Bryan Caplan  

Cosmopolitans and False Consciousness

Incentives Matter for Politici... A Cheap Economist Buys Lunch...
Early this month, Ross Douthat derided the false consciousness of self-styled "cosmopolitans":

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one's own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright's line that "nothing human is alien to me," and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.

The people who consider themselves "cosmopolitan" in today's West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call "global citizens."

Question: Suppose you go outward into the world, ready to be transformed by what you find.  How should you decide which transformations to embrace?  Chance?  Quotas?  No.  The cosmopolitan with common sense takes the best mankind has to offer - the path of meritocracy without borders.  This approach inevitably "homogenizes" us: When everyone has the best of everything, there's a sense in which diversity vanishes - but only because mankind's cultural cornucopia is available to all mankind.  Douthat seems to criticize elites for embracing the only kind of cosmopolitanism that makes sense.

Do I misread him?  Here is what Douthat considers "genuine" cosmopolitanism:

It is still possible to disappear into someone else's culture, to leave the global-citizen bubble behind. But in my experience the people who do are exceptional or eccentric or natural outsiders to begin with -- like a young writer I knew who had traveled Africa and Asia more or less on foot for years, not for a book but just because, or the daughter of evangelical missionaries who grew up in South Asia and lived in Washington, D.C., as a way station before moving her own family to the Middle East...

In my own case -- to speak as an insider for a moment -- my cosmopolitanism probably peaked when I was about 11 years old, when I was simultaneously attending tongues-speaking Pentecostalist worship services, playing Little League in a working-class neighborhood, eating alongside aging hippies in macrobiotic restaurants on weekends, all the while attending a liberal Episcopalian parochial school. (It's a long story.)

This really does sound like cosmopolitanism by chance or quota - and a complete waste of time.  If you're searching for greatness, you should start in the centers of civilization and judiciously branch out, not aimlessly wander the Earth or spend five minutes a day speaking in tongues.

The punchline of Douthat's piece is that self-styled "cosmopolitans" are merely another tribe:

But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

But if "tribe" has any distinctive feature, it's that membership is not based on merit.  If he wanted to dismiss self-styled cosmopolitans as a mere tribe, he should have denied that their claim to merit is justified.

I agree with Douthat that global elites overrate themselves.  But their chief failing is that their devotion to global meritocracy is superficial: In their hearts, and in absolute terms, most "cosmopolitans" are nationalists.  They're like all those "international" socialists who backed their national governments in  World War I: Internationalists on the outside, jingoists on the inside.  Or to take a modern example, consider the audience at my Intelligence Squared Debate on "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere."  While initially keen to affirm the cosmopolitan position, many changed their minds when my opponents pointed out that "anyone" includes foreigners who will compete with the American working class, and "anywhere" includes the United States.  As Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute - a prime example of a Douthatian "global citizen" - stated in our debate: "I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favor."  An employer thinks a foreigner is the best person for the job?  Tough luck; this is our country.

The problem with modern cosmopolitanism is not that it's meritocracy in disguise.  Cosmopolitanism without meritocracy is pointless.  The problem is that elite commitment to meritocratic cosmopolitanism is a veneer.  They should reject nationalism and all its works and all its empty promises, but do not.  Cosmopolitanism has not failed.  It has barely been tried.

COMMENTS (11 to date)
JK Brown writes:

This post starting with the second paragraph quoted from Douthat put me to mind that these modern cosmopolitans are modern Roman citizens. The local aristocracy is granted citizenship along with others who merit it by knowledge or service. And all proclaim allegiance to Rome, but when push comes to shove, they'll back a local emperor should they see advantages for themselves as happened several times in Britannia.

And like the Roman citizens, they make deals with barbarians who like in Rome are likely to sack the city sooner rather than later.

Christopher Chang writes:

Bryan, you are welcome to "really try" cosmopolitanism in a place, probably with some similarities to Singapore or Dubai, where you're surrounded by people with similar preferences.

But as for existing major Western countries, it's pretty clear that what Larry Summers calls "responsible nationalism" is the best achievable norm, at least within the next several decades. Note that Canada and Australia already take this norm for granted... and both countries are conspicuously *not* suffering from serious populist revolts, despite relatively high immigration levels. If it's meritocracy that you care about, and/or actually improving as many lives as possible, I advise that you get behind Summers's message for the US and Europe.

(Do Apple, Google or Facebook hire everyone who applies? Or do they instead try to maximize utility for already-existing stakeholders, rejecting a supermajority of applicants in the process? In doing the latter, do they end up providing more, or fewer, worthwhile long-term opportunities to engineers than if they hired everyone?)

Mercer writes:

" Cosmopolitanism has not failed. It has barely been tried. "

The EU has certainly tried.

"This approach inevitably "homogenizes" us: When everyone has the best of everything, there's a sense in which diversity vanishes"

How is that Utopian dream working in the EU?

Miguel Madeira writes:

"The EU has certainly tried."

It did? Every country in EU seems to care almost only about his "national interest" - the EU only works when the "national interests" of the member countries (or at least the main members) are aligned.


Sir Humphrey: Oh Minister, let's look at this objectively. It is a game played for national interests, and always was. Why do you suppose we went into it?
Hacker: To strengthen the brotherhood of free Western nations.
Sir Humphrey: Oh really. We went in to screw the French by splitting them off from the Germans.
Hacker: So why did the French go into it, then?
Sir Humphrey: Well, to protect their inefficient farmers from commercial competition.
Hacker: That certainly doesn't apply to the Germans.
Sir Humphrey: No, no. They went in to cleanse themselves of genocide and apply for readmission to the human race.

