Friday, December 02, 2005

Diversity, Multiculturalism and the 49th Parallel

Canada and the U.S. are currently undergoing one of the most profound social experiments of our era. Both societies are absorbing huge numbers of immigrants from societies with dramatically different social traditions. In absolute numbers the U.S. absorbs by a significant margin the largest number of immigrants of any country. As a percentage of the population in 1996 9.3 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born, and in Canada it was a somewhat astonishing 17.3 percent – over one in six of all Canadians. In principle this experiment can result in a happy ending, a sort of giant Coke commercial where everyone gets along in blissful post-tribal harmony, or in an increasingly strife-ridden society plagued by tribal warfare, in the political and even the literal sense.

Of course immigration has been a constant for both countries since their formation, but it is different now for several reasons. One way that is obvious to anyone who opens the restaurant section of the Yellow Pages in any decent-sized city in either country is that the national/racial diversity is much greater now than then. But contrary to the claims of the tribal-grievance industry, this is not such a radical transformation. The Italians and Irish of the 1800s were if anything far more scorned in the U.S. than "Hispanics" are today. But public policy has changed in many ways since then, the cultural differences between some immigrants’ native societies and their host countries are larger, and one of the most fascinating things about the immigration-from-everywhere experiment is the different way the two countries are approaching it. To oversimplify somewhat, the Canadians are gambling on multiculturalism and the Americans on assimilation.

First, it is probably best to get two terms, often confused in the public mind, straight. "Diversity" refers to the division of the population among various tribal (religious, ethnic, linguistic, what have you) groups. A society with ten groups, each consisting of ten percent of the population, is much more diverse than one with two groups, one of which is 98 percent of the population. It is simply descriptive, like the distribution of total population among states or provinces. (In truth it is not quite that simple, because the borders of states are undisputed, while how tribes define themselves is a subject of dispute, but it will do.) "Multiculturalism" is not a description of the world, but is instead a policy created in response to perceived diversity. In particular, it is the use of the state to subsidize the preservation of existing tribal identity and practices within the broader society. It might include such steps as bilingual education, laws forbidding the use of some languages in advertising, the provision of tax money to tribal groups for purposes of bolstering their children’s cultural capital, and so on. It is an alternative to either a policy of non-subsidy or of subsidy of the contrary, the adoption of traits of the broader society at the expense of culturally specific attributes, in other words of assimilation. (The banning of religious symbols, especially headscarves, in French schools is an example of the latter.)

And in Canada the reliance on multiculturalism is much more dramatic than in the U.S. Canadian multicultural efforts at the federal level date back at least to 1971, when the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism recommended that government policy try to achieve the following objectives, according to this Parliament report:

• To assist cultural groups to retain and foster their identity;
• To assist cultural groups to overcome barriers to their full participation in Canadian society; (Thus, the multiculturalism policy advocated the full involvement and equal participation of ethnic minorities in mainstream institutions, without denying them the right to identify with select elements of their cultural past if they so chose.)
• To promote creative exchanges among all Canadian cultural groups;
• To assist immigrants in acquiring at least one of the official languages.

In economic terms, the first and to some extent the second are clearly a subsidy of preexisting culture. The third is hard to dispute as an objective (mutually beneficial exchange generally to be applauded), but why it needs government “promotion” is not clear. In addition, it supposes that preservation of older cultural forms (instead of their replacement by evolutionarily superior ones through trade and competition) is worthwhile. The fourth is clearly an attempt to achieve assimilation. Subsequent legislation, particularly the Canadian Multicultural Act of 1988, further cemented the multicultural approach. Even Section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, their rough analogue to our constitution, requites that it “be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” Whether Canadians know it or not, the goal of Canadian policy is that tribal-specific practices will be as common within tribal groups thirty years from now as they are now. This is perhaps why the recent attempt to allow Islamic law to be enforced via consensual arbitration in civil contracts in Ontario (including in marriage, where some Canadians felt Muslim traditions conflicted with Canadian values) was so controversial, even though similar privileges had already been extended to Jews.

In the U.S., in contrast, the primary bulwark of tribal policy is the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, which provides equal protection of the laws to individuals. The explicit notion of protection of cultures or groups simply does not exist in U.S. law, although it is true that clever litigation has to some extent allowed the backdoor imposition of quotas. It is unquestionably true that the goal of multiculturalism in the Canadian sense has many fans among U.S. intellectuals, and powers the whole diversity-management industry. But the legal framework against which diversity will be accommodated is without a doubt significantly different in the two countries.

So which approach is likely to work better, if by “work” we mean promoting the ability of individuals to achieve their goals and minimizing the amount of tribal conflict? A basic implication of economic theory is that that which we subsidize, we will see more of. The subsidy of tribal identity should cause people to emphasize that identity more, because it is rewarded. This in turn gives people an incentive to further agitate to obtain more subsidy from the state, which of necessity comes at the expense of everyone else’s subsidy. And so a multiculturalism policy should lead to more and more elaborate tribal pressure groups and more tribal conflict.

Among the empirical implications of this theory, assuming policies in the two societies do not converge, is that in the U.S. we should see more tribal fusion – more intermarriage, more novel intertribal cuisine, more diversity within businesses. In the U.S. the norm might be a firm where a Muslim, Chinese, and intertribal (e.g., mixed-race) employees work at adjacent desks. In Canada, it might be more common to see businesses owned and staffed exclusively by Muslims or Chinese, but competing on equal terms. With respect to intermarriage, this paper shows that interracial marriage (which is only one form of inter-tribal marriage) in the U.S. is currently higher than in Canada, but not much. If this simple economic model of approaches to diversity is useful we would expect that difference to increase in coming years. We would also expect that public pressure for employment and other tribal quotas would be greater in Canada and the U.S. The establishment of private schools for those most concerned about preserving their tribal traditions would be more common in the U.S., while government subsidy of such schools (which would cause such preservation to be more common) would be the norm in Canada. Members of tribal groups who wish to abandon tribal practices would find it easier in the U.S. than in Canada, so that orthodox religious observance might be more common in the latter in response to pressure from parents and community elders. David McKintry notes that some of these very predictions are unfolding in Britain, where there is also an official commitment to Canadian-style multiculturalism. Finally, we might expect something that has clearly been borne out, that tribal groups would be able to obtain greater protections against offensive speech and behavior from members of other tribes, and indeed “protections” against hate speech are becoming more common in Canada, whereas they hardly exist in the U.S. public square apart from public university campuses (where even there they fail more often than succeed).

In general, in the Canadian model tribal groups would be more likely to attempt to reconcile their conflicting goals via the state, while in the U.S. they would have to make accommodations themselves – by forming private associations, by moving to neighborhoods that reflect their tastes, and by other ways that rely on their own initiative and energy rather than government force. My very strong instinct is that the latter approach is considerably more conductive to tribal peace than the former, but (despite this being the feeblest of ways to end a blog post) only time will tell.


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