Bryan Caplan  

The Optimal Scapegoat

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When people complain about politics, they rarely focus on bad ideas, bad policies, or even bad situations.  Instead, the typical complainer focuses on bad people.  Every now and then, these bad people have proper names, like "Bush" or "Obama."  But complainers usually focus on broader groups, like "the Jews," "the fundamentalists," "the Democrats," or "the Chinese."  Once a complainer picks a group, he'll often link them to a bad idea, a bad policy, or a bad situation.  But complaints about ideas, policies, and situations come and go.  The groups a person complains about are far more stable than the details of his complaints.

Of course, every complainer thinks that his complaints are justified.  No doubt they occasionally are.  Still, when a person habitually complains about a group, it's hard not to wonder, "Suppose there were nothing to complain about.  Wouldn't this complainer still pick a group and complain about them?"  Many people love to have someone to hate.  They crave a scapegoat.

None of this shows that any particular complainer is guilty of scapegoating.  But it does raise an interesting question: How can you tell the difference between "people who crave a scapegoat" and "people who correctly identify wrong-doers"?  My suggestion: Let's make a list of characteristics that make a scapegoat psychologically appealing - and see how well the shoe fits.  If the groups you complain about closely fit the profile of an "optimal scapegoat," you have good reason to question your motives. 

My plan: I'll get the ball rolling, and hopefully readers will help me out in the comments.  Here goes:

1. An optimal scapegoat must be someone you would dislike no matter what they do.  They need to look funny, talk funny, and fundamentally rub you the wrong way.  This ensures that (a) you won't have to stop scapegoating them, and (b) you won't feel sorry for them if you get the upper hand.

2. An optimal scapegoat must be someone widely disliked in your society.  One of the main reasons to have a scapegoat is to freely complain about them; when you express anger, you want listeners to get angry with you, not get angry at you.

3. An optimal scapegoat must be nontrivial.  "Murderers" aren't a good scapegoat.  They're practically bad by definition, so denouncing them feels anticlimactic.  It's far more satisfying to pick a much broader group and complain that they're "a bunch of murderers."

4. An optimal scapegoat must be multifaceted.  Repeatedly complaining about the same heinous acts gets boring.  You want a scapegoat with its fingers in many pies, so you never run out of pretexts.

More?  Please share.

P.S. If you're tempted to self-referentially critique my position, note that "scapegoaters" make a bad scapegoat:

1. We can't dislike scapegoaters no matter what they do.  If they didn't scapegoat, we wouldn't have any idea who they are.

2. Scapegoaters are not widely disliked in our society.

3. Scapegoaters are, like murderers, almost bad by definition.

4. Scapegoaters are one-trick ponies.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (20 to date)
MikeP writes:

An optimal scapegoat must be someone you don't actually associate much with. Many more people blame Congress for the nation's troubles than blame their districts' respective representatives.

Bob Murphy writes:

GMU economists.

M.R. Orlowski writes:

I would think that a good criterion for a scapegoat would be that it is someone or something that is not totally understandable, or at least a first glance.

mike shupp writes:

5. The optimal scapegoat ACCEPTS being labeled and treated as undesirable, or at least raises only ineffectual objections.

My candidate for American scapegoats: Mexican immigrants.

SteveR writes:

I’m not sure about this set of tests. #3 seems to be doing all the work: ‘is this a set of individuals who have each done something wrong, or are they mere scapegoats?’ The others just ask if your dislike has the flavour of an irrational dislike; #3 asks directly whether it is in fact an irrational dislike.

But because #3 asks precisely what the tests are trying to ascertain in the first place, it’s no use as a test: it only works if you already know the answer.

Rick writes:

Picking up on Mike P and M.R. Orlowski, a good scapegoat is someone you can make false claims about with a low likelihood of having to check your facts.

Dave Tufte writes:

I'm not sure about # 2. Local animals/pets are often scapegoats, but it certainly isn't the case that they are widely disliked.

I think you need something more like infamy or notoriety here, rather than "wide dislike".

Matt writes:

#1 on your list doesn't seem quite right. I think if someone gets the upper-hand on a scapegoat they are just as likely to move on to the next scapegoat. Few people still blame it on the Irish.

This goes with #2 but, I think an optimal scapegoat would have to be recognized by the media.

I think it helps if they are defeatable in theory but not in practice. You should be able to fantasize about voting so-and-so out or stopping all the blanks from coming here or killing all the whatevers, but there can't be any type of definitive victory. That would defeat the purpose of the scape goat.

Lee Kelly writes:

The optimal scapegoat is someone is really is responsible for the wrongs they're accused of, but it's not a high priority.

Scapegoaters don't care to check their facts, even when a a little research or critical thinking would quickly reveal problems with their stance. They depend on other people in the community being similarly biased and disinterested in checking the facts.

