Local isn’t always what the consumer wants

A South African may jump into his Japanese car, drive down to the video store to pick up a French film and then pick up dinner from an American fast food restaurant. On the radio he listens to a talk show host extolling the idea that “local is lekker” and lamenting how all these foreign influences are destroying South African culture. Sipping on his American-style milk shake the driver may even nod in agreement. However, the talk show host ignores the other side of the coin. Or to be more precise, the other side of the world.

Here I sit in a bookstore in Auckland, New Zealand. Behind me a CD player is filling the room with the sounds of the Soweto String Quartet. If so inclined, a few weeks ago, I could have hopped on the bus and in ten minutes been at a concert by the Soweto Gospel Choir. Sitting a few metres away is a pile of 4000 copies of a new book we published. It was designed in Johannesburg and printed in Pietermaritzburg. Less than five minutes away I can buy Nando’s chicken or watch a film starring Charlize Theron. The local grocery store stocks a whole section of South African products and if that doesn’t satisfy me I can drive up to Brown’s Bay and visit the South African Shop, which sells only South African products.

Meanwhile on the radio I can tune in to some radio talk show host lamenting the death of Kiwi culture, calling for closing the borders to new immigrants and wanting trade barriers to keep out “cheap” produce from South Africa.

But would we really all be better off if we followed the idea that “local is lekker”? I don¹t think so. Would my life be richer if I had to listen to a Kiwi band because CDs from the Soweto String Quartet were embargoed to protect local artists here? I’m happy to see some local films like Lord of the Rings or Whale Rider but if I were restricted to only Kiwi films my theatrical experience would be rather barren.

Even if I ate all the New Zealand lamb one could find I’d get rather tired of having it over and over again. I’m glad I can pick up some McDonalds, have a bit of Nando’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken or have a sit down dinner at my favourite Chinese restaurant.

The globalisation of culture is a result of economic globalisation. And just as globalisation increases economic choices it increases cultural choices. The 4x4 I bought on arrival was built in Japan. In fact it was originally sold in Japan and imported here as a used car. I sell books by Russian philosophers, Austrian economists, and American political scientists. In our video section I stock films from France, Germany, the Netherlands, England, America and no doubt several other countries. The companies that own the film studios might be American but they could also be Japanese, British or French.

Nothing prevents the more nationalistic amongst us from indulging their prejudices. A resident of any country can practise the “local is lekker” philosophy if he so wishes. Personally I think he’s missing out if that’s all he does. I’m glad that I have options. Options are not obligations. I’m not forced to buy Nando’s in Auckland any more than I was forced to buy McDonald’s in Johannesburg. But my life is richer because I can pick and choose from an array of cultures.

Globalisation doesn’t destroy cultures. It increases the variety available to us. Nor does it subsume the individual into some faceless consumer. Instead, it allows us to be real individuals, who might prefer Greek philosophy, American hamburgers, South African art and Japanese cars. The combinations are virtually infinite in number.

Globalisation presents us with a world-wide selection of goods and services and it allows us to mix and match them to fit our own particular tastes and preferences. And if we don’t like the choices we made today then tomorrow we can make different ones. Freedom means choice. And by expanding choices we make freedom itself more meaningful. After all, the freedom to make only one choice hardly qualifies as freedom in any real sense of the word. By increasing our choices globalisation makes freedom more and more meaningful. People are reaching out across the globe to each other, not least through the goods, ideas and services that cross borders and in the process the world is becoming more interesting, and will ultimately become safer and more peaceful.

Author: Jim Peron is the executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values (Auckland, New Zealand). This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and they are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Article of the Week\5 August 2003
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