Bryan Caplan  

Tribal Desire

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On Twitter, Mark Krikorian opined that, "Desire for membership in a tribe is as inherent to the human personality as some form of body covering."  He's not exactly wrong, but omits three essential caveats.

1. Desire for tribal membership varies widely.  Some humans, like Mark, seem to think about their tribal membership on an hourly basis.  Others, like me, are perfectly happy belonging to no group larger than the nuclear family.  The median level of tribal desire is hard to nail down.  Do most Americans think about their Americanness once or more per day?  People usually find even simple abstractions boring, so I doubt it. 

2. Desire for tribal membership is extremely elastic.  Virtually any identity sticks if you're immersed in it at an early age: city, state, country, religion, ethnicity, political party, union, sports team, hobby - even a show on t.v.  The real barrier to cosmopolitanism isn't "inherent tribal desire," but inertia - the same barrier countless successful redefinitions of identity have already managed to overcome.  If you can convince British subjects that they're Virginians, and Virginians that they're Americans, you can convince Americans that they're humans.

3. Desire for tribal membership is superficial.  Social Desirability Bias leads most Americans to announce passionate commitment to the American tribe.  But their behavior tells another story.  What fraction of Americans bother to recite the pledge of allegiance on their own initiative?  To display a flag on their front lawn?  To participate in a weekly patriotic function?  99% of the ubiquitous icons of Americanism that popped up after 9/11 have long since faded into nothingness.  Americans put about as much energy into their identities as Christians who only attend church on Easter and Christmas. 

Am I projecting my freakish individualism onto all mankind?  Ponder this: How far would government revenue fall if Americans' tax bill were a voluntary recommendation rather than a legal obligation?  Sure, a few libertarians would conscientiously refuse to pay because they "love their country but fear their government."  But most Americans have no doubt that government spending on pensions, education, health care, military, etc. is good for their country.  If they were sincere patriots, they'd happily pony up for the perceived common good.  But it's hard to imagine that government revenues wouldn't plummet - especially a few years into the great voluntary tax experiment. 

Of course, if the true patriots of America want to prove me wrong by giving my experiment a try, they have my full support.




COMMENTS (16 to date)
Mark V Anderson writes:

It is certainly true that humans need to feel part of something, but there is no reason it has to be a country. After all, being part of a country has only been mostly universal for all humans for the past few hundred years. What is more universal is the need to be part of a tribe, a much more local version of belonging than a nation.

But even a tribe is being morphed these days. There are lots of people that feel much more attached to their political party, sports team, or private organization that whatever locality they happen to be part of. And with the internet these days, these tribes now often cross national borders. So I don't think one can reasonable argue that nationalism is an innate human trait.

Troy writes:

I suspect Krikorian also overestimates the human proclivity for body covering in the absence of climatic drivers. Or he may be very deliberately making a point too subtle for me to grasp.

Economically, do we consumers value higher the trusted productions of our own tribe or the exotic productions of other tribes? I.e. do we expect to pay a premium or receive a discount when trading with other tribes?

MikeDC writes:

This is all about the emotions of membership.

But in the case of a government formed by free association of individuals, there are formal legal rights and obligations that are very much not superficial.

My emotional attachment to my particular neighborhood is indeed quite superficial. That doesn't mean I have a superficial interest in, say, the HOA rules or my neighbor's behavior.

I like some of my neighbors, so I have some emotional attachment. I don't like too many HOA rules, so if they nag me about painting my mailbox I might leave. But if there are no rules, and say, my next store neighbor takes to mowing his grass while wearing a holstered pistol, I might also consider leaving.

So, one could say I'm like most people not blessed with a strong innate sense of neighborhoodism, but it would completely miss the point.

Sort of like Bryan does here. The real barrier to cosmopolitanism is neither desire nor inertia. It's the fact that people under the best of circumstances (say, a relatively upper class neighborhood) still frequently have conflicting interests, disagreements, and wildly varying desires.

Christophe Biocca writes:

#2 will be evident in anyone who finds themselves outside their own nation's cultural or political mainstream.

