Bryan Caplan  

What I Didn't Get to Say to Mike Gonzalez

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At the Social Contract Writers Workshop, Mike Gonzalez from the Heritage Foundation spoke on the value of immigrant assimilation and the evils of multiculturalism.  While I didn't strongly disagree with anything he said, I still have two unspoken thoughts to get off my chest.

1. Gonzalez distinguished between banal multiculturalism - "Show respect" and "Try a wide variety of cuisines" - and noxious multiculturalism - "Obsess about your ethnic identity."  But he overlooked what I call meritocratic multiculturalism.  Its essence: dispassionately compare and contrast the cultures of the world, then embrace the best of each, topic-by-topic.  Perhaps the Chinese have the best work ethic; if so, mankind should give credit where credit is due and embrace the Chinese work ethic.  Maybe Americans have the best entrepreneurial spirit; if so, mankind should give credit where credit is due and embrace the American entrepreneurial spirit.  Maybe Native Americans are correct to damn Columbus as a monster; if so, mankind should give credit where credit is due and damn Columbus, too.

The alternative to obsessing over divisive ethnic identities should not be obsessing over unifying American identity.  American culture is an impressive achievement.  It's plausibly the greatest culture ever.  The fact that immigrants want to come here strongly suggests they have more to learn from us than we have to learn from them.  But American culture can still massively improve - and immigrants can help improve it.  Above all, Americans should never forget that, like all humans, we're prone to myside bias - ignoring and forgiving our side's shortcomings.  That's got to stop.

2. Gonzalez laments the teaching of noxious multiculturalism in American schools.  While I'm sympathetic, the issue is largely symbolic.  Teaching students about identity - national or ethnic - uses only a sliver of classtime.  Top students may take these brief lessons to heart.  But most of their peers are barely paying attention, and quickly forget whatever their teachers tell them.  Fortunately, most kids eventually get jobs where they learn meritocratic multiculturalism by doing. 

Example: No matter how much teachers urge the children of immigrants to treasure their cultural heritage, they'll still master English.  Why?  Because the jobs they want - and the popular culture they enjoy - require fluent English.  More tellingly, there's no sign that multicultural propaganda has motivated second-generation immigrants to attain fluency in their parents' native tongue.  Why?  Because the jobs they want - and the popular culture they enjoy - don't require fluency in their parents' native tongue. 

My point: Civics lessons, good or bad, are a frail government program.  If we had to rely on them for assimilation, we'd be in deep trouble.  Fortunately, pervasive market forces quietly and efficiently handle the job.  Mike worries too much.




COMMENTS (19 to date)
Pajser writes:

I guess the most important aspect of the culture is - morality. Which culture is the most moral? I think these are the Northern European, particularly Scandinavian cultures: they are very egalitarian and their total foreign aid is greatest in the world. So, they seem to be less selfish, more empathetic than others. (Cubans can be even better, at least according to these two criteria, but it is not democracy, so it is not necessarily the characteristics of the culture.)

American culture is less egalitarian than Europe, and it has few other bad aspects. The most obviously, endemic racism: the culture that was the last or almost the last in the world to reject racism cannot be particularly good one.

It shouldn't be forgotten that all or almost all genocides are the result of the failed attempt of different cultures to live together. It does not follow that multiculturalism (coexistence in single political unit) is bad or "too risky" but it follows that it is risky and it shouldn't be downplayed.

ThomasH writes:

Perfect! I agree with it all.

I'd add one more thing. The the people who most opposes immigration often by their very attitudes makes assimilation (or meritocratic multiculturalism, two-way assimilation) less attractive to immigrants.

@Pajser

I am a Swede who has lived in the US for the last 25 years and let me assure you that much of what Americans believe about Scandinavians is very wrong. It is true that the Scandinavian countries tend to have high taxes on the middle class and a generous welfare system, but contrary to the fantasies of some, like Sen. Sanders, Denmark is not an utopia he'd like. In fact, despite the taxes and welfare, today Denmark is rated as more capitalist than the US by both the Cato and Heritage indices.

