Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tribal Rent-Seeking

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a front-page article (available online via subscription only) called “Textbook Wars: Religion in History.” It describes how various religious groups (Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus are cited in particular) are pressuring state textbook-adoption agencies to change unflattering descriptions of the histories of their groups. For example, a group lobbied to change a statement in a textbook about ancient Hindu India from “men had many more rights than women” to “Men had different duties…as well as rights than women.”

This is an example of a worrying, growing problem that I have noticed for some time – tribal rent-seeking. Generally, when people think of rent-seeking (or, in James Madison’s old terminology, “factions”) – in other words, the exertion of (often very costly) political pressure to obtain special privileges from the government – we think of purely monetary interests. We think of labor versus management, of domestic producers seeking protection versus consumers, of drugs companies, of doctors and so on.

But tribal groups – those based on religious, ethnic, or linguistic identity and, increasingly, sexual orientation – increasingly try to get the government to subsidize their ethnic capital – the public perception of their history, their children’s language skills, their ability to obtain rewards strictly on the basis of group identity. This takes different forms in different countries. In the U.S., struggles over textbooks are far from the only example. (Attempts to enforce politically correct speech via cultural rather than state censorship might be another.) In India, the so-called Scheduled Castes and Tribes and the unapologetically termed Other Backward Classes benefit from an immense array of reservations (a severe form of what Americans call “affirmative action”), which have predictably lasted much longer and come to benefit far more Indians than its naïve founders originally predicted. In Belgium, there is conflict over the distribution of resources between Flemish and French speakers. (Soon,if these guys have their way, Belgian Arabs will join these fractious rent-seeking battles.)

This is unfortunate because, while ethnic identity can be shaped by the broader society (“white” and “black” Americans in the 19th century used to distinguish between different percentages of “blackness” – mulattoes versus quadroons versus octoroons), for a given generation it is something unalterable. Apart from religious conversion, you cannot change tribal identity. Social conflict based on these grounds is thus likely to be the most intractable. If the government is unfair to accountants or farmers, the children of these groups always have a chance to try something else. But one can’t really become un-Chinese or un-Arab. The more tribal groups turn to the state to mediate their differences, the more tribal conflict there is going to be. Tribal characteristics are harder to downplay as identity sources than other forms - there is a reason ethnoreligious warfare has been far more common and costly throughout history than class warfare - and so having the state reinforce it is a bad idea. Tribe then becomes destiny, the sole explanatory principle for explaining why society is the way it is. Absurdly, just today the BBC reports that a group in France with links to French nationalist groups has begun serving soup with pork in it to homeless people, and calling the dish "Identity Soup." And so in their estimation to be French is to abandon Muslim or Jewish religious beliefs, while the first response for the French "anti-racism" activist Bernadette Hatier is to ask the French government to ban the giveaways. The gap between the public and private sphere becomes obliterated, and tribal conflict becomes greater in both.

What to do? A rent-seeking approach to tribal conflict has not in my judgment been given the attention by scholars it deserves (although I am trying to remedy that in my research and on this blog in entries such as this one). But some basic postulates of that literature suggest themselves. First, it is imperative to encourage voluntary cooperation where possible. The more people trade, the less they fight, and so the less burdened by the dead hand of taxation, regulation and so on the economy is, the greater the opportunities for transacting across tribal lines, and the less urgently therefore people run to the state to protect of subsidize their tribal identities. Second, decentralize. If tribal groups are geographically confined, don’t force people in other regions to subsidize tribal-specific capital. This is the approach Switzerland generally takes, where the French, Italian and German communities there are in charge of (and fully finance) their own education (an area where the subsidy of tribal capital looms large), with the central government confined to truly national tasks – defense, law enforcement, funding the welfare state on tribal-neutral terms, etc. The more a person has to pay to reinforce or raise the returns to someone else’s tribal identity (and therefore lower the relative returns to one’s), the angrier he is going to be. More heavily interventionist societies such as many of those in Europe probably have more to worry about in this regard than Americans do, but as the article that began this piece suggests, we have our problems too – bilingual education, for example. Finally, (and this is hardly a novel observation), encourage assimilation, not multiculturalism. “Assimilation” does not mean making everyone into white-bread Episcopalians, but it does emphasize the notion of a common social identity, where investments in and drawing on tribal capital are fine within the home and other arenas of voluntary exchange, but in the public square – in the laws and in their making – the universal features of citizenship are the currency of the realm.


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