The Role of Privilege
In the Q&A period at the end of the Jordan Peterson talk I recently attended, Peterson addressed the issue of privilege. He agreed that there is such a thing. I do too, but he didn’t take F. A. Hayek’s and my approach, which is that privilege occurs when government, including the legal system, gives someone special treatment.
But enough about my view. I want to talk about Peterson’s. He agrees with the left-wing, and increasingly mainstream, view that privilege has to do with wealth, upbringing, etc. Peterson stated that if someone accuses you of being privileged, you can agree with the point but then point out what you’re doing with the privilege: helping people, being productive (which also helps people), etc. But then it’s on you to go the extra mile—help people, etc.
Let’s say that I agree with Peterson’s view of what privilege is. I don’t, but I want to see where it leads.
Most of the time I’ve seen people being accused of privilege, it’s in response to a policy position that they take. Here the answer should not be the one Peterson gives—look at the good I’m doing with it. The answer, typically, should be that the charge is irrelevant.
So, imagine that I’m arguing against the minimum wage. I point out that the minimum wage prices a lot of unskilled workers out of the labor force, and I note that this disproportionately harms young black people.
In response, the person I’m talking to says that he or she (from now on, I’ll use “he”) shouldn’t pay attention to what I’m saying because I’m privileged. He might also say that I wouldn’t know what it’s like to work at a minimum wage job because I’ve never done so. (Actually, I did, during the summer of 1972.) But let’s say he doesn’t make that faux pas and simply dismisses my argument based on privilege.
What should be my response? It should be that my privilege or lack of privilege is irrelevant to the issue. Let’s say I’m a billionaire. Does that in any way affect the elasticity of demand for unskilled labor or any other aspect of potential jobs for unskilled laborers? No. Therefore it doesn’t affect the results of the minimum wage. Or take the extreme: I can’t have privilege if I don’t exist. So, imagine I didn’t exist. Would the elasticity of demand for labor he higher or lower? Neither.
The accuser has simply made a category error. Privilege does not matter for the argument I’m making about the minimum wage.
In the next few days, I’ll say more about what I think privilege is and I’ll talk about the main way that I, and most readers of this blog, are privileged.
Thanks to Charley Hooper for helpful discussion.