Bryan Caplan  

The Outsider Advantage

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"Judean People's Front?!  We're the People's Front of Judea!"
                      -The Life of Brian

"Ned, have you considered any of the other major religions? They're all pretty much the same."
                      -Reverend Lovejoy, The Simpsons

Intellectually speaking, how far apart are each of the following pairs?

1. Democrats and Republicans

2. Catholics and Protestants

3. Sunnis and Shiites

4. Trotskyists and Stalinists

My conditional prediction of your answers hinges on how you see yourself.  For each pair, tell me if you strongly identify with either side.  If you say yes, I predict you will think the difference between the two sides is vast.  If you say no, I predict you will think the difference between the two sides is modest.

My reasoning: All of these pairs are, in the broad scheme of things, variations on a theme.  Democrat and Republican are both variations on American nationalism.  Catholic and Protestant are both variations on Christianity.  Sunni and Shia are both variants on Islam.  Trotskyist and Stalinist are both variations on Marxism-Leninism.   All you need to see these truths is some intellectual distance.  As long as you're an outsider, you're well-positioned for objectivity.

Insiders have a corresponding disadvantage.  Their identity hangs in the balance: If the differences are minor, there's no good reason to strongly prefer one side over the other.  And if there's no good reason to strongly prefer one side over the other, why have they in fact embraced one side as their own?  Talk about cognitive dissonance.

As an insider, of course, it's tempting to rebuke outsiders for their ignorance.  If they understood the issues, the outsiders would realize that the world really does hang in the balance.  And in any case, if the differences are minor, why are their rivals attacking them so viciously?

The outsiders' answer, of course, is the cynical one: There's nothing to explain.  Human beings passionately fight over trivia all the time.  If Catholics and Protestants could fight the Thirty Years' War over religious minutiae, why is it so hard to believe that Democrats and Republicans are polluting Facebook to determine which variant on nationalism and social democracy is the One True Way?  The problem, as usual, is that insiders are too emotionally invested in their group identity to see how trivial their differences really are. 




COMMENTS (22 to date)
Pajser writes:

I'm Marxist, eurocommunist (roughly), atheist. Outside of all alternatives.


  1. Democrats vs Republicans - difference is essential. One group is left, other group is right, their temporary political position depends on "median voter" and little beside that.

  2. Catholics vs Protestants - one important ideological difference; the protestants have their own consciousness, Catholics must obey pope and bishops.

  3. Sunis vs Shiits - I have no clue.

  4. Trotskyists vs Stalinists - I don't know any important ideological difference.

HWK writes:

Dear Prof. Caplan,

while inspiring, I strongly disagree with your position, in particular with regard to objectivity.
Your interpretation seems to be: I self-identify with one group and thus I perceive the difference to be considerable.
But how about reverse causality: I perceive the difference to be considerable and thus feel the need to self-identify with one group.
Only if the causality runs in the first way is there an immanent bias. In the latter case you might still be "wrong" but group identification is not the reason why.
More importantly, the difference is a difference with regard to values. You might simply consider the difference small because in your value system they are the same kind of bad/good. That doesn't mean that everybody shares that value system or has the same sense of importance. (Actually, you can make the argument about any kind of groups eventually, does that mean there are no differences?)
Now, I'm not saying that there is no such thing as disagreement for the sake of disagreement. I'm sure there is. But I don't see how outsiders have an inherently better viewpoint than insiders. And if differences in values lead to differences in agendas that affect people in different ways the effects of the differences are very real.
However, it is very important to be able to figure out what kind of disagreement (or other motive) is behind a conflict in order to resolve that conflict, and in some cases the prima facie difference is minor. But that doesn't mean that this is always so, and we're not always better off listening to the outsiders.
I hope I haven't missed your point
Kind regards

kzndr writes:

5. Insiders and Outsiders

Glen Smith writes:

Usually lean Republican, protestant.

1. No core difference between Republicans and Democrats. Both believe that if they had more power, everything would be right. Sometimes a republican may intersect with some of my beliefs about government but so do democrats at times.

