“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
— Barack Obama on Trayvon Martin
It generally is taken as a given that the United States must become more Hispanic and less Anglo as a matter of demographic inevitability, but that assumption rests largely on the continuation of current patterns of immigration, which itself is predicated on ignoring the question: Does greater diversity serve the greater good? Glenn Loury once observed that the essence of conservatism is the belief that “human nature has no history.” Even as we hope to live up to the best of our natures rather than down to the worst of them, the evidence counsels a measure of pessimism on the subject — and not only for Republicans concerned that the demographic deck is stacked against them in the long term. Progressives who dream of a Nordic-style welfare state will find themselves challenged by the costs of greater diversity, as will those of us who hope, perhaps naïvely, for a politics and a culture that is more humane and individualistic, and less regimented along racial lines. We’ve been told that diversity is our strength, but the unhappy truth may be something closer to the opposite.
Since the time of Charles Darwin, evolution theorists have puzzled over the question of altruism. The remorseless logic of evolutionary selection suggests that individuals should be very selfish, but, in fact, they often are not. Vampire bats share food, primates groom one another, birds put themselves at risk by issuing warning calls when a predator is detected, and so on. In theory, evolution should weed out behavior that puts an individual at a relative reproductive disadvantage, however slight. Darwin himself, considering the question of sterile insect castes (e.g., the worker ants, which never reproduce but serve the colony queen, which does), thought that it was potentially “fatal” to his theory. He settled on the idea that the solution to his dilemma probably was in family relationships, and evolution theorists of subsequent generations developed that into the theory of “kin selection,” an evolutionary strategy by which we pass on our genes both by reproducing and by supporting our relatives — those who share genes with us — an example of what is known as “inclusive fitness.”
The human brain is a shrewd investor: We may be inclined to share and to cooperate, but we are much more inclined to share and to cooperate with those who are closely related to us, and with those who reciprocate. The evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have demonstrated that the brain contains a specific mechanism, probably in the limbic system, to detect cheaters — people who derive benefits from social exchange without satisfying social requirements. Human beings are not especially good at detecting rule violations — but in the context of social exchange, we are remarkably good at it, a fact that holds true for people of different backgrounds and in different cultures.
Reciprocity is intensified by relatedness. You don’t treat your old friend from high school the way you treat your children, and you probably wouldn’t be as apt to donate a kidney to a stranger as to a brother. As with cheating, the human brain is good at judging relatedness, through facial cues and, very probably, through other mechanisms as well. (Wasps detect relatives via pheromones; so might we.) We tend to have more faith in people who look like us, as Lisa M. DeBruine of McMaster University put it in the title of her 2002 paper “Facial resemblance enhances trust.” (But it doesn’t necessarily make us more trustworthy: “Resemblance to the subject’s own face raised the incidence of trusting a partner,” DeBruine writes, “but had no effect on the incidence of selfish betrayals of the partner’s trust.” We’re kind of an awful species.)
We are more inclined to share and to cooperate with people to whom we are related, and we are most likely to trust faces that look like our own. When President Obama noted that if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon Martin, he was giving voice to a natural inclination, perhaps a more powerful one than he understands. (Nearly 200 Latino men have been murdered in Los Angeles County in the past twelve months, but they don’t look like President Obama.) I’ve always had some contempt for the idea that Mae Jemison wouldn’t be an astronaut if she hadn’t seen Nichelle Nichols playing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, but perhaps I am understating the power of identification. Jamelle Bouie points to a disturbing study in which white subjects were more likely to support harsh criminal-justice measures when they were given the impression that prison populations are even more disproportionately black than they actually are.
How wide we draw the circle of kinship and how we think about its boundaries are cultural issues, true, but our habit of scrutinizing and categorizing, and of adapting our behavior accordingly, is as much a natural part of us as our blood and bones.
The obvious and unfortunate flip side of this is that we are less inclined to trust and share with people who are less like us. This has been a well-established fact in social-science literature for a long time: Ethno-linguistic diversity imposes costs on societies by reducing trust and undermining social cooperation. It isn’t a linear relationship, because diversity has real value, too. There are very happy homogeneous societies and miserable homogeneous societies; there are rich diverse countries and poor diverse countries. Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor, economists at Williams and Brown, respectively, have argued that there is in effect a point of diminishing return for diversity, finding that excessive homogeneity has held back the economic performance of Native American populations but excessive diversity has hobbled development in Africa. Their position is a controversial one, but research from around the world has produced similar results: Peter Thisted Dinesen and Kim Mannemar Sønderskov surveyed Danish municipalities from 1979 to the present and found that increasing diversity was correlated with diminished social trust. The effect seems to be general, at least at some level.
In their fascinating paper on the subject (“Ethnic Diversity and Economic Performance,” Journal of Economic Literature, September 2005) Harvard’s Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara of Bocconi University lay out the challenges: “The potential benefits of heterogeneity come from variety in production. The costs come from the inability to agree on common public goods and public policies.”
