In the United States today, the richest 0.1 percent of households command as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined; the average CEO collects 140 times as large a salary as his (or, very occasionally her) typical employee; the median white family is 12 times richer than the median black one; and the superrich can expect to live 15 years longer than the poor.
And North America’s most influential public intellectual has convinced himself that one our society’s biggest problems is its excessive intolerance for inequality.
Jordan Peterson believes that America is besieged by “postmodernists” who wish to build an economic system that will guarantee “equal outcomes” for all individuals. In his book, YouTube videos, lectures, and newspaper interviews, the Canadian psychologist — turned patron-saint of “failsons” — decries the notion that justice requires total economic equality with such fervor and frequency, you’d think he was speaking from a Stalinist gulag.
And yet, he is far from alone in this fixation. His fellow travelers in the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” also believe that it is extremely important — and incredibly brave — to say that full communism is a bad idea in Donald Trump’s United States. Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan — and just about every other prominent critic of “social justice warriors” — regularly decry the left for abandoning the American ideal of “equality of opportunity” for the Marxist dream of “equality of outcomes.”
While wholly divorced from social reality, the origins of Peterson & Co.’s obsession with radical egalitarianism are plain to see. Progressive commentators (and social media users) routinely present racial and gender disparities as dispositive evidence of social injustice. When liberals do this, they do not (generally) intend to suggest that all human beings are equal in aptitude — or that fairness requires total equality in the material and social conditions of all individuals and demographic groups. I do not know any feminists who blame the patriarchy for the fact that no woman has ever played middle linebacker in the NFL. These days, most self-identified “socialists” in the U.S. seem to want little more than the same suite of social welfare programs enjoyed by their peers in capitalist Western Europe. And even those lefties who are genuinely committed to socializing the means of production are, typically, quite comfortable with the survival of material inequality within a narrow band (to incentivize and reward socially useful labor).
The reason (most) progressives posit the gender-wage gap — or racial disparities in incarceration, or income inequality — as self-evident testaments to injustice is not that they are committed to “equality of outcomes.” Rather, it is that they believe that in a society as racist, sexist, and economically stratified as our own, it is safe to assume that such inequalities are not solely rooted in meritocracy or social utility.
Jordan Peterson’s default assumption is that in “Western societies” such inequalities primarily reflect “hierarchies of competence” that redound to benefit of the public as a whole. The left, by contrast, assumes that the gender-wage gap (at least partially) reflects the fact that women have been so thoroughly and durably subordinated in the United States, men in Oklahoma and North Carolina still had the legal right to rape their wives as recently as 1993.
Progressives also feel it safe to say that the economic chasm between black and white households might have something to do with the fact that, for most of American history, chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discriminatory housing policies barred the vast majority of African-Americans from the opportunity to accrue wealth. And liberals are also fairly confident that “hierarchies of competence” do not fully explain the disparate market incomes of the one percent and middle class, in a nation where beloved public school teachers live on the edge of poverty, and Donald Trump lives in the White House.
Is it plausible that, in conditions of total social equality, human beings with lower testosterone levels would be disproportionately interested in “care work” and child-rearing — while those with higher levels would be overrepresented among mechanical engineers? Sure. But that hypothetical isn’t terribly relevant to questions of social policy in a nation where women are still routinely subjected to domestic violence in their homes, sexual harassment in their workplaces, and gender bias at their schools.
Nor would such disparate preferences necessarily justify pay disparities, even in the absence of such social disadvantages. There is nothing natural about the price that markets place on different kinds of labor. Our entire economic system relies on women performing incalculable hours of reproductive work without receiving any formal compensation at all. The fact that the market delivers enormous rewards to people who design collateralized debt obligations — and piddling ones to those who care for the elderly — is a reflection of government policy, not metaphysical truth. Jordan Peterson owes his newfound fortune to the construct of “intellectual property rights,” and the willingness of nation-states to enforce such rights through coercion. A single mother raising four children — whose labor will one day help subsidize Peterson’s Old Age Security pension — receives no compensation for her efforts, because policy makers have chosen not to make a similar “intervention” in the market on her behalf.
Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro would be well within their rights to contest these premises. But instead of engaging in an honest debate about whether equality of opportunity exists in the United States, they chose to misconstrue their point-of-contention with “SJWs” — and proceed to delegitimize concerns over structural inequality by equating them with a totalitarian ideology (i.e. “cultural Marxism”).
The fact that they voice such unequivocal support for “equality of opportunity” while executing this move is, itself, a testament to their bad faith. In truth, these conservative thinkers do not actually believe that all citizens of a democracy are entitled to an equal opportunity at economic and social success. In fact, virtually no one believes that — because achieving such equality is impossible to literally realize, absent a degree of social engineering that would make Chairman Mao blush.
Even if we (arbitrarily) confine our concern to inequalities of opportunity rooted in the historic, de jure oppression of African-Americans, the degree of government intervention necessary to level the playing field is massive. Thanks to state-sponsored residential segregation, black children are far more likely than white ones to grow up in neighborhoods and buildings that expose them to hazardous concentrations of lead. And this exposure can do durable damage to a child’s cognitive faculties, including her memory, attention, reasoning, and motor skills. Which is to say: By the time they arrive at kindergarten, many black children will already find themselves at a (potentially permanent) cognitive disadvantage, as a consequence of the inequitable housing conditions that they were born into.
And then, such children will likely find themselves in an elementary school that has lower per-pupil funding — and a higher concentration of poverty among the student body (socioeconomic segregation has been shown to be detrimental to the educational outcomes of individual low-income students) — than their white peers. And those disadvantages are, themselves, products of residential discrimination that the federal government engineered.
One could devote (and many have devoted) whole books to further unspooling the structural disadvantages that African-American young people encounter as they come of age. But if we decide to stop the story here — and pretend that “equality of opportunity” can be established merely by providing all American children with equal access to housing that won’t poison them, and schools that are equally well-funded and socioeconomically diverse — the task before us is already immense. To establish even this impoverished form of “equal opportunity,” the federal government would need to execute a massive program of lead removal and public housing construction, and then radically restructure how the public education system is financed.
And yet, you will not find the Intellectual Dark Web’s many champions of equal opportunity clamoring for such intiatives. In fact, Ben Shapiro has argued that the “the idea that black people in the United States are disproportionately poor because America is racist; that’s just not true.” Peterson, meanwhile, believes that the following argument constitutes a bulletproof case that economic inequalities in the United States are almost entirely meritocratic:
Let’s say you want to determine what the best predictors are for lifetime success in a Western society. Well, what would you hope for? How about intelligence. There would be a good one: Let’s hope the smart people occupy more positions of complexity. Right, because they’re smarter? Would you want it any other way? The number one predictor of accomplishment in Western societies is intelligence. What’s the number two predictor: Conscientiousness. Well, what’s that? It’s a trait marker for hard work. So, who gets ahead? Smart people who work hard.
That the socioeconomic conditions a person is born into could limit her opportunity to develop such traits never seems to cross Peterson’s mind.
This oversight isn’t a product of the esteemed professor’s lack of intelligence or conscientiousness. It merely betrays the fact that, when Peterson champions “equality of opportunity,” he is not expressing a sincere desire to minimize the anti-meritocratic features of our political economy. Rather, he is seeking to naturalize those features by asserting, without evidence, that the absence of de jure discrimination renders them nonexistent.