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  • Victor Bolles

On Diversity

I just finished Scott E. Page’s insightful book, The Difference (Princeton University Press, 2007). The book outlines the benefits that can be derived by utilizing diversity as a tool to improve performance and discover better solutions.

Prof. Page eschews the typical progressive insistence that we have a moral obligation that our institutions reflect the diverse nature of the country. Rather he shows that diverse ways of thinking can provide better solutions, improve designs, help companies make more money and other institutions to function more efficiently. If true, we would not have to rely on government imposed quotas to force compliance to government-defined levels of diversity. We would instead be motivated by market forces to use diversity to improve our performance.

Prof. Page uses the analogy of a diversity toolbox that is made up of diverse perspectives, different heuristics (rules of thumb), different interpretations and diverse predictive models. The analogy reminded me of Barney in Mission Impossible (the TV show not the movie). Barney always had the right tool for the job, whatever the job was and however outlandish the required tool might be. In order to find the best tool for the job, you might just happen to already have the right one. But if you want to make sure you have the right one, you need a very big toolbox with lots of tools (like Barney). Most people have a limited set of tools (we’re only human after all). Prof. Page asserts that similar people have similar toolboxes but a diverse group of people will have different toolboxes with a wide variety of tools. Most of the tools may be inappropriate (perhaps wildly so) but there is a chance that you will discover the best tool for the job.

Prof. Page further asserts that diversity is not only additive but that it was superadditive. In other words, 1 + 1 does not equal 2 but 4 or 12. Diversity not only provides a good solution but also opens up the possibility of even better solutions that build on the original solution.

Prof. Page goes through a lot of statistics and thought experiments to prove his thesis although it is intuitively obvious that he is on the right track. If so, what a wonderful diverse world we would have. Diversity appears to work when we have a consensus of the goal to be achieved. But people have different preferences and some of these preferences he defines as fundamental. People with fundamental differences may not agree on the goal to be achieved. Diverse toolboxes cannot bridge this gap. This is not necessarily all bad. Sometimes the diverse preferences can lead to fundamental change. Change is essential in the evolution of our civilization. However, sometimes diverse preferences cannot be overcome in which case we must go our separate ways.

When I read this book, I immediately thought of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, a supposed mysterious force that determines prices and production levels derived from the self-interested actions of many people. The millions of economic transactions of millions of diverse people across the country are the driving forces of the American free market economic system. Diversity not only drives the economy, it provides the superadditive of innovation that drives economic growth. America has always been one of the most diverse countries in the world that allows (once we overcame slavery and segregation) a wide variety of people to participate in the economy.

Prof. Page’s examination of diversity provides proof of why the American principles of personal liberty, free markets and democracy have created the freest, most powerful country in the world. Other economic and political systems limit diversity. Socialism, fascism, single-party dictatorship, monarchy all limit free expression and diversity. People who believe in these political systems have a fundamental preference that is not compatible with American principles. While immigration has been a great benefit to American diversity, some recent immigrants may have belief systems that are not compatible with American principles.

If preference differences are fundamental, Prof. Pages recommends compromise but compromise will result in a sub-optimal result for both sides. And in a truly diverse society it will be impossible to accommodate all the fundamental preference differences of all the various groups within society. Some fundamental preferences can be incorporated (same–sex marriage has gone from pariah to acceptable in a few short years – from 57% against in 2001 to 55% in favor in 2016 according to the Pew Research Center), some can’t (religious preferences in violation of the First Amendment such as the death penalty for apostasy).

One would think that the Founding Fathers had read Difference. American principles and the American Social Contract are clearly in line with the concept of diversity discussed in Prof. Page’s book. It is not our principles but our faulty implementation that has created societal problems. Hopefully, my book on restoring the American Social Contract, Principled Policy, is a step in the right direction.

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