By Bryan Caplan
On Twitter, Mark Krikorian opined that, “Desire for membership in a tribe is as inherent to the human personality as some form of body covering.” He’s not exactly wrong, but omits three essential caveats.
1. Desire for tribal membership varies widely. Some humans, like Mark, seem to think about their tribal membership on an hourly basis. Others, like me, are perfectly happy belonging to no group larger than the nuclear family. The median level of tribal desire is hard to nail down. Do most Americans think about their Americanness once or more per day? People usually find even simple abstractions boring, so I doubt it.
2. Desire for tribal membership is extremely elastic. Virtually any identity sticks if you’re immersed in it at an early age: city, state, country, religion, ethnicity, political party, union, sports team, hobby – even a show on t.v. The real barrier to cosmopolitanism
isn’t “inherent tribal desire,” but inertia – the same barrier
countless successful redefinitions of identity have already managed to
overcome. If you can convince British subjects that they’re Virginians, and Virginians that they’re Americans, you can convince Americans that they’re humans.
3. Desire for tribal membership is superficial. Social Desirability Bias leads most Americans to announce passionate commitment to the American tribe. But their behavior tells another story. What fraction of Americans bother to recite the pledge of allegiance on their own initiative? To display a flag on their front lawn? To participate in a weekly patriotic function? 99% of the ubiquitous icons of Americanism that popped up after 9/11 have long since faded into nothingness. Americans put about as much energy into their identities as Christians who only attend church on Easter and Christmas.
Am I projecting my freakish individualism onto all mankind? Ponder this: How far would government revenue fall if Americans’ tax bill were a voluntary recommendation rather than a legal obligation? Sure, a few libertarians would conscientiously refuse to pay because they “love their country but fear their government.” But most Americans have no doubt that government spending on pensions, education, health care, military, etc. is good for their country. If they were sincere patriots, they’d happily pony up for the perceived common good. But it’s hard to imagine that government revenues wouldn’t plummet – especially a few years into the great voluntary tax experiment.
Of course, if the true patriots of America want to prove me wrong by giving my experiment a try, they have my full support.