THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Highlights From The Comments On Conflict Vs. Mistake

I.

Thanks to everyone who commented on the posts about conflict and mistake theory.

aciddc writes:

I’m a leftist (and I guess a Marxist in the same sense I guess I’m a Darwinist despite knowing evolutionary theory has passed him by) fan of this blog. I’ve thought about this “conflict theory vs. mistake theory” dichotomy a lot, though I’ve been thinking of it as what distinguishes “leftists” from “liberals.”

I went through the list of “conflict theory says X, mistake theory says Y” nodding my head and hoping that you and everybody else reading it had the same impression as me -that both theories are important and valuable frameworks through which to view the world. There are definitely common interests that everybody in America shares, and there are definitely some pretty significant conflicts of interests as well.

The reason that I do identify as a leftist and sometimes feel like an evangelist for conflict theory is that I get the impression that most people don’t even have conflict theory in their mental framework. Leftists all understand what the “we’re all in this together” liberal viewpoint is, while even incredibly smart and on it liberals like yourself can go for a long time without even thinking about the “politics is the clash of interest groups with conflicts of interest” leftist viewpoint.

I’m starting with this one, before I get to all the criticism and objections, to insist that there is some core worth saving here. To everyone who says this was obvious, I can only plead that you listen to all the people saying it wasn’t obvious to them at all. There are probably a lot of things wrong with how I described it, and the remaining comments will go over a lot of them, but I can only make the excuse that I’m groping towards something useful without any of the people who claim to already understand it perfectly helping me at all.

HeelBearCub writes:

First off, I think Scott’s post is a good post that seems to make good points and takes steps on the path to true knowledge. But, as I read it I kept thinking about Indian wise men describing the elephant. Or rather, I pictured two amateur carpenters arguing about how wood is joined together, one being a “nail” theorist and the other a “screw” theorist. Now obviously, you build using wood or nails, but structures out in the real world are not built exclusively using one or the other. This seems to me to be a recurring failure of thinking on Scott’s part, honestly. The tendency to naturally think in binary terms (even while knowing this is incorrect).

The goal of those posts wasn’t to present a perfect understanding and tell people that was it, but to gesture at a concept that needed refining.

By analogy, should we ever talk about the left vs. right axis in politics? Isn’t that just a “dichotomy”? After all, almost nobody is 100% leftist on everything or 100% rightist on everything.

What about introverts and extraverts? There’s no 100% introvert or 100% extravert. Everyone is a combination of introverted in some situations and extraverted in others. That doesn’t mean we should never use these terms, or that psychologists are being too binary and dichotomizing. It means we establish the terms so that everyone knows what we’re talking about, and then discuss where everybody is on the axis in between them.

I tried to exaggerate conflict and mistake theory equally, making it obvious I was presenting caricature versions to be filled in later. I think I was at least equally unfair to mistake theorists – presenting them as believing there’s no such thing as selfishness, as thinking that surely tobacco companies just deny their products cause cancer because their CEOs have an genuinely different interpretation of health statistics. The point isn’t “mistake theory is good and normal and conflict theory is bad”. The point is that both look ridiculous at the extremes and everyone combines them in some (different) proportion in reality.

II.

Tumblr user unknought writes:

Principal-agent problems, rent-seeking, and aligning incentives are things that socialists do talk about. Like, a lot. But even if they weren’t, it’s totally bizarre to represent these as mistake theory concepts. All three of these are concepts which are used to describe ways in which we don’t all want the same things, and how agents in positions of power whose goals don’t align with the common good can fuck things up for the rest of us. If conflict theory means anything, it means that.

On my hospital analogy for why mistake theorists like free speech:

So like, if you learned that your doctor’s recommendation was influenced by Pfizer owning the hospital and restricting doctors’ choices and suppressing information about their medication…wouldn’t that be an excellent reason not to be a mistake theorist in this case? Like, this is literally an example of where you can’t trust expert opinion because things are being controlled by a powerful entity whose interests do not align with the common good. This is about as clear-cut an example of conflict theory getting it right as can be imagined.

They quote another Tumblr user who I’m not sure I have permission link directly, responding to my analogy of the shill scientist with a PowerPoint:

In this scenario, even the strawman conflict theorist acknowledges that the people who believe the powerpoint are mistaken, and could be won over through reason and debate, thus undercutting the narrative scott is presenting in which strawmen ‘conflict theorists’ are generally uninterested in debate…the whole tendency to caricature opponents as anti-rational also plays in to his assumption that conflict theorists would be anti-intellectual, which ignores that in the context of a conflict, having intelligent people working on your side to win the conflict is obviously desirable…

even if i do think scott amounts to the hypothetical “Elite shill” with a powerpoint saying yellowstone will erupt, proving his claims wrong on a technical level is still my first and most important priority if i want him to not be a successful shill. simply accusing him of being a shill, and pointing out the $1,627,000 which MIRI (which scott is affiliated with) has received from Peter Thiel would be useless if i couldn’t also demonstrate to people that he was incorrect. the insinuation that viewing a particular disagreement as a conflict of interest presupposes any possibility of engaging on a factual level is ludicrous. even if i think the “conflict theorist”/”mistake theorist” is just a cheap rhetorical trick to sell people on anti-democratic ideology, i still need to demonstrate that it’s not reflective of material reality.

(one correction: I am not affiliated with MIRI. I spent a few weeks doing a minor writing job for them five years ago; I have had no formal relationship since then besides donating money)

The three comments above all seem right to me, and seem like the best examples of how my intuitive concepts of “conflict theorist” and “mistake theorist” fail to be captured by the ways I described them.

How fatal is this objection? A lot of things aren’t accurately captured by the words we use to describe them. Consider again the analogy of the political spectrum. Someone might say “You say Republicans are conservative, but they don’t want to conserve the traditional public school system.” Or “You say libertarians freedom, but what about freedom from powerful corporations?” Yeah, okay, you got me there, sometimes words are not perfect 100% handles for complex concepts. There’s got to be a balance between having simple words that mean exactly what they say, and accurately tracking the weird subtleties of how people really associate.

A lot of this discussion is conflating “conflict vs. mistake” with “protester vs. wonk” and “Marxist vs. neoliberal”. Sometimes they’re being conflated by me, where I say something is conflict theorist when I mean Marxist, or vice versa. Other times they’re being conflated by the commenters, who say “You say X is conflict theorist, but Marxists don’t actually believe X!” Well, maybe that’s because Marxists aren’t 100% stereotypical conflict theorist. The word “libertarian” can shed light on Ron Paul, even though he supports government intervention in some areas.

Obviously this idea isn’t useful if it totally fails to correspond to existing politics. But I think there are more subtle (read: dangerously susceptible to just being overfitting) ways of understanding this that make sense of these contradictions. For example, conflict theorists can certainly engage in intellectual debate if it helps them win. That doesn’t mean there’s not a difference between people who choose their side based on intellectual debate, and people who engage in intellectual debate if it helps their side. Also, it’s unclear whether a conflict theorist thinks intellectual debate is better than equally persuasive propaganda, whereas a good mistake theorist definitely should.

Likewise, any mistake theorist who didn’t acknowledge that there are lots of self-interested parties would be an extraordinary idiot. The mistake theorist calls these “special interests”, which I suppose is a pretty-loaded term suggesting they’re a few weird exceptions to the rule of supporting the general interest. The question can’t be whether special interests exist – obviously they do. It can’t even be whether they’ve seized control of the government – I think this is something of a consensus position right now. Maybe it’s something like “Is there anything other than special interests?”

In a book review a while ago, I talked about figure-ground inversions:

An example of what I mean, taken from politics: some people think of government as another name for the things we do together, like providing food to the hungry, or ensuring that old people have the health care they need. These people know that some politicians are corrupt, and sometimes the money actually goes to whoever’s best at demanding pork, and the regulations sometimes favor whichever giant corporation has the best lobbyists. But this is viewed as a weird disease of the body politic, something that can be abstracted away as noise in the system.

And then there are other people who think of government as a giant pork-distribution system, where obviously representatives and bureaucrats, incentivized in every way to support the forces that provide them with campaign funding and personal prestige, will take those incentives. Obviously they’ll use the government to crush their enemies. Sometimes this system also involves the hungry getting food and the elderly getting medical care, as an epiphenomenon of its pork-distribution role, but this isn’t particularly important and can be abstracted away as noise.