2. Only difference in the US these days is that protestant ministers tend to be married while Catholic priests aren't.

3. Sunnis and Shiits. Don.'t see much difference but I think the causality is more that the differences rarely effect me and the similarities do.

4. A Marxists and a fascists a very similar to me.

I too suspect causality may run the other way.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Since we appear to be listing our affiliations I'm an independent, lean Democrat (but have voted for many Republicans), agnostic, non-communist.

This is interesting:

"All you need to see these truths is some intellectual distance. As long as you're an outsider, you're well-positioned for objectivity."

Would you still maintain this point when talking to someone that looks at "Republican vs. libertarian" and doesn't seem much difference?


Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ultimately I think whether these differences are "minor" or "major" depends on your values. I don't see major differences between Sunnis and Shiites personally but if it's enough of a difference to convince them to kill each other who am I to call that "minor" in any universal sense?

Jameson writes:

This might be the weakest, most preachy Caplan post I've seen. Sometimes your preachiness is charming, but here it's just annoying and stupid.

I'm a Protestant, I don't strongly affiliate with either Republicans or Democrats. But I think the differences between Republicans and Democrats can be substantial--yet they're always changing, aren't they? (For instance, what is the Republican position on foreign policy, what with Rand Paul running for president?) Still, differences on things like abortion and gay marriage are (as of now) pretty clear, and if those issues are important, then the differences are important.

That brings me to the difference between Catholic and Protestant. Actually, I would even wager that most American Christians don't find the Catholic/Protestant divide to be very important these days. (Interestingly enough, a far greater distiction would be between "conservative" and "liberal" theology, which only highlights the increasing polarization of American culture.) But the fundamental differences do remain, most notably concerning the source of authority--you just don't care because you're not a Christian.

As for the others, I don't know as much, but I imagine the differences could conceivably be quite important. It just depends on what's true, doesn't it? If you're a convinced atheist, then the difference between Catholic and Protestant, or between Sunni and Shiite, seems meaningless in comparison to the answer to more basic questions. But if God really does exist, then one might actually try to investigate more specific theological questions than that.

So what you pretend is some intellectual "distance" is not some greater objectivity on your part, but merely a commitment to an entirely different camp. It's like a Russian not understanding the difference between Northerners and Southerners in America. Of course he doesn't see the importance--he has his own history to deal with. And you have yours.

Just maybe, so that you'll get the point, I should bring in someone who will ask, "So what really is the difference between Bryan Caplan and Thomas Sowell? They're both libertarian economists, right?"

Taimyoboi writes:

Intellectually speaking, how far apart are each of the following pairs?

1) Analysts or Algebraists

2) Psychologists or economics

Taimyoboi writes:

Pardon me,

2) Psychologists or economists.

Jon Murphy writes:

With respect, while an outsider may see some differences as trivial, they aren't always so.

Just for example, take religion:

In early Christianity, there as a controversy known as the Arian Heresy. The Arians taught that God the Son was lesser than God the Father. The mainstream church taught that God the Son was equal to God the Father; they were one and the same (thus the Holy Trinity). To an outsider, this distinction may appear trivial, but it goes right to the foundation of what Christianity is.

jj writes:

HWK made a great point. And I have to pile on with Jameson and Jon Murphy.

The prediction Caplan can make has nothing to do with insider/outsider, it's the distinction between true and false, or right and wrong. For argument's sake:

(imagine that) Trotskyists and Stalinists are both wrong wrong wrong, so whatever their differences are, are inconsequential. Caplan would ask, why don't those ignorant Trotskyists and Stalinists realize this and stop fighting?

(imagine that) Sunnis are right and going to heaven, Shiites are wrong and going to hell. That is critically important and worth fighting over. But Caplan would say, "Guys, you're both wrong, just be friends!"

Ismael Seneca writes:

I am a moderate sunni. In my view the differences between Sunnis and Shias are not significant in terms of the major aspects of the faith.

However, I am an American and moved to the U.S. with my parents when I was 6 yrs old. I mention this as I may not be as emotional about the topic.

