A common theme in Jordan Peterson’s lectures concerns the difficulty of changing virtually anything. You say you want to change the world? Maybe you can. But you should practice on changing something within your direct purview.
The spouse with a bad habit you can’t stand? Figure out a way to raise the subject. Those two uncles that fight incessantly? Figure out a plan to help them get along. Have a brother who can’t hold a job? Help him develop a work ethic. Dad has a drinking problem? See what you can do to point him to moderation.
He uses this as a class exercise. Everyone picks some problem in their life that concerns other person or institution. Several weeks later they report back on their progress. They are surprised to discover just how deeply difficult it is to change the smallest thing about other’s behaviors and values, much less whole institutions, much less whole societies and world orders, and do it without making things worse rather than better. Change is hard. And, he adds, the best way to practice changing the world is to start with changing yourself. See if you can do that and work outwards from there.
A Check on Utopianism
The message is not supposed to be demotivating. It is meant to be a dose of reality, and a check against the wild utopianism and arrogance that infuses ideologically driven political activism. Above all else, goes the lesson, serious change requires wisdom, discipline, patience, vision, and a willingness to work slowly and carefully a bit at a time.
Change doesn’t usually come about through threats, screaming, signs, and intimidating demands, much less unhinged dreams of how you think the world should work. If the movements gathering around the country to demand this and that in front of the Supreme Court reduced their ambitions to immediate family and friends, they might discover the truth of what Peterson is teaching. Making a loud fuss can be satisfying but it doesn’t get the job done.
That said, one possible downside to his message might be to discourage anyone from trying to achieve anything that makes the world a better place. This is not a good takeaway. The truth is that it is possible to make a positive difference, whether in your own life, the lives of others, or even in the path of history itself. Social change is the reward of tenacity, courage, and patience above all else.
I want to cite a case in point to illustrate how it can happen, and I’m drawing here from the life of Ludwig von Mises, because it is a subject about which I spoke last night at an annual dinner that honors his memory.
He wrote some sad words in 1940, while on a boat leaving Europe for America, coming here with nothing at the age of 60 following an illustrious career that had ended in his exile. He wrote that he had “set out to be a reformer but only became a historian of decline.” Had he made a mistake when he started out as an idealist who would fight for sound money, free trade, peace, and the liberal order? He clearly wondered. He lost most battles and now Europe was being torn apart by war and destroyed by totalitarianism.
Let me take you back six years earlier. Mises was the chief economist for the Vienna chamber of commerce, and ran a seminar for economics graduate students at the University of Vienna. He also had a great circle of friends, mostly scholars who got together in evenings to discuss ideas and forge bonds of friendship.
By 1934, the rise of Hitler in Germany appeared inexorable, and everyone knew that he had his eyes on Austria with a plan to annex the country based on imperial ambitions to unite German-speaking countries. Worse, there was support for this idea within Austria itself. Mises could see the Hitler youth marching in the streets, an actual welcoming movement for German armies. They were calling for an end to liberalism and for driving out the Jews, whom they had come to skapegoat for all existing problems.
Mises made the exceedingly difficult decision to leave the country. Fortunately, there was an institution in Geneva, Switzerland – the Graduate Institute of International Studies – that was taking in scholars such as himself, in order to keep them safe and give them an opportunity to teach and write so long as the trouble in Europe persisted. He was given a desk, a solid income, colleagues, and access to books. He was given no “performance metrics,” no target demographic, no obligation to show results from his work, no demands from a board pushing him to do this rather than that.
A Book for the Ages
It took fully six years to finish his mighty treatise on economic theory, a notably dispassionate book of theory (until the very end where he warned that civilization was at stake). I can’t imagine the personal discipline it took to write such a thing in wartime, doing his best to tune out the world around him and write for the ages. He completed his task and the book went to print. But a German-language treatise on economics appearing in 1940 had, how shall I say, a limited market.
At this point, the Graduate Institute was overwhelmed with requests for academic sanctuary and Mises was encouraged to find another home. That’s when he left for America – somehow getting past the very tight immigration controls that had long targeted Jews in particular for exclusion. He made his way here, managed to cobble together enough funds to live on, and put together a friend circle.
Among those friends was Henry Hazlitt, then an editor at the New York Times. He had a friend at Yale University Press. Mises published a couple of smaller works there, and they were successful. Then Hazlitt broached the topic: how about Mises undertake to translate his great 1940 treatise into English? Mises was reluctant to revisit that failed project but he did in any case. At the age of 68.
The book in question became Human Action, which was titled after many attempts to come up with something to characterize one of the great books in the history of economics. By the way, it almost didn’t happen simply because Yale couldn’t find an employed economist in American academia who was willing to vouch for it and recommend it. In any case, it finally happened, and this book helped build the pro-liberal, pro-market movement in the postwar period. The ideological shift it brought about did indeed change the world, however slowly, however intermittently, however much on the margin.
But think back now. Mises left Vienna in 1934. His massive treatise didn’t come out for another 15 years, and it would be another 15 years beyond that before it really took hold and made the difference. It’s hard to imagine today how life might have been different. That book is part of our lives, integral to how we think. But it might have been otherwise.
Mises did the hard work, without celebration and without obvious effect. The crucial point is that it wasn’t achieved by committees demanding metrics or bureaucrats demanding instant results, much less mass movements screaming and demanding for change.
It happened because a genius was given the freedom and space to do his work. He wrote with reason, passion, determination, and elegance.
There’s another factor that I think Peterson would cite as an essential precondition for a plan to change the world: it must be consistent with real-world conditions. You can’t cause pigs to sprout wings or scarcity to disappear, which is precisely why socialism is nothing more than a fantasy. Ambitions for social change must deal with people and the material world as they really exist, which is precisely why changes on the margin are such an important check on the intellectual imagination.
Also part of reality is terrible evil, oppression, injustice, immorality, waste, disease, all of which require work to eliminate from human experience, though perfectionism will never exist this side of heaven. The conditions have to be right to change the world. It takes men and women of great courage and patience. But it can happen. We owe everything to those in the past who have been willing to take that difficult road and dare to both dream and act on those dreams.