Another case in point, Swedes are not "more empathetic" To the contrary, Scandinavians are probably the most INTJ people on earth and not given to great empathy or feelings in general. Their generous foreign aid is far more a reflection of the remnant, still strong even in atheist Swedes, of the traditional austere protestant duty to do good so as to please the non-longer-believed-in God. Particularly strong feelings for others has nothing to do with it.

RPLong writes:
It shouldn't be forgotten that all or almost all genocides are the result of the failed attempt of different cultures to live together.

I think this claim is deeply, deeply wrong. The nazis for example did not try, but fail, to coexist with Jews.

It shouldn't be forgotten that genocide is murder. To suggest that genocide is a failed attempt at coexistence is akin to suggesting that every murder is just a botched friendship. In no way does such a claim ring true, not even a little bit.

anon writes:

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Miguel Madeira writes:

Pajser:

"Which culture is the most moral? I think these are the Northern European, particularly Scandinavian cultures" (...)

"American culture is less egalitarian than Europe, and it has few other bad aspects. The most obviously, endemic racism"

Progress Party of Norway, Sweden Democrats, Danish People's Party, True Finns: all parties, if not racist, at least xenophobic; all parties with 2 digits electoral results and almost all parties that are in government or at least support it in parliament (the exception is Sweden).

Emily writes:

If the pattern for immigration was "immigrants come to the United States and assimilate to our best traits while Americans learn from the best traits of immigrants", that would be great. And I'm not going to say that never happens, but it's certainly not the only model of interaction.

Hazel Meade writes:

The thing is that, from the opposite perspective, the reason for obsessing about one's ethnic identity is not because it is supposed to be superior, but because having a 'distinct' culture is supposed to have intrinsic value. People who support multicultralism often do so because they believe that there is intrinsic value in cultural diversity regardless of any 'merit', measured in terms of economic utility.

Jon writes:
I think this claim is deeply, deeply wrong. The nazis for example did not try, but fail, to coexist with Jews.

The rise of the Nazis was the failure, the two cultures that tried to coexist were the Germans and the Jews. At least that is how I interpreted what he wrote.

Pajser writes:

RPLong - I see where are you going. It is true that Nazis didn't attempted coexistence with Jews. But Germans and Jews did - starting from the first Jews who colonized German territories up to 1933. Their decision was risky and the time has shown it was not wise. Jews would be better off if Germans prior to 1933 didn't allowed immigration.

We can imagine interesting hypothetical situation. 1933. in Germany, the elections are close, but some Spanish Jewish families still want to immigrate. Immigration officer is well informed libertarian. He believes that Nazis will win the elections and kill those people. Why they want to immigrate in despite of Nazi threat? Officer doesn't know that. What should he do?

RPLong writes:

Pajser, I don't think you do see where I'm going. The nazis were not content to simply exterminate Jews from their local borders. Instead, they launched military attacks against any nation they believed to have a false claim on the German-speaking people within those foreign borders. Having occupied those countries, the nazis then began exterminating the Jews in those territories, too.

The nazis' goal was an ethnocentric unification of all German-speaking people (and, perhaps, world domination of the German people by any means possible, including eugenics). It was the nazis, not the Jews, who were crossing borders in order to achieve their aims.

Now, you could argue that the nazis were "liberators" of German peoples who were "trapped" in Poland, Austria, etc. - but in doing so, you would be making an argument in favor of naziism. That would be very uncomfortable.

But to suggest that the extermination of non-Germans under nazi rule was the inevitable outcome of non-Germans having migrated into Germany is to turn the entire history of World War II on its head.

I just don't see how you can't hold to that kind of belief.

Pajser writes:

RPLong - "But to suggest that the extermination of non-Germans under nazi rule was the inevitable outcome of non-Germans having migrated into Germany ..."

I did not say or suggest that German decision to allow immigration inevitably caused genocide. I said that it increased the risk of genocide. You can see that I repeatedly use the word "risk."

