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Culture and Property Rights

Culture and Property Rights Markets, hierarchies and shared values

No. 3, Jan.-Feb. 2017 » Bridging News

The International Book Fair Bookfest 2017 gave me the opportunity to exchange some thoughts, with quite exquisite and exigent readers, on my recent work – Spiritualitate, materialitate și proprietate. Cultura mea, cultura ta, cultura noastră, cultura lor (Editura ASE, 2016) [Spirituality, Materiality and Property. My Culture, Your Culture, Our Culture, Their Culture]. Addressed for now mainly to a Romanian readership (by its publication language) the book basically hosts a worldwide-relevant question, though not so frequently or explicitly asked (to say the least): “Is culture a public(ly enforceable) good or a private(ly producible) one?”. The question is being complicated by the fact that the culture deals with consensual, socializing, public values (we speak of preferences, traditions, beliefs, which, by definition, unite before they separate), as it is also true that the human person is the one who gives meaning to social aggregates (the methodological individualism, despite hasty amendments is crux in social sciences). Or speaking in “economics” (nota bene: the science of human action in a (praxeo)logical, commonsensical, un-sterilely-sophisticated expression): What makes a culture become a Culture? (Economic) freedom or (political) interventionism? 

Together with anthropology, sociology, political science or psychology, economics has tools that can assist the de-homogenization of (sincere) culture-building – representing the free, voluntary will of the members of a community – from pseudo-culture – a sideslip, a deviation from a free communality. This line of though spurs from the general acceptance of the word culture (something that is assumed, shared, bequeathed, in both its “spiritual” and “material” forms, by certain people). Culture is freedom of expression – which is void of meaning in the absence of full and free property rights. History has innumerable cases of “clashes between cultures within a culture”. For example, totalitarianisms, be they of socialist / communist or fascist / Nazi pedigree, regardless of the source derived from conflicting ideologies or racist exultations, tried to establish a “cultural” framework to support / mask the hideous projects of expropriation – a common feature to all. They had the states / governments as vicious allies, but also as fallible combatants, because, ultimately, the organic attachment to values and ideas (codified in scientific knowledge or in arts) is un-confiscable. Still, culture can be distorted or retarded by usurping the ownership, the control over the means for its expression. 

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This book is intended to be a plea for the natural connection existing between cultural (freedom of) expression and (un-coerced transfers of) private property rights. Not only that culture is never trapped in “(free) market failures”, but it is best served by (true) free markets, as the social aggregation of free wills and whims. The book is divided in two parts: the first one is a praxeological scrutiny over cultural economics concepts, while the second adds property rights into the picture. 

Part I: Praxeology and culture

On one hand, it is explained how the “cultural” epithet cannot generate “special” epistemic effects, even though some economists interested in cultural issues say that “cultural value”, “cultural capital” and “cultural sustainability” are quite special realities, requiring special practical (and political) treatment. On the other hand, if in some sense the “cultural” aspect can underline something “special”, it is the fact that culture, as “a set of shared values, attitudes, beliefs”, is about subjective preferences demonstrated in action, voluntary inter-personal relations, as well as clearly definable and defendable property rights. The cultural mark is ultimately imprinted on various scarce material things, thus the issue of property rights is cornerstone for their expression and circulation. 

Part II: Property and culture

Cultural inner self is inexpungable and un-expropriable, but cultural habits can be delayed or distorted by usurping command over the means of expression. This essay takes an Austrian School praxeological and property-focused analysis, demonstrating that private property is better “incentivized” and “informed” than coercively-collectivistic public property in terms of fulfilling the needs of the consumers (for instance, the cultural heritage maintenance and marketing). The exercise of coercive power (even if formally “legal” and in the name of “better” values!) falsifies the very sense of culture since this is, ultimately, an agora, a market for artistic and scientific ideas; it hampers the people-oriented diversity (of tastes); and it makes societies depleted both spiritually and materially

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In fact, the stake of the discussion is that cultural identity is related to personal freedom because it is against logic to conceive how coercion shall shape the inner-self and outer-bonding. The whole cultural realm, to deserve the cultural attribute, should be consistent with liberty. Who and on what grounds is to decide what is / is not cultural value? Who and on what grounds is to decide the amount of cultural capital? Who and on what grounds is to manage the sustainability of a culture? The answer leads to either market forces or state intervention. The mainstream tends towards arguments such as the “cultural market failure” and the need to preserve, for the sake of present and future generations, the “proper” amount of cultural capital for both inter-spatial and inter-temporal cultural fairness. But the poorly-incentivized and poorly-informed behaviour exhibited in governmental decision-making risks to lead to profound distortions in a cultural world from which scarcity could not be eliminated and where the provision of some cultural needs may hamper the provision of others more (intensely) needed. 

Mainstream theorists and policymakers transform “future cultural experiences” in some kind of justice, enrooted in a pretence of immutability of “attitudes, beliefs, mores, customs, values, and practices” (what was culture yesterday is culture today and will be culture tomorrow), and advocate wealth redistribution to guarantee that alleged right. This conservatism paired with redistribution are, on a praxeological scrutiny and not only in the cultural space, the very opposite of wealth creation and welfare enhancing, since they hamper the smooth matching between people’s (in this case, cultural) needs, tastes, aims and their corresponding cultural goods and services produced in vivid and competitive manner. Indeed, culture emerges / survives / thrives in a competitive environment, where the things we think as being best fitted for filling the material or spiritual emptiness in our lives replace the obsolete / unappealing / disappointing ones. Freedom of choice and private property rights look in this sense the straight and stable route to educate the cultural identity and making it flourish over époques.



The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
Amfiteatru Economic

OEconomica No. 1, 2016