Friday, 25 July 2014

What Really Causes National Homogeneity?

In recent column, America's favourite jingoist Pat Buchanan laments the lack of national unity in America (Noah Smith adds thoughtful comment, although I disagree with his main point). Now I am a sceptic when it comes to nations. I do not believe they really exist in any moral sense, so when Noah Smith speaks favourably of nationalism of the "being one unified people instead of just a collection of unrelated individuals who happen to live in the same geographical space"-variety, I object that we really are a collection of individuals who happen to live in the same geographical space!

Nations do not make decisions, only individuals make decisions. Is it not a criterion for moral value that one can make a decision, or at any rate could, provided that certain impediments (such as crippling disease or infancy) be overcome? In principle, I can see nothing that could make nations capable of deciding anything. This may not sound very inspiring, but maybe it is the truth? Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution has a timely post on this theme. Thus, "unity" is apt to mean some individuals' treating society like their doll's house, but people plainly are not dolls and have wills of their own.
But this post is not really about the moral value of nations. In his column, Buchanan starts by perpetuating common stereotypes about immigrants (how about his assertion that "millions from Mexico exploited his [George W. Bush's] magnanimity to violate our laws, trample upon our sovereignty, walk into our country and remain here"?) and then proceeds to talk about the "good old days":
"[The immigrants] came later. From 1845-1849, the Irish fleeing the famine. From 1890-1920, the Germans. Then the Italians, Poles, Jews and other Eastern Europeans. Then, immigration was suspended in 1924. 
From 1925 to 1965, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants were assimilated, Americanized. In strong public schools, they were taught our language, literature and history, and celebrated our holidays and heroes. We endured together through the Depression and sacrificed together in World War II and the Cold War. 
By 1960, we had become truly one nation and one people."
And here is Buchanan on the present "mess":
"We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion and roots.
We no longer speak the same language, worship the same God, honor the same heroes or share the same holidays. Christmas and Easter have been privatized. Columbus is reviled. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are out of the pantheon. Cesar Chavez is in."
Estimates have it that immigrants' share of the US population is presently around 12.5 per cent, which is well more than a doubling from 1970, but comfortably short of historical peaks around 15 per cent in the late 19th century. So the share of immigrants alone is unlikely to explain Buchanan's perception of increased heterogeneity.

Total per-capita spending on education has increased since 1960, so Buchanan's "strong public schools"-point makes little sense to me, nor do his remarks about "enduring together" a bunch of wars and times of uncertainty; if these events tend to create a sense of unity, it did not happen during the Vietnam War, nor (particularly) in many European allies in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which certainly caused a great deal of discord. Maybe an enemy is required that is clearly evil and worth fighting, but then some other country must suffer under such a tyrant. That is hardly worth it to create "unity".

So if Buchanan is right about heterogeneity being on the rise, he must still be wrong about the causes he suggests. So what else has happened since the 1960's? Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, the Vietnam War and the Hippie movement, Inflation, Ronald Reagan, Welfare reform and September 11th, 2001 may be the biggest factors. If there is any trend in these things that may be supported by the data, it is one towards a bigger role for government (which increased even under Reagan). If immigrants are to be part of the explanation, maybe this is an indication that heterogeneous populations are (especially?) bad at governance?

On the other hand, I find Buchanan's points to hold up so badly, that maybe the US is actually more homogeneous now than ever before?

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