Perhaps further adding to Prof Caplan's hypothesis, my country of origin has only sunnis as far as I know and I have not noted a visceral opinion towards shias and how wrong/different they are. Come to think of it, there is little thought given to Shias as they are not a competing minority or majority to consider, making views less emotional.

I suspect few in France think there is as big of a difference between Catholics and Protestants today as they did when Louis the 14th kicked the protestant huguenots out of the country. Less emotional attachment?

Ismael Seneca writes:

I would add that I am more likely to find that there are significant differences between moderate sunnis/shias and the extremists of both.

I am perhaps more emotionally attached to the modrate versions/interpretations?

ThomasH writes:

As an ex-Protestant who became Catholic, I do NOT see the differences as that large, especially given the huge variances within both groups. As an ex-Republican who has become a Democrat by default (without changing many of my views), I see more difference. There the within group variance within Democrats has increased but within Republicans decreased.

Jeff writes:

This phenomenon is known as the narcissism of small differences. There's a good joke that illustrates the phenomena:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Many good comments, but the best was:

Would you still maintain this point when talking to someone that looks at "Republican vs. libertarian" and doesn't seem much difference?

This more than the rest of the comments show the problem with the post.

khodge writes:

What a curious phrasing: "intellectually speaking." (As I understand:) Shia and Sunni reasoning process is nearly the same; it is only the content of their teachings that differ. Likewise Trotskyists and Marxists share reasoning but not loyalties. Democrats and Republicans (true only of the activists) share reasoning but very different principles. Catholics and Protestants (again with major qualifications), based on what can be observed between majority Catholic/Protestant countries are actually quite different.

So, the difference with which I most closely identify has actual, real-world empirical differences.

khodge writes:

Jon Murphy: there is also some evidence that the Arian heresy contains the roots of Islam (circling us back to one of Bryan's dichotomies).

Floccina writes:

I see what you mean but anywy:

1. Democrats and Republicans - How would I know.

2. Catholics and Protestants - Less an less over time but still not insignificant - Now between Protestant denomination - insignificant.

3. Sunnis and Shiites - How would I know.

4. Trotskyists and Stalinists - I could know this but do not. Perhaps I will do a little reading.

ThomasH writes:

@ Jon Murphy
Expanding a bit, for the (self-styled) "orthodox," -- centuries before the "Orthodox"/"Catholic" schism -- Father and Son were of the same "substance." For Arians, they were of similar "substance" and thus it was fixed in the Nicene Creed.

Now between same substance, homoousios and similar substance, homoiousios" there is just one "iota" of difference.

As for Catholics and Orthodox, it's mainly a matter of Church governance; is the Roman Pontiff the first among equals or does he have primacy over the other Ecumenical Bishops of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, but there is also an issue of whether the Holy Spirit "proceeds" from the Father or from the Father and the Son, the difference in Latin being one word of the Creed, Filoque.

Greg Robbins writes:

Keynesians or Hayekians?

I think when you look at a group (the Roman Catholic Church), and then compare it a vast array of sects, (Protestantism), you'll find that some of the sects are close to Catholicism, (Episcopalians, i.e.) but some are vastly different. I don't see much similarity between Christian Science and Catholicism.

While some Republicans and Democrats are similar, (Bob Dole and any Blue Dog Democrat), it's hard to see much similarity between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders.

Daublin writes:

It might be worth spelling out a few concrete examples, given that we have recently had a Republican president followed by a Democrat. I find their overall policies to be very similar, and similarly disagreeable.

Obama has kept open the torture camps and increased the level of drone bombing. If you think these things are out of his control, please consider that every order for a drone bombing has been individually approved by the president.

He has kept up the drug war.

He has increased federal spending on health care, just like Bush.

On the softer things, he seems even more heavy-handed and crony-laden than Bush. We know, for example, that he has been using the IRS to go after his enemies. He also has a tendency to simply kill his enemies outright, rather than capture them and send them to court.

As well, he is even less diplomatic with foreign governments than Bush was. Pakistan has consistently opposed our presence within their borders, especially when that presence consists of drone bombs and special ops teams.

All of the above policies are beloved by the median American voter, but forgive me for thinking that, as Bryan says, it looks a little like Coke versus Pepsi.

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