Wednesday 21 December 2016

Cultural preservationism

Branko Milanovic worries that a world of free migration would be a world where some cultures would cease to exist. He says some countries would empty quickly under open borders, and suggests their cultural traditions would then end.
Destroying the variety of human traditions is not costless, and I can see that one might believe that maintaining variety of languages and cultures is not less important that maintaining variety of the flora and fauna in the world, but I wonder who needs to bear the cost of that. Should people in Mali be forced to live in Mali because somebody in London thinks that some variety of human existence would be lost if they all came to England? I am not wholly insensitive to this argument, but I think that it would be more honest to say openly that the cost of maintaining this “worldwide heritage” is borne not by those who defend it in theory but by those in Mali who are not allowed to move out.

There is a clear trade-off between the maintenance of diversity of cultural traditions and freedom of individuals to do as they please. I would be happier if the trade-off did not exist, but it does. And if I have to choose between the two, I would choose human freedom even if it means loss of tradition. After all, are traditions that no one cares about worth preserving? The world has lost Marcomanni, Quadi, Sarmatians, Visigoths, Alans, Vandals, Avars and thousands others.  They have disappeared together with their languages, cultures and traditions. Do we really miss them today?
Those trade-offs exist at the margin, but consider this too:

The dancing snow-shovellers are from the Maritime Bhangra Group in Halifax, Canada. 

Culture is dynamic. We've lost the Visigoths, but we've also lost the French as they existed in 1600 (though we have some reads into it from literature, music, and rural Quebec). Insisting on cultural preservationism in the cross-section by preventing migration would not be that much different from insisting on cultural preservation in the time-series by setting out enclaves isolated from further cultural development. Like Amish communities, but set out to preserve "America as it was in 1950", or endless other iterations. One neighbourhood in Portland might be required to maintain man-buns, forever.

Milanovik is right in his ultimate policy conclusion - that any benefit there might be in preservationism is dwarfed by the improvement in welfare generated by letting people move to places where they can have happier lives. 

But I think he's too pessimistic about cultural preservation within multicultural western societies like Canada's. The cultural traditions of home adapt to the local conditions. Like Bollywood-style snow-clearing. 

I also expect he's not right in the general equilibrium. In the first stage, sure, you'd get big migration in response to open borders. But huge existing differences in incomes due to institutional and policy inefficiencies are maintained over time in part because of border walls. Tearing down those walls pushes us closer to Tiebout worlds, where differences across communities' policies are driven by heterogeneous preferences rather than by whether you're stuck with powerful kleptocratic rulers. Maybe, just maybe, the resulting cultural differences across countries would be more authentic than the ones we get where the Dictator has his own ideas about what national culture should look like.

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