Bryan Caplan  

What I Fail to Realize

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My First Seven Jobs... Words have fuzzy meanings--tha...
I'm a fallible human being, so when people say, "Bryan, what you fail to realize is..." I listen closely.  Precisely what do I fail to realize?  I'd really like to know.

Most of the time, though, I'm sadly disappointed.  The things I allegedly "fail to realize" tend to be smack dab in the middle of my class notes and publications.  Latest example: Many critics of my cosmopolitan and open borders stance have faulted me for "failing to realize" that normal human beings value their group identities.

The reality is that I've been vocally affirming the political importance of group identity for over a decade.  Check out my undergraduate and graduate course notes on voter motivation, this article, my posts on the Respect Motive, or my effusive praise for the expressive voting model.  My punchline of American partisanship, for example, is that the data shows:
1. Strong evidence for group-interested voting, with race being the main group of interest.
2. Self-interest plays a marginal role at most.
I even give my graduate Public Choice students this essay assignment:
Consider another country and/or historical era with which you are familiar. Write a case study of its politics that weighs the explanatory power of the SIVH [Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis], group-interest, and ideology.
How can I grasp the massive political effects of group identity, but remain a cosmopolitan and open borders advocate?  Simple.

First, I think the effects of group identity are not only massive, but massively unjust.  There's nothing wrong with eating traditional food or wearing a celebratory hat.  But humans' love of our own group is a fundamental cause of unjust treatment of outgroups.  Love of family has the same risk, but since the evils of nepotism are widely acknowledged, the downside is minor.  Love of broader group, in contrast, runs amok.  As I explained a while back:
Despite its mighty evolutionary basis, almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that "It would help my son" is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone's arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that "It would help my son" is not a good reason for even petty offenses - like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son's a contestant.

Nationalism, in contrast, is widely seen as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.  Do you plan to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign civilians?  Just say, "It will save American [German/Japanese/Russian/whatever] lives" - and other members of your tribe will nod their heads.  Do you want to deprive millions of foreigners of the basic human rights to sell their labor to willing buyers, rent apartments from willing landlords, and buy groceries from willing merchants?  Just say, "It's necessary to protect American jobs" in a self-righteous tone, then bask in the admiration of your fellow citizens.
Second, justice aside, group identity has bad effects on those who seriously embrace it.  A life well-lived revolves around the appreciation and pursuit of merit.  Intense group identity undermines both.  People who cherish their group identities have trouble assessing merit objectively; they naturally overrate their own group, and underrate outsiders.  And the more obsessed you are with your group's merit, the less you focus on the merit that really counts: your own. 

Third, despite its massive political effects, commitment to group identity is shallow.  While it governs people's political behavior, only a small minority are willing to pay a high personal cost for identity.  As I've explained before, identity is all about lip service:
How can I say that?  By noting the stark contrast between how much people say they care about community, and how lackadaisically they try to fulfill their announced desire.  I've long been shocked by the fraction of people who call themselves "religious" who can't even bother to attend a weekly ceremony or speak a daily prayer.  But religious devotion is fervent compared to secular communitarian devotion.  How many self-styled communitarians have the energy to attend a weekly patriotic or ethnic meeting?  To spend a few hours a week watching patriotic or ethnically-themed television and movies?  To utter a daily toast to their nation or people?  Indeed, only a tiny percentage of people who claim to love community find the time for communitarian slacktivism.

You could argue that coordination costs explain the curious shortage of intentional communities.  But nothing stops secular communitarians from matching the time commitment of suburban Catholics.  Well, nothing but their own apathy. 

The lesson: While individualists do tend to neglect mankind's craving for community, they err on the side of truth.  Actions really do speak louder than words.  And actions reveal that people are far less communitarian than they claim.
Contrary to my critics, then, I'm well-aware that group identity is a mighty force in the world.  What my critics fail to realize, though, is that group identity is only a mighty force because politics distills lamentable but largely inert human emotions into political poison.




COMMENTS (15 to date)
Jeff L writes:

What about the risk of turning a high trust society into a low trust one?

That seems to be a more significant reason to prefer some form of controlled immigration.

Paul writes:

Yes Bryan, the Icelanders' love of Iceland and their own kind is just really, when you think about it, incipient Nazism which the importation of a few million Muslims will rid them of. Truly, you "fail to realize" nearly everything important about 21st century mass immigration and live up amazingly well to the caricature of the GDP maximizing automaton economist.

Dangerman writes:

This reads more like explanation than rebuttal.

Thomas writes:

It's Bryan's usual conflation of "is" and "ought," filled with straw. He ignores the many good things about social bonding of persons who share a language, customs, and religion. What are the good things? One is true charity, instead of the faux charity of government transfer-payment programs(which becomes middle-class welfare). Another is the enforcement of civilizing norms (e.g., the Ten Commandments) through inculcation and social reinforcement. There's more, of course, but those are two big benefits of in-group bonding. Bryan, instead of looking at such benefits, turns his eyes to hypocrisy, of which there's plenty to be found -- and not just among the true practitioners of in-group bonding (e.g., Amish, Orthodox Jews). A true cosmopolitan, for example, wouldn't just be preaching it; he would be living it somewhere away from the halls of ivy. It's somewhat amusing that Bryan feels free to spout his cosmopolitan pacifism from the cozy confines of George Mason University, where he's relatively safe from people who would do him harm for his (presumed) ethnicity. But no amount of preaching the virtues of cosmopolitan pacifism will erase the fact that there are a lot of people out there who would do harm to Bryan. Yes, they "ought" not to be that way, but they are -- and they wont' change. That's the elephant in the room that Bryan can't see because his vision is clouded by dreams of an impossible world.