When a belief is apparently important to someone, but they don't take the simplest measures to check if it's true, then it usually means the primary purpose of that belief is something else. Scapegoaters often use scapegoatees as opportunities to demonstrate what kind of person they are, what group they are loyal to, and what kind of things they value. They're just socialising like human beings--dogs sniff each other's butts and humans scapegoat.

To me, scapegoating is just a special case of signaling behaviour. I read a letter about marriage by a Christian woman a few days ago. She basically said that no marriage can be happy unless both husband and wife put Christ first, and it struck me as interesting for its obvious falsity. Maybe this woman was just so sheltered that she had never met a non-Christian couple that were happily married; at the very least, she must have known Christians with bad marriages. More to the point, in this day and age, it's really quite easy to check whether this claim is true, and even minor research would quickly bring convincing counterexamples to light. However, despite this belief apparently being important to the author, she had apparently taken no steps to check if it was true, so her behaviour strongly suggests that it's truth was not of primary importance. Instead, the purpose of her belief appeared to be just signaling what she valued and what group she was loyal to.

Jeff writes:

The optimal scapegoat is nebulous and intentionally ill-defined. Think of feminists railing against "the patriarchy." The term refers to no easily-identifiable group of people: there was/is nobody who goes around calling themselves a patriarch, nor anybody in particular that feminists sought to derisively label as a "patriarch." Am I a part of the patriarchy? Is Bryan? What does one have to do to become part of the patriarchy or to avoid it? What could the patriarchy do to spare themselves the wrath of feminists?

The ambiguity arises from the fact that what is really despised is a set of cultural norms, and the feminist's ire is directed at those who supposedly maintain and enforce those norms, which could be almost anybody.

Peter writes:

A scapegoat has to be resilient. Not much fun if the scapegoat disappears after the first criticism.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Let's hear it for resilient scapegoats! Especially when they find themselves in environments that clearly need to change.

Brendan writes:

An optimal scapegoat has had a prior belief completely rejected by subsequent evidence.

Social scientists- Marxism
Social conservatives- Creationism
Evo biologists- Eugenics
The Church- Take your pick
Environmentalists- Too many wrong doomsday predictions

Ken B writes:

By society do you mean wider society, or the scapegoater's social set? because I'd say the social set criterion is more important. I know people who still scapegoat Reagan and FDR, who are rather popular more broadly.

Andy Hallman writes:


The optimal scapegoat is nebulous and intentionally ill-defined. Think of feminists railing against "the patriarchy." The term refers to no easily-identifiable group of people: there was/is nobody who goes around calling themselves a patriarch, nor anybody in particular that feminists sought to derisively label as a "patriarch."

This may be true in the case of feminism, but aren't most scapegoats easily identifiable? Consider these common scapegoats: immigrants, minority races, Jews, Muslims, trial lawyers, lobbyists, CEOs, labor unions, big corporations, foreign corporations, foreign countries. Are these really nebulous concepts? They seem pretty concrete to me.

MikeP writes:

They may be identifiable as a group, but the actual scapegoats among the group are less identifiable and more nebulous and distant.

When people talk about immigrants being a problem, they don't talk about their gardener -- only the nebulous concept of "too many immigrants".

Similarly, the minorities they know personally aren't seen as scapegoats -- only minorities as nebulous groups.

My lawyer is great! Trial lawyers as a group are great scapegoats.

Etc., etc.

Andy Hallman writes:

Good point, MikeP.

Reinhardt writes:

MikeP writes:

An optimal scapegoat must be someone you don't actually associate much with. Many more people blame Congress for the nation's troubles than blame their districts' respective representatives.

I agree with Mike's comment and the similar comments made by other people but to me this implies that the problem isn't the scapegoats, it is the people making this assumptions of groups, ideas, etc. they do not associate much with.

Thus, I think the scapegoats are random but the people or the groups (group think anyone?) are less random. It would be fun to make a regression out of this to hypothesize the relationships between them.

Bob Robertson writes:

It could very well be that the person looking for a scapegoat is doing so because they don't have any other option.

Consider that the problem is govt itself. The institution of coercion, by doing ANYTHING, causes problems.

Since it is emotionally/intellectually impossible for some people to overcome their fundamental belief that govt is "good", there must be some reason that govt is "bad" in this case.

So they look around and find that the individuals/groups that are involved in govt are the next layer (after the institution itself) and grasp upon that as the only "possible" explanation, thus creating scapegoats without knowing that that is what they are doing.

Sam writes:

The optimal scapegoat will be a True Scotsman; that is, if a reasonable third party points out that person X does not really cause problem Y, then the scapegoater can say, "That's not the X I'm talking about" or "That's not a real X".

Example, possibly humorous. My brother-in-law used to blame everything on Republicans, including bad driving. One day I was with him in Santa Monica, CA and he started complaining about the bad drivers and Republicans in Santa Monica. I pointed out that the population of Santa Monica voted over 95% Democratic at all levels. He agreed, but said that they were _secretly_ Republicans who voted Democratic just for camouflage.

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