Bryan Caplan  

Does Identity Politics Pay?

Supply and demand-side stagnat... About That 97 Percent...
When I scoff at group identity, critics often call me naive.  Won't anyone who heeds my advice to eschew identity politics end up being victimized by all the folks who do take their group identities with utmost seriousness?  Then rational self-interest requires identity politics in self-defense.

The rational self-interest version of this story is trivial to refute.  In modern, anonymous societies like our own, all forms of political action are, selfishly speaking, a complete waste of time.  This is basic Mancur Olson.  You're one person out of billions.  Selling your soul to identity politics is astronomically unlikely to noticeably change public policy.

Fortunately, there's a smarter version of the same story.  Sure, identity politics is individually fruitless.  But won't groups that embrace identity politics fare better than groups that don't?

Maybe.  But there are three big reasons to doubt it.

First, there's opportunity cost.  The time that members of your group devote to politics is time those members aren't devoting to personal advancement.  As Thomas Sowell pointedly observes:
Groups that rose from poverty to prosperity seldom did so by having racial or ethnic leaders. While most Americans can easily name a number of black leaders, current or past, how many can name Asian American ethnic leaders or Jewish ethnic leaders?
Second, ramping up your side's identity politics often has the perverse side effect of inspiring rival groups' identity politics.  Making your group angry and scary can yield lots of goodies if no other group reacts.  But the angrier and scarier your group gets, the more likely other groups are to respond in kind.  Net effect?  Unclear, as usual.  And if you instantly exclaim, "So we need to get really angry and scary to make our rival groups back down!" you've utterly missed the point.

Third, activists' beliefs about the effects of public policies are often deeply confused.  So even if identity politics gives your group total power, the results could easily be disastrous for your group.  See the sad history of decolonization.

None of this proves that identity politics never pays.  My point, rather, is that identity politics is unreliable at best.  When you put your childish identity aside, you aren't just sparing yourself; you could easily be doing your former compatriots a favor, too.  As far as anyone knows, nobility is a free lunch.

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Hugh writes:

Twenty years ago I would have agreed with you without reservation, but since then doubts have crept in.

The media love affair with the hatred of all things white, straight and male informs us that Big Money has an interest in keeping the flames of hate well-fanned. It's sad, but that's the world we live in.

Chuck writes:

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jon writes:

"You're one person out of billions. Selling your soul to identity politics is astronomically unlikely to noticeably chance public policy."

To the extent this is true, it's true because so many of these billions of people are actively participating. Your advice is, thus, to stop participating. But if enough people actually follow this advice, then the original premise will no longer be true.

deluks917 writes:


I wouldn't worry about the vast majority of the world becoming non-political. The conditions for Caplan's advice are almost certainly going to hold for a very long time (barring nuclear war, the singularity actually occurring etc).

Nathan W writes:

It only pays if people like you are successful in defining you in some particular way which allows them to demonize you or in persuading you and/or other people to join them (be like them, think like them) or otherwise do as they say in domains of politics and life in general.

Sounds like nasty business to me. Identity politics is important when it allows a group to make known an injustice. When used to berate people into thinking or behaving in certain ways, it can lead to some of the least welcome manifestations of the human condition, and to the extreme this must be avoided at nearly any cost.

Let people define themselves. If they must define the other as something lesser in order to say what they are, then what true basis can be to their value system or means of identification, which relies on defining others as inferior rather than pointing to their specific advantages? For example, in Quebec you find many people complaining about how Quebec identity is under pressure as an island in an anglophone sea, whereas they might be more effective in protecting their culture if they simply celebrate it and don't be so paranoid about whether it is tough to define oneself when surrounded by different (but equal) others.

Make it about the act, not the person. When "I hate Catholics" (emotional response about people) becomes "I think it's silly that priests can't marry" (sharing an opinion about a specific practice), you are looking at a very different sort of mindset. People can be persuaded to transition between these and other scopes with respect to diverse ways of conceiving the self and others in contradistinction with others and the self.

