Policymaking is a term that’s often used under the governmental or international level, in a political context; but the thing is, it’s not actually limited to just those cases. The definition of policy alone encompasses a much larger variety of cases, it’s any structured means of guiding decisions and actions that is thought to be necessary for the functioning of the organisation it has mandate over; a society in itself, I’d argue, is an organisation too.
With policies, there is by the definition a goal. That’s the intended effect of the policy itself, where the policymakers want to resolve a problem that already exists, or they feel is imminent. Of course, for any decision made, and as such policy implemented, there are associated unintended consequences, coming up often in the form of externalities: A concept very familiar to people in our faculty.
This Wednesday (31st of October 2018), Jordan Peterson was invited as the last guest as a part of the Room for Discussion lustrum interview series, with the theme of “Crises.” Defined in recent times solely by the controversy he has managed to generate and attract, he also has an equally large following that is much akin to a religious one. With the sharp divide between the people identifying themselves as a part of the left-right political spectrum (arguably way too simplistic, but remains a good classifier nevertheless) getting wider and wider, it is of no surprise that the reactions to Peterson are as, if not more, divided.
Surprising to us at Rostra, in his talk Peterson did not end up being so quite controversial, partially because of the interviewers avoiding much of the confrontational matters (understandably so) and were a bit too agreeing at times. Yet in the end, he garnered some degree of sympathy even from people I know to be vehemently against any form discrimination or conservative-leaning ideas. I attribute that partially to the points he makes about policymaking. Aside from his controversial take on the Canadian Bill C-16, the that got him stepping under the limelight for the first time, he was quite vocal about policies for positive discrimination and preventing sexual harassment in workplaces.
In the interview, Peterson gives several examples of related bad policies, most absurd one being Netflix’s no-more-than-five-seconds staring rule. His arguments regarding this matter as a whole rely mostly on a single idea: When creating new policies, for any form of organisation, with the goal of resolving symptoms of underlying problems, the intended effects of the said policies cease to actually solve the problems that need solving, and the superficial approaches taken come with many unintended consequences.
One of the final subjects of the interview was the matter of equality strongly correlating, an effect he notes to be causal, with increasingly disproportionate gender distributions in professional fields. In most gender-equal countries such as the Scandinavian ones, as opposed to the least equal countries such as the likes of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, “paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality.” In supplementing these results, he noted that the distributions ultimately will reach complete separation of genders in STEM fields, teaching, and nursing, because of not only the inherent interests in “things versus people” between genders, but also because of a positive feedback loop that makes it more difficult for people from the opposite gender of that field to enter the field in the first place.
The funny thing was, of course, that when confronted about how this can be resolved, he simply mentioned that it can’t be: No policy, no quota, or no positive discrimination can fix it, and only a random lottery could achieve a 50/50 distribution without adverse effects. I would go as far as to argue that the negative externalities generated from a lottery system, where people have to work in the industries they are either disinterested or under-qualified for, would have much more dire consequences for the happiness of people, than having to be the gender minority. Black market for jobs, anybody? Seems intriguing only from a researcher point of view…
Another good example of potential problems that can be the output of very obvious solutions was the case of Boyan Slat. Having dropped out of college to spend five years building an ocean-cleaning machine, Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup with the quest of extracting large amounts of plastic from the oceans. As Peterson pointed in his interview, application of modern technologies such as this one can actually incentivise companies to dump more plastics in the oceans with the expectation that they will be cleaned up regardless, providing positive and negative externalities simultaneously.
Before and after the Room for Discussion interview, a group of friendly protestors were handing out flyers titled, “12 objections to Jordan Peterson, pseudo-scientist & status-quo fighter” (bonus points for 12, I guess it’s a reference to his book 12 Rules for Life). Although it makes quite a few good points about his lack of aptitude in certain subjects, the 12th and final point raises an interesting statement with which I agree: Jordan Peterson is a fighter for the status-quo.
However, sometimes I wonder if a continuous attempt in progression will always yield the results that are beneficial to the society. Can such continuous attempt be sustained while remaining thorough and comprehensive with the way we approach our policymaking? In resolving problems while dealing with complex economic, political, and social systems, we have to be much more careful in how we devise policies.