Bryan Caplan  

They Scare Me

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In 3rd-grade, my best friend was Mormon.  As a result, I joined a Mormon cub scout troop.  Since then, I've often interacted with Mormons, and I though I've never become one, I have to say: They are the nicest bunch I've ever met.  A few years ago, Mormons impressed me even more with their uber-cool reaction to The Book of Mormon musical:

The church apparently approves of the show enough to buy three full page ads in the Playbill program each theatergoer gets: Each page is a close-up photo of an attractive young person with a quote such as "The book is always better" and a refer to thebookofmormon.org.

"I can appreciate that it got people talking," Brooks said. "I think it makes people even more curious to learn about what Mormons believe."

Occasionally, though, I wonder: What would happen if Mormons were a solid majority of the U.S. population?  Maybe they'd be as wonderful as ever, but I readily picture a sinister metamorphosis.  Given enough power, even Mormons might embrace a brutal fundamentalism.  Despite my lovely experiences with Mormons, they scare me.

To be fair, they're hardly alone.  You know who else scares me?  Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.  Sunnis, Shiites, Catholics, and Protestants.  Whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians.  Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, Marxists, and reactionaries.  Even libertarians scare me a bit.  Why?  Because given enough power, there's a serious chance they'll do terrible things.  Different terrible things, no doubt.  But terrible nonetheless.

If you're afraid of every group, though, shouldn't you support whatever group has the minimum chance of doing terrible things once it's firmly in charge?   Not at all.  There's another path: Try to prevent any group from being firmly in charge.  In the long-run, the best way to do this is to make every group a small minority - to split society into such small pieces that everyone abandons hope of running society and refocuses their energy on building beautiful Bubbles.   As Voltaire once put it:

If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.

When people lament the political externalities of open borders, they're usually picturing an influx of a group with a bad track record of being in charge.  In a sense, these critics understate their case; numerical superiority can turn even the nicest groups into a mortal danger.  But critics also overlook the open borders remedy: Diaspora dynamics notwithstanding, welcoming everyone is a great way to turn everyone into a minority.  And while that hardly guarantees safety, it's less menacing than the status quo. 

Don't believe me?  Picture the group of humans that currently scares you the most.  They're still only x% of the world's population, where x is probably less than 25%.  Now imagine what would happen if your scariest group were x% of every country's population.  Even if its individual members stayed equally scary, they'd become far less globally dangerous than they are now.  But that's not all.  Once the members of the group that scares you the most loses all hope of running the show, most will calm down.  In time, they too might be nice as Mormons.

Still don't believe me?  Walk around the campus of George Mason University.  Whatever group scares you the most is well-represented.  But before long, you won't be scared.  Every group is too small to run the show - and every group knows it.  And when you see it with your own eyes, you'll know it too.




COMMENTS (40 to date)

According to James Madison, a nation with a multitude of factions is stabler than a nation with only a few.

If there are only two or three groups, there might be a problem. Two sides might start fighting and even in three-side societies there is the danger of two sides ganging up on the third. The arguments of the Federalist papers apply to societies with many sides. In such societies everybody has be on their best behavior.

Ethniklashistan might not be such a bad idea after all.

Richard writes:
In the long-run, the best way to do this is to make every group a small minority - to split society into such small pieces that everyone abandons hope of running society and refocuses their energy on building beautiful Bubbles.

A multitude of different ethnicities and clans could just as easily lead to a never-ending war of all against all as in Syria. In fact, the system that has historically provided the best standard of living for the greatest number has been the homogenous nation-state derived of people from Europe or East Asia. Places with the greatest linguistic and ethnic diversity: sub-Saharan Africa, the New World before Columbus, South Asia, have been terrible places to live.

I see little in history to suggest that diversity leads people to "refocus their energy on building beautiful Bubbles."

konshtok writes:

imagine muslims

Robert Kirchoff writes:

I can't fathom how this could be axiomatically true. Britain was and continues to be a highly homogeneous place compared to say, the Balkans. Yet Britons have suffered far less brutal, less violent, less arbitrary governments almost without exception.

