Bryan Caplan  

Immigrants Are Good for Cosmopolitan Tolerance

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When I debated Mark Krikorian, he bemoaned immigrants' effect on Americans' patriotic solidarity.  I think he's making a mountain out of a molehill, but Mark's concerns were much on my mind during my recent visit to New York City. 

I saw no sign that New York was lacking in patriotic solidarity.  But one cultural difference was clear: Cosmopolitan tolerance was in the air - even compared to DC.  On the streets of New York, a world of accents and languages nonchalantly mingled.  People from all over the world amicably talked, walked, and traded.  And no matter where they came from, all the people of New York excelled at minding their own business. 

To be fair, an alert nativist could have extracted a few negative concessions from me as I toured.  The Asian pedestrians in Chinatown did seem a tad inconsiderate, especially the ones with poor control of their sun umbrellas.  But the nativist could do no more than harp on foreigners' sporadic venial sins - while desperately forgiving his countrymen's faux pas.

What makes New York City so culturally distinctive?  The obvious explanation is that immigrants are good for cosmopolitan tolerance.  Bringing the world's nationalities together to rub shoulders humanizes the Other.  It dissolves paranoid anxiety.  It tests in-group bias against palpable facts.  Simply strolling around New York makes nativism intellectually and emotionally hard to sustain.  Yes, you could try to teach cosmopolitan tolerance with sermons, but you'd probably fail.  Ubiquitous foreigners educate far more effectively than holier-than-thou preaching ever could.

The lesson: Even if Mark is right, immigration presents a cultural trade-off: You surrender some patriotic solidarity, but receive extra cosmopolitan tolerance in return.  And if this really is our choice, it is not a tough call.  We should opt for all the cosmopolitan tolerance we can get. 

Why?  Because truth be told, patriotic solidarity is a mixed blessing at best.  Think of all the countries wrecked by excessive patriotic solidarity.  Cosmopolitan tolerance, in contrast, is good through and through.  I must be failing the Ideological Turing Test, because I can't even figure out what social disasters nativists will try to pin on cosmopolitan tolerance. 

So I ask them: What country has ever suffered from cosmopolitan tolerance run amok?  From focusing on people's common humanity rather than superficial differences?  From judging people on their merits instead of their origins?  From living and letting live?

COMMENTS (30 to date)
Caliban Darklock writes:

Cosmopolitan tolerance is what makes it possible for the hostile other to move into our communities and operate clandestinely to destroy us.

If we do not let communists, blacks, and Muslims exist peacefully in our communities... they cannot become sufficiently entrenched to attack from within our own borders.

I do not find this a compelling argument, myself, but I believe it's the argument someone would make for patriotic solidarity. So long as the enemy is the other, we can DEhumanise him.

Pajser writes:
What country has ever suffered from cosmopolitan tolerance ... focusing on people's common humanity ...?

Most of the genocides and many civil wars are result of attempted but failed tolerance. Most recently: Holocaust, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Chechnya ... It doesn't mean that tolerance and must fail, quite contrary. I certainly advocate it, and open borders to extent it increases number of people who can satisfy the most important needs. But it is not without risk of the worst imaginable outcome.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Of course, New York is also one of the most "Progressive" places in the country. Is that the immigrant influence too?

lemmy caution writes:

If we want cosmopolitan-ness we should adjust the immigrant population to get it. Right now we are mostly getting people from Mexico.

sam writes:

There plenty of counter-examples. LA is famously racially Balkanized, and many of the immigrants in Europe immigrants are not integrated in the slightest and live lives separately from and mutually distrusting of the legacy population.

soren writes:

"So I ask them: What country has ever suffered from cosmopolitan tolerance run amok? From focusing on people's common humanity rather than superficial differences? From judging people on their merits instead of their origins? From living and letting live?"

If you're going to use New York as an example, so I'll give you Camden, New Jersey... Camden has the highest crime rate of any city in the US in 2012 and it was only made possible because Campell Soup imported Puerto Ricans and blacks to keep costs low after WWII.

