Why are racists all the same?

If you were worried that we haven’t spent enough time and intellectual energy pondering terrible people, I give you this thought-provoking tweet from Zach Weinersmith:

There’s a million unsatisfying answers to the question “Why are terrible people terrible?”, but maybe we can get a little traction here from a few simple economic concepts. Why are racist people and groups so often racist in the same way? Why do we observe so little innovation in racism?

Let’s sketch a toy model.

The production of social goods (mutual support, friendship, community, etc) can be reductively modeled using labor inputs (human time and energy) and social technology. One very important strain of social technology is the amalgam of ideas, identities, and institutions that groups leverage when producing the mutual support systems and emotional goods that all but the most pathologically isolated of us depend on.

Ideas have the important property that they are unaffected by parallel use i.e. use comes at zero marginal cost. That means they offer the possibility of not just significant returns to scale, but in some contexts increasing returns to scale. In this case, the path to massive scale returns through social technology will come through network effects. Goods that are consumed within social networks, and where the value of the good being consumed is positively increasing with the number of other people who use ie (i.e. social media, media formats, etc), will often be characterized by critical mass thresholds beyond which use rapidly escalates as each marginal consumer increases the value of consumption, attracting more subsequent consumption.

Racist ideas as zero-marginal cost network social technology

Let’s model racism as a set of ideas that serve as social technology that serve to increase the output from labor inputs into the production social goods. Internalization of stupid racist ideas by one person does not diminish the stock of stupid racist ideas (they have zero marginal cost), but the output elasticity from that labor is actually increasing as more people contribute to the production of social goods using the same set of ideas. The network effects of production using zero-marginal cost racist ideas gives them a least some range of increasing returns to scale.

What’s the net of all this? There will be extremely powerful incentives to return to the oldest forms of racist ideology because the pre-existing body of believers grant significant scale advantages over newer racist ideologies. For both your everyday racist looking to enjoy the social goods of mutual admiration and support from your fellow bigots or the aspiring leader of a racist faction aiming to effect social change through the scale of your community of monomaniacal twits, the returns to scale to be enjoyed by leveraging a set of racist beliefs that have already achieved historical critical mass are too attractive to pass up.

The pre-existing body of zero marginal cost ideas, in this model, endows a tremendous amount of path dependence to the ideas being leveraged by communities seeking to produce social goods using the technology of racist ideas. The deck is stacked against innovation, which means we should expect endless regurgitation of the same racist bullshit.

Path dependence is a systemic property where the current state is heavily influenced by past events and states. Much of the “Guns, Germs, and Steel” model of the world is that the current state of things is heavily determined by past states (widespread animal domestication and husbandry in the Old World) and events (Europeans bringing germs from those animals to the new world) that can never be undone. In much the same way, I suspect we observe the same racist tropes over and over simply because the old tropes got there first and there’s no undoing the past.

Or maybe racists are all just stupid and lazy? Who knows, I can barely even tell most racists apart.

One thought on “Why are racists all the same?

  1. StickerShockTrooper October 10, 2022 / 1:58 pm

    This is a model for any idea that produces a social good… so any fad, social movement, or belief system (religion etc). Fads spread, but they also die down.

    Thinking of competition in the marketplace of ideas (shades of Dawkin’s idea of memes), antisemitism seems to be particularly competitive for some reason while, for example, racism vs Italians and Irish faded away. Is just that the “support group” of antisemitism is stronger and more valuable than that of other hate groups?


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