This piece seems to assume that the groups are happy to acquiesce to the liberal order or to the domination of one party. This is not often the case.
Some of the most diverse places on earth are the most violent and unfree. Few of the most homogeneous places are. Certainly there are divided countries in the top freedom rankings--Switzerland, Canada, etc. But homogeneity is well represented as well. It seems a stretch to infer such a broad connection between diversity and good government.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The post perfectly illustrates the point that libertarianism is about making people strangers to each other.

The political nature of man whereby mankind is organized into particular, self-ruling, morally authoritative units that we may call nations is repugnant to the libertarian. He prefers that nations do not exist.

The political nature of man divides mankind into neighbors and strangers. The neighbors share sufficiently an idea of the Good--Americans share in the American Way, the English in the English Way and so on.

Strangers are those that do not share your idea of the Good. The libertarian seeks to make all persons strangers to everybody else. There has to be an equality of stranger-ness.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

make every group a small minority

Trouble is every society requires a general consensus of an idea of Good to operate.

Protection of private property, even the definition of private property itself is a consensus that has evolved in rich, stable countries. There is no guarantee that a "society"
that has no dominant group and thus, by definition, no consensus of the idea of Good, would manage to secure private property, or even secure life and limb of people.

mico writes:

This analysis suggests that in 1914 Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire should have been the freest, stablest, and most peaceful countries in Europe.

Prakash writes:

India is such a place where everyone is a minority and the typical problems are that any actions that require coordination don't usually get done. Trash collection, sewage, roads, public health, primary education - you name it, it's a problem. Beware of what you wish for. At the least, see places that have characteristics that you wish to implement. You may end up regretting this post on the day when the roads need to be repaired.

Anonymous writes:

I wonder how your analysis would change if you didn't view yourself as such an outsider.

An Anonymous Farmer writes:

More support for the idea that competition is really the key ingredient (ideally the main ingredient in voluntaryism, for example)

Larry writes:

Your thesis only holds when all the groups are committed to democracy and are willing to compromise; where each group respects "rule by the majority," while the majority respects the rights of the minority. On the other hand, when the culture has a "winner take all" mentality and neither small groups respect the will of the majority (e.g., the Republican Party) nor does the majority respect the rights of minorities (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), then it's a recipe for disaster.

Colombo writes:

Democracy is just a way to change kings with little to none bloodshed. It has almost nothing to do with rights, law, justice, society or freedom.

What people and societies of people need is movement, a primitive concept in nature known in the economic jargon as "market".

lib-boy writes:

Bryan,

I think this is one of your weakest posts, and I don't think this assertion holds in general. There are far too many examples of violent heterogeneous societies. Perhaps I'm wrong, but they seem far more common than violent homogeneous ones.

More generally, I think expectations of power is what leads groups to do horrible things. If a group does not expect it can gain power it has no reason to e.g. start a civil war, and will never be able to use power to do terrible things.

What an excellent article! Exactly captures my experience of Mormons (and others). May even be correct in its general conclusion.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Your thesis only holds when all the groups are committed to democracy and are willing to compromise; where each group respects "rule by the majority," while the majority respects the rights of the minority."

If all groups are small minorities, they will be forced to compromise, even if they don't like it.

Njnnja writes:

The last 2 paragraphs do not work well if one has a fear of men. What is interesting is that the author clearly didn't think of that possibility, similar to how a fish doesn't know it's wet.

Men don't think about gender very much, unless that is the particular topic of the moment, but women are.

Shane L writes:

"Diaspora dynamics notwithstanding, welcoming everyone is a great way to turn everyone into a minority."

Consider, though, where the big population growth is happening in the world. Here is the World Bank on annual population growth rates in each major world region by 2014:
https://www.google.ie/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&met_y=sp_pop_grow&idim=country:NGA:KEN:DZA&hl=en&dl=en#!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=sp_pop_grow&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=region:EAS:ECS:LCN:MEA:SAS:NAC:SSF&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false

Sub-Saharan Africa: 2.7%
Middle East & North Africa: 1.8%
South Asia: 1.3%
Latin America & Caribbean: 1.09%
North America: 0.78%
East Asia & Pacific: 0.67%
Europe & Central Asia: 0.47%

Would everyone become a minority? I would expect the greatest migration to come from the poorest countries, which are largely those with the fastest population growth. Instead of everyone being a minority, one might expect those poor sub-Saharan Africans or Middle Easterners becoming a majority in some places. Don't know if this is problematic or not, but let's consider it anyway.