I think I can go back and forth between these two models when I need to, but it’s a weird switch of perspective, where the parts you view as noise in one model resolve into the essence of the other and vice versa.

I think any difference between mistake and conflict theorists on this issue has to be of the figure-ground inversion type. This doesn’t have to be about the number of people who are vs. aren’t special interests. It can be about the amount of each person’s soul devoted to their special interest as rich/poor/white/black/rural/urban, vs. the amount of each person’s soul devoted to loving truth and doing good. Framed this way, it sounds like we’re pretty much screwed, except that free rider problems might be working in our favor here.

A related difference: because mistake theorists think there’s some stable ground other than conflict, they picture themselves as potentially neutral referees (even better: Geneva Convention delegates) looking for ways to circumvent the conflict. Conflict theorists just want to win it.

Some examples of circumventing conflicts: free religion, free speech, federalism, reliance on scientific consensus. Free religion because instead of pushing for any one religion to win, you just create a system that defuses the threat of religious violence. Free speech for the same reason. Federalism because instead of saying that any one side wins, you just tell Side A to do it their way over there, and Side B to do it their way over there (even better: polycentric law). Reliance on scientific consensus, because instead of arguing over whether to have school vouchers or not, everyone just agrees to have unbiased scientists do a study and trust their findings.

I notice Jacobite’s describes itself as “the post-political magazine”. Politics is about having conflict. Mistake-theorists would love to become post-political, in the sense of circumventing all conflicts. Conflicts actually happening as conflicts is a failure, deadweight loss. This wouldn’t mean that nobody has different interests. It would mean that those different interests play out in some formalized way that doesn’t look conflict-y. Think of the Patchwork / charter city / seasteading dream, where there are lots of different polities and people vote with their feet for which one they prefer. Protests, bring-out-the-vote efforts, arguments – all have become obsolete. These ideas don’t deny the existence of conflict – they just represent a desire to avoid it rather than win it. Conflict theorists could theoretically want to avoid conflict, especially if they think they’d lose. But most of the ones I’ve met think that avoiding conflict is a better deal for the enemy than for them, and so would rather just have it and see what happens.

I think this is why I think of public choice theory and its relatives as basically more mistake-y. It’s not just that they sometimes say government doesn’t work, get seized on by libertarians, and so get a bad reputation among Marxists. It’s that they take this god’s eye perspective of trying to micromanage the rules of political conflicts instead of winning them.

III.

Some other good comments:

Fluffy Buffalo comments:

What struck me in your post was that the examples you gave for conflict theories all came from the Marxist perspective. While (cultural) Marxists may be the most obvious, unabashed conflict theorists these days, the behavior of the American right wing looks like they have their fair share of conflict theorists, and Republican tax and health care policy often smells more of an undeclared class warfare than of careful consideration of the pros and cons.

It’s definitely true that there’s a lot of right wing conflict theory and that my post mostly ignored this. They continue:

This looks not like a fundamental question of what the world is really like, and more like a multi-player game theory problem, in particular a multi-player prisoner’s dilemma. It’s all fine and dandy – in fact, it’s probably the most constructive, helpful thing to do – to play “mistake theory” if everyone else is playing the same game, but if you have a sufficiently strong faction playing “conflict theory” (refusing to compromise, because everyone else is the devil), they have more success than they should. “Conflict theory” is like a bad Nash equilibrium, a self-fulfilling prophecy – if everyone behaves according to the diagnosis “It’s power-hungry, uncompromising people on the other side who cause the problem”, there will be no lack of power-hungry, uncompromising people on all sides, causing all sorts of problems.

David Friedman makes the really bizarre topsy-turvy argument that conflict theorists should be people who want minor tweaks to the existing system, and mistake theorists people who want to get rid of it entirely:

A lot of whether you believe in mistake theory or conflict theory depends on how many mistakes you think there are, which comes down to how badly you think existing systems work. If you believe that government decisions are very far from optimal, that FDA regulation has little positive effect on how good drugs are, a huge negative effect on what drugs are developed and how expensive they are, and believe it not only from observation (Peltzman’s old article, for instance) but as what you would expect from the incentive structure, then you see the main problem as persuading the 99.9% of people who are worse off as a result. If you think government decisions are close to optimal, on the other hand, then all that is left to change is how they weight payoffs to different people, which is a conflict issue.

I guess this reinforces the point from above: taking some of these terms literally, or trying to reason with them, gets very different results from looking at how they operate on political coalitions.

From Jan Samohýl:

I really enjoyed the post, the two worldviews are interesting. But as many people have noted, things are often not so clear-cut. I would like to point out some interesting connections.

I think of myself being a more conflict-theorist, probably being on the left. But in many cases, I look at the world as mistake-theorist, having quite liberal views. To me, it’s somehow related to the idea “expect the worst (conflict), hope for the best (mistake)”. I am a big fan of direct democracy (which I see as a way to peacefully resolve innate conflict), and less of a fan of resolving politics through debate (which implicitly assumes the debaters are honest). To me, direct democracy is related to trust, as it is understood in computer security, for example. In computer security, trust is not given, it is earned and can be revoked at any time. You can only trust somebody who you don’t have to trust. In computer security, we assume worst intentions (conflict), not the best ones (mistake). And so I believe direct democracy is needed as a baseline, because the politicians are not to be trusted (principal agent problem).

This is another weird topsy-turvy thing. I was thinking in terms where mistake theorists are afraid of direct democracy because any random demagogue can sabotage it, and trust more in “post-political” systems like the ones mentioned in Part I above.

From Nootropic Cormorant:

A Marxist reader of your blog reporting in! I feel that this way of analyzing things is harmful (a charitable mistake) because ironically it conflict-theorizes the debate so that suspected conflict-theorists are automatically seen as beyond object-level discussion leaving you with no options but to act like one yourself. I would question whether this distinction is even relevant to people and ideologies rather than to situations and debates. Many of the commentariat have identified themselves as mistake-theorists, but I have to wonder whether this is because they abstain from the sin of conflict-reasoning or because it bothers them when the outgroup does it. This is some conflict-theorizing on my part. Also the willingness to discuss policy issues, aka the reformism vs. revolutionism axis, should not be conflated with this as one can go along it in a purely mistake-theorizing framework.

From Ben Wave:

I count myself as a Marxist, as someone who adores your blog, and as someone who primarily uses what you’ve deemed mistake theory as my lens on the world. It’s naive to expect that everyone else would or should have the same terminal values as I do, or that everyone should agree on the relative role of government in bringing those values about. So I don’t. I don’t share the view of some of my comrades who celebrate death and misfortune upon the rich. I do share their desire to take power from the powerful, and create a world in which the weak have more power. I desire this independently of a desire to increase living standards/lifetimes/happiness over all, and I desire this for three reasons – the first is that I see high levels of inequality as an existential threat to society. The second is that I would not consider the current distribution fair, if I was to be incarnated into a human chosen at random. The third is that the more unequal society is, the less the ethical premise of capitalism (that it is right to reward those who fill market needs because they are equivalent to human needs and desires) is valid. Which I feel is important seeing as it is the dominant method by which we decide what gets done by the ensemble of human endeavour. As regards the conflict view, yes many comrades use that. I see it as largely unhelpful, but I’m sympathetic to their situation. Marginalised people are often harmed or killed by inequality (medical, prison and law-enforcement, unsafe conditions of work or home life), so conflict is the reality that some of them face. I find it more productive to try and cooperate with my opposites who like cooperation than to fight against my opposites who do not. Hopefully the coalition of those willing to negotiate can improve conditions globally. Gather with those who share your terminal values. Gain power through that unity, and use that power in negotiation. Stay open to new information to best pursue your goals. I guess that’s the dream.

I find this interesting except that I can’t figure out why marginalized people being harmed by inequality, bad medical care, bad working conditions, etc makes conflict “the reality” for them. Surely it means bad things are the reality, and we’re back to the original question of whether bad things are mostly due to conflict or mistake?