(you may be asking what this has to do with "cosmopolitanism", it has to do with the nonsensical libertarian right, cultural left cosmopolitanism that believes differences are "superficial" as you mentioned yourself)

You need to give Peter Turchin a read if you fail the ideological turing test. The issue is not "cosmopolitanism" vs "solidarity" but "whose solidarity?, which cosmopolitanism?". Your call to cosmopolitanism is in actuality a call to solidarity for those elites who personally benefit from that outlook. These calls for cosmopolitanism usually come from an elite sorted from the core population but now sees itself apart or from market dominate minorities. There is also the matter of elite rivalry between hose core elites and market dominate minorities. Calls to "cosmopolitanism" are often methods of waging class and/or biopolitical warfare.

The United States has never been a nation where the elite and core were "the other" from each other... that's going to change soon and it will be interesting to see how stable that's going to be.

RPLong writes:
Most of the genocides and many civil wars are result of attempted but failed tolerance. Most recently: Holocaust, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Chechnya ...
I must be missing something. Can you explain to me how any of these are examples of attempted tolerance?
soren writes:

And another thing, when elites use "cosmopolitanism" to promote their class/ethnic interests they are in solidarity with the non-core populations who the elites wish to see as being interchangeable with the core population.

The elites today(capitalist right, cultural left) often either ignore or promote volkish outlooks in non-core populations to further their financial/biopolitical agendas.

Brian writes:


Part of the problem with the way you've framed the question is that cosmopolitanism often doesn't lead to tolerance at all. For every in-group bias that gets challenged, another one gets confirmed. Lot's of racist ideas come from the daily interaction of seemingly incompatible populations. Note that many cosmopolitan cities are highly segregated by race and are often hotbeds of racial strife. How many race riots have there ever been in Topeka? People who live in more homogeneous societies just don't think about race as much, and have less reason to think it matters. That sounds more like tolerance to me.
No less important is that cooperation in society is harder under cosmopolitanism, because there are more chances for incompatible interactions. This leads urban dwellers to think that cooperation is harder to achieve naturally, causing them to favor illiberal statist policies to force cooperation. Inhabitants of non-cosmopolitan areas are more likely to reject a strong state presence because they observe that social interaction works just fine without the state.

johnleemk writes:

Re RPLong / Pajser,

I do find it funny how the Baath Party, Juvenal Habyarimana, Josip Broz Tito, and the Assad family are apparently paragons of cosmopolitan tolerance here.

That said, I think if I were to go down this route for some reason, my preferred examples of failed cosmopolitan tolerance would be more along the lines of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires...

Jeff writes:
So I ask them: What country has ever suffered from cosmopolitan tolerance run amok? From focusing on people's common humanity rather than superficial differences? From judging people on their merits instead of their origins? From living and letting live?

Are these differences really superficial? Are the differences between Islam and Hinduism superficial? Between libertarians and communists? Most of the people who actually subscribe to any of these sets of memes, if you will, would certainly not describe their differences with others as superficial, I'd wager. The differences become superficial through a process commonly known as assimilation. But the higher the volume of immigration, the less pressure or need there is for immigrants to assimilate, generally speaking, right? So you can call your differences with Asian-American pedestrians superficial now, but I question whether that would still be the case under your open borders holy grail.

The other point I would make is that New York City might today be a cosmopolitan utopia, but I doubt it is the end of history. How many 9-11's could NYC tolerate before the mobs took to the streets? Not that many, I'd wager. The Crown Heights riots weren't that long ago, and that was all started over one kid getting hit by a car, right?

Look at how civil liberties have eroded since then, also. How many more 9-11's could this country tolerate before its state security apparatus comes to surpass China's (if it hasn't already) in size, scope, and intrusiveness? Cosmopolitan tolerance is all really swell and great, but it is prone to breakdowns (as the Jews of Europe can attest) and it only takes a few violent recalcitrants to undermine norms for the whole society. So while it's great and all that so many people from around the globe are able to prosper living among one another, I have my doubts about whether it will last. It's great that I can get pad Thai noodles just about anywhere these days, and diversity has been a blessing on that score, but I'm not terribly happy about having to take my shoes and belt off to go through airport security, or having the NSA read my emails. Don't pretend that these latter intrusions are an effect without a cause.

