Jordan Peterson on Socialism

Though we’ve already spent multiple posts tangentially addressing Jordan Peterson’s views on socialism, such as his opinion on Bernie Sanders and his imminently famous debate with Slavoj Zizek, we haven’t tackled the issue head on. One reason we’re presenting this is because Peterson often intertwines (or conflates to put it more aggressively) certain issues such as postmodernism, socialism, and free speech. Problems that he believes do have massive overlap in ideology, but for our purposes we’re just going to stick to arguments about the socialism as a political and economic system.

Asked whether he thought young people understood the history of socialism, Dr. Peterson responded “what young people know about 20th century history is non-existent, especially about the history of the radical left. I mean how would they know? They’re never taught anything about it so why would they be concerned about?”

He would go on to say that part of the problem is that socialism’ has been so bad, that most of the state’s fail before people get a chance to see how bad they are. There’s examples such as “North Korea and Venezuela”, but we’re not locked “tooth and nail” with a country the way we were with the Soviet Union.

Why People Are Attracted to Socialism (according to Peterson)

In that same interview for the Heritage association, Jordan argues that it’s clear why young people are drawn into the ideas of socialism, and that’s because it’s “fundamental motivational source is one of compassion and that is always there in human beings. So that proclivity for sensitivity to that political message will never go away and so and it’s important to understand that you have to give the devil his due.”

Jordan doesn’t believe that the draw of socialism is because of jealousy over the rich. For example, he references how people can go to sports people can celebrate success but they do have to believe that the game is fair and and the game needs to be fair because otherwise the hierarchy becomes tyrannical the problem with the radical left is that it assumes that all hierarchies are too radical and it makes no distinction between them and that’s an absolute catastrophe.

Finally, to the economic point which encompasses his opinions about the lack of education people are getting about socialism in general and the progress in economic inequality overall: “They also don’t understand … the knowledge of how rapidly we’re making economic improvements around the world, in the developing world, for example, how fast that’s happening. That is not well distributed knowledge, that between the year 2000 and the year 2012, the rate of absolute poverty in the world fell by 50%.”

Now hold onto that statement for a second because we’re going to unpack it. To do so we have to give a brief definition.

Absolute Poverty vs Relative Poverty

One of the more contentious arguments in the social science literature is over poverty and how to define it. While little has been agreed upon in the several decades the work has been done, most attempts to define poverty fall into one of two buckets: 

Absolute Poverty: Is the amount of money one needs, accounting for variables such as location and cost of living, in order to be able to afford basic necessities (such as food, clothing and shelter). The benefits of absolute poverty are that it, theoretically, is tracking the thing we should be most concerned about, i.e. defining those that most need help to merely survive. The cons are numerous, ranging from questions of definition (how much food does one need to survive?) to currency value (many members of the poorest nations in the world use a barter system to get the goods they need) to everything in between. This is what leads us to the other option.

Relative Poverty: Relative poverty describes those that are “poor” relative to where they stand within a defined population. The “defined population” is where things get interesting but note that it’s completely acceptable for a researcher to define the population as one’s local community, state, country or even the entire world. It just depends on what one wants accomplish/is trying to show with the research. Relative poverty has been enormously successful at predicting things such as civil unrest, social stability, and perhaps most important of all (as Jordan has said himself), violence

That brings us back to Jordan’s point. Though the factual grounding of the statistic is solid, we’re not sure it’s necessarily a good argument against socialism in America. To put a pin on the statistic, the World Bank’s numbers show:

The percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10 percent in 2015 — the latest number available — down from 11 percent in 2013, reflecting steady but slowing progress, World Bank data show. The number of people living on less than $1.90 a day fell during this period by 68 million to 736 million.

However, as public health researcher Richard Wilkinson points out, increasing levels of inequality leads to a deterioration of societal health, lifespan, and even such basic values as trust. Summarizing his position as: “The average well-being of our societies is not dependent any longer on national income and economic growth. That’s very important in poorer countries, but not in the rich developed world. But the differences between us and where we are in relation to each other now matter very much.”

As always this document is a living document for the issue and Jordan’s position on it. If we made an error we will correct it and, in the meantime, we will continue to add his positions in context as they come in. 

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