From bosun_of_industry:

You position these in opposition or at least orthogonal to each other but I think that’s missing both how often they are layered and/or modal. Moreover, the Marxist portion of this essay is red herring carried forward from the Jacobite article and does it a disservice because it lends it a uniformity to any given actor’s approach. Instead, a common split is people approaching policy issues as mistake theory when within-group and as conflict out-group. There’s distinct strategic reasons for this sort of behavior, especially within a winner takes all political system. Similarly there’s a strong history of making a public show of conflict theorizing while acting as a mistake theorist in private amongst politicians and activists alike and for similar reasons.

From Alkatyn:

To go up a meta level, maybe conflict theorists are mistake theorists who have applied the same methodology to “how do we get our ideas implemented” and decided based on the empirical evidence that emotional appeals and group action are more effective than policy analysis.

The effective altruists have a lot of discussion on what the most effective way to push their preferred policies are, and usually they settle on some combination of appealing to academics and founding think-tank style organizations. I have noticed this working very well so far. This piece on how neoliberalism caught on is a really interesting example of doing this right and effectively. I suppose the conflict theory answer would be that this only works for policies that elites are already predisposed to like or at least not resist.

From John Schilling:

One thing that seems to be getting lost in a number of places here, so I’ll just address it this once. Mistake Theory doesn’t require denying that Rich Plutocrats are genuinely trying to further enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and that the Poor are trying to tear down the rich out of spite righteously take back what is theirs. More broadly, it does not require denying that people will selfishly pursue their selfish interests to the detriment of others or of the whole of humanity, does not simplify to “if we are all rationalist altruists the right answer would be…” Mistake Theory would hold that in almost all real conflicts, the best outcome for everyone is a negotiated solution and that the relevant facts (including the balance of power between competing interest groups) makes the range of plausibly negotiated agreement reasonably narrow. So failing to sit down and quietly negotiate that agreement, instead escalating to pointless conflict, is usually a Mistake and often an Easy Mistake. Figuring out what to do about people who persist in making that Easy Mistake, is the sort of problem that often leads to Hard Mistakes and sometimes to solutions that look like Easy Conflict.

Butlerian writes:

I think that the conflict/mistake distinction is being vastly overblown here. Scott is proposing some sort of fundamentally different personality type / rhetorical diachotomy between agents. I think these differences in behaviour can be explained in a much more proximate way, instead simply being answers of “Yes” or “No” to the question: “Do you believe that shills are amongst us RIGHT NOW”? If I am in a discussion where my answer to that question is “No”, I will discuss in a mistake-theorist manner: belief that other participants are arguing in good faith, and personaly arguing in good faith, and sticking to truth-searching, and at least trying to be open to the possibility of changing my mind. If I am in a discussion where my answer to that question is “Yes”, I will discuss in a conflict-theorist manner: having no genuine interest in the merits of suspect participant’s arguments, reading them only with an eye to finding errors / weak-man-able faultlines, and refusing to allow myself to change my mind even in the face of apparently convincing evidence because I strongly auspect that the evidence is the contaminated product of Yudkowsky’s Clever Arguer. I would think that this is obvious. When Marxists / feminists / Nazis are in their safe-space forums, and are happy that everyone in the discussion is a like-minded Marxist / feminist / Nazi who genuinely shares their endgoal of a well-functioning communist / non-cis-hetero-patriachal/ white ethnostate society, they will have amongat themselves truth-seeking mistake-theoretical diacussions. It is only when they go out into enemy territory and find themselves surrounded by perfidious capitalist / misogynist / Judeobolshevik agents that they switch to conflict-theoretical mode.

This reduction to “belief in shills” as the most important difference between the theories is interesting.

Aside from the people who wear it on their sleeves, like PR people and lobbyists, I find myself practically never believing anyone is a “shill” in the strong sense – ie they don’t believe the arguments they’re making, but they make them anyway for some personal advantage. Even when people do very shill-ish stuff – like put out a biased paper for a think tank that promotes its agenda – I assume the think tank probably just recruited people who already believed in their agenda, and let their personal bias do the rest.

In fact, the idea of “shill” is really complicated here. People accuse me of being biased or selfish all the time if I make arguments that seem to benefit rich people, or Jews, or white people, or any other category I’m a member of. But by far the most important thing that affects my finances and social status right now is any threat to the guild-based nature of the medical profession. And I’ve consistently argued in favor of things like letting psychologists prescribe, even though this will cost me money and status way more directly than anything that happens regarding class or race. If people were interpreting shilling in its most literal sense, they would get surprised that I’m not writing 100% about how great medical guilds are, finally assume I was insane or some vanishingly rare moral saint, and everything about race or class would be so irrelevant to this calculation that it would never come up.

The fact that nobody thinks this way has to be tied into some sort of answer to the class warfare free rider problem. Nobody is a first-level shill literally pushing their own self-interest, but weird class-consciousness/ideology style forces give people biases (mostly based on race or class) that they push at least somewhat honestly. I think this is at least sort of in accord with some forms of orthodox Marxism.

But this sounds a lot like…mistake theory. If people push their policies because they’re biased into thinking that’s the morally correct thing to do, then surely solving their biases and convincing them otherwise could change their policy preferences. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe this model? If so, what exactly are we talking about?

And from christhenottopher:

All this talk about how Marxists don’t frequent this blog and you go and make a post arguing for a Hegelian dialectic. Yes, yes of course this blog has always been on the side of Thesis. And certainly we must always beware the great enemy Antithesis. But let’s end the essay by arguing that what we really need is Synthesis! The professor in college who taught me what dialectical reasoning was warned the class that once we understood this, we’d see dialectics everywhere. And once again he was proven right.

This had BETTER NOT BE TRUE. If all of this time all this incomprehensible stuff about dialectics was just basic “start understanding a concept by giving binary examples of opposite sides, then correct it and make it more sophisticated later”, I am going to be SO ANGRY.

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269 Responses to Highlights From The Comments On Conflict Vs. Mistake

  1. It occurs to me that, in practice, the division is not between people who think that everything is a mistake and people who think that everything is a conflict. It’s between people who believe that others classify many things as conflicts that are really mistakes and people who believe that others classify many things as mistakes that are really conflicts.

    Consider the minimum wage. The conflict theorist says “you economists tell fancy stories about why raising the minimum wage hurts the poor, but the real reason you say that is you don’t want to have to pay the people who pick your tomatoes and mow your lawns more.”

    The mistake theorist says “you leftists claim that supporters of a higher minimum wage are people who want to help the poor, opponents people who don’t care about the poor, but the real issue is the obvious reason to think that raising the minimum wage will price low paid labor out of the market.”

    That is not inconsistent with the conflict theorist also believing that Bernie supporters were making the mistake of underestimating how hard it would be to elect Bernie and the mistake theorist also believing that part of the political support comes from firms that employ labor at well above the minimum wage and want to handicap competitors that use less skilled labor at lower wages.

    • Doug says:

      I’d also say that once a mistake is made long enough, there’s often an entrenched group who’s entire raison d’être is the continuation of said mistake. Hence correcting the mistake may often bring you into conflict with that group.

      For example, Marxism is a giant mistake. But there are thousands of people who’ve built their careers on Marxist ideology. Tens of thousands of university professors who’s life work rests on Marxist foundations. Even entire departments and fields. Political parties and non-profits who’s platforms rest on quasi-Marxist principles. Heck, even just celebrities and high-profile writers who’ve been spouting Marxist BS for decades. Don’t underestimate how hard powerful human beings will fight just to avoid losing face.

      A more mundane example might is medicare reimbursement rates. Because American healthcare prices are set by the Politburo (*ahem* Center for Medicare Service Resource Value Units), many procedures at any given time are either grossly over- or under-compensated. The best way to get rich in healthcare is to figure out something medicare is over-paying for, and provide the hell out of it. Hence we have “Cataract Cowboys”.

      But given enough time, very large segments of people start orienting their life to feed at these troughs. Medical students grind their ass to get into the overpaying specialties. Companies invest in millions in capital for the equipment needed to do the procedures. Entire communities see a significant chunk of their economy revolve around being a major regional center for some over-compensated sub-specialty.

      What starts out as a simple mistake, becomes a source of conflict. Fixing the original mistake, now requires a fight against some very high-status, well-moneyed people, who stand to lose quite a lot.

      As a final point, I’d say this is one general reason to favor the market over the government. The market often makes mistakes, but correcting those mistakes tends to be a less frictional experience. At the very least the psychology is different. “All in the game, yo.”

