Jordan Peterson ignores the importance of social policy in addressing societal problems

Jordan Peterson was recently interviewed in San Francisco by Simulation, which is a series of talks and interviews with interesting people. As one of the “radical leftists” and “cultural Marxists” that Jordan Peterson loves to mock, I actually enjoyed listening to this talk and I learned some interesting things from Peterson. I can’t say the same about Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro or most other conservative commentators, so I definitely recommend watching the whole interview on YouTube:

The interview was a wide ranging conversation on a whole slew of topics and the interviewer wasn’t very well prepared in my opinion on the academic topics that were discussed, so Peterson was able to opine freely with little push back. I suspect that Peterson would have been taken to task on a number of his arguments in an academic convention, but he is playing in the court of public opinion, which is much less knowledgeable on these topics.

On the question of wealth redistribution, Peterson argues that wealth and achievement naturally accumulates toward the top in all societies, even in prehistoric societies. In making the argument that overaccumulation of wealth at the top is feature of all societies, he throws up his hands and says “nobody knows what to do about it”. He ignores all the ways that societies thorough out history have alleviated overaccumulation of wealth at the top.

Peterson even argues that wealth will accumulate naturally in the hands of the people with the most intellectual ability, which is better for society, since they will use that wealth in the most productive fashion. In making this argument, he ignores all the empirical evidence showing that wealth redistribution has a lot of benefits for society as a whole. Redistributing wealth toward the bottom causes more economic growth than distributing wealth toward the top, because it causes money recirculation in the national economy. Also, the studies of a universal basic income, providing apartments to homeless people, investing in low-income schools, guaranteed retirement funds, and raising the minimum wage all show economic and social benefits to the society as a whole. Peterson uses the example of the cocaine addict who misuses extra wealth and ends up overdosing, but Peterson uses the example of a few outliers and generalizes for all of society. There is a great deal of academic literature to showing the benefits and efficacy of redistributing wealth toward the bottom of society.

Peterson pretends that the most productive thing to do with wealth is to let the richest people keep it and uses the example of Bill Gates using his wealth to cure malaria, polio, sleeping sickness and other diseases. Yes, there are people like Gates and Musk who use their wealth productively, but there are many more like the Koch Bros, Sheldon Adelson, etc. who use their wealth to corrupt the economic system and destroy democracy. The economic literature supports some wealth inequality to promote growth, but it is clear that the level of wealth inequality that we currently have actually depresses economic growth because it destroys demand in the economy and reduces the recirculation of money.

On an individual basis, I think Peterson has a lot of insightful advise for how people can improve their lives, but he is a psychologist treating individuals who are generally outliers. A sociologist who does statistical analysis on society as a whole comes to opposite conclusions about what is good public policy. For example, individuals should think that working hard leads to success and there is some evidence for that. But, it is also true that society investing in schools and training, especially for the underprivileged has huge benefits, which Peterson seems to ignore. He looks at the lowest 10% and says that it is pointless to provide training to them. However, he ignores the 90% who would benefit from extra schooling and training. I work as a computer programmer and I can tell you that there are some people who simply don’t have the mind to be good programmers, but there are roughly 25% who do, but only 1% every get the training to do it. For those 24% of society who have the mental ability but not the training to be programmers, they would really benefit from free or subsidized education programs, as any sociologist would tell you. Peterson has nothing so say about the “radical left” proposals about how to better fund education for the disadvantaged.

Another major hole in Peterson’s argument is the fact that he ignores how IQ is influenced by environment and he ignores all the proposals of the “radical left” to improve the environment for the disadvantaged. For example, Peterson has nothing to say about proposals to improve the nutrition of people living in food ghettos and how to give people economic security to create the kind of stable and secure environments which produce children of high IQ. I appreciate all of Peterson’s insight into the importance of play, but otherwise he is remarkably silent on the kind of social policies that are needed to help the development of children and raise their IQs.

