Jordan Peterson: A Libertarian Reading

Note — this was originally published with Merion West and can be found here —

Dr. Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is a modern self-help book unlike those you might read from a fitness guru or a religious leader. Peterson’s advice to lead a fulfilling life is interwoven with concepts from psychology, mythology, tradition, and economics. It’s a personal book; Peterson doesn’t hesitate to tell stories from his own life. And it’s not a political book, insofar as the very notion of improving your own life is not a political issue. Still, in the climate of 2019, it’s difficult not to read his book and come away relating the lessons in it to one’s own political orientation. In this light, I’ve constructed my own list. It’s shorter and briefer in detail than Peterson’s Twelve. I call it, “Nine Ideas of Libertarianism.” Peterson clearly intuits many of these in his book, though he contradicts one, as we’ll see.

Spontaneous Order

Economists have long realized that order emerges spontaneously among groups of people. This is contrary to the false notion that one requires rulers for social order to emerge and remain stable. The vast majority of personal interactions are between individuals who are responding locally and voluntarily to the situation at hand. Creationists might refuse to acknowledge Design without a Designer in the biosphere, but the same logic holds in many minds with respect to society — those who advocate for a larger government cannot fathom an economy that is planned by no one, and yet displays remarkable complexity and order.

Peterson clearly understands this idea of Rules-without-a-Ruler. Early in 12 Rules for Life, he writes about the social hierarchies that emerge in birds, wolves, and chimps. He also appreciates this bottom-up way of creating complexity with respect to cultural artifacts, such as the Bible — “It’s a truly emergent document — a selected, sequenced and finally coherent story written by no one and everyone over many thousands of years.” Written by no one. I grinned at that passage. Peterson gets it.

The Impossibility of Equality

One problem with discussing inequality is that often people are employing different definitions of the word and so talk past each other. By “inequality,” I mean differences in economic opportunities, abilities, preferences, and values between individuals. The uncomfortable truth (for some) is that there is no way to set these attributes to be equal between people. People are too idiosyncratic, as are their circumstances. Upon closer inspection, the very notion of “inequality” falls upon as being either vague or ambiguous. Worse still, it is often leveraged as a justification for wielding power over other people — and over the economy as a whole, a strategy that cannot solve problems.

This impossibility of equality manifests in Price’s Law, the generalization of which effectively states that in any creative field of production, a small minority of participants produce the majority of valuable output. Peterson makes reference to this principle and gives examples to support its validity: most scientific papers are published by just a few scientists; most books are sold by just a fraction of all authors. Cleverly, Peterson notes that Price’s Law seems to hold in domains outside of human societies, such as in other species and even in stars. Given the law’s ubiquity, it’s difficult to chalk up inequality to merely capitalism.

Time Preference/Delayed Gratification

Time preference is the economist’s term for delayed gratification. Even though we all prefer to achieve our ends now, sometimes we can only meet our goals in the future, if we make sacrifices in the present. It’s why loans tend to be given with interest — I’ll give you five dollars now in exchange for six dollars tomorrow. It’s a seemingly irrefutable idea with enormous consequences for understanding the economy.

Dr. Peterson takes this idea and applies it to the brutal contrast between people on different rungs of the social ladder — and the physiological effects of one’s status. Those who are “dominated” tend to be “much more physically and psychologically reactive” and therefore burn up resources that could have been stored for future use. This effectively reduces one’s ability to delay gratification. On the other hand, those who “dominate” “…don’t need to grasp impulsively at whatever crumbs come [their] way” and so are able to invest present resources into their future plans.

In another passage unrelated to differences in status, Peterson offers a stark but important perspective on impulsivity, on sacrificing future prosperity for present satisfaction — “Expedience is…narrow, and selfish…It’s immature and irresponsible.” Let no one tell you that Peterson aims to infantilize his audience — he only wants the best for them.

Demonstrated Preference

A key insight from economics is that a person’s actions reveal their preferences, whether or not the person’s words align with those actions. So, for example, a celebrity might be against gun rights while employing armed bodyguards. That person has demonstrated that he prefers having security to not having it, despite his words to the contrary. Once again, this is an idea that might seem trivial but has counterintuitive implications for the whole of society.

Peterson knows about this concept and, in typical fashion, weaves it together with philosophy and psychology to comment on how one should live. Having explained that action implies a scale of values (you’d prefer to do A rather than B, but also B rather than C), Peterson insists that we should articulate those values so that we may better prioritize what we should do — and in what order.

Impossibility of Comparing Yourself to Others

Since every individual has a unique scale of values, it is meaningless to compare your lot in life with someone else’s. More than that, life isn’t a fixed pie — one person’s success does not imply another person’s failure. If two people voluntarily trade with one another, they are both made better off; otherwise, they would not have engaged in the transaction in the first place. Moreover, the very fact that wealth has been increasing and accumulating across the globe for centuries is a testament to the magnificent open-endedness of material progress.

Dr. Peterson emphasizes that because every individual is playing so many “games” simultaneously, no two people are pursuing the exact same set of goals. So to compare oneself to another in even one arbitrary dimension is incomplete, senseless, and counterproductive. As Peterson notes, this self-imposed critic uses “the unbridgeable gap between you and its target of comparison as evidence for the fundamental injustice of life. That way your motivation to do anything at all can be most effectively undermined.”

