Does Identity Politics Pay?
By Bryan Caplan
When I scoff at group identity, critics often call me naive. Won’t anyone who heeds my advice to eschew identity politics end up being victimized by all the folks who do take their group identities with utmost seriousness? Then rational self-interest requires identity politics in self-defense.
The rational self-interest version of this story is trivial to refute. In modern, anonymous societies like our own, all forms of political action are, selfishly speaking, a complete waste of time. This is basic Mancur Olson. You’re one person out of billions. Selling your soul to identity politics is astronomically unlikely to noticeably change public policy.
Fortunately, there’s a smarter version of the same story. Sure, identity politics is individually fruitless. But won’t groups that embrace identity politics fare better than groups that don’t?
Maybe. But there are three big reasons to doubt it.
First, there’s opportunity cost. The time that members of your group devote to politics is time those members aren’t devoting to personal advancement. As Thomas Sowell pointedly observes:
Groups that rose from poverty to prosperity seldom did so by having
racial or ethnic leaders. While most Americans can easily name a number
of black leaders, current or past, how many can name Asian American
ethnic leaders or Jewish ethnic leaders?
Second, ramping up your side’s identity politics often has the perverse side effect of inspiring rival groups’ identity politics. Making your group angry and scary can yield lots of goodies if no other group reacts. But the angrier and scarier your group gets, the more likely other groups are to respond in kind. Net effect? Unclear, as usual. And if you instantly exclaim, “So we need to get really angry and scary to make our rival groups back down!” you’ve utterly missed the point.
Third, activists’ beliefs about the effects of public policies are often deeply confused. So even if identity politics gives your group total power, the results could easily be disastrous for your group. See the sad history of decolonization.
None of this proves that identity politics never pays. My point, rather, is that identity politics is unreliable at best. When you put your childish identity aside, you aren’t just sparing yourself; you could easily be doing your former compatriots a favor, too. As far as anyone knows, nobility is a free lunch.