The Arts May Need Trade, But Not Immigration
September 21, 2003, 05:00 AM
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Economist Tyler Cowen, promoting his new book Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures in a recent interview with Nick Gillespie of Reason, claims that wide-open markets do wonders…for the arts.

This may sound great in libertarian theory, but it rings a little hollow in the wake of the thoroughly depressing 2003 summer movie season. As Hollywood increasingly pursues the global market (60% of revenue now comes from overseas), filmmakers dumb down their movies to reach the lowest common global denominator. They delete verbal wit that's hard to translate into Tagalog and replace it with explosions sure to excite young males everywhere.

Even more questionable, though, is Cowen's defense of the artistic benefits of mass immigration.

"Personally, I would favor the United States taking in many more people than it does now," the George Mason University academic said. He admitted that mass immigration combined with, say, free emergency room care causes problems. (Curiously, he still seems to think there is a significant economic surplus from immigration, although George Borjas and the National Research Council exploded this myth in the mid-1990s.) But he concluded:

"Still, I think we need to keep focused on the enormity [sic, should be "magnitude" or "immensity"] of those gains from trade in terms of people and culture."

In the interview, however, Cowen doesn't offer much evidence for sizeable gains to American culture from mass immigration.

He trots out, for the umpteen millionth time in the history of the immigration debate, what I've called the Restaurant Rationale – as in, Gee, we get to eat all this wonderful ethnic food! (Indeed, Cowan publishes a personal online guide to D.C. ethnic restaurants.)

But why then over the last 20 years have Italian restaurants improved so much, despite little recent immigration from Italy, while Thai restaurants have simply been treading water? The answer seems to be that, in contrast to elite Italian chef immigrants, who come because they have world-class skills, Thai restaurateurs are mostly people who just want to come to America. Owning a run-of-the-mill restaurant turns out to be a way to pay the rent.

The general lesson: sure, cross-cultural fertilization can inspire artistic breakthroughs - but it can happen without mass immigration, through the media, travel, or elite immigration. For example:

  • Media—The Beatles were hugely influenced by the music of the Mississippi River Valley, but they didn't have to emigrate from Liverpool to Memphis to listen to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. They just played their records at home.

  • Travel—The most innovative chefs in America, such as Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse or Chicago's brilliant Charlie Trotter, typically traveled overseas when young to learn the great cuisines of the rest of the world.

  • Elite immigrationArturo Toscanini and Billy Wilder improved our music and movies. But the benefits to American arts of millions of poorly educated peasants are less clear, to say the least.

Charles Murray's upcoming (and absolutely fascinating) Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 provides meticulously objective techniques for measuring which artists and scientists really mattered. One of the key discoveries: how much a very, very few great men have contributed to the human race.

Conversely, mass immigration from Latin America is now beginning to overwhelm all other inflows. Yet, in general, the artistic contribution of the post-1965 mass immigration from Latin America has been strikingly small. I'm not even talking about creative artists in the high culture fields (in which, historically, Spain never pulled its weight, and its Latin America offshoots were basically nonentities). I mean simply in pop culture.

For 15 years, market researchers have fed the press predigested stories about how Latinos are going to start making gigantic inputs to American pop culture Real Soon Now. Yet this endlessly anticipated tidal still hasn't gone through the formality of coming into existence. Even today, the African-American contribution utterly outweighs it. 

The impact of mass immigration on American high culture, of course, is thoroughly bad. First, it lowers the average education and sophistication level.

Second, it fuels the demand for the dogma of cultural relativism, which is deadly to high achievement. The problem, of course, is that those damned Dead White European Males did too much for the human race, and the more intellectually-oriented representatives of immigrant groups from countries with less impressive heritages will never forgive them for it.

So, America now devotes vast resources to propping up the ethnic self-esteem of various immigrant nations - resources that therefore can't be devoted to the colorblind study of the finest that the humanity has created.

I commend to Tyler Cowan the insight of the outstanding economist Thomas Sowell in the conclusion of his Migrations and Cultures: A World View (1996):

"What the passage of time and the development of modern industry and instant electronics communications have done has been to make the transmission of knowledge, skills, and technology less and less dependent on the transmission of bodies, all the while making such transportation so inexpensive as to permit larger migrations, over greater distances, of immigrants who may be less and less selective."

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]