Diversity is good, actually
Written by Noah Carl.
There has been a trend in recent years of Western politicians proclaiming that “diversity is our strength”. Examples can be found as far back as the 1980s (and probably earlier), but the slogan really gained prominence during the Great Awokening. An early example from this era is Barack Obama’s statement in support of immigration reform on the occasion of Cinco de Mayo in 2010. “Today reminds us that America’s diversity is America’s strength,” he announced.
Five years later, Justin Trudeau developed an entire speech around the slogan, which he gave at Canada’s famous High Commission in London. “The importance of diversity can sometimes be taken for granted,” he declared. “But there is no doubt that we’re a better country—a stronger, more successful country—because of it.” He went on to say that “diversity isn’t a challenge to be overcome or a difficulty to be tolerated” but is in fact a “tremendous source of strength”.
Last year, the Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg was at it. In a frankly bizarre speech for “International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia”, he stated that “NATO’s strength is our diversity” and we must therefore “reflect and celebrate the extraordinary diversity of our populations”. Stoltenberg added that “I value every member of the LGBTQ+ community” and “I am proud to call myself your ally”.
There are two obvious ways in which diversity does qualify as a strength: food and the Olympics. Having people of different ethnicities around means there’s more choice of restaurants. On top of that, it means there are more body types represented in the population, the better for maximising your country’s Olympic medal count.
Ironically, then, one of the two main benefits of diversity is based on the assumption of biological race differences in sporting performance. And if you doubt that any politician would pursue this line of argument, here’s Obama in 2017:
We killed it in the Olympics in Brazil … the Olympic team … they are of all shapes, sizes, colours. The genetic diversity that is on display is remarkable. You look at a Simone Biles, and then you look at a Michael Phelps, and they're completely different. It’s precisely because of those differences that we’ve got people here who can excel at any sport.
After food and the Olympics, the benefits of diversity start to run out. And if we’re talking about diversity of gender identities, I’m hard-pressed to name a single benefit. Is there anything that society can do with non-binary people that it can’t do without them? I suppose I should consult Jens Stoltenberg.
Another way in which diversity could be a strength (though not one I’d expect the Obamas of the world to champion) is as a check on excessive welfare spending. There’s a certain amount of evidence – which my frenemy Richard Hanania likes to mention – that countries with greater ethnic diversity have smaller welfare states. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks the welfare state is the root of all evil, such evidence would count in favour the proposition that diversity’s a strength. Of course, for those who disagree and think the welfare state is a jolly good thing, such evidence would count against the proposition.
Incidentally, the finding that ethnic diversity leads to less welfare spending may not be very robust. In a paper published two years ago, 73 teams of social scientists were given the same data and asked to test whether “more immigration will reduce public support for government provision of social policies”. Their estimates varied from moderate and negative to moderate and positive, though most were tightly clustered around zero – providing little support for the hypothesis.
Those are the benefits of diversity.1 What about the costs? What about the ways in which diversity is a weakness rather than a strength? Well, there are many, and they can be grouped under the heading of ethnic conflict.
Contrary to the impression you’d get listening to politicians’ speeches (or watching commercials on TV) people from different ethnic groups living in the same place do not always get along. They look different from one another; they hold different beliefs; they practice different religions; and they interpret events differently. All these differences are sources of tension.
Indeed, a 2020 literature review by Peter Dinesen and colleagues found “a statistically significant negative relationship between ethnic diversity and social trust”. And long before that, Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore had modelled the optimal size of a country as a trade-off between the benefits of economies of scale and the costs of “large and diverse populations”. I guess they didn’t get the memo that diversity is a strength.2
Humans are tribal creatures and ethnicity is one of the most salient markers of group identity. So when we find ourselves in an ethnically diverse environment, we often band together with our co-ethnics. As Lee Kuan Yew observed: "In multiracial societies, you don't vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion."
When there are differences in achievement across groups, as there almost invariably are, low-achieving groups tend to blame high-achieving groups for their relative lack of achievement. This not only breeds indignation and resentment, but also undermines meritocracy via demands for equal representation. Arrangements that reward talent and hard work are replaced by a crude system of racial spoils. Which, in turn, leads to an inefficient allocation of resources – reducing the size of the pie for everyone.
And adoption of race-conscious policies is one of the more benign ways ethnic conflict can play out. One only has to look at the wars in Eastern Ukraine and Israel/Palestine (among many others) to witness the immensely destructive consequences of long-standing ethnic feuds. Would anyone in the Donbas or the West Bank say “diversity is our strength”? The question is risible. Would anyone in Bosnia, Cyprus or Northern Ireland? You get the point.
If you don’t get the point and you insist on quantitative empirical evidence, there’s plenty of that too. In one particularly clever study, Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou exploited the fact that the borders drawn up by European powers during the Scramble for Africa were highly artificial, which had the effect of partitioning many ethnic groups across two or more newly created states. They found that partitioned ethnic groups experience significantly more civil conflicts.