      When convertible bond arbitrage went away, it’s not like convertible bond arbitrageurs loudly bemoaned their fate and lobbied for protection. They mostly figured out the next thing to move on to. In contrast when the government tries to reallocate resources, it largely triggers the primate fairness impulse. Even if farmers having been living high on the hog for decades because of farm subsidies, taking them away would be “cruel and unfair” and they’ll loudly let the entire country know it. For some reason people are just whinier when it comes to fixing government mistakes compared to market mistakes.

      • Deej says:

        Not a marxist, at least wouldn’t self ondentify as one, but I don’t think history will judge marxism as the giant mistake you think it is. Marx has lots of useful stuff to tell us. Not least that conflicts of class interest matter.

        RE your final point. As you say, people are more accepting of outcomes that don’t favour them if they arise from a ‘natural’ process such as a market. Another way of putting this is that they are bias towards the outcomes of emergent processes over non emergent ones. Is this a reason to select emergent processes or should we try to correct for that bias?

        • Doug says:

          > Not a marxist, at least wouldn’t self ondentify as one, but I don’t think history will judge marxism as the giant mistake you think it is

          Is your opinion that on the margin US universities have too few or too many Marxists on faculty? Because even if the optimal number of Marxists is non-zero, if it’s the latter, the overemphasis on Marx is still a mistake in the mistake-theorist sense. Not least because it’s a waste of intellectual capital and effort.

          • Deej says:

            In your first post your argument seems to be that Marxism is a mistake per se, therefore all time spent on it is time wasted. In your next post this seems to flip round, so that you’re arguing Marxism is big mistake because of all the time wasted on it. Am I right in thinking that what you mean is 1) Marxism was a mistake, because Marx is wrong 2) this mistake thas had a lot of time spent on it and so is a massive mistake?

            Eitherway, I’m simply disputing the starting assumption of my interpretation of your argument, ie that Marxism is a mistake in intself. I think Marx has useful ideas in economics and that these have been largely ignored by the mainstream for a long time, and that in future they will prove useful for man kind.

            As to your question? I didn’t have an opinion on this, but the following is my initial thoughts.

            1) I’ve really no idea how many Marxists there at universities, or how they’re interpretting Marx or what fields their using Marxist ideas in.
            2)my guess is that a lot of it is/has been wasted for variace reasons. Applying Marxism to (imo) things of which it is of little use to apply it (most stuff outside of philosophy, politics and political economoy). Applying Marxism from a ‘conflict’ mind set, ie defending Marxism for it’s own sake. Applying Marxism sensibly but to little effect because everyone’s ignoring Marxists.
            3) I don’t think this means Marxism is a mistake though. If some of the ideas are good, we can still make use fo them.
            4) I think we could do with more economomists thinking about things from a Marxist perspective (but not solely from a Marxist perspective). Perhaps phillosophers and politicians too, but not my area.
            5) There’s probably loads of not very useful Marxism we could do without – but such is the nature of academia generally.

            Additonal thought: we’re maybe just talking about different things. You – Marxism as it’s actually turned in real life so far. Me – Marx’s ideas considered throughtfully and cherry picked for the good bits. In which case I might have simply replied, “Marx did have some good ideas, though.”

            If you do think Marx and Marxism is all just nonsense, I would recommend Stumbling and Mumbling. http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/

          • Deej says:

            ps love to get your or anyone elses thoughts on the question about bias towards emergent processes. I thought that was the more interesting part of my post.

          • Doug says:

            Fair enough. But I’ll even bite the bullet and say that Marx made no significant intellectual contributions. I’ll steal from Paul Samuelson, and define this as a novel statement that is both true and non-trivial.

            So what new idea did Marx give the world that meets the above criteria? He didn’t invent the concept of social classes, or even the idea of class conflict. Class conflict was a driving force behind the French Revolution. Before that Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus were acutely aware of the divergent interests of different classes. Hell, I don’t even see how Marx’s positive treatment of class differs from the Elizabethan Chain of Being. The only substantial difference is normative (“Workers of the world, unite!” vs. “stay in your lane”).

            You could claim historical materialism, but again I don’t see how this is any different than what David Ricardo was writing a half century earlier.

            Beyond that it’s just a bunch of ideas that are clearly wrong. “Capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction” – Two centuries and capitalism’s still going strong. “Labor theory of value” – Rejected by 99% of economists. “Communist revolution will create a free society” – I don’t think any post-revolutionary Communist society could be described as free.

          • Deej says:

            I don’t know enought about Marx or economic history to answer whether ideas were original to him.

            I don’t think this is a useful test for our discussion, though. I simply argue that Marxism isn’t a massive mistake, as they’re a good and and useful ideas in there. Whether they were original to Marx or not isn’t relevant. More generally, thinkers can contribute a lot by bringing together ideas or articulating them well.

            The way you’re applying the test does seem pretty harsh and more than a touch simplistic, too. In a wrold where all great thinkers are standing on the shoulders of giants it’s difficult to tease out the original thoughts – particualrly in economics, I think. So, Marx didn’t invent class interest? No shit! the Roman’s worried about keeping the plebs happy. Neither did Keynes invent recessions, but we’re not saying Keynsian economics is a massive mistake (well, most informed people aren’t)….. It’s almost like you’re coming at this from a conflict perspective 😉

            Anyway, fwiw, here’s a few Marx things that I think are useful. And I’d recommend reading the blog I mentioned above for a thoughtful Marxist perspective.

            Marx said a lot about how a capitalist system can be alienating for workers. I think this is a true and useful insight today.

            Marx thought that about business cycles and concluded that the capitalist system was inhenrently volatile. So far no evidence to the contrary.

            Marx said a lot about class interest, regardless of the extent to which what he said was original, it’s true to varying extents and is relevant to economics and politics

            Marx sees that while markets are – to gretaer or lesser degrees – based on the free interaction of indviduals – they are founded on state intervention.

          • Historical materialism is probably Marx’s most undisputed achievement. Although it is rarely formally celebrated among mainstream historians, they rely on it extensively. Any modern historian would be regarded as a very poor historian who focused too much on the deeds of great individuals and their ideas (history channel crap), and didn’t “paint the scenery” and talk about the conflicting interests and material changes and possibilities of the time that made people receptive to these individuals and ideas, and that made these ideas resonate with peoples’ material experiences in the first place.

            The Labor Theory of Value, on the other hand, has never been embraced by the mainstream. So far. That will change. Anwar Shaikh’s latest book, “Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises” would cause a mass defection from neoclassical economics to the LTV if mainstream economists actually bothered to read it.

            The weakest part of Marx’s thought was, in my opinion, his political prescriptions, which were vague and less than ideally functional in practice.

            It would be perfectly possible to reject Marx’s political prescriptions and yet still agree with his other ideas. The result would be someone who rejected the possibility or desirability of socialism or communism, but who also had no illusions that capitalism was a turbulent aristocracy of wealth and political power that, alas, humanity will be stuck with forever more.

            I myself, though a Marxist, could entertain that possibility. Marx himself suggested that communism was not inevitable, and that class struggle in capitalism could instead result in “the [mutual] ruin of the contending classes.” That is a possibility–stagnation and crises within capitalism, but no chance of going forward to anything better.

          • Thegnskald says:

            citizencokane –

            That is more or less my outlook, although I am more optimistic, in that I think gradual refinements on capitalism will make it less terrible, until either we all die, we move into space (at which point capitalism’s most destructive-to-human-values capacities can be effectively contained, or at least escaped), or we evolve (or are edited) into something better suited to capitalism.

            Whatever happens is pretty much irrelevant to me; either I am dead and don’t care, or quantum immortality is the case and the universe-stream I inhabit becomes mine, since immortality is a pretty substantive advantage when it comes to accumulating capital.

          • Doug says:

            @Deej – Re: Emergent systems biases

            That was a really good insight. Definitely think it’s both non-trivial and true. Don’t have much to add to it, since I’m still digesting the idea.

            The only point I’ll add is that if the government has to make hard choices, then it probably makes things go down easier the more emergent, and less personal, the state’s actions are. It might go a long way in explaining democracy’s relative success to dictatorships.

          • Doug says:

            @citizencokane

            Regarding historical materialism, I think there’s too much ambiguity. Proponents often use the “strong-form” version of historical materialism, but when asked to defend fall back to a “weak-form”.