CJ writes:

Can Pajser please explain the meaning of his statement: Most of the genocides and many civil wars are result of attempted but failed tolerance.
In the case of Rwanda (which you noted), were the differences (linguistically and otherwise) between the Hutus, Tutsis and moderate Hutus?

Jameson writes:

To add to Caplan's point, here, why don't we advocates of freer immigration get to challenge the patriotism of the very people who claim to fret about patriotic solidarity? If your heart doesn't swell with pride at the words of The New Colossus, I don't see how you can call yourself a patriotic American.

S writes:

There are plenty of studies (most notable Robert Putnam) that find ethnic diversity correlated with lower civic involvement. Less voting, less volunteering, less charity, less neighborly interaction...etc. Of course this is a far cry from genocide, and may still indeed be a molehill, but it is a cost to the community none the less, and is not rebutted by a few brief impressions of New York city.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

From a cosmopolitan environment:

Tolerance is Love, sick with sickness of haughtiness.
Khalil Gibran
NZ writes:


It's hard to separate the words of The New Colossus from the pro-general-mass-immigration message they've been given over the years (but which I don't think was originally intended).

If you could decouple Lazarus's poem from all the general open borders cheerleading that's been piled on top of it, I think the hearts of those in favor of patriotic solidarity would indeed swell with pride upon reading it. It's a very prideful poem, after all.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

@lemmy caution writes "Right now we are mostly getting people from Mexico" but actually Asians have surpassed Hispanics in immigration to the US.

About 430,000 Asians (36% of all new immigrants, legal and illegal) moved to the United States in 2010, compared with 370,000 Hispanics (31% of all new arrivals).

Regarding @Sam's statement "LA is famously racially Balkanized" the fame may overstate some of the reality. According to the Business Insider's population-weighted index, LA is less racially segregated than cities such as Cincinnati, Peoria, Philadelphia, NYC, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.

MikeDC writes:

For everyone's edification, could someone describe the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from the perspective of immigration controls?

At a high level, it seems like both sides would argue the other side is guilty of "moving in and taking over the place", and therefore each side will be against immigration.

An Israeli could point out that efforts to let Palestinians into Israel inevitably led to more suicide bombings. Tolerance -> War.

And they would argue that open borders and an open political process would soon render Israelis a religious minority in their explicitly religious state.

And Palestinians, of course, would point out the exact opposite, and note that mass free immigration of Israelis into the area ultimately resulted in Palestinians being evicted en masse from their lands. Tolerance -> War.

Robinson writes:
Most of the genocides and many civil wars are result of attempted but failed tolerance. Most recently: Holocaust, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Chechnya ...

These are all cases of intolerance. Trying to relabel that as "attempted but failed tolerance" to shift the blame to the other side is absurd. It's like saying that medicine kills people, because everyone dies of "attempted but failed medicine."

MikeDC writes:


Not at all. People have the option to not engage each other at all. A more apt metaphor would be choosing whether to put two dogs in a cage together.

If the dogs are docile breeds with gentle training, they might be happy for the companionship. If they're pit bulls trained to kill, attempting to get them to "tolerate" each other is an act of violent cruelty.

RPLong writes:

@ MikeDC - So who are the dogs and who are the masters in your analogy?

Arthur_500 writes:

I agree that our immigration problem is self-inflicted and we would do better with a change in immigration policies. However, I'd like to take the Devil's Advocate position just for thought.

We love a Democratic Republic as it works against tyranny. However the biggest criticism of the US government has always been that it takes so long to accomplish anything. Certainly a dictatorship is much more efficient in accomplishing anything. However, most people find issues with Dictators.

Sweden is a very Swedish country and immigrants must learn the language, the history and the culture. In other words, immigrants must assimilate and they are very tolerant of those who do:)

France is a very French country and immigrants are given great leeway, as long as they learn to speak French in public. However, their loose immigration policy has caused great consternation as immigrants increasingly fight against the French culture and are living separate from that culture.

In short, diversity is simply an ignorant way of saying, "Divide and Conquer." Diversity will destroy not enhance.

So my point is that there is something to be said for homogeneity even if that is politically incorrect.

