1 June 2018

Jordan Peterson is right – inequality does not always imply discrimination


By now, millions of people in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world have watched the Channel 4 News exchange between British journalist Cathy Newman and Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. It has been the subject of countless online comments; hundreds of articles have been written analysing both Newman’s and Peterson’s performance. At the root of the disagreement between the two was the notion of equality of outcome.

Where does it come from and what, if anything, should be done about it? To start with, it is important to note how extraordinary it is that we are having this kind of conversation in the first place. For millennia, nobody thought that equality – in any sense of the word – was conceivable or even desirable. The strict stratification of our society into slaves, peasants, nobility and priests, people believed, was pre-ordained and vertical mobility impossible. A son born to a blacksmith would take over his father’s business and pass on that enterprise down to his son.

That this sort of stasis could go on for many generations is attested by the rise of “professional” last names, such as Smith, Potter, Cooper, Mason, Tyler and so on. Thus John, the son of Peter the Smith, became John Smith, etc. Today, last names are commonly passed down the male line, because men were the primary breadwinners and “business owners” in the days of yore.

It was not until the Age of the Enlightenment that privilege in its original sense of the word (i.e., a certain entitlement to immunity granted by the state or another authority to a restricted group, either by birth or on a conditional basis) came under scrutiny. As Western European economies expanded, the bourgeoisie grew richer. The wealth of the nouveau riche, in turn, became an important source of tax revenue for the warring monarchies. Naturally, the bourgeoisie resented its new “duties,” while the aristocrats, exempted from most taxation, enjoyed disproportionate political power and extra-legal rights.

The empowerment of the bourgeoisie, which took place during the course of the 18th century, produced a new dispensation. All well-off people, regardless of birth, would be treated equally before the law. Today it is de rigueur to sneer at both the bourgeoisie and the Enlightenment. In reality, the two unleashed upon the world a radically new idea – that people should be free to reach their maximum potential regardless of accidents of birth. The notion of equality of opportunity was born – even if it took centuries for it to encompass women, the lower classes, non-European races and, most recently, sexual minorities.

Equality of outcome is of still newer vintage. An outgrowth of late 20th century identity politics, it holds that certain groups should be proportionately represented in positions of power and affluence. Unlike equality of opportunity, which presumes equality before the law, equality of outcome presumes the opposite.

People differ in their abilities, choices and preferences. As such, inequality of outcomes is to be expected and, in some ways, welcomed. Inequality of outcome, after all, is the handmaiden of progress. To achieve equal outcomes, in contrast, people must be treated differently before the law. In that sense, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are incompatible.

It was into this philosophical conundrum that Newman and Peterson ventured in their clash. As far as Newman was concerned, unequal outcomes were proof-positive of discrimination. Inequality, Peterson  retorted, arises from a variety of sources, including differing abilities, choices and preferences. Unequal outcomes must be scrutinised individually, for they could have arisen for many different reasons. Therein lies the key to resolving the tension between the two conflicting visions of equality.

People on the Right have to recognise that the current distribution of wealth and power does not necessarily reflect the distribution of wealth and power as it would exist under conditions of perfect equality of          opportunity. That’s because equality of opportunity is an aspirational goal that is constantly undermined by human desire for unearned advantage. From tax-breaks for well-connected individuals to protections for uncompetitive firms, equal opportunity will always be threatened by privilege.

People on the Left have to recognise that unequal outcomes do not necessarily reflect conspiracies and systemic oppression. Inequality arises for a variety of reasons, including differing abilities, choices and preferences among individuals. As such, unequal outcomes must be assessed on their merits and without prejudice. The question that ought to be asked by all those who care about living in a fair society is the same question that the proponents of the Enlightenment would have asked, Is this instance of inequality a result of unequal treatment before the law? If so, let’s address it. If not, let’s pause and think about it some more.

Marian L. Tupy is senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.