Handle writes:

Coordinating cooperation is hard, so tragedies of the commons are hard to avoid.

Peace is obviously better than war, but unilateral disarmament in the face of potential aggression is rightly considered foolhardy.

If one cannot prevent other identity groups from forming and coordinating to gain at the expense of non-members, a set which includes oneself, then just as with a class-action lawsuit - it is perfectly rational to attempt to coordinate with the class of similarly situated individuals subject to such harm and temporarily unite in an effort to prevent or mitigate such harm.

And if the only way to do that is to instill an alternative or rival sense of group identity, then that may be tragic and include all the downsides you mention, but it doesn't mean that it's not an unavoidable consequence of human nature and therefore remains the least worst option.

So, yes, like it or not, you may not be interested in identity-wars, but identity-wars are interested in you. You can win status points by proclaiming yourself to be a dogmatic pacifist and peacenik, but that's different from declaring it to be a rational strategy, which it is not.

Tom West writes:

Crikey, it seems we're missing the essential point that for a strong majority of the population, identity politics *is* it's reward.

The first analogy that comes to mind is saying since we don't want more kids, we really should move beyond sex, since there are all sorts of harmful effects.

Now, I have my aspergian-side, so I will admit that I don't get nearly the same kick out of identity politics that the vast majority do, but if I'm trying to advocate policy, it behooves me to recognize the characteristics of those to whom I'm offering advice rather than dismissing their very real needs as "childish".

Also, from a practical point of view, do we have *any* examples of modern nations that do not have an identity to which the vast majority subscribe? Both Democrats and Republicans heavily identify as Americans. (And I don't mean identify regionally or religiously more than nationally, I mean don't meaningfully identify as national at all.)

Rob writes:
In modern, anonymous societies like our own, all forms of political action are, selfishly speaking, a complete waste of time.

No personal gains from affiliation signalling? Ever?

David Condon writes:

"Second, ramping up your side's identity politics often has the perverse side effect of inspiring rival groups' identity politics."
"Affably explain why you're right and your critics are wrong. Say it loud and say it proud."

While the two statements are not clear contradictions, I have to wonder if your position on cognitive dissonance in marketing has changed. I strongly agree with this post, but not the old one.

Jeff writes:

Handle has it basically right. The benefits of deserting from an infantry unit on the eve of the big battle are greater for the individual soldier than the cost to the army as a whole. After all, one grunt is highly unlikely to affect the outcome of a battle with tens of thousands of participants. But if everyone on your side does it...ruh-roh!

Yes, naturally, instead of spending all that time marching and drilling and PT-ing and being shouted at by drill sergeants, you could have been reading Hayek, but being able to quote from The Fatal Conceit isn't much help when the amphibious assault vehicles are on the beaches.

Of course, politics isn't exactly analogous to war, but the two certainly lie on the same continuum, as Clausewitz observed.

And once again, the Danegeld problem rears its ugly head in your second point. If acting angry and scary yields free goodies in the form of payouts/payoffs, which it does, do you suppose no one from any other faction is going to notice this? And if they receive no pushback from other groups, what do you suppose that encourages them to do? Get bigger and scarier, perhaps?

Your third point isn't terribly strong, either. If other people have deeply confused beliefs about public policy, then failing to oppose them allows them free reign to implement bad policies which will not simply hurt their group, but everyone in society.

Pajser writes:

The most important difference between action in self interest and action in group interest is that later is morally better. It helps not only to acting individual, but also to members of the group who are worse off than him. Larger the group, morally better it is.

All three reasons against action in group interest mentioned here are equally valid against action in self-interest.

1. Opportunity cost: action in self-interest uses resources that could be invested in action in group interest.

2. Action in self-interest often has perverse side effects on other people. Envy.

3. People are often deeply confused about their own personal benefit. Obesity. Religion.

NZ writes:

What about the identity part? Identity politics isn't just for other people, it's also a kind of templated dance you can do to quickly figure out who your friends are. That way, once the current issue is over you don't turn around and realize you're in the heart of the lion's den when the next issue starts.