Personally I still believe in the Melting Pot theory regardless of how that has fallen out of favor.

Brendan writes:

This is one issue I disagree with Bryan Caplan, open borders is irrational think about it you wouldn't let anybody walk all over you yard and enter your house and sleep and eat in eat. It's chaos! Open Borders presents a national security issue, especially when there are violent drug cartels south of the border and Temple University professor, Jan Ting mentioned that we could get people who believe in "honor" killings.
No we don't need open borders for free movement of labor but free movement of people can be dangerous.

MikeDC writes:

@ RPLong,
Hell if know. Which actually improves its applicability as an analogy. Here we have millions of dogs of every different temperament and the masters and their motivations are often changing, at odds, and outright hostile to each other.

Which is exactly how you get the sort of incoherent set of immigration policies we actually have.

Pajser writes:

RPLong, CJ, Robinson...

All examples (Holocaust, Rwanda, Yugoslavia ...) were attempts of different groups to live peacefully together, for decades or centuries. They tolerated others, organized trade, worked in same companies, served in same armies, socialized, made best friends, marriages and had children cross-culturally ... Then hate prevailed. One should ask how and why hate prevailed, but without initial belief in peaceful coexistence, such mixed societies wouldn't exist and hate wouldn't develop. Indians do not hate Eskimos.

Even relatively low levels of hate; lack of trust is enough to transform multicultural or multinational state in failure. In such countries, all political issues are judged from tribal position. You talk about abortion, taxes, licenses, animal rights ... they calculate which tribe wins and which loses with each proposal. It is a nightmare.

And if one asks "how and why hate prevailed" he may find that there was no clear cause that could be removed with determined political action. The haters are irrational. Their arguments are weak, but convincing them is like convincing someone that UFO didn't planted chip in his brain. Then, their number started to increase ...

Although one should advocate tolerance (and examples of tolerant societies, with only minor conflicts exist), he should be fair and admit that there is a realistic possibility that hate prevails and that he doesn't know how it can be prevented. Which, I admit, isn't great rhetoric...

vikingvista writes:

"open borders is irrational think about it you wouldn't let anybody walk all over you yard and enter your house and sleep and eat in eat."

Is that why you oppose Oklahoman's migrating into Texas? Because that's the same as Oklahoman's walking over a Texan's yard and entering a Texan's house and sleeping and eating in it?

"No we don't need open borders for free movement of labor but free movement of people can be dangerous."

Is that why you want to restrict the flow of people between Eerie and Huron counties in Ohio? Because Eerie county has murderers, so such free movement is dangerous?

Evil Racist Bigot writes:

Well as a sizeable study by Robert Putnam indicates, ethnic and cultural diversity is bad for just about every metric of social health:

So if increased diversity from immigration does increase cosmopolitan tolerance, it doesnt appear to do so to the degree necessary to fully offset the social divisions that stem from ethnic and cultural diversity.

Which is why your point here is totally unpersuasive: even if immigration does increase cosmopolitan tolerance (and I am not sure your perceptions whilst strolling around New York constitute rigorous evidence), this is only partially alleviating a problem that immigration causes in the first place, namely social divisions along newly established ethnic and cultural lines. The ability to tolerate diversity isnt any great boon in a homogeneous society.

BJ writes:

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Brian writes:

Pajser is right about genocides and civil wars in the following sense: Most of them in the modern era were preceded by attempts at national unity, usually by some form of forced tolerance. That is, different ethinic, racial, or religious groups were forced to live together in peace through a strong, often violent government. When that government fell or changed its goals, the old hostilities resurfaced and led to extreme violence. Isn't that's what's happened in Iraq? Saddam Hussein forced Iraqis of many backgrounds to live together in peace. With his removal and the weakening of the government, civil war and cultural genocide is breaking out.

These examples show that even with decades of apparent tolerance, the hatred and bitterness doesn't go away, and people are willing to kill once the higher-order threat is removed.

Daublin writes:

@Aurther_500, France also has strict labor laws that are quite bad for people low on the totem pole.

Be careful attributing unrest from new immigrants to cultural mismatch. It's at least in part due to high unemployment, which is in turn due to labor law.

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