Of course, ethnic diversity isn’t the only cleavage in society that can generate conflict. Economic inequality3 and political division are also major sources of tension – as we know from events like the Russian Revolution and the Korean War. But Western politicians don’t go around claiming those things are “our strength”. In fact, they usually decry them. Obama described the “pervasive gap between the rich and the poor” as “fundamentally bad for society”. And he described the fact that “our politics is so polarized” as a “solvable problem”.
When it comes to nation states, “diversity is our strength” doesn’t really hold water. Or to put it less diplomatically, it’s sentimental tripe. But is there a context in which the slogan might have more veracity? Yes there is: the whole world. The more unique cultures, nations and races we have on planet earth, the better.
Now, that statement requires some caveats. It doesn’t that mean every single cultural practice is a positive: we’d probably be better off without slavery, human sacrifice and female genital mutilation. Nor does it mean we have to outlaw race-mixing or force people to retain their traditional cultures. It just means that, all else being equal, the world is a richer, more interesting place when there’s cultural, national and racial diversity.
Most people are more attached to their own culture they are to other cultures. But few of us want other cultures to disappear. Indeed, it’s in large part the fact that other people do things differently that makes us cherish our own ways of doing things.
You’re an American. You love traditional American culture: individual liberty; the frontier spirit; god-fearing people; the constitution; Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway; cowboys, baseball and apple pie. Does this mean you want every other country to be a carbon-copy of the US – complete with the same norms and values and institutions? I wouldn’t have thought so. It’s good that not everywhere’s the same. The world would be much more boring if it was.
Human social and biological diversity is something valuable. I’m glad there are people around the world who look different from me, who believe in different religions and who’ve developed different institutions. Nordics and Slavs; Arabs and Persians; Bantus and Bushmen; Christians and Buddhists; Jews and Muslims; Sikhs and Hindus; British and French; Chinese and Japanese; Kenyans and Somalis – these are all part of the rich tapestry of mankind.
At the global level, there’s a sense in which diversity really is our strength. But what does this imply? Well, pretty much the opposite of what “diversity is our strength” usually implies.
If diversity is a strength for nation states, they should aim to have as much immigration from as many different countries as possible. The ideal population would be 20% Chinese, 20% Indian, 20% African etc. But if diversity is a strength for the whole world, we should aim to have as many distinct nations and cultures as possible – which means limiting immigration.4
When countries take large numbers of immigrants without pursuing forced assimilation, they lose their distinctive character. Depending on the composition of immigrants, their culture may end up being replaced by that of the newcomers. Which will reduce global diversity if the newcomers’ culture was already well-represented around the world (as is the case for, say, Muslim immigrants in Europe). Alternatively, their culture might become a melting point – a kind of average of all the cultures present. And if this happens in many countries simultaneously (as it is in Europe), it will again have the effect of reducing of global diversity.
The latter outcome is what the online right derisively calls “globohomo” (a portmanteau of “global” and “homogenisation” that also hints at the US government’s supposed fixation on gay rights). As dissident pop-singer Morrissey (who may or may not belong to the online right) recently noted:
They talk all about, “we must have diversity, diversity, diversity” … It’s just another word for conformity … When people talk about “diversity”, they don’t think about the great things that we don’t have in common. Those things are ignored, and they always made countries very interesting. Because you could travel to Germany; you could see the most incredible culture. You could go to Italy; you could see the most incredible culture. Now they just want everything to be the same.
Of course, global diversity is just one of many things we ought to care about, and pursuing it single-mindedly to the detriment of all our other values would be foolish. We also care about material prosperity, the pursuit of which may conflict with efforts to safeguard global diversity. After all, economic growth and technological change inevitably undermine traditional ways of life, and most people aren’t willing to forgo large improvements in their living standards so they can preserve every last aspect of their culture.
By the same token, most people don’t want to see their culture completely obliterated just so they can enjoy 0.1% higher growth in GDP. Clearly, there’s a trade-off. Diversity being a strength at the global level doesn’t mean we have to cut ourselves off from the world like the Japanese under Sakoku. It just means we should recognise it as something positive that should be taken into account.
The people claiming “diversity is our strength” were right; they just got the wrong level of analysis. While the slogan isn’t true of nation states, it is true of the whole world: social and biological diversity makes the planet a richer, more interesting place to live. Unfortunately for advocates of “diversity”, what the slogan implies at the global level is pretty much the opposite of what it usually implies – that is, less immigration not more.
Noah Carl is an Editor at Aporia Magazine.
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A recent paper by Max Posch and colleagues reports that surname diversity and country of origin diversity have large positive effects on patent rates at the level of US counties. This would seem to constitute evidence for another benefit of diversity. However, the same paper reports that counties with high levels of racial diversity have low patent rates (see Figure D3). I suspect their main results are due to the fact that individuals of high intelligence from all over the country and all over the world tend to settle in productive urban areas like New York City and Santa Clara.
While the free-market system that gives rise to inequality is arguably a strength, the resulting inequality is not. Which is why we don’t prevent rich people from giving away their wealth.
Diversity being a strength at the global level also implies that we shouldn’t impose “democracy” on other countries by force.