I'm in a coworking space filled with software engineers. A building of people drinking Redbull, with various comicbook posters, expensive electronic devices and the like on their desks. Conversation topics that anyone outside of this particular bubble would probably find either boring or completely inscrutable.

Do they think of themselves as Canadians? Maybe, sort of, if you ask a sufficiently leading question on that topic.

But observable behaviour tells you what the real, dominant tribal identity is, and it it's more Silicon Valley geek than Canuck. They don't even get their coffee from Tim Hortons! :P

I think you're right, Brian, and I'll go further: National identity is already being outcompeted by other tribal affiliations, due to the intra-national cultural splintering that advanced communications have enabled.

Rick Hull writes:

As much as I love the USA, I am a more patriotic citizen of the Internet.

Grant Gould writes:

Mr. Krikorian would make a fine software engineer: He has taken a bug and declared it to be a feature. As we say in the business: "ship it!"

The human desire for tribal affiliation is much more a desire for an out-group to despise than a need for an in-group to provide comfort, because for the most part as you have noted possible in-groups are abundant -- families, clubs, workplaces, villages. What is not abundant is in-groups large and powerful enough to work the ruin of out-groups.

In throwing off gratuitous tribalism we have nothing to lose but our periodic democides.

Jeff writes:

I suspect the "elasticity" of tribalism is overstated and a bit deceptive. Yes, people can form associations or "tribes" around a number of criteria, but membership in said tribe is probably only going to be appealing if it includes a decent chunk of people who look, talk, and act like you do.

To pick a somewhat extreme example, plenty of nice middle class suburbanites here in Baltimore are Baltimore Ravens fans who have a degree of affection for people like Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Ed Reed, and perhaps even Ray Rice. How many of them would really want to hang out with those guys, though? How many of them would be happy if those guys moved in next door? Not that many.

RPLong writes:

These sorts of arguments (the Krikorian ones) are part of the growing trend among some to declare cosmopolitanism a violation of the right to free association. That idea is the root of the problem, as if a Mexican restaurant staffed- and frequented-by people who prefer speaking Spanish is a threat to any English speaker's ability to associate with fellow English-speakers. The right to free association - and to engage in tribalism - is not a right to declare when and how you will do that, even (especially) when at the expense of other people engaged in the same practice.

Steve Sailer writes:

In reality, the alternative to citizenism is not that everybody turns into cosmopolitan citizens of the world, but that the scramble among nuclear and extended families for corrupt advantage goes less checked by higher loyalties.

Consider the central joke in Neal Stevenson's "Snow Crash," which so many libertarians cluelessly see as a utopian sci-fi novel: the state has withered away, so the good guys, more or less, turn out to be the Sicilian Mafia.

NZ writes:

Desire for tribal membership may vary, but it can fairly reliably be counted upon to center somewhere around race (i.e. extremely extended family), if not religion.

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:

So basically BC is saying that American patriots don't have the moral authority to oppose unlimited immigration unless they prove their patriotism by volunteering their taxes? Isn't that like saying that BC doesn't have the moral authority to preach the economic benefits of open borders when he has no first-hand experience of working-class or middle-class suffering that arises from competition with immigrants for jobs and welfare, or all the other social disruptions due to immigration that disproportionately affect people lower down the socioeconomic scale?

Or we can just cut out the facile posturing and talk about the national interest.

zed writes:

Bryan, you use your tribal memberships with every thought, as they are the building blocks for your models of the world.

JA writes:

I'd just like to point out that I think tribal "identity" starts breaking down if there are more than 150 members (I forget where I read this).

Most of Bryan's examples are orders of magnitude larger than 150 people.

Glen writes:

What Bryan Caplan is projecting is his freakish tribal identity in the academy.

Pajser writes:

Tribalism is the consequence of

  1. individuals are selfish and aggressive,
  2. people are able to organize themselves in tribes and
  3. tribes are stronger than individuals.
It seems that 1-3. cannot be changed. Hence, tribalism is unavoidable. (Even if it is, it wouldn't matter; lions without packs wouldn't be less aggressive.) However, it is possible to unite people in the single tribe.


Steve Sailer writes:

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