From Big Macs to Big Brother: the market and culture

One of the most important contemporary debates in political economy concerns the impact of the market on culture and the allegation that unfettered market forces will supply ‘dumbed-down’, low quality cultural products that pander to people’s worst instincts. At the centre of this critique of the market is the claim that, in a competitive commercial environment, cultural products must appeal to the largest possible number of people and hence will be bland, unchallenging and place quantity over quality.

One only has to look at television ratings in the UK to see that the programmes that attract the highest audiences do tend to be soap operas, game shows and reality programmes that may be said to appeal to the lowest common denominators of taste and quality. Indeed, I am sure everyone can think of similar cultural products – whether McDonalds fast food, rap music or Hollywood blockbusters – that seem to prosper in markets.

In evaluating this critique of the market it should first be noted that the distinction between high and low culture that informs such views is subjective. Many of what are today considered classic cultural products were derided as the low art of their day: the Impressionists were originally excluded from the Paris Salon; the Beat writers were first shunned by the literary establishment; and The Beatles were originally seen as purveyors of shallow, throwaway pop songs, for example.

If cultural products were to be evaluated and regulated by a deliberative process then many of the cultural products that are today considered classics would have received damning judgements from their contemporary ‘cultural courts’. Unlike democratic processes, however, competition in a market economy is not a zero-sum game. In the market we do not face an all or nothing choice between low and high cultural products leading people to always choose the alternative that panders to their worst nature.

On the contrary, most people consume a variety of cultural products. One can enjoy fast food and fine dining, pop music and classical music, soap operas and art house cinema. Markets reflect the complex reality of individual preferences. Indeed, the wealth generated by market economies has given people the leisure time to enjoy a greater range of cultural products than ever before.

Moreover, a key feature of the market process is that it facilitates polycentric experimentation without requiring that people secure majority approval for their choices. An advanced market economy allows the development of myriad niche markets, whether in imported cigars, specialty foods or socialist cinema.

It is true that in the marketplace only those products that can satisfy sufficient people’s preferences to be profitable can survive. But profitability does not necessarily require mass appeal. Rather, profitability simply requires that the price people are willing to pay for a good or service is greater than the cost of production. One-off haute couture dresses and self-published fan fiction can both meet this test of commercial profitability.

It is often claimed that high quality cultural products should be subsidised by the government because they cannot meet this test of commercial profitability. But it is surely morally wrong for people to be forced to pay for something that they do not want simply because a committee of the great and the good has deemed it culturally valuable. It is an important moral argument, as well as an important practical argument, that in the marketplace people will only receive that for which they are willing to pay.

Member of the Advisory Council

Dr John Meadowcroft is a member of the Advisory Council at the Institute of Economic Affairs as well as a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King's College London. John has taught on the Hansard Scholars Programme at the LSE and in the Department of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.