Jon writes:
but in doing so, you would be making an argument in favor of naziism.
No one has even suggested such an argument
That would be very uncomfortable.
This seems to be your point in bringing up Nazis in the first place, trying to force people who disagree with you into an 'uncomfortable' position of your creation.
But to suggest that the extermination of non-Germans under nazi rule was the inevitable outcome of non-Germans having migrated into Germany
Nazis were not an inevitable result, but if there had been no Jewish immigration, there would have been no holocaust.
RPLong writes:

Pajser, I think you still might be glossing over the fact that is crucial to my point: The holocaust was waged against Jews who never set foot in Germany. So this must mean that your point is that if some of Group X moves into a country dominated by Group Y, that "increases the risk" that Group Y will attack Group X in some other country. This claim might just be impossible to substantiate, but I'm willing to give you another try to see if you can add more evidence or rationale in favor of it.

Jon, see above. Nazis exterminated non-German Jews outside of Germany. This is not an insignificant number of holocaust victims. How in the world can the claim be made that Jews wouldn't have been exterminated if they had just stayed put in Austria or Hungary or Poland or France? Do you have some sort of evidence substantiating this?

jon writes:
How in the world can the claim be made that Jews wouldn't have been exterminated if they had just stayed put in Austria or Hungary or Poland or France? Do you have some sort of evidence substantiating this?

Answer this: Where did the anti-Semitism in Germany come from? Was it just organic, or was it due to proximity?

RPLong writes:

Jon, definitely not proximity. The literature is unambiguous here. Mere exposure to foreign people reduces xenophobia. See, for example, this study:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2705986/

jon writes:

@RPLong:

How is that study even responsive to what we are talking about? And the Holocaust happened despite Germans being exposed to Jewish faces on a daily basis, so the 'mere exposure' theory may not be the whole story when it comes to genocide.

If there were no Jews in Germany, is it honestly your position that the Holocaust still happens?

RPLong writes:

Jon, you asked whether the holocaust was "organic," or "due to proximity." I don't know what you mean by "organic," but there have been lots of studies on the effect of proximity on race relations, of which I cited one example, and the majority conclude that proximity is good for race relations. So that is why my comment was "responsive to what we are talking about."

Your claim, and Pajser's claim, is that Jewish migration caused the holocaust. My counter-claim is that many - possibly most - of the Jews killed during the holocaust were citizens of countries that were not Germany. That looks like strong evidence to support the notion that something other than immigration caused the holocaust.

My belief is that naziism caused the holocaust. You could argue that naziism was caused by immigration, but then what about all the other things that also caused naziism? Were they caused by immigration, too? Was all of World War II caused by immigration?

jon writes:
  • Jon, you asked whether the holocaust was "organic," or "due to proximity." I don't know what you mean by "organic"
By "organic" I meant something that is inherent, as opposed to arising from something external like "proximity" to other people. You seem to be arguing that antisemitism in Germany always existed, or just arose spontaneously, and is unrelated to the fact that the Germans and Jews had been living near one another for years.


  • there have been lots of studies on the effect of proximity on race relations, of which I cited one example, and the majority conclude that proximity is good for race relations.
The specific study you pointed to involved showing a person pictures of faces of different races, and then having them rate other pictures of faces of different races. I don't find that particularly relevant to how people are going to interact in real life with real people of other races. For an alternate view, you should look at the work of Robert Putnam showing some of the negative impacts of diversity on social interaction and social trust.


  • Your claim, and Pajser's claim, is that Jewish migration caused the holocaust. My counter-claim is that many - possibly most - of the Jews killed during the holocaust were citizens of countries that were not Germany. That looks like strong evidence to support the notion that something other than immigration caused the holocaust.
If no Jews had lived in Germany during Hitler's lifetime, would he have become so toxicly antisemitic? Even if he had become antisemitic, would the Germans have rallied around him if they had no personal experience with Jews?
Or to put it another way, where do you think you will find more anti-Maori sentiment, in New Zealand or in Taiwan?
And the fact that Jews outside of Germany were also killed doesn't really seem to prove much at all. Because without the original interaction, there never would have been sufficient levels of antisemitism to inflame.


  • My belief is that naziism caused the holocaust. You could argue that naziism was caused by immigration, but then what about all the other things that also caused naziism?
Whole treatises have been written about the rise of the Nazis, and I make no claim that immigration was a significant cause. I only argue that, absent immigration, you would not have had the holocaust. As Pajser stated at the beginning, genocide in this case was a failure of two different groups to live among each other.

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