The Knowledge Problem

One of the more counterintuitive ideas with which libertarians are familiar is the so-called knowledge problem. This is the notion that a centralized authority, such as a government, cannot possibly acquire all of the information it would need to run an economy from the top down. Rather, the knowledge of how an economy works is distributed and fragmented across all of the individuals who are engaged in it — producers, consumers, and middlemen. It is simply impossible for a bureaucrat to know how the owner of a mining company thousands of miles away should run his business, and the former can only hinder the latter’s ability to execute effectively (for a beautiful illustration of the knowledge problem, see Leonard Read’s essay, “I, Pencil”).

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Peterson tells the reader that she knows better than anyone else what’s best for her — a kind of “knowledge problem” at the most granular level. And of course, in his advice that you should “bring peace to your household” before trying to rule a city, he is implicitly recognizing the knowledge problem and the humility that it demands of us. You simply can’tsolve problems by reorganizing the whole of society, but what you can do is solve local problems, beginning with those in your own life.

Poverty is the Default, Wealth is the Miracle

People tend to take our vast levels of wealth for granted, assuming, among other falsehoods, that they don’t require an explanation. But in fact, humanity was born into utter poverty, struggling for minimal subsistence inside of Mother Nature. Nasty, brutish, and short is the rule. Civilization is the exception.

This fact easily lends itself to gratitude, which is probably why it makes its way into 12 Rules. In particular, Peterson explains that violence is the norm, and the fact that there’s any peace at all is the exception. He also urges the reader to remember what it took to build the structures and institutions around us and that they are always susceptible to corruption. In another application, Peterson explains that, yes, pollution is a problem, but people could only afford to recognize it as such once they reached a certain level of wealth. And the very cause of pollution, namely, technological innovations, freed millions of people from starvation. It is only after people can afford to live comfortably can they focus on problems that extend beyond the immediate future.

Given that Peterson is aware that poverty itself is the greatest oppressor in history, he rejects the hypothesis that women in the West are held down by the patriarchy. Men and women both have been increasingly liberated from the shackles of poverty over the centuries, thanks to innovation after innovation. One amusing example Peterson gives is the invention of the birth control pill by Gregory Goodwin Pincus. Surely, this has freed millions of women to make choices that would otherwise have been unavailable to them, and yet it was produced by one of the so-called patriarchal oppressors.

Peaceful Parenting

Libertarians recognize that initiating violence against peaceful people is always immoral (and economically counterproductive, but that’s another story). This principle is universal, meaning that it applies to those of other cultures, aliens from other galaxies, and our children.

Here, Peterson defends careful application of physical punishment against undisciplined children. To be fair, he never advocates anything even approaching outright abuse, and he offers plenty of other valuable, peaceful strategies for parents, as well. But here we are concerned with the principled libertarian stance against initiating violence, and one is either in violation of a principle or not. So even a swat on a child’s back, mild though it may be, is a form of violent discipline. As such, a consistent libertarian cannot endorse it.

But how can a parent stop her child from misbehaving, if not with physical means? The question presumes a false choice. The beauty of universal acceptance of the libertarian so-called nonaggression principle is that it forces you to get creative — there is always a peaceful solution; it’s just a matter of discovering it.

Coercion is Anti-Human

Every act of taxation, governmental regulation, and illiberal law draws the creative spirit out of its victims, like a vampire addicted to its human cattle. Because they all require coercing others according to someone else’s will, they reduce people’s ability to solve problems independently and creatively. Every government action weighs down on the citizen, reducing his options in pursuing his own ends. Such coercion against peaceful people is, therefore, anti-human, dampening the fires of free creativity.

In his book, Peterson describes a TEDx talk he’d witnessed, in which the speaker implored the audience to have no more than one child, as it would be the ethical thing to do. Peterson associated this anti-human sentiment to Mao’s one-child policy, his point being that such thinking leads to massive coercive policies that always horrify later historians.

This is not to say that no constraints are necessary, only that involuntary ones cannot solve problems. Peterson is aware of this, as he writes that our behavior is constrained by both evolutionary forces and the emergence of social strategies fosters cooperation.


12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is certainly a uniquely written offering about what is required of a person to live a meaningful life. Dr. Peterson’s perspective on life, humanity, and the narratives we tell ourselves is somewhere between idiosyncratic, quirky, and profound. There are plenty of libertarian themes throughout, inextricably woven with the rest of the eminent psychologist’s philosophy. Whether he meant to do so or not, the freedom themes are there nevertheless. Maybe it’s impossible to write a book about how to better yourself without invoking some of the core principles of freedom. Maybe by telling people to stare cold, cruel reality in the face and to triumph nevertheless, Peterson has hit on something fundamental — that it is up to each of us to create meaning in our own lives, to improve the world by improving ourselves and helping those around us. And that those who promise us a brighter future at the cost of submission to their will are snake oil salesmen, whether knowingly or not. At the heart of 12 Rules is that libertarian message — that meaning, progress, and prosperity all require freedom. Only with personal freedom can the individual choose a better life for himself. Tyranny can never do that for him. In a few hundred pages of personal anecdotes, lessons from history, and psychological expertise, Jordan Peterson offers strategies for the individual to rise and face life’s hardships, and to find meaning in the fight for personal betterment.

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Writer for Quillette, Areo, Physics World, and others| Science, history, philosophy, and economics | @ChipkinLogan

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