            What I mean by weak-form is something along the lines of “economic and technological conditions affect geopolitical and social developments”. Well, that seems like a pretty damn trivial statement to me. I think anyone with two brain cells can see that’s true. Maybe I’m projecting some present-day bias here. But I find it pretty hard to believe that this was some unheralded insight to a society with the sophistication to produce Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell.

            Strong-form historical materialism would be the claim that the economic/technological conditions is the dominant force shaping political/social structures. If that was the case, we’d expect that the vast majority of variance between human societies could be attributed to their modes of production.

            Now, that’s not a trivial statement, but I certainly don’t think it’s true. Ironically the existence of the Soviet Union and other communist states seems to invalidate it. Both the USSR and the USA were industrial economies, with essentially the same technologies of production. Yet it’s hard to imagine a more stark contrast between the structure of human societies.

            In fact the modes of production of the USSR c. 1985 vs USA c. 1985 were far more similar than the modes of production of the 1985’s USA vs 1885’s USA. (If you disagree, remember that almost no factories were even electrified in 1885.) Yet Raegan’s USA undoubtedly looks a hell of a lot more like Chester A Arthur’s USA than Gorbachev’s USSR.

            For that matter we can extend the argument to North Korea. North Korea may do a really crappy job at being an industrialized country, but industrialized it is. It basically has access to all the same production technologies used in other countries, just to a much less efficient degree. Yet, would anyone seriously try to argue that this similarity in modes of productions means that North Korea and the USA are similar societies?

          • Deej says:

            @doug –

            Thanks. I might get round to jotting down my thoughts on it at some point.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @citizencokane

            From what I remember of university history courses, long long ago, mainstream historians are pretty open in acknowledging that Marx came up with a useful historiographical tool. They usually throw some Marx into the readings for HIST100 or w/e.

          • On historical materialism …

            I’ve read some Marx–all of volume I of Kapital and a good deal of the other two volumes–but am certainly not an expert. Can you explain what the basic idea was that Marx added that was not present in the work of Adam Smith (probably other people, but I know Smith better)? Examples that seem to fit the description given of historical materialism:

            1. Smith’s explanation of the decline of feudalism as a result of increased trade. The basic argument is that if you are a feudal lord, your land produces mostly foodstuffs and there is little international trade, the main thing you spend your income on is hiring (and feeding) retainers to make you feel like an important person. You now have a free army, so the result is a political system with military power dispersed among the lords.

            Trade and the division of labor increase, you can now export your grain, import diamond shoe buckles and similar luxuries, and since you would rather spend the money on your consumption than that of your retainers, you do. You are still feeding just as many people but they are now dispersed about the world so won’t fight for you.

            2. Civilization vs Barbarism

            Smith points out that in classical antiquity, civilized societies were under serious threats from adjacent barbarian societies. His explanation was that in the barbarian society most of the population was engaged in productive activities that were seasonal, mainly agriculture, so at times of the year when their labor wasn’t needed they could take lots of people and invade their neighbors. Further, their activities involved a lot of physical activity (hunting) that was similar to warfare, so they had a lot of men well suited to attacking their neighbors.

            In modern times, in contrast, it’s the barbarians (we would say less developed societies) who are under threat of conquest by the civilized societies–18th c. colonialism. What has changed?

            Smith’s answer, in modern terms, is that warfare has become less labor intensive, more capital intensive, so it’s now the rich societies who have advantages over the poor.

            Was Marx’s historical materialism different in kind from these examples of economic circumstances having large social and political effects, or was he merely providing a different set of theories of the linkage? If the latter, is there evidence that his theories on the subject were correct?

          • On Marxist economics …

            What did Marx add to economic theory that was true and was not in Ricardo? His predictions were falsified (so was Malthus’ prediction–but Malthus at least co-invented the Ricardian theory of rent, which is one of the starting points for the marginalist revolution and modern neoclassical economics). His version of the labor theory of value was less sophisticated than Ricardo’s in a couple of ways, at least as I understand it.

          • Alsadius says:

            > The Labor Theory of Value, on the other hand, has never been embraced by the mainstream. So far. That will change.

            No, it won’t. The labour theory of value is shallow and has long since been surpassed by better, more complete theories. To be fair, it’s better than it’s generally given credit for – the pop culture LTV is prima facie idiotic – but it only accurately captures one subset of valuation questions, while ignoring others that other theories can answer simultaneously.

          • cassander says:

            @Alsadius

            It’s true that the labor theory of value is gone, but it’s absolutely core to marx’s analysis of exploitation. throw it out and you throw out much, maybe most, of marx.

          • Alsadius says:

            @cassander: That’s a feature, not a bug.

          • benwave says:

            I usually view the labour theory of value as providing a lower bound on the price-space in which normal supply and demand can take place sustainably.

          • Re: Marx’s historical contributions, the biggest for me is his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which helps explain why the 1848 revolutions failed—why the earlier fire-breathing liberal revolutionaries started to lose their nerve when it became clear that mobilizing the nascent working class as their footsoldiers (which was a pre-requisite for winning) was becoming an increasingly dangerous move, as these footsoldiers would no longer be content to be the liberals’ idle pawns. No longer would workers buy wholeheartedly into the idea that the liberals’ interests (free trade, rights of property, etc.) were universal interests of humankind, but were starting to see instead that liberals’ interests were their own particular interests, and that workers had their own particular interests and would do well to insist on them as a condition for their participation in politics. So a mobilization of workers suddenly seemed to be an even bigger threat, and the liberals went running back to the conservatives—their earlier enemies against whom they were about to make revolution—as their saving grace against the insurgent working class. Except the conservatives didn’t forgive so easily, and they knew now that the liberals had no leverage against them and were mere paper tigers who blustered about liberal revolution but would never dare actually pull the trigger. Hence, the ease with which conservative counter-revolution and “Bonapartist dictatorship” were able to undo the 1848 revolution in France (and prevent it entirely in Germany), with the acquiescence of the liberals who at least breathed a sigh of relief that property would be protected (which they care about much more than political equality), and especially with the help of the undisciplined, easily-deceived, and opportunistic lumpenproletariat.

            This sort of analysis also helps explain Donald Trump. Trump is not a fascist. He is not at the head of a mass, mobilized middle-class movement reacting against both the socialist menace and the centralization of capital (the “Hochkapitalismus” that the Nazis complained so much about, but did so little to actually change). Trump is, instead, a classic “Bonapartist” who will try to do Bonapartist things. Infrastructure (a la Haussmann), minor foreign adventures to give the lumpenproles something to cheer about (but nothing too daring or costly to either workers or capitalists, which would jeopardize his delicate promise-everything-to-everyone class balancing act).

            As for Marx’s Law of Value, Marx indeed stood on the shoulders of giants. Marx’s main innovation was to distinguish between labor and labor-power, which Ricardo failed to do, and which left Ricardo in a pickle as to how to explain the creation of monetary profit (not just real physical surplus of use-values) alongside the exchange of equivalents. The Post-Ricardians were left searching for evidence that capitalists systematically purchased labor below its labor-value and sold their commodities above their labor-values, whereas Marx showed that the labor law of value was fully compatible with workers and capitalists exchanging equivalents…and, moreover, that any talk about the “labor-value of labor” (rather than the labor-value of labor-power) was nonsense—like talking about how hot temperature was.

            As for the 140 million figure of deaths under communism…really? So many posters here are out of touch with the basic facts of the history of socialist states.
            *WWII cannot be blamed on Stalin.
            *Any death count that relies on demographic extrapolation is cheap and suspect…
            *Actual NKVD executions during the Terror amount to about 600,000. And Stalin wasn’t even in charge of these. It was Yezhov. In Russia the Great Terror is still known as the “Yezhovschina,” “The Time of Yezhov.” Stalin was not omnipotent, contrary to what bourgeois historians would tell you.
            *Stalin was not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the Ukrainian famine. Bad weather and Kulak spite were equally to blame. And it is a myth that Kulaks were killed or imprisoned just because they were Kulaks. It was when Kulaks resisted collectivization that they were killed or imprisoned. And yes, the Kulaks had a choice. They didn’t have to butcher their animals and refuse to sow and hoard grain just because their farms were being collectivized and the individual profit incentive was being replaced by a co-op profit incentive. I mean, one can understand the reaction. The NEP told them that “to get rich is glorious.” Then they got a little bit rich through their own hard work, yes. And then it was going to be taken away from them. It sucked. Too bad they didn’t realize that they were doomed as a class anyways, whether the vast unlucky majority of them were going to be replaced by big capitalist agribusiness or state farms. They were offered a dignified death as a class (as individuals they were, of course, free to function as non-Kulak members of their new co-ops if they would just cooperate and not fight it). But that wasn’t good enough for them. So they had to break the law, and they paid the price for it.