In 1960 Germany had nearly 30 million people more than Nigeria; by 2014 Nigeria had almost 100 million people more than Germany. There are some quite huge differences in population trajectories around the world. I would expect open borders to lead to some of that mixing, but also enormous growth of some populations relative to others.
https://www.google.ie/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&met_y=sp_pop_grow&idim=country:NGA:KEN:DZA&hl=en&dl=en#!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=sp_pop_totl&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:DEU:NGA&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false

MikeDC writes:

I used to think this view, which as Joseph Hertzlinger points out is really Madison's in Federalist 10 was correct.

Now I think, it's good but the only real way to avoid calamity is to drastically limit the power of government in the first place.

Suppose a government with the power to immediately target and punish anyone with the push of a button.

Does it make anyone feel better that there are lots of groups arguing over who gets to be in charge of the button?

Not me. I say the only way to be free is to make sure such buttons don't exist.

RPLong writes:
Occasionally, though, I wonder: What would happen if Mormons were a solid majority of the U.S. population? Maybe they'd be as wonderful as ever, but I readily picture a sinister metamorphosis. Given enough power, even Mormons might embrace a brutal fundamentalism. Despite my lovely experiences with Mormons, they scare me.
This is no loose hypothetical. I grew up as a non-Mormon in a place that was literally 98% Mormon, and it was oppressive.
Thomas Sewell writes:

Utah is about 67% LDS. Not a country? Tonga is a little over 60% LDS. Samoa isn't far behind.

Catholics have also had a pretty solid hold on many countries for a long time, as have Muslims, Hispanics, etc... Church of England for a long time was pretty dominant in England.

There is no need to speculate in fear about "what would happen" when there is solid evidence available of what has actually already happened.

"Groups" as described and group politics are largely overrated. Individuals vote, make decisions, make alliances, fight each other, etc... not the groups themselves. The groups are just convenient labels which sometimes hide the individuals involved from some people's direct consideration.

Who runs Egypt? Middle-easterners? Arabs? Muslims? The Egyptian Army? Yes, but really... Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi and at most a few of his closest individual allies.

There's a dynamic at work. Watch survivor for a microcosm. Alliances and "groups" break down into smaller ones as a result of success. If a group ever gets control for an extended period of time, it generally dissolves into smaller elements within competing with each other. That's because they're made up of individuals as the smallest decision-making units, not actually groups.

To say "Republicans want this" and "Democrats would do that" is relatively useless, because it's just not true. Generally speaking, you can't literally ascribe particular characteristics to an entire group of any reasonable size. At best, you can speak of tendencies and a few generalities which will usually break down the more accurate you get.

Bottom line, nothing to fear from some particular "group" having a majority of the population, plenty to fear from some particular individuals being allowed by the people to be "in charge".

I prefer having a system so that even if the "wrong" individuals end up in charge, the damage they can do is severely limited.

There's some validity to the original U.S. founder's idea that competing factions would prevent many abuses of power out of self-interest, but it's turned into a pretty slim reed of protection once factional technology got to the point where we end up with two main factions and people shifting on the margins between them as popular opinion shifts.

Might have been better to play competing individuals off against each other in specific positions. Even better, create an overwhelming consensus for self-interest becoming not allowing _any_ individual too much power. That's a discussion for another day, though.

Nathan W writes:

Richard - The problem in Syria is precisely that one group dominated the political system. Eventually, this led to backlash. Bryan's idea is that things should be safe so long as no group thinks it can dominate the system. If you think you can win the war of domination, eventually you might try. But if you know you can't win, you probably won't try, and will accept power sharing.

Robert - "This piece seems to assume that the groups are happy to acquiesce to the liberal order or to the domination of one party." - I think completely misrepresents the idea. The idea is that there would be no domination of any party, supported by the notion that no group or party could "win".

"Some of the most diverse places on earth are the most violent and unfree". That's precisely because one group thinks it can win. For example, it may have some historical privilege that it thinks it can leverage into domination over the other groups. And so other groups, resisting this, fight back. If the other groups had more power, the aggressor never would have thought they could win, and therefore wouldn't have tried to obtain domination over the others.