In the context of American politics, that inability to agree is striking. The two major political tendencies are racially polarized, though in different ways: The Republican party is overwhelmingly white, and non-white voters are overwhelmingly Democratic. Mitt Romney did nearly as well among whites — winning their vote by 20 points — in an election he lost as Ronald Reagan did winning 49 states. The trend is even more pronounced in areas in which white voters are closer to numerical minority status. Marisa Abrajano of the University of California at San Diego argues that white voting habits change dramatically in response to immigration, finding specifically that “neighborhoods that have been ‘encroached’ by immigrants in any way become less likely to endorse public spending [on] disadvantaged sectors of the population,” and that white voters have become relatively hostile to welfare and education spending in states where there are larger immigrant populations.
The northern-European welfare states that many American progressives embrace as their ideal were, until very recently, very homogeneous places. Norway, for much of its modern history, had a small minority population of Sami in the north, a few immigrants from neighboring countries, and approximately a thimbleful of immigrants from elsewhere. It was historically not a liberal society on the subject of immigration and integration: Its policy toward the Sami was fornorskning, or Norwegianization, and its 1814 constitution banned Jews from entering the country (a provision revived after the events of 1942). But enjoying an economic boom and fearing a population decline that would undermine its social-welfare model, Norway, beginning in the 1960s, permitted an influx of job-seeking immigrants from Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, and Yugoslavia. The result of that experiment was a general ban on economic immigration enacted in 1975, with an exception for a few coming from other Nordic countries. Norway’s experience with the cohort from the 1960s and ’70s has been problematic: Their employment rate has dropped from 95 percent to less than 40 percent, their dependency on welfare has increased. Subsequent non-Nordic immigrants, partly the result of chain migration from the first cohort, are less likely to work, earn much less money if they do, and are more heavily dependent on welfare than their native-born counterparts. Trust in Norwegian political institutions is, no surprise, on the decline.
The resulting resentment makes problems worse. Tino Sanandaji, the Kurdish-born, Chicago-trained economist who serves as a fellow at Stockholm’s free-market Research Institute of Industrial Economics (and who of course is a National Review contributor) finds that immigrants in Sweden are eager to work but unable to find jobs. “International comparisons have shown that no other OECD country performs worse than Sweden in terms of integrating immigrants in the labor market,” he writes. “The unemployment rate is 18 percent among immigrants, compared to 7 percent among the native born. The explanation is hardly that immigrants enjoy being unemployed. Studies show that unemployed immigrants in Sweden search far more intensely for work than unemployed Swedes, but often have their job applications ignored. Due to low employment rates, 57 percent of welfare payments in Sweden in 2012 went to immigrant households.”
In Sweden, diversity is not their strength. Homogeneity is.
How much of this is social and how much is biological is unclear — as, indeed, are the boundaries between the social and the biological. But in political terms, Sweden’s more liberal policy toward immigrants may be judged in no small part by the Stockholm riots of 2013, whereas the much sterner Danish model has enjoyed more success with its active cultural-integration campaign, its insistence on Danish cultural norms and practices, and its emphasis on economic self-support. Though much remains to be seen, there is evidence to suggest that the Nordic welfare state is something that only really works in a society that is 98 percent Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish.
The striking counterexample is the case of Japan, which, like 1960s Norway, is concerned about a demographic trend — a baby bust — that threatens to undermine its welfare state. But Japan is a very closed culture, and the country historically has not been very open to immigrants. As Zeynep Tufekci notes, “Hundreds of thousands [of] ethnic Koreans who have been in Japan through multiple generations, for example, do not have Japanese citizenship and can only assimilate if they more or less give up their Korean identity.” Professor Tufekci writes as if that were a self-evidently bad thing — as if Japan’s rejection of multiculturalism and its insistence upon its own cultural identity were inherently malevolent. Japan places a very high value on Japaneseness, and there is no self-evident reason for believing that it is wrong to do so. There are real benefits to diversity — and there are real costs.
In the United States, we’re more like the Swedes than the Japanese. And that’s a problem, or at least a potential problem. Our current political trajectory suggests that we are committed both to relatively high levels of immigration and to a larger and more active welfare state, with many on the Left pursuing an explicitly Nordic model. It may be the case that these policies are mutually exclusive.
None of this is to say you cannot have a decent, stable, and diverse society — the United States is Exhibit A for the case that you can. But there are difficulties. In the earliest days of the American settlement, diversity meant Puritans here and Quakers there, and our institutions were incubated in a deeply and overwhelmingly Anglo-Protestant culture. But it has been a long time since anything like a Nordic level of ethno-linguistic homogeneity has been present here. Up until quite recently, and with the critical exception of the situation of African-Americans, we handled our diversity with the best tools there are: localism, federalism, equality under the law, integration, participation in civil society. But the aggrandizement of the public sector has diminished civil society, multiculturalism has hobbled integration, the centralization of power in Washington has undermined federalism, and the grievance industry chips away at the idea of equality under the law — ask a Korean-American kid applying to Berkeley how that’s going.
And, as with Stockholm’s ghettos and Paris’s banlieues, our relatively high sustained levels of immigration and our inability to integrate immigrants means the persistence of ethnic enclaves — and the sense of separatism, on both sides of the street, that goes along with them. Is continued steady immigration from Mexico and Spanish-speaking points south going to make that better or worse — including for Hispanic immigrants and their descendants already here? Is it likely in the long run to make our society more or less productive, prosperous, stable, cooperative, happy?
That is a question that makes us uncomfortable, and one that should make us uncomfortable, but it is one that we may be nonetheless compelled to ask.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.