          • cassander says:

            @citizencokane says:

            Trump is, instead, a classic “Bonapartist” who will try to do Bonapartist things. Infrastructure (a la Haussmann), minor foreign adventures to give the lumpenproles something to cheer about (but nothing too daring or costly to either workers or capitalists, which would jeopardize his delicate promise-everything-to-everyone class balancing act).

            this is bonapartism only if you’re talking about Napoleon III, not I.

            *WWII cannot be blamed on Stalin.

            a lot of it can be.

            *Any death count that relies on demographic extrapolation is cheap and suspect…

            *Actual NKVD executions during the Terror amount to about 600,000. And Stalin wasn’t even in charge of these. It was Yezhov. In Russia the Great Terror is still known as the “Yezhovschina,” “The Time of Yezhov.” Stalin was not omnipotent, contrary to what bourgeois historians would tell you.

            the idea that stalin wasn’t in charge of the USSR amounts to sheer delusion. Yezhov did what he was told.

            *Stalin was not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the Ukrainian famine. Bad weather and Kulak spite were equally to blame.

            bad weather and spite are common in Russia. 8 figure famines are not. this is worse than delusion, this is holocaust denial.

            And it is a myth that Kulaks were killed or imprisoned just because they were Kulaks. It was when Kulaks resisted collectivization that they were killed or imprisoned.

            this animal is dangerous, when attacked, it defends itself.

            And yes, the Kulaks had a choice. They didn’t have to butcher their animals and refuse to sow and hoard grain just because their farms were being collectivized and the individual profit incentive was being replaced by a co-op profit incentive

            they butchered the animals to have something to eat after the state took their seed grain.

            So they had to break the law, and they paid the price for it.

            Yeah, and if those jews hadn’t insisted on being such greedy bankers, no one in germany would have objected to their presence.

          • Protagoras says:

            @citizencokane, I find cassander often overenthusiastic on the topic of socialism, but WRT the great purge, it is my understanding that unsealed Kremlin records which have become available since the fall of the Soviet Union include the original order authorizing the purge, signed by every member of the Politburo including, of course, Stalin. As cassander says, Yezhov followed orders.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            In modern times, in contrast, it’s the barbarians (we would say less developed societies) who are under threat of conquest by the civilized societies–18th c. colonialism. What has changed?

            Smith’s answer, in modern terms, is that warfare has become less labor intensive, more capital intensive, so it’s now the rich societies who have advantages over the poor.

            I have to disagree with this being a change between the past and modern times. I think that the importance of capital vs labor in war has flipped around several times, rather than have capital become more important over time.

            One factor that allowed The Netherlands to become a world power was that war was fought by mercenaries at the time. Conscription coming back in vogue was one reason why smaller nations could no longer compete with the big ones, militarily.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The Labor Theory of Value, on the other hand, has never been embraced by the mainstream. So far. That will change.

            Because it is either demonstrably wrong OR it is tautological and compatible with capitalism.

          • Alsadius says:

            @citizencokane:

            As for the 140 million figure of deaths under communism…really? So many posters here are out of touch with the basic facts of the history of socialist states.

            140 million is very much on the high end. 100 million is more plausible. Still, “literally eight times as bad as the Holocaust” is still pretty bad, IMO.

            WWII cannot be blamed on Stalin.

            Agreed. He didn’t help matters(until Barbarossa forced him to), but he was not the principal cause.

            Any death count that relies on demographic extrapolation is cheap and suspect…

            Sure, but the NKVD didn’t leave us convenient lists of every Ukrainian who starved to death, so we have to make do.

            Actual NKVD executions during the Terror amount to about 600,000.

            Sure, that would be plausible for the death count of one type of mass murder during one short period in the history of one communist nation. If you add up all of the myriad such atrocities in all the murderous regimes communism has spawned, the total count gets much higher.

            And Stalin wasn’t even in charge of these. It was Yezhov. In Russia the Great Terror is still known as the “Yezhovschina,” “The Time of Yezhov.” Stalin was not omnipotent, contrary to what bourgeois historians would tell you.

            As said above, this is a total lie. (And even if it was Yezhov, what exactly does that help with when we’re discussing communism as a whole? It’s already spawned a bunch of other genocidal monsters, but if you want to add another to the list, that hurts the case of communism even more).

            Stalin was not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the Ukrainian famine. Bad weather and Kulak spite were equally to blame.

            Bad weather contributed, sure. So did stealing all the food.

            And it is a myth that Kulaks were killed or imprisoned just because they were Kulaks. It was when Kulaks resisted collectivization that they were killed or imprisoned. And yes, the Kulaks had a choice.

            So it’s not that they had stuff that got them killed, it’s that they wanted to avoid having all of their stuff stolen. Is this supposed to matter? When a mugger says “Your money or your life!” he’s giving you a choice, in some sense, but that doesn’t wipe away his sins, or excuse the fact that he’s holding a gun to your head.

            They didn’t have to butcher their animals and refuse to sow and hoard grain just because their farms were being collectivized and the individual profit incentive was being replaced by a co-op profit incentive.

            That’s a really whitewashy way to discuss stealing all their stuff and killing anyone who resisted.

            I mean, one can understand the reaction. The NEP told them that “to get rich is glorious.” Then they got a little bit rich through their own hard work, yes. And then it was going to be taken away from them. It sucked.

            But of course it’s all for the greater good, right? The Aryan nation proletariat needed them to go away to ensure the bright future that the Great Leader promised. And if they want to keep enough food to eat, then they’re clearly not repentant enough, so we need to slaughter them en masse to ensure that our bright, genocidal future is secure.

            Too bad they didn’t realize that they were doomed as a class anyways, whether the vast unlucky majority of them were going to be replaced by big capitalist agribusiness or state farms. They were offered a dignified death as a class (as individuals they were, of course, free to function as non-Kulak members of their new co-ops if they would just cooperate and not fight it).

            Of course, let’s look at them as a class. Not Boris and Vladimir and Olga and Natasha whose bones are rotting in a grave – it gets so ugly if you think of the actual humans you need to kill to build your dream. Just think of the class as an undivided whole, spice it with a bit of historical inevitability to absolve your sins, and then tell them to give everything they own to a regime that calls them “bloodsuckers” and “plunderers of the people” in hopes of them getting a fair deal afterwards. Right.

            But that wasn’t good enough for them. So they had to break the law, and they paid the price for it.

            If someone talked this way about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, or slave revolts, how would you react?

            Let me put this bluntly. You are morally equivalent to a Holocaust denier. You like the ideology of a mass murderer, and so you think it excuses their sins. It doesn’t. Even if Stalin really did want what was best for the proletariat, he was a mass-murdering monster with few equals in history. I don’t give the tiniest bit of a fuck what he wanted. I care about the millions of people he killed. If you want to earn your membership in the human race, you damned well ought to care about them too.

          • I’ll admit that whether Yezhov or Stalin or some other members of the Politburo were more personally responsible for the Great Terror is rather beside the point if we are talking about how communist parties function in general.

            Perhaps more germane of a point would be that it’s not obvious to me that all of those killed or imprisoned were innocent. Yes, the methods used were terrible and were bound to get false confessions and false positives, just as America’s torturing is bound to do so in the present day. But, for example, see this series of videos on the Moscow Trials and the Great Purge. There definitely was an organized Trotskyist opposition, for example, and while it would have been much better to legally tolerate such political oppositions and not insist on “democratic” centralism (as long as the oppositions were not insurrectionary or non-Marxist or colluding with foreign states…which there is some evidence of the latter in Trotsky’s case), Trotsky and company in any case knew what they were getting into, and should have expected what was going to happen to them. They also had a choice. It is interesting to see how many second chances Trotsky got to either implement the party’s views, or just retire into private life unmolested (once he was kicked out of the party), or even just retire into private life outside of the Soviet Union once he was exiled. But he kept pressing his luck.

