TCS Daily

The Other Important Culture War

By Neil Hrab - October 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Harriet Miers's nomination, the Iraqi referendum, rumors of resignations among top White House staff -- news junkies have had a busy week. Comes now another intriguing story meriting attention. A United Nations agency is helping spearhead an effort to punish the US for too-successfully exporting its films, music and other cultural products around the world.

Since at least 1998, bureaucrats in several dozen countries -- including US allies such as Canada and the UK -- have been quietly working to craft a global cultural protectionism treaty. They have gathered annually at meetings of an inter-governmental group called the International Network for Cultural Policy (INCP) to plot strategy.

Last Monday, they got their wish -- the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization's (UNESCO) culture commission voted to support the treaty. On Thursday, the treaty won approval from the overwhelming majority of UNESCO's member states, paving the way for its formal ratification.

The United States is the only major holdout. No surprise there -- the treaty is aimed squarely at the billions of dollars worth of cultural products America's film and recording industries export each year.

Reaction from Louise Oliver, the US Ambassador to UNESCO, was swift: "Under the provisions of the convention as drafted, any state, in the name of cultural diversity, might invoke the ambiguous provisions of this convention to try to assert a right to erect trade barriers to goods or services that are deemed to be cultural expressions," she said.

Thanks to globalization, the people of the world enjoy far more access to imported cultural goods, whether it is in the form of movies, recordings of traditional music or other items. More choice means more chances to learn about others and, one hopes, more understanding between nations through free exchanges in the market.

The INCP does not see things that way. "Globalization," it says, "poses new challenges to the ability of governments, civil society and the private sector to nurture [cultural] diversity." The INCP sees globalization as a threat to the ability of governments to create what we could call official identities for their populations.

To INCP, the undeniable popularity of American movies and music around the world is a threat, a cultural invasion -- rather than an innocent expression of consumer preference.

Take Canada and France, for example. Both of them intervene heavily into the cultural and broadcast sectors in various ways to limit consumer access to foreign content, especially the American kind. Both fear their "right" to arbitrarily restrict consumer access to foreign cultural goods might come fire at future global trade talks. Both of them, incidentally, are also big INCP supporters. Ottawa and Paris want to use the treaty to protect their ability to use regulations to shape the decision of private consumers.

Blame-America-first types will cheer the news from UNESCO as yet another black eye for President Bush, courtesy of the international community.

The last laugh, however, may be on INCP's backers -- and UNESCO. They have their treaty now, sure. They can feel safer about imposing intrusive regulations regarding what can be played on their national airwaves. They can set quotas and minimum standards and enact other rules to restrict choice and "nurture diversity." The treaty will reduce their fear of retribution from the US for this anti-free-trade stance.

But thanks to the spread of personal electronic devices and the rise of sites where you can download content from the Internet, will this "right" to regulate mean anything? Can governments seriously influence the viewing/reading/listening habits of citizens anymore?

Take France. France believes it has the right to tell students who belong to minority religious groups what they can wear on their heads. If you hire enough meddlesome busybodies as teachers and school administrators, you may be able to bully and intimidate young people and their parents into accepting this bizarre rule.

(By the way -- what happened to the "right" of those students to embrace their ethnic/religious identity? What happened to the virtues of "diversity" there?)

If you are serious about protecting your national identity, how many busybodies are you going to need to hire to impose restrictions on what those same young people can play on their iPods and personal DVD players?

Even the regulation-loving French may blanche at the cost of that.

France can regulate how often American movies can be shown on French movie screens. Does this matter, however, when French consumers can play American movies on their laptops after downloading the movies from the Internet, bypassing that regulatory barrier?

The INCP may have won this battle. Its members are fighting a war against consumer choice they cannot win.

Neil Hrab was the 2003 Warren T. Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.


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