Peterson is right to point out how wealth and success accumulates to the few at the top, but he has zero to say about how to alleviate that overdistribution towards the top. He basically pretends that that it is a natural function and we don’t have any idea how to alleviate it. Many societies have features which mitigate the overaccumulation of wealth at the top, whereas unregulated Capitalism promotes it. There is a major difference between today’s neoliberal Capitalism that concentrates wealth and the giving away of wealth in order to gain social status among the Native Americans of the Pacific NorthWest. Peterson pretends that there is no social policy to address the overaccumulation at the top (other than making war and promoting plague), whereas any sociologist or historian could point to dozens of ways to address this problem (including changing Capitalism, which Peterson refuses to consider).

Peterson talks about the studies among animals showing that reciprocity arises naturally from play and is essential for development. Based on those studies, he concludes that morality is universal and a natural development from play. Strangely, he doesn’t use those same studies to advocate for good social policy. For example, he discusses the studies that show that stable hierarchies occur among chimpanzees when the dominant males establish friendships with the lesser males and look out for the welfare of the baby chimpanzees. In contrast, instability and violence occurs in chimpanzee society, when the males at the top of the hierarchy use physical domination and treat the lower chimpanzees badly, which leads to short reigns of power which are quickly overthrown.

Peterson is strangely silent on the social policy implications of the very studies he cites. The “radical leftists” who Peterson derides would look at those studies and conclude that it is a bad public policy to spend huge amounts on the police and military budgets. They would advocate against domestic policy based on police violence and a foreign policy that tries to physically dominate other nations.

Peterson also talks about the studies where $100 is shared between two people and Peterson noted that the people who are generous and share over 50% will do better in the long run. He doesn’t use those studies, however, to conclude that the wealthy should be forced to share their wealth with the lower classes and treat then better if we want a stable and prosperous society.

Peterson is correct to point out that women on average are more interested in people and men are more interested in things, but that doesn’t mean that sexism doesn’t exist in the STEM fields or that we shouldn’t have social policies to encourage women and minorities to pursue those fields, just like we should have social policies to encourage men to become nurses and teachers. Sexist attitudes do exist in these fields of work and it helps society as a whole to overcome them. Men who find childhood development fascinating shouldn’t feel belittled and their masculinity challenged when they become kindergarten teachers, just like women shouldn’t be steered away from using math. We need social policies to fight against sexist attitudes in society rather than pretending that is entirely the natural interests of the sexes that lead to gender disparities in jobs. Peterson is right that there are different interests on average in the sexes, so some of the gender disparities are not socially constructed, but some of the disparity is also socially constructed. We have both biological and social and cultural factors that lead to gender disparities and he refuses to talk about the policies that are needed to address the social and cultural factors.

Peterson became famous last year when he argued against rules banning gender discrimination in speech in Canadian universities. Peterson derides the social construction of gender as having no basis in the scientific literature and dismisses it as a form of “cultural Marxism” promoted by leftist academics. It seems rather bizarre to me to call the social construction of gender a Marxist idea, since Marx believed that culture was arose from material production and was rooted in materialist interests of the classes. Marxian analysis of culture is diametrically opposed to the postmodern analysis used by many feminists, especially when it is rooted in language. What people like Peterson call “cultural Marxism” did arise from leftist academics, who were often sympathetic to Marxist movements, but it is downright disingenuous for Peterson to tar them as Marxists if you know anything about the philosophical basis of Marx’s arguments.

Peterson criticizes Silicon Valley companies for trying to hire more women and people from diverse backgrounds. He seems oblivious to the studies showing that businesses which have more women, more racial minorities and more diverse backgrounds of their employees tend to function better and are more successful.

In conclusion, there is some truth to Peterson’s arguments about a competence hierarchy rather than a domination hierarchy and the natural distribution of rewards toward the top, but he is strangely silent on all the academic studies about how racial and class bias make a difference in success and promotion (as well as religious bias in some countries). He is right to criticize many academics for failing to acknowledge that biology and natural tendencies play a role in many of society’s problems, but he fails to acknowledge that there are also social and cultural factors at play and that social policy can play a important role in addressing these factors.

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