This year’s Australia Day got me thinking about patriotism and the role it plays in the modern world. I have often believed patriotism to be one of the greatest scourges afflicting the globe. The kind of patriotism that promotes self-righteousness and a closed view of the world exudes the most pungent of odours – an odour that causes offence wherever it blows. Yet, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that patriotism plays an important positive role in the world today. Patriotism, it seems, is the guardian of cultural diversity.
Patriotism – in its wider connotation – is the love of one’s country, region or culture. It might be that the patriots among us act as a retarding force to the march of monopolistic cultures – those cultures backed by strong economies, which can spread throughout the world on the platform of globalisation. In other words, I am making the observation that, all else equal, the ability of a culture to devour other cultures – or conversely, the ability of a culture to protect itself from the influences of other cultures – is in direct proportion to the economic standing of the nation from which the culture originates. But why ought cultural diversity be protected? Why is it important?
Cultural diversity is of fundamental importance for aesthetic and economic reasons. In aesthetic terms, the disappearance of cultures means the loss of musical styles, stories, languages and cuisine. Everything becomes bland and unappealing. Different cultures find alternative solutions to the same problems. Diversity breeds creativity. There is a mountain of useful knowledge built up by all the cultures of the world. But of greatest relevance to the world as we know it is the role that diversity plays in the market economy.
Capitalism, many economists argue, works because we are all different. We each have something unique to offer, and we each have varying wants and needs. On some level, it is fear of uniformity and conformity that drove many nations away from communism and toward capitalism. But ironically, it is capitalism and the free market economy that is threatening to swallow our multifarious cultures and replacing them with a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner.
This kind of culture erosion threatens to undermine the very law that makes free trade worthwhile on a global scale: comparative advantage. Comparative advantage harnesses the fact that countries and regions are different. As these differences are eroded and as cultures disappear, comparative advantage has an increasingly smaller set of activities over which to operate. The demand for niche products and services declines, and so to do the specialised skills involved in the production of specific commodities. Uniformity encroaches, and there is a danger that, as they develop, countries will tend toward the same specialisations and efficiencies, thereby nullifying the law of comparative advantage. Perhaps this is a wild over-statement of the potential effect of culture erosion, but at the very least, the disappearance of cultures subtracts from the number of activities in which a country could have a comparative advantage.
What can be done about this in the absence of tariffs and subsidies? Modern (neo-classical) economics emphasises local decisions (self-interest) and a decentralised command-structure. It advocates small government and minimal intervention. As Adam Smith argued, resources will find their way to where they are used most efficiently by way of the so called "invisible hand". In such a decentralised system, what prevents nations being overrun with the ways and cultures of economically superior nations and regions? I argue that patriotism works as a natural, invisible, decentralised, non-legislative regulatory mechanism, which simultaneously upholds cultural diversity and national identities, and delivers variety to the global marketplace.
Capitalism is driven by the consumer. What consumers demand, capitalism will deliver. Thus, it follows that a large dose of patriotism, as foul tasting as it has seemed to me in the past, might be the best safeguard against the uniformity that globalisation and mega-corporations bring with them. Patriotism helps to shape demand for particular products and services. The level of influence patriotism exerts over demand for a product is directly proportional to the ferocity and extent to which it is practised within a nation or region.
Patriotism has the capacity to inject diversity into the marketplace. It can create demand for diverse consumables, and it can also protect the unique skills procured over the centuries by people in remote parts of the world. If capitalism proceeds in the absence of patriotism, we are condemning ourselves to a world of uniformity; a world in which the culture of the economically predominant nation consumes all in its path.
Patriotism does not preclude the celebration of foreign cultures, nor does it fly in the face of multiculturalism. What it does is ensure that cultures and languages live on. It protects against culture erosion, which could be a major side effect of globalisation. What I am talking about is not the caustic brand of patriotism practised by nations in the past and by some nations today as a result of a superiority complex. Rather I am advocating a pride in one’s nation and culture. Patriotism does not have to imply that one nation or culture is better than another; it can merely be the acceptance that, while we are all human, we are different and those differences are what make the world an amazing place. Therefore, as individuals and as nations, we ought to be proud of our heritage and the things that make us unique. Further, we have a duty to continue the traditions of our ancestors because it may serve a purpose in the future. Thus, aside from any intrinsic value associated with different cultures, there may be a real practical or economic benefit gained from them. The promotion of patriotism by nations and its practise by individuals can help to preserve cultural diversity in our world.
Capitalism is no good to us if it does not serve us; that is, any economic system must deliver the quality of life, the special products and services that are unique to particular regions of the world. If it cannot do this, it does not have a place in our world. Patriotism, then, could be the element that ensures that capitalism does not erode the world’s distinctive cultures.
Patriotism may not be as pungent as I once thought.