Vitor writes:

This is an excellent response to an excellent piece, and you're obviously right about the fundamental fact that utilitarianism and nationalism are not compatible. However, the whole thing about nation-states is that they're not supposed to be strictly utilitarian -- people expect their governments to use at least a very high multiplier to the well-being of their citizens compared to that of foreigners. Given that reality, even from a utilitarian perspective (like mine and yours), it's far from clear that any single government should unilaterally depart from that behaviour and start being utilitarian.

RPLong writes:

I liked Douthat's piece. I think Caplan might be missing a good point in a bid to make a different and also valuable point.

According to my dictionary, a "cosmopolitan" is one who is "free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments; at home all over the world."

This tells us nothing about "searching for greatness." In some cases, cosmopolitanism will get you closer to greatness, and in some cases it won't. I'd argue that one who wishes to always be surrounded by greatness is not particularly cosmopolitan. Sometimes normal, humble, modest, simple, etc. is quite good enough for me. Not always, but certainly often.

The search for greatness is not directly related to cosmopolitanism at all, aside from the very trivial belief that you have to keep your mind open to learning if you wish to learn. But cosmopolitanism is not really about learning, it's about getting along.

Roger Sweeny writes:

But if "tribe" has any distinctive feature, it's that membership is not based on merit.

I disagree. I think that the distinctive feature of a tribe is the inside/outside distinction and the idea that the members, in some way, matter more or are better than the non-members.

Scott Alexander had a nice post (with a Hansonian title) a few months ago:

Aodhan writes:

"Let anyone take a job anywhere"

"About 1m migrants arrived in Germany last year, about a third of them refugees from Syria. Angela Merkel’s government has made it a priority to integrate them into the German labour market as quickly as possible.

But despite the large number of vacancies in the German jobs market — 665,000 in June — it has proven harder than expected to recruit the refugees into the workforce.

A survey by the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper of the top 30 German companies found that they had together employed just 54 refugees. Fifty of them were hired by one company, Deutsche Post."

Is this Bryan's idea of "libertarianism"? Importing one million welfare clients at the taxpayer's expense? HOW is this libertarianism?! Bryan's worldview becomes harder and harder to understand.

Taeyoung writes:

"This approach inevitably "homogenizes" us: When everyone has the best of everything, there's a sense in which diversity vanishes - but only because mankind's cultural cornucopia is available to all mankind."

It would only homogenize if you think that there is a single scale for "best" that applies to all people in all places at all times. That's utter nonsense. There's certainly a commonality to what people value -- people mostly like safe streets and filling meals -- but there's a lot of room for "diversity" in that. Some people place a higher value on public safety than you do. Others place a lower value on it. Some people like low density living. Others like high density living. And because man is a social animal, the kinds of things people value generally aren't confined to private consumption, except among the pathologically anti-social -- they're about the tone of shared or public spaces, the patterns of social interaction, or religion and faith.

Homogenisation deprives people of the opportunity to create spaces for different ways of living.

Hazel Meade writes:

I also noted that Douthat article last month and found it quite interesting.

I agree with Douthat that the "cosmopolitain" elites of today aren't really cosmopolitain. But I would add two caveats to that.

1. True cosmopolitainism doesn't just involve international cross-cultural mingling, but cross-CLASS mingling. The international elites don't spend time with or understand lower class people, in any country. They understand middle-class professional elites in Japan or Germany better than they understand lower class people who live just a few miles away.

2. True cosmopolitiainism doesn't involve uncritical acceptance either. One travels through different cultures to understand them, so as to decide better what is truly right and wrong, to understand humanity better, and how humanity should interact with one another. What sort of relations people should have with eachother and how we can live together in peace. In some cases, that may mean living among and understanding another culture or class so as to spread different values and ideas.

For instance, if one wants to influence lower class people to support candidates other than Donald Trump, one might have to live among the vulgar unwashed white working class, get an empathetic understanding of what drives them, try to understand where they might have legitimate grievances, and present an alternative political program that they will be receptive to.

Someone who is really cosmopolitain would have that kind of cross-cultural understanding that enables them to speak to people at all levels and influence people across different cultures and classes. Which I imagine is the original goal of being cosmopolitiain. When did it become about signaling membership in a meritocracy?

Weir writes:

In real life what happens is you go outward into the world, ready to transform what you find.

You are the bearer of the great cultural cornucopia. You are the future. You're a graduate of Oxford, Yale, the Sorbonne. You're going to transform the entire world into a safe space for yourself.

You're a young, idealistic imperialist, but you don't call yourself that. Self-congratulation and analysis are the same thing to you now, because your tribe doesn't use logic or evidence to explain what it does. Everyone you went to school with agrees on the one true way in all things, so your ability to make arguments atrophied from disuse.

Maybe you get a job with the World Bank destroying crops in Tanzania, showing peasant farmers the one true way to grow grain. Maybe you help the mayor of New York ban the Big Gulp from 7-Eleven, because the correct way to drink that much sugar is in a frappuccino instead.

Maybe you go to Australia two hundred years ago, trying to transform foragers into farmers, using the most advanced techniques and technologies that modern Britain invents. You're an imperialist in your mid-20s, and you want the whole world to embrace what you learned in a classroom at the age of 19. This is what Douthat was talking about.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top