Globalization and Culture

Many of the ills of globalization are the result of top-down planning rather than free markets, but this realization needs to be balanced against another: Global capitalism can't of itself supply the cultural and moral formation worthy of the human person and essential for human flourishing. Even if we could purge much of the cronyism and misguided central planning from the process of globalization, the global market wouldn't suddenly supply the cultural and moral formation essential for widespread economic and human flourishing. This is not the function of a market, and both the critics and supporters of an international process of globalization and free exchange need to understand this clearly.

My friend, the late Rev. Edmund Opitz, put it this way: "The market will exhibit all the shortcomings and failures that people, in their peaceful acting, will exhibit." What this means, among other things, is that our increasing interconnectedness holds great potential for offenses against human dignity. Advances in technology and communication can make it easier to sell pornography—or to traffic in human beings. Or to give a less dire example, foreign investment allows for dispersed, non-localized ownership of businesses, which in turn can render their management less personal and less attuned to local customs and expectations.

Globalization also poses immense long-term challenges for culture. False and demeaning ideas can spread, sometimes more swiftly than truths that contribute to human flourishing. Because widespread skepticism now exists about universal and timeless truths, cultural freedom can be abused. The weak who seem to have little to offer—the poor, the unborn, the elderly, and the disabled—are seen as a burden to be marginalized, limited, and even destroyed instead of being recognized as persons worthy of respect and solidarity.

Western mass media often does more harm than good when globalization extends its reach: the degradation of human sexuality, including the exploitation of women; the confusion between "having" and "being"and an inflated sense of our rights along with a lessening sense of social responsibility—these are just a few of the cultural manifestations of Western society worthy of critique and that can do real harm to the culture of a developing country once it gets plugged into the global information economy.

But these cultural problems are accompanied by positive opportunities, including an invitation for religious communities to do what they do best, which is to lead men and women to a conversion of life so that all their values and choices, including those in the economic sphere, reflect their encounter with the truth about God and human nature. One of the great resources that Christianity brings to the mission of ensuring that globalization serves the human person is its universality. Since "the Gospel is for all," as the old hymn says, and has been from the beginning, we are well situated to extend its message throughout the entire world. That truth and the community around it embolden us to proclaim unequivocally the absolute dignity of all human persons and to build political, charitable, and market institutions that reflect that dignity. The challenge now is to use the opportunities that globalization affords for a new evangelization that will transform the global culture for the better.

The idea that Christianity can and does play such a positive role isn't restricted to Christians or even theists. The English psychiatrist and social commentator Theodore Dalrymple, a professed atheist, has argued as much. Former British MP and London Times columnist Matthew Parris made the same point in a December 2008 op-ed:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

There is a recursive process at work here. Christianity, a global religion, played a role in paving the way for economic globalization, and economic globalization then played a role in bringing more people into contact with other cultures and, with it, Christianity, which in turn brings more people into the fold of Christianity.

We shouldn't be distracted by the complexity of this historical process. The process of free trade is a process whereby the values that people hold are given expression in the form of goods and services which are demanded and supplied. To a significant extent, the culture and the values that determine what is bought and sold are already in place. The market does not create the culture or people's values so much as reveal them. Also, cultures are not static. When cultures encounter each other, a refining process can go on for reciprocal improvement. What this means is that the virtuous formation of a culture, which begins with the virtuous formation of people, is much more a moral enterprise than it is an economic one, and can only be effectively altered on that level.

Taken together, what we find then is that the free market is neither the destructive boogeyman that its detractors on the left make it out to be nor an elixir that can bless a society absent a moral context. Capitalism has the power to create even as it replaces older forms of creating and serving, and with a strength and energy unknown to centrally planned economies, but only if it is a system of enterprise governed by the rule of law and a respect for the dignity and capacity of the human person—only, in other words, if it is a just capitalism.

This article is drawn from Rev. Robert A. Sirico's new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. (Regnery, May 2012).