Racism as a prisoners dlimma

Imagine you live in a society that is divided between three major ethnic groups. The groups help their own members, frequently fight over resources and there have been more than a few atrocities or borderline genocidal wars in the past with different groups using circumstances to kill/drive away their opponents. You are a member of one of these groups. Your personal fortune in significant part depends on that of your group. The more of the machinery of state your group controls, the more jobs and government provided goods and services you and your family can expect to receive. If another group dominates in the area you live, you can expect mild harassment your business being targeted for extortion/enforcement, the police being non-responsive to your claims and finding a job to be harder.

Now that the stage is set, let’s consider a question. Should you be a non-racist? Even assuming you have a liberal worldview, recognize that the ethnic division in your society is an illogical accident of history and recognize that there are good and bad people present in every group the answer is still not an obvious "yes". The problem is that if you stop favoring members of your group and fighting other groups, you weaken your group and comparatively strengthen others. If enough people in your group adopt your liberal norms, then your group starts to punch below it’s weight and will loose contests with other groups more and more, leading to worse and worse outcomes for it’s members. In effect, you’re trapped in a collective action problem. The costs of defecting from the existing (sub-optimal) racist equilibrium are private and fall upon the individual or group who defects. The benefits of moving towards a society free from ethnic division and strife flows to everyone. Two implications:

  • You do not want your group to be the first to adopt non-racism. The consequences of loss of group cohesion, especially in a developing nation, can be dire.
  • As a group, you have a strong incentive to punish individuals who do not contribute back to the group or challenge the legitimacy of the group as an organizing principle.

It’s a hard problem to resolve. When I did debating, I often saw people who had grown up in developed countries talk about genocide or ethnic conflict as a matter of people just being evil and the wrong beliefs. It’s not that simple. Ideology plays a part but so does the incentive structure you find yourself in. It’s easy to claim that people doing bad things are just moral aliens or brainwashed. The reality is usually more complex.

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