            Regarding the Kulaks, I think it is wrong to conflate being a concentration camp inmate for simply having an identity over which one had no control (Jews) with having to re-distribute your accumulated wealth and pull your own weight as a worker equal to everyone else (Kulaks). Resisting the former is entirely justified.

            But Alsadius makes it sound like having to work for a co-op in which you take a share of the profit (we are not even talking yet about state farms where the peasants were the wage-laborers of the state; that mostly came later.) is akin to the industrial slavery of the Jews. And maybe to him/her, it is. Capitalists will inevitably see the dispossession of their capital that way, just as workers (such as myself) will see the dispossession of their labor-time similarly, and want it redressed just as strongly.

          • Thegnskald says:

            citizen –

            You have just made a stronger argument that you should be executed than that any of those people should have been.

            Since you, as a communist in a capitalist society, are literally worse in every manner of guilt you describe than any of those people were.

          • @Citizen Cokane:

            A book you might find interesting is Conspiracy of Silence. It was written by an Austrian communist, a physicist, who got caught up in the Great Purge, eventually handed over to the Germans, and survived. It’s a vivid and, to me, convincing description of what was happening.

          • Alsadius says:

            I find it really odd that you think of forcing someone to work in a job they don’t want, mostly for the benefit of others, by stealing all the products of their labour as being something totally different from stealing labour. Like, would capitalists be okay in your eyes if they said “We’re not taking your labour at all, we’re just getting you to work in a co-op where some of the proceeds go to other contributors?”. Because that’s pretty much what a business does.

            Even in your whitewashed genocide-denying view of communism, they’re doing the exact same thing as capitalists are, except that under capitalism you can choose to leave if you want to, by moving to a different “co-op”, or starting your own, or simply saving enough to retire.

            This is like the labour theory of value you discussed above – it’s only accurate to the extent that it agrees with the traditional capitalist approach, and it’s only novel when it’s incorrect. It’s basically taking 10% of the insight of capitalism and trying to craft a theory around it – there will be some value, because 10% of the best system devised is still some amount of useful truth, but you’ll spend most of your time re-inventing wheels and taking decades to realize that “round” is the right shape.

          • In a way, I agree, Thegnskald. By even criticizing capitalism and supporting socialism in this way under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, I am pushing my luck. Thankfully, capitalism is so firmly in the saddle right now that it is not bothered in the slightest by one internet commenter, and it has the luxury of appearing benevolent and tolerant.

            Being a realist, I expect that this will change if the class struggle should ever seriously heat up, I shall have to be much more careful with my public utterances. I have no desire to die as a martyr for the cause. I am actually quite a coward. I shall wait until I see a critical mass of people getting ready to walk across the crosswalk in busy traffic before I shall do the same.

            Re: Alsadius, I think you are mistaken about how capitalism functions. When I get hired at a capitalist business, I don’t get an equal share of the company. Yet I am still pressured to agree to it anyways because I have been cut off from access to means of survival, and in this historically-contrived circumstance my labor-power has no utility on its own unless I can sell it.

            Let me know when I’m offered the same sort of deal that the Kulaks were offered; I’ll sign up in a heartbeat!

            That said, co-ops within a market system are not ideal. It is still capitalism, just a somewhat redistributed version. They were intended in the Soviet Union as a transitional economic organization. There can still be inequality in the capital endowments of different co-ops, and thus different organic compositions of capital, and thus the labor-power of those in the more labor-intensive co-ops will produce more surplus-value but obtain the same rate of profit, meaning that the less labor-intensive co-ops are exploiting some of their surplus-value. And there will still be anarchy of production, crises of overproduction relative to the underproduction of the money-commodity, and the tendency towards (re-)centralization of capital and re-polarization of the population into capital-owners (the owners of the successful co-ops) and wage-laborers (the owners or the less-successful co-ops that go out of business, and their descendants).

            Eventually the plan was to get rid of the co-ops as well and have complete production for use rather than exchange, with the decisions of who gets to use what and how put in the hands of the entire working class on an equal basis of transparent, instantly-recallable representation. Needless to say, that plan hit some…snags. 🙁

          • Alsadius says:

            Thankfully, capitalism is so firmly in the saddle right now that it is not bothered in the slightest by one internet commenter, and it has the luxury of appearing benevolent and tolerant.

            Capitalism is built on the principle of letting people do their own thing without centralzied control. It’s possible to have a mixed system of capitalist economics with repression(ironically, this is most common in nominally-Communist regimes like China and Vietnam), but in general the reason why you can oppose capitalism is that capitalism allows people the right to disagree with the centralized authorities as a fairly fundamental part of the system. Which is, of course, the only reason it works – individuals make better decisions than centralized bureaucracies, so if you don’t allow individuals to ignore said bureaucracies, then you’ve gained nothing.

            I think you are mistaken about how capitalism functions. When I get hired at a capitalist business, I don’t get an equal share of the company.

            The problem is that you have two dissimilar groups contributing to the success of the business – those who contribute capital, and those who contribute labour. It’s hard to set up a straight co-op with different starting points like that, so we divide it up a bit differently. If you look at the breakdown in almost every company, the workers get the lion’s share of the wealth produced by the business(wages are usually much higher than profits for all but a few cash cows), but it still needs to be divided somehow.

            Yet I am still pressured to agree to it anyways because I have been cut off from access to means of survival, and in this historically-contrived circumstance my labor-power has no utility on its own unless I can sell it.

            Hardly. You can start your own business, work for yourself, or even go grab a plot of land and start farming if you really want to. You’ll be desperately poor if you pick the last option, but that’s not because anyone’s screwing you – it’s because subsistence farmers have always been desperately poor, and by trying to emulate them you’re throwing away centuries of economic advances. People choose to work within the capitalist system because it’s so good that the alternatives are ridiculous – you could go join the Amish if you really wanted to, but nobody does.

            Wealth only comes from specialization and trade. This is a constant through history – the mercantile nations are always the rich ones, because they engage in this process most effectively. Self-sufficiency is the abolition of trade, and thus it eliminates all gains from trade. A society that doesn’t gain from trade is always really poor. So yes, you have to engage in trade to get somewhere in the modern world, but it’s because even a bad trader is better off than the best autark.

            Let me know when I’m offered the same sort of deal that the Kulaks were offered; I’ll sign up in a heartbeat!

            Why do you think they didn’t? They fought against it, and millions died as a result. That’s not a few people engaging in petty spite, that looks a lot more like what happens when the “deal” is really just putting a pretty face on genocide. If it was actually as good as you say, surely they’d have gone with it instead of all dying en masse.

            There can still be inequality in the capital endowments of different co-ops, and thus different organic compositions of capital, and thus the labor-power of those in the more labor-intensive co-ops will produce more surplus-value but obtain the same rate of profit, meaning that the less labor-intensive co-ops are exploiting some of their surplus-value.

            So basically, your economic model is that capital is an important part of the process of production and that it results in additional output, but that it is simultaneously exploitation to possess it? The fact that I own a computer doesn’t exploit someone in the 1800s who didn’t – it’s just something I have that they don’t. It makes me vastly more productive, but it’s actual productivity, not a way of stealing from them. True productivity, where you are actually creating value, is IMO something to be encouraged in all its myriad forms. But if you arbitrarily label half the process of production as “exploitation” and only believe that the other half is legitimate, then you wind up with crazy conclusions. It’s like saying that only south on a compass is honest, and north is merely a fascist conspiracy – trying to divide them up is a fool’s errand.

            And there will still be anarchy of production

            Well yes, that’s how capitalism works. Also, I thought true communists were all anarchists – “the state will wither away” and all that. Why are you anti-anarchy here?

            crises of overproduction relative to the underproduction of the money-commodity,

            That isn’t a crisis. That’s called “things getting cheaper”. Moore’s Law is a great opportunity for society, not a problem.

            and the tendency towards (re-)centralization of capital and re-polarization of the population into capital-owners (the owners of the successful co-ops) and wage-laborers (the owners or the less-successful co-ops that go out of business, and their descendants).

            I’m not entirely sure why it’s supposed to be a problem that those who succeed at producing the most value for society get rewarded for it.

            Eventually the plan was to get rid of the co-ops as well and have complete production for use rather than exchange

            Miserable poverty, yes.

            with the decisions of who gets to use what and how put in the hands of the entire working class on an equal basis of transparent, instantly-recallable representation.