So, one of the first things you'll ask yourself when encountering some issue isn't "What side of this issue am I on?" but "Which people involved in this issue are on the same general side as me?" Identity politics helps define that out so it's clear and bold. This way it can always be a case of Blue Team vs. Red Team, rather than having to anticipate whether it might be Purple vs. Violet vs. Lavender vs. etc. and having to figure all that out.

In fact, that's one of the things that makes the in-fighting among fringe Leftists over that catcalling video so amusing to watch: first they applauded the video because they all agreed it was calling out sexual harassment and machoism, but then some of them decided the video was racist because no white guys were shown acting inappropriately, and so forth. These were straight white guys doing a lot of the arguing with each other from behind their computer keyboards! Hilarious.

Hopaulius writes:

Pajser writes: "Larger the group, morally better it is." This is absurd on its face. I was going to trigger Godwin's Law, but instead: As ISIS grows in numbers and power, it grows in morality? Discuss.

Graham Peterson writes:

You've got materialist biases in there, assuming that activists are maximizing policy influence or income, using identity and signaling as a means to that end.

But the construction and maintenance of identity is its own end. The rituals are a means to that end. People get off on being part of groups and separating themselves from other groups with purity regimes.

That kind of tribalism is often destructive to the compromise and trade that groups need to engage in to increase their long run consumption and influence.

So I don't disagree that identity politics are silly.

But there can be no trade, compromise, division of labor, between groups if there are no groups to begin with. So we can't just trash our tendency to band together completely.

Left identity politics are only so obnoxious because it is transparent tribalism sold under the banner of individual liberty and tolerance.

Pajser writes:


compare ISIS which consists of, say, 10 000 members who committed 10 000 murders, and who shared benefits and costs of these crimes with same number of individuals who committed exactly the same number of murders, with same motives, but who didn't shared costs and benefits.

You'll find that ISIS is morally better. Because of sharing costs and benefits of the actions, some poor ISIS member's child will get medicine on time; without sharing it wouldn't happen. Poor individual murderer's child will die, while wealthy individual murderer's child will get diamonds for birthday.

Of course, both ISIS members and individual murderers are horrible, and moral advantage of group action is small if compared to immorality of their deeds, but still, it exists even in this very extreme example.

Hazel Meade writes:

Well, then, we seem to be trapped in a prisoner's dilemma of identity politics.

Everyone is ultimately made worse off by devoting their time and energy to struggling over which group is going to get the most privileges, but nobody trusts each other well enough to declare a ceasefire.

I think the underlying problem is not that identity politics pays for the voters, but that it pays for the politicians who promote it. There are some people who definitely do benefit from identity politics. It's how they stay in power.

Hazel Meade writes:

I don't see where you get the idea that sharing the benefits of one's murdering others makes one's actions morally better than keeping the benefits for oneself. The costs are the same and so are the net benefits. The gains are not any bigger they are just spread more thinly. Even from a consequentialist perspective, there is no net gain if the money is shared equally amoung all ISIS members. In order for it to be true, one would have to presuppose the staring in itself is innately morally superior, which is begging the question.

Evil Chimp writes:

"The rational self-interest version of this story is trivial to refute. In modern, anonymous societies like our own, all forms of political action are, selfishly speaking, a complete waste of time. This is basic Mancur Olson. You're one person out of billions. Selling your soul to identity politics is astronomically unlikely to noticeably change public policy."

I think this is wrong. Most voters are very passive. Individual activists can and do win all kinds of benefits by gaming the political system. You don't even need to win on the issues if you setup a PAC or other non-profit and treat it like a profit center. If this wasn't true, you would not see so many people working in electoral politics, lobbying, and pressure groups.

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