Another day, another takedown of reactionary pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson, this time in a profile by Nellie Bowles in the New York Times. Peterson is a bottomless well of material for this sort of thing, because nearly every word the man says or writes is either bald misogyny or obscurantist gobbledygook, or both. (From the Times profile: “[Witches] certainly exist. . . . the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them.”) Peterson is, to a startling degree, the Donald Trump of academia: he has built a cult of personality for validating white men’s anger, their sense that they are being oppressed by women and political correctness, and promising to help them regain the upper hand. As with Trump, his combination of bigotry, white male victimhood, and overdressed word salad makes him an irresistible target for liberal journalists—which may only increase his standing in the eyes of his devoted followers.
Bowles’s piece rightly casts Peterson as the “custodian of the patriarchy,” a central figure in the backlash against gender equality. This movement has drawn extra scrutiny recently after a member of the online “incel” community—the term is short for “involuntarily celibate”—used a van to murder ten people on the streets of Toronto (where Peterson teaches, neatly enough). Incels are virulent misogynists who seek revenge, as the Toronto terrorist put it in a Facebook post, against “all the Chads and Stacys”—the men and women who have copious non-monogamous sex with each other while the incels stew at home with their laptops.
The Toronto attack spurred a bizarre discussion about the validity of incels’ grievances. According to a certain school of thought, and many incels themselves, the root of the problem is women’s sexual liberation. Once sex and marriage were decoupled in the West, the commodity of sex became subject to the forces of the free market. As a result, a small handful of elite men hoard all the mates, while less desirable men end up alone and angry. Some guys have all the luck.
This observation has prompted some conservatives to make the provocative argument that liberals who don’t worry about incels’ “access to sex” are hypocrites, since they are sympathetic to drastic means of resolving other forms of inequality. Robin Hanson, a libertarian economist, argued in a blog post, “One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.”
Hanson’s post drew howls on the left, but New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat stuck up for it in his column. “[A]s offensive or utopian the redistribution of sex might sound, the idea is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life,” he argued, “because like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers.” Peterson makes the point more bluntly in Bowles’s profile. In the free market of sex, “a small percentage of the guys have hyper-access to women, and so they don’t form relationships with women,” he says. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy.”
Peterson’s argument is superficially about sex, but it is equally revealing of conservative economic thought. It is built on a premise—high-status males hog all the women—that seems to flow naturally from basic laws of supply and demand. But a moment’s reflection tells you it’s utterly false. High-status men get married. The obviousness of this fact is almost hilarious. Well-meaning liberals who responded to Hanson and Douthat by sticking up for women’s sexual autonomy could have saved themselves a lot of energy by seeing that the whole debate is based on a patently ludicrous interpretation of reality.
Think about it. Is it true that the highest-status men in our society “don’t form relationships with women,” as Peterson puts it, instead living their lives as Hugh Hefner-style playboys? Of course not! Think of any man who’s rich, famous, powerful, handsome, or some combination of the above, and nine times out of ten he’ll be married (or at least divorced). Jeff Bezos, richest man alive? Married. LeBron James? Married his high school sweetheart after ten years in the NBA. Barack Obama, George Clooney, Elon Musk, Tom Brady: married, married, thrice divorced, married. I know Cory Booker isn’t married, but only because everyone thinks it’s so odd that Cory Booker isn’t married, which only proves the point.
The statistics are very clear on this: the more education and wealth you have, the more likely you are to be married. The decline in marriage in the United States is overwhelmingly a poor and working-class phenomenon.
Here, the fact that I live my life in a coastal elite bubble is actually helpful. I interact with a lot of high-status men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—handsome guys with money and great teeth and successful careers in politics, law, journalism—and almost every damn one of them is in a relationship or married. I guess it’s possible that these alpha males are all relentless cheats, that they maintain harems of concubines who have sex only with them, distorting the sex market. But that seems doubtful.
The idea that incels aren’t getting laid because a small handful of men get all the women is laughable on its face, yet it’s the foundation of an entire ideology. This is a perfect illustration of how a great deal of conservative economic theory works: harmful policies are justified by overly simplified economic stories that seem intuitively true but crumble when you look at the real-world evidence. The liberal economist and law professor James Kwak gave this phenomenon a name in his recent book, Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality. Economism, Kwak explains, is the “invocation of basic economics lessons to explain all social phenomena. . . . It rests on the premise that people, companies, and markets behave according to the abstract, two-dimensional illustrations of an Economics 101 textbook, even though the assumptions behind those diagrams virtually never hold true in the real world.”
So, for instance, we’re told that tax rates must be kept low lest we disincentivize work, even though history shows that wealthy Americans worked plenty hard back in the days of high marginal rates. We’re told that high-deductible, high-copay health plans will lower costs overall by spurring “consumers” to make more rational decisions, even though decades of experience shows this to be backwards. The whole field of antitrust law was undone through economism. Robert Bork declared that monopolies are fine because, according to Econ 101, as soon as they raise prices a new competitor will emerge to undercut them. We’ve got 40 years of evidence showing that to be false, as anyone who has bought tickets from Ticketmaster can attest, but the law is still shaped in Bork’s image.
In the case of the incels, the basic story is that since we live in a free market for sex, and men are encouraged to rack up as many partners as possible, it must be true that the most desirable men, the ones for whom there’s greatest demand, will soak up a disproportionate share of the supply. It turns out that, despite the anguished hand-wringing of the Ross Douthats of the world, American elites actually still really like monogamy. But to notice that, you’d have to look at what happens in real life—and once you do that, who knows how many other conservative myths might fall apart?
Applying the economism frame to the incel thing might seem like a stretch. After all, no one, not even Peterson (as far as I can tell) is actually proposing legally enforced monogamy or sexual redistribution. But the myth that men are being victimized by women’s freedom to choose their sexual partners—that Chad, the sexual monopolist, is crushing the little guy—is being used to advance a genuinely dangerous and very real attack on women’s hard-earned rights. Of course Jordan Peterson wants us to believe in witches. Like so many on the modern right, his whole worldview is a fairy tale.