I agree that it's a stretch to make a "broad connection", but please consider my counterarguments to your counterarguments.

Mico - "This analysis suggests that in 1914 Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire should have been the freest, stablest, and most peaceful countries in Europe." - Again, no, because these systems involved precisely what Bryan argues is the problem. One group obtained domination over the others. We should expect that, naturally, given half a chance, the subjugated peoples would eventually resist this.

______________________________________

Totally agree that Mormons are really nice, so long as you stake out exceedingly clear ground that if they try to convert you to Mormonism then it is over on the spot. (I don't imagine this is relevant in the 3rd grade.) Moreover, their charitable acts internationally demonstrably have little faith bias (although no doubt they try to sneak in the odd religious book here and there, but fair enough ...).

Thanks for the great laugh about who scares you. Alas, too true.

I agree with all comments that some basic principles would have to be universally accepted, with obvious candidates including a commitment to democracy, a commitment to fairly important role for market powers, and a right to free press and freedom of conscience/religion (excluding the right to promote violence against any group).

_______________________________

Here's a thought experiment for why Bryan's idea would work well. Imagine placing ten relatively well educated men together in a warehouse, each of which with heavy weaponry, $500,000 in the middle of the room, no holds barred rules, and first explain to them a rock solid business plan to turn that 500k into $2 million inside the next few years. None of them have a particularly strong chance of surviving the shootout approach, so I think it's very likely that they would usually prefer to cooperate. Now reconsider the game, each time sequentially removing arms from ONE player, until in the last game considered, where only one man is heavily armed.

Here's the point. If you think you can win, you might try. But if odds are low for all parties and there are gains in cooperation, most healthy minds will choose to cooperate.

Richard writes:
Richard - The problem in Syria is precisely that one group dominated the political system. Eventually, this led to backlash. Bryan's idea is that things should be safe so long as no group thinks it can dominate the system. If you think you can win the war of domination, eventually you might try. But if you know you can't win, you probably won't try, and will accept power sharing.

So how do you ensure that "no group thinks it can dominate the system"? All it takes is one group to believe that, and then others would have to defend themselves. The more groups you have, the higher the odds that at least one will have aggression against other groups as part of their culture.

Also, domination isn't simply a matter of numbers, it's willingness to use violence in order to achieve your ends. That's why Islamist extremists are able to take power when there's anarachy. Not because they can convince a lot of people, but because they are the best at convincing enough individuals to die for their cause.

Justin D writes:

--"If you think you can win the war of domination, eventually you might try. But if you know you can't win, you probably won't try, and will accept power sharing."--

I think it will be very difficult to generate conditions in which all groups know they can't win. History is full of examples in which a relatively small and unassuming initial group manages to gather strength and overpower its opponents.

A merchant named Muhammad founded Islam in the year 610, and by the time of his death in 632 he had conquered most of the Arabian peninsula. Within 50 years of founding Islam most of the Middle East had fallen.

You can see the same mentality with Islamic State today. A few tens of thousands of militants are opposed not only by regional governments, but also have made enemies of both the United States and Russia, yet they still fight.

Most Russians during the Russian Civil War were not Bolsheviks.

A significant number - though likely not a majority - of American colonists were convinced they could defeat the British regulars and form their own nation, and they were a very small number indeed in the context of the entire British Empire.

Rome was once just a city, and the Mongols at one point were just a disparate group of nomadic tribes in central Asia.

Christopher Renner writes:
In the long-run, the best way to do this is to make every group a small minority - to split society into such small pieces that everyone abandons hope of running society and refocuses their energy on building beautiful Bubbles.

I agree in principle - to use another metro DC analogy, I worry much less about the possibility of intergroup violence in Fairfax County than in Prince George's County, despite the similar level of affluence in both places, for exactly the reason described above.

That said, there are 2 glaring weaknesses in citing the prospect of diluted group strength to support the case for open borders. First is this: immigrant groups of any size have never decided to evenly distributed themselves geographically in their new country; they've concentrated themselves in specific locations, often in enough numbers to become a new local majority.
Second is the risk that the migrant group becomes a national majority. Not likely in the US; extremely likely in the smaller countries of Europe currently facing an influx of "refugees".

