Roberts and Peterson on Human Connection
By David Henderson
Russ Roberts: For Smith–those–you just said it in a very rich way. The way I summarize it: When we interact with other people, we have these little feedback loops of approval and disapproval. That’s what Smith talks about. And, it’s the raised eyebrow. It’s that look, that you are talking about, that says, ‘I want more. I want to be here.’ And, when you get that look, you know you are doing something right.
Jordan Peterson: Right–
Russ Roberts: It’s a beautiful signal.
Jordan Peterson: Exactly. I want to be here with you now. That’s a good look.
Russ Roberts: And, just to refund (?) that for a second–some of the most transcendent moments of my life have been the handful of times that I’ve had a conversation where that kind of connection is established, with a person who might be almost, sometimes a stranger. Doesn’t have to be your wife–although but if it’s your wife, it’s lovely, and your children, or your loved ones. But when you can connect with another human being in that open, inviting–it’s a delicious thing. It doesn’t have to be–it’s not someone just telling you a joke. It can be somebody sharing a tragedy that you empathize with that connects them to you in a profound way.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah. Well, I describe that in Chapter 9. That’s Rule 9. Assume that the person you are listening to knows something you don’t. And it’s a guide to having that kind of conversation. And I would say that’s a conversation where, speaking metaphysically, I would say that’s a conversation where the logos is present, right? Because both of you are developing in the conversation.
This is my favorite part of the most-recent EconTalk episode, “Jordan Peterson on 12 Rules for Life,” EconTalk, February 19, 2018.
It led me to two thoughts.
1. I think of most of my close friendships and how I can remember a particular conversation that started them, where one of us said something and the other responded in a way that showed that he had truly gotten it, not just intellectually but, often, emotionally. Russ Roberts mentions his wife. What I recall is the first two conversations I had with the woman who became my wife and how they made me think “This is the one.”
2. I also think of my own way of being in the world where the odds that any human interaction will lead to a close friendship are low, but nevertheless I get a real pleasure that actually sometimes is so intense that I can feel my head getting a little fuzzy. I shared one of them here a few years ago. In my normal month, this happens a fair amount, but it happens even more frequently when I travel. I take many of the opportunities to enjoy and appreciate someone I run into in a hotel, say, and I sometimes get a lot back.
When I spoke at Webber International University last week, I had 3 events in the afternoon and evening. The first was my talk on numeracy in a statistics class. It went reasonably well, but not as well as I had hoped and not as well as it went when I was a professor and did it in class. The third was my public talk to about 90 to 100 people, 90% of whom were undergrads. It went reasonably well but, I think, was too technical for that audience and maybe that’s why there were, at times, 3 or 4 side conversations that were so distracting that I stopped my talk to ask them to please stop talking. But the second one was amazingly good. My host, Professor Phil Murray, had told the students that they could come and talk to me about anything–their careers, economics, freedom (one of the students was reading my book The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey), and I don’t know whether he put any other topics on the agenda. I’ve done this before at other schools with reasonable results, but in this one, many of us were really connecting. I had told them early in the hour, because it was a propos of something, about my hugging Ronald Reagan in his office in Century City. After I answered one student’s question “How much do you trust government?” with the answer “Under 10 percent,” we had a really interesting discussion. First, a number of them thought I had said, “One hundred and ten percent,” and so I clarified and then I got the impression that some were relieved that it wasn’t total but most seemed to have more trust in government than I did–there’s a lot of room between 10 and 110. Second, I laid out examples to back up my distrust in government. I mentioned George W. Bush who, I concluded in some recent research with Chad Seagren, may not have been lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but was certainly looking for confirming evidence. I mentioned the police in Baltimore who, according to one cop, carried BB guns “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.” I gave the example of Defense Secretary and my former Hoover colleague Jim Mattis, who, when Donald Trump asked him what the justification was for sending so many troops to so many countries, answered “Sir, we’re doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square.”
Then one student said, “Do you think that government sometimes lies to us in order to calm us down when they’re afraid of telling us the scary truth.” I said that I think that sometimes happens but that it’s more typically the other way–trying to hype a small threat when doing so will help pass legislation that they want. A student from Haiti said that the way he looked at it you could either just tell yourself that government is keeping us safe and trust them to do it or you could be more realistic and realize that you need to take care of yourself. I told him I could hug him. Afterwards, in fact, I did.
I also liked this part:
Russ Roberts: And I do my part. But it doesn’t get into my bones the way–I don’t feel the need to rant, say, about the latest policy blunder the way I used to. And I’m increasingly humble about what I’m sure of. So, that’s all good. But at the same time, I worry, as I think you do, that the American experiment or more broadly the Western experiment that celebrates and honors liberty, restrains the power of the state, recognizes the sanctity of the individual–that that’s in jeopardy. Maybe serious jeopardy. And I see your book and your book and your videos as a part of an effort to fight against that serious tide. And I want your advice on how to balance tending one’s own garden with the chaos that seems to be erupting outside of ourselves and saying, ‘Well, I’ll just stick here to my little garden. I don’t need to solve all that.’ I can’t. And besides, it’s a lot of nonsense, mostly. But, it could be that the house is on fire. I’m getting a little nervous.
Well, I would say that having the sorts of conversations that we’re having–I mean, these are public conversations as well. I can’t think of anything that’s better that you can do. Like, what could you possibly do that would be better than that? You know–you are not in a position at the moment to directly influence large-scale policy decisions, let’s say. And you know how difficult it is to formulate those properly to begin with. I believe–I truly believe–that if people tended to what was in front of them, if they paid attention to what they can control and they organized that properly, that that would do the trick. That would solve the policy problems. I believe that it’s the right level of analysis. And so, you know, you said, while you have a family and you’ve raised your family and you’re trying to get along with your kids, and you have this podcast, and you are trying to put forth the ideas of Adam Smith–genius-level idea of Adam Smith. And I presume that you find that engaging and meaningful. And it might be that you are working at exactly the right level of resolution.
I like that. But I also like the fact that a local friend, Lawrence Samuels, got me involved against a fight against a county-wide sales tax increase in 2003. It was my first focused activism to achieve a particular goal and we won. If I were to, Thomas Jefferson-style, list a few things on my grave stone that I was proudest of in my life, I would list that battle. So I’m glad I went beyond the usual things academic and journalistic economists do, at least that one time. (See here, here, and here for my story about the whole thing.)
I want to add one thing. One way to both do what you do well and still be doing other things to save civilization is to be courageous and model courage for others. I sometimes have fantasies about foiling a terrorist hijacker and that’s great but, fortunately, it’s unlikely to happen. But we have chances to speak up in many situations. When I was a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, I did it by asking tough questions of visiting 3- and 4-star Admirals and of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (at 43:40). As one of my students put it, “There’s no problem with saying ‘Choose your battles.’ It’s good advice. The problem is that many people who say ‘Choose your battles’ never choose any battles.”