LD Bottorff writes:

A life well-lived revolves around the appreciation and pursuit of merit. Intense group identity undermines both.

Wise words.

...despite its massive political effects, commitment to group identity is shallow. While it governs people's political behavior, only a small minority are willing to pay a high personal cost for identity.

I'm not sure what you mean by small minority. Appalachia is full of people willing to make that sacrifice. There are large portions of American minority groups who pay a high personal cost for identity. That cost is frequently poverty within a wealthy society.

WJ writes:

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Steven writes:

The idea that people are not willing to sacrifice to live in a homogeneous community is ridiculous. The only reason why the completely inefficient phenomenon of suburbs exist in the US is because the US federal government flooded the large urban centers' White ethnic communities with blacks and (later) Hispanics during and after WWII.

Why do people choose to commute 90 minutes both ways into work? Is it because of lower property values? Taxes? Maybe zoning laws are increasing the rents by 18% - is that it? How about state control over road planning? That has to be it - that's how the government decides where to build roads afterall; they just build roads to nowhere in particular and people individually spend billions of dollars to move to the end of them.

White Americans have to dance around the topic by using phrases like "good schools" and "high property taxes", but any real estate broker knows what they're really asking. White people aren't comfortable living in a multicultural ghetto no matter how much they're browbeat by media, academia, and state apparatchiks into accepting it.

Nobody is comfortable in that type of environment, so why is it being created? Cui bono? It must be in some group's interest to create these international multicultural ghettos - some group with a dual morality. Who could it be?

DM writes:

Bryan, please, for once in your life be honest with us! You grasp the massive political effects of group identity, but remain a cosmopolitan and open borders advocate because you see it as being in the interest of the group with which you identify.

Christopher Chang writes:

Paul, that's far too charitable to Bryan.

Little more than a glance at the economic history of the past four decades is enough to see that the biggest story is the rise of the Asian gigacountries, along with "tigers" of various sizes. To the extent immigration played a role, it was of the selective type that e.g. Canada and Australia allow.

Now, there's nothing wrong with the citizens of a country voluntarily agreeing on a more generous immigration policy, like the Swedes did for many years. But as an obligation? It's obviously not necessary for the best results re: foreign poverty reduction, and it's not sufficient either (scaling for population size, immigration from Mexico to the US greatly exceeded immigration from China to the entire world, and has resulted in far more citizen resentment, yet the welfare of the Mexican people did not improve as much as that of the Chinese). A "GDP maximizing automaton economist" would instead be singing Larry Summers's tune, calling for "responsible nationalism" to keep the golden goose alive.

(For the record, I agree with Larry Summers here and will be voting for the presidential candidate who best reflects this notion. The trajectory of Canada in particular makes me optimistic that, as soon as "responsible nationalism" is the American and global governance norm (again), life will be good.)

The only exceptional characteristics of Bryan's preferred immigration policy are its disruptiveness and its unpopularity. Given that Bryan also has shown zero interest in joining a group of like-minded people in a place like Dubai or Singapore, and his repeated attempts to get the government to seriously consider implementing his ideas *without* the consent of the citizenry, the only plausible explanation is that Bryan really, really wants to negatively disrupt the lives of ordinary Americans. The positive results he talks about like "double world GDP" can and have been achieved far more efficiently via different policy blends, and better economists like Summers acknowledge this.

In the unlikely case that Bryan has made a horrible but honest mistake, an apology and response to at least the following paragraph from Larry Summers is overdue:

The mainstream approach to these questions generally starts with some combination of rational argument and inflated rhetoric about the economic consequences of international integration. Studies are produced about the jobs created by trade agreements, the benefits of immigration and the costs of restrictions on trade. In most cases, certainly including the cases for TPP and against Brexit, the overall economic merits are clear. But in this advocacy there is a kind of Gresham’s Law (the economic principle that bad money drives out good) whereby bolder claims drive out more prudent ones, causing estimates to often be exaggerated and delivered with far more confidence than is warranted. Over time, this has caught up with the advocates of integration.
Daniel L. Taylor writes:

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Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Not all things can be settled by words and arguments alone.

The fundamental matter of which tribe gets to occupy a particular piece of land, this matter can only be settled by force, ultimately.

This is true for all current nations, without exception. All nations occupy their territories by force.

It needs to be pointed out that the institution of private property within a tribe rests on the prior occupation of the tribal territory.

The tribe secures its land by force and this land is divided into the tribal members through rule-bound private property.

AS writes:

Bryan, what about when merit is strongly correlated with group identity? For example, if you met a fellow Princeton alumnus, you would probably be favorably prejudiced in their favor because you associate your own alma meter with high merit. For this exact reason, HR departments typically recruit heavily from universities their employees are alumni. It's an efficient shortcut to identify top merit when you need to shrink a pool of potentially millions of candidates down to a few dozen. Firms that leverage group identity to identify merit gain a competitive edge.

maggie O writes:

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Adam writes:

So, why would you support open borders (for North America and Europe) then? Why would you want to bring millions of people from the Middle East, who have the most violent and intolerant group identity on the planet, here? It's already created dozens of problems.

Vivien S writes:

"I've long been shocked by the fraction of people who call themselves "religious" who can't even bother to attend a weekly ceremony or speak a daily prayer." Bryan - I think you are missing something very important here. I am more shocked by people who claim to be Christians who forget the underlying philosophy of Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself - love one another, and who talk about immigrants who apparently do not/will not integrate into our society. Often heard comment is "Well, if they don't like it here , they can go back where they came from". And these advocates are Christians?

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