Adam Casey writes:

As others have pointed out there's a flaw in the logic of Federalist 10. It predicts there could not be political parties in the USA, certainly not ones that command majority support.

The problem is that everyone looks at their society and rounds people off into a small number of clumps. So I'm from Cambridge when I talk to my friends from Oxford, England when I talk to my friends from the states, the Anglosphere when I talk to a German, the West when I talk to someone from Africa. The size of the cluster expands so that it keeps giving only a few clusters total.

Nick Rowe writes:

"Picture the group of humans that currently scares you the most."

OK. I would feel much safer if they were all living together on their own little island Alcatraz, than risk having one live next door to me.

Theodore Sternberg writes:

Representing less than 5% of Northwestern Europe, Muslims have already established veto power over what may appear in print.

chedolf writes:

I am autistic, which makes it hard to perceive (let alone enjoy) ordinary, healthy social bonds. Because I am blind to the harm caused by social atomization, I can recommend it as an unqualified good. Homogeneous nations like Denmark, Iceland, and Japan strike me as incipient tyrannies, even if I have to squint to see the danger.

John Fembup writes:

"Walk around the campus of George Mason University. Whatever group scares you the most is well-represented. But before long, you won't be scared. Every group is too small to run the show - and every group knows it. "

Every group? Even the faculty, Bryan?

Roger McKinney writes:

Interesting speculation, but it flies in the face of history. Religious and political freedom did not happen anywhere in the world because a nation was slit into many groups. Religious and political freedom as well as tolerance came from Christianity and no one else. See Inventing Individualism by Larry Seidentop.

Yes, Christianity abused its power for much of its existence. But it finally corrected that after the Reformation which included a rediscovery of the Hebrew Bible. See The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric NelsonFreedom and tolerance are still rare outside of countries that were mostly Christian in the 17th century

bomag writes:

As pointed out by others, the human ecosystem doesn't lend itself to diversity; it doesn't last. One group gains the upper hand and extinguishes the others.

The Bryan Caplan Cult of Radical Diversity scares me plenty.

Andy Hallman writes:

Bryan, I've had the same experience with Mormons.

Most of the Mormons I came to know were on their mission and hoping to convert me. They were friendly without being pushy. I got to know others who had just finished their mission and were not as interested in converting. For my job, I interviewed students from Brigham Young University who came to my town for a Swing and Latin dance show. All of them were salt of the Earth students, although we are talking about an unrepresentative sample here.

My guess is that Mormons are trying hard to put on a happy face since their religion is considered an oddity by many in society, but not quite so odd as to be disqualifying for the Republican presidential nomination.

You raise some interesting points about wider applications of this phenomenon, about whether all groups would behave like the Mormons if they were as small, and whether the Mormons would behave as poorly as other groups if they were bigger.

Along similar lines, I am interested in reading more blog posts about social solidarity, when it's good and when it's bad. I know you've stated that it's bad, but perhaps you could delve into why a bit more.

somercet writes:

Mr Caplan's diagnostic of majority behavior is not correct and never has been. The European immigrants in North America went from a tiny minority to an overwhelming majority without ever changing their behavior to the preceding native peoples.

Does Mr Caplan recommends this policy to the State of Israel?

Magus Janus writes:

I think before betting all of Western Civilization on this "open borders" policy we should test it out somewhere first for say 10 years and see the result. Let's take a small First World country close to third world countries and have them open their borders up completely.

Let's see... looking at a map of the world, Israel seems like a good testing ground. Let's force them via BDS to open their borders up completely; let all the Africans and arabs that want to move there move there to "diversify" and "enrich" them.

If it turns the land into a paradise, great! If however chaos, collapsing social trust, economic disarray, terrorism and civil war (and massacres) ensue, maybe we'll hold off on that with our own countries, if only until we get the bugs sorted out.

Surely Mr. Caplan, as a very empirical thinker, would support such a test no?

Denyin' Reality writes:

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Massimo writes:

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Adam Vigilante writes:

This article is pure wishful thinking. This is not how human beings behave in reality. Your world of rainbows and unicorns would rapidly become a hell.

fiona writes:

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Claremont writes:

Wahhabists, Christian Scientists, and bronies are minorities everywhere they reside. They still behave like the undesirables they are.

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