That is, the ban on cultural appropriation is an insistence upon denying ourselves the public goods created by others. Why would we want to do that?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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