What I Didn't Get to Say to Mike Gonzalez
By Bryan Caplan
At the Social Contract Writers Workshop, Mike Gonzalez from the Heritage Foundation spoke on the value of immigrant assimilation and the evils of multiculturalism. While I didn’t strongly disagree with anything he said, I still have two unspoken thoughts to get off my chest.
1. Gonzalez distinguished between banal multiculturalism – “Show respect” and “Try a wide variety of cuisines” – and noxious multiculturalism – “Obsess about your ethnic identity.” But he overlooked what I call meritocratic multiculturalism. Its essence: dispassionately compare and contrast the cultures of the world, then embrace the best of each, topic-by-topic. Perhaps the Chinese have the best work ethic; if so, mankind should give credit where credit is due and embrace the Chinese work ethic. Maybe Americans have the best entrepreneurial spirit; if so, mankind should give credit where credit is due and embrace the American entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe Native Americans are correct to damn Columbus as a monster; if so, mankind should give credit where credit is due and damn Columbus, too.
The alternative to obsessing over divisive ethnic identities should not be obsessing over unifying American identity. American culture is an impressive achievement. It’s plausibly the greatest culture ever. The fact that immigrants want to come here strongly suggests they have more to learn from us than we have to learn from them. But American culture can still massively improve – and immigrants can help improve it. Above all, Americans should never forget that, like all humans, we’re prone to myside bias – ignoring and forgiving our side’s shortcomings. That’s got to stop.
2. Gonzalez laments the teaching of noxious multiculturalism in American schools. While I’m sympathetic, the issue is largely symbolic. Teaching students about identity – national or ethnic – uses only a sliver of classtime. Top students may take these brief lessons to heart. But most of their peers are barely paying attention, and quickly forget whatever their teachers tell them. Fortunately, most kids eventually get jobs where they learn meritocratic multiculturalism by doing.
Example: No matter how much teachers urge the children of immigrants to treasure their cultural
heritage, they’ll still master English. Why? Because the jobs they want – and the popular culture they enjoy – require fluent English. More tellingly, there’s no sign that multicultural propaganda has motivated second-generation immigrants to attain fluency in their parents’ native tongue. Why? Because the jobs they want – and the popular culture they enjoy – don’t require fluency in their parents’ native tongue.
My point: Civics lessons, good or bad, are a frail government program. If we had to rely on them for assimilation, we’d be in deep trouble. Fortunately, pervasive market forces quietly and efficiently handle the job. Mike worries too much.