Diversity of thought, experience, interests and expertise are critical for successful group decision-making and the long term success of organizations, communities and societies. As the world becomes ever more integrated through technology, commerce, travel and immigration, every nation will also have to adapt to increasing ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. New immigrants can bring needed skills and economic vitality, while enriching their host country with new perspectives and culture. Acknowledging and respecting our differences can ensure that all citizens are treated equally and fairly.
However, too much diversity can be as bad as too little. Over a century ago Teddy Roosevelt warned that “There is not room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. The one absolutely certain way of bringing this country to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities”. He was speaking of the difficulty integrating the massive wave of diverse European immigrants who had recently arrived in America but had not yet assimilated. Today we are living through a new wave of immigration. Roughly 14 percent of people living in the United States are foreign born; the highest percentage since 1910. In the name of “diversity” there is also increasing pressure to divide even native-born citizens into different tribes based upon the color of our skin, the origins of our ancestors, our politics or even our sexual preferences.
Unfortunately there is a large body of social science and economics research demonstrating that too much ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity can harm communities, societies and countries. Neighborhoods with high ethnic diversity tend to have much lower levels of trust, altruism, cooperation and even friendship1. High levels of diversity at the national level are correlated with much higher levels of corruption2,3, very slow economic growth4, 5, poor governance6 and even lower levels of innovation7. This is likely because once people in a society become segregated into distinct self-identifying groups, they no longer strive for the common good. Instead they become focused on a perceived zero sum game which pits tribe against tribe and ultimately harms everyone. As Aristotle wisely noted over 2000 years ago “When people do not look out for the common good it is ruined.” It is unsurprising that the poorest countries in the world today are those riven by the most intense tribal, ethnic, religious and/or cultural differences. Conversely totalitarian governments, religions and left-wing or right-wing ideologies that restrict freedom of thought, speech and choice to ensure conformity can also cause great harm to individuals and ultimately the entire society. As a nation we must find a way to balance unity and diversity.
History has also repeatedly shown that extremely diverse societies tend to be much less successful than peoples that share a strong sense of community, trust and common ideals. Nations fractured by multiple languages, antagonistic ethnic groups and sub-cultures are almost always weakened by internal squabbling, dissention and, in extreme cases, civil war. Roughly 2500 years ago, the powerful multicultural empire of Persia was defeated by the much smaller but internally-unified nations of the Greeks and Macedonians. At the end of World War One, it was the multilingual and multicultural empires of the Ottomans, Russians and Austro-Hungarians that collapsed, while the homogeneous democracies of France and Britain emerged victorious. More recent history has witnessed civil war and disintegration in diverse multi-ethnic nations such as Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Syria, Rwanda, Sudan and Ethiopia. After a brief promising start under its great leader Nelson Mandela, the diverse “rainbow nation” of South Africa also appears to be in trouble due to rampant corruption, mismanagement, ethnic animosity and crime. Even the current war in Ukraine can be directly traced to the linguistic and cultural divisions between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians who found themselves in the same country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Elsewhere in Europe, unassimilated, self-perpetuating immigrant enclaves have become sites of religious intolerance, poverty and even domestic terrorism. Perhaps it is also no coincidence that as diversity rapidly increases in the United States, so does social acrimony and government disfunction.
The ancient Chinese and Roman empires were in part so successful because they had a genius for assimilating new peoples and turning them into loyal citizens within a single culture. The United States also displayed a talent of turning immigrants from all over the world into proud citizens with a common language and a common set of ideals and loyalties. It is not an accident that the motto of the United States is “E-Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one. The concept of the melting pot, in which each successive wave of immigrants added a hint of new spice to the culture as it integrated with the native-born population was a guiding concept for much of American history.
However, today many people have come to believe that assimilation is unnecessary if not harmful. A multiculturalist view is increasingly preferred. We are often exhorted by the media, the government and schools to celebrate our differences and to see ourselves as members of distinct racial, ethnic, religious, political or sexual tribes. In the name of “diversity, equity and inclusion” there is increasing pressure to award positions, promotions, government support and even medical care based not upon individual need, character, skills or deeds; but instead based upon tribal membership. This will only accelerate the balkanization of American culture and will hurt us all in the long run.
We can all take pride in the diverse cultural heritage of our nation, but we can also take pride in our history as the first inclusive democracy in world history that has sought to create “a more perfect union” over the past 200 years. Instead of adopting ideas and practices that may divide us into squabbling groups, why not focus on the common interests and ideals that join us together as citizens with equal rights and duties? Instead of a choice between open or closed borders; perhaps we can have a logical, humane but selective immigration policy based on the rule of law. Instead of seeing people as members of a monolithic group, why not judge each person you meet based upon their unique individual merits? Remember the wise words of George Washington Carver: “We are all brothers [and sisters], all of us, no matter what race or color or condition. We rise together or we fall together”.
1Putnam, R.D., 2007, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century, Scandinavian Political Studies, v. 30.
2Dincer, O.C., 2008, Ethnic and Religious Diversity and Corruption, Economic Letters, v. 99.
3Cerqueti, R., Coppier, R. and Piga, G., 2012, Corruption, Growth and Ethnic Fractionalization: A Theoretical Model, Journal of Economics, v. 106.
4Desmet, K. and Ortuno-Ortin I, Wacziarg, R., 2016, Linguistic Cleavages and Economic Development, The Palgrave Handbook of Economics and Language.
5Montalvo, J.G. and Reynal-Querol, 2005, M., Ethnic Diversity and Economic Development, Journal of Development Economics, v. 76.
6De Soysa, I. and Almas, S., 2019, Does Ethnolinguistic Diversity Preclude Good Governance? A Comparative Study with Alternative Data 1990-2015, Kyklos – International Review for Social Science, v. 72.
7DiRienzo, C. and Das, J., 2015, Innovation and the Role of Corruption and Diversity: A Cross-Country Study, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, v. 15.