            Like a democracy? The US has come closer than anyone else to creating that political system, even if they don’t use it for economic control.

            Needless to say, that plan hit some…snags.

            Like the fact that the people in charge decided to believe Marx instead of their lyin’ eyes, scapegoated millions of innocent people for the failures of their incredibly poor system of economic totalitarianism, and decided to kill millions of people to distratct the populace from their own failures of leadership? Those snags? There’s a reason this happens every time someone procliams that their system will change human nature, make everything perfect, and end all badness in the world. They’re always wrong, they can never follow through on their glorious promises, and then they need to find scapegoats to solve the cognitive dissonance(if they’re true believers) or to save their own necks(if they’re sociopaths). A bloodbath gets you a bit of respite, and then either you keep the terror campaign going to distract people, or you scare them into submission so that their opinions no longer matter(well, at least until it’s Christmastime in the Ceausescu household).

            Can you please admit, in plain English, that the Soviet Union was an evil regime that engaged in mass murder and systematic repression? You can disagree with me on economics if you like – that’s merely wrong, not immoral. But the whole “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out, and by the way there is no God” thing…please, for the love of all that’s good and right, tell me that you oppose that. Or talk about how killing millions for a bad economic theory is something you support. At least then we’ll know where you stand.

          • So basically, your economic model is that capital is an important part of the process of production and that it results in additional output, but that it is simultaneously exploitation to possess it?

            It is not exploitation to possess capital, because mere possession of capital is not what makes it capital. “Capital” sitting idle is not capital at all, but just so many commodities, whether it is machines, buildings, other *potential* means of production, etc.

            Capitalists can buy machines, building, and other means of production, but if they merely try to re-sell those things on the market, on average the capitalists cannot expect to obtain a profit.
            Even if one capitalist has bought his machine high and sold his machine high, there must be a buyer who has bought it high, and will likely sell it low (or use it in production. But the total commodity output obtained by the time the machine is used up will not be enough to pay for the machine if the second capitalist has bought the machine above its value).

            Capital is not a thing, but a social relation. Those things only become capital when they are able to employ labor-power to produce more value than is paid for the labor-power.

            You are on the right track in suspecting that, yes, in Marx’s model there is no “marginal product of capital” in terms of the value of the output (and hence, indirectly, its price…with some deviations). Capital does obviously contribute to the production of the output as physical use-values. You obviously can sow and reap more wheat with machine harvesters than by hand. And if you are the first in the world to invent and use such a machine harvester, then you will even in this rare case obtain a greater value because your individual, concrete labor in sowing and reaping the wheat now has greater productivity and counts for more abstract socially-necessary labor. But once the use of the machine becomes generalized, the aggregate value of the wheat will be right back to where it was before. The increased output of physical use-values will be compensated by a fall in the value of each unit of the output. That is Marx’s prediction, confirmed empirically time and time again.

            Take computers, for example. In use-value terms, the computer on your phone is millions of times more powerful than the earliest mainframe computers. But in value terms, the computer on your phone has maybe a thousandth of the value of the previous mainframe computer. Value has nothing to do with subjective usefulness, contra the subjective theory of value. And scarcity is no answer either because it is not a given. Scarcity depends on the supply of the commodity, which is variable and depends on how much demand there is for the commodity at the commodity’s “price of production.” If there is more demand for the commodity at its production price than is currently supplied, the market price will rise above the production price, creating super-profits in that field for an entrepreneur of typical skill, leading to increased supply until the market price is back down to the price of production—which will, in turn, be constrained by (but systematically deviate from) the commodity’s labor-value.

            Well yes, that’s how capitalism works. Also, I thought true communists were all anarchists – “the state will wither away” and all that. Why are you anti-anarchy here?

            I love anarchists and all, but they do have a reputation for not having thought very carefully about these things.

            The truth is, any society that uses a division of labor must make sure that its labor is devoted to different types of production in the correct proportions (which includes both identifying the optimal proportions and incentivizing economic agents to work towards the correct proportions), or else there will be surpluses, shortages, supply-chain breakdowns, and general economic disintegration. Capitalism accomplishes this precise division of labor in fits-and-starts, through trial and error and corrective crises, with the Law of Value—Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” Any alternative economic system would have to accomplish this task somehow. (Unless there is fully automated luxury gay space communism and AGI does it for us).

            Marx thought that, at a certain point, a coercive mechanism would not be needed (no state, no market, no threat of starvation) in order to identify proportional plans of labor division and get society’s members to contribute to one of those agreed-upon plans. People would simply help with this task because…it won’t be that hard by that point with most things automated, and people like doing purposeful things (like inventing Minecraft economies in their own spare time to run and work on just for the fun of it), and maybe some local, Dunbar-number moral suasion will kick in to get people to go the last mile. That’s why, if you tried to do this in a poor and starving society, the only way it would work is by amping up the moral suasion and surveillance to Puritanical, Salem-Witch-Trial-like levels, and/or resorting back to state compulsion and/or market incentives. (Hence, the Soviet Union).

            Perhaps Marx was too optimistic about the problem of free-riders, though. Even in the context of near-superabundance.

            I’m not entirely sure why it’s supposed to be a problem that those who succeed at producing the most value for society get rewarded for it.

            It’s because “they didn’t build that,” to use Obama’s famous phrase. They did not produce that value for society; their workers did. “So you’re saying that the capital was irrelevant?” To the production of greater use-values, no. To the production of greater value, yes.

            Can you please admit, in plain English, that the Soviet Union was an evil regime that engaged in mass murder and systematic repression?

            “Repent, you heretic!” But in all seriousness, I think I just don’t see things in the same moral terms as you. For example, the Terror of the French Revolution? It would have been in my interest for it to happen, even with a few innocent deaths (unlikely to have been me if it was just a few), especially if it had actually worked and led to a consolidated bourgeois revolution. That would have been a rapid and needed advancement up the ladder of history towards gay space luxury communism, which is my end goal. All of the misery of the working class under capitalism up to this point? A beneficial thing for me. It helped develop the productive forces to where they are now. Do I want this misery to continue? Being a selfish worker, I say no. I want fully-automated gay space luxury communism, or the closest thing to it, as soon as possible.

            Did the Soviet Union accelerate or delay humanity’s advance towards gay space luxury communism? I used to think that it hindered it, and thus was not in my interests. But now I’m not so sure. I marvel at what it achieved despite being attacked on all sides numerous times and being riddled with backwardness and the internal contradiction of being still dependent on a vast peasantry whose class interest was petty-capitalism. I used to be an anarchist who thought Stalin was the devil incarnate. But now, I don’t look at things so moralistically, and I appreciate the difficulty of what he was trying to do, and encounter more and more evidence all the time that he had a plan to build towards socialism and communism, and was not just out for personal power. He cared too much about certain specific controversies, and spent too much thought and time writing about them, to just be in it for personal power. That’s my gut feeling from actually reading his works on marxists.org and seeing a thinking Marxist wrestle with questions that I would have had difficulty addressing, regardless of what all the bourgeois historians will say.

            What was Stalin’s alternative to what he did? Continue with NEP, and empower the element of Soviet society interested in the restoration of capitalism (the rich peasantry) even more? Might as well just close up shop, agree that the Mensheviks were right all along, that capitalism needed more time to develop the lands of the Soviet Union, and step down in favor of some bourgeois government. I mean, in hindsight, that might have been beneficial. Or we might have never witnessed what sort of rapid industrialization was possible under a planned economy despite massive internal resistance. I highly doubt that the Soviet Union would have developed as quickly and comprehensively as a bourgeois colony of French, British, and American capital after WWI, contrary to all of the bourgeois historians who like to offer optimistic extrapolations of Russia’s industrialization under Stolypin and Witte and who point to post-WWII South Korea and Japan (countries which received massive tariff subsidies and preferential treatment for geopolitical reasons; Russia would have been faced with the opposite, just as Putin’s Russia is today).

          • Yosarian2 says:

            @Doug

            >Class conflict was a driving force behind the French Revolution.

            You may not realize this, but when you say that you are using a Marxist historical perspective. Before Marx people would not have described the French Revolution as a conflict between classes. That was specifically a claim Marx himself made, and has been debated since.

            I do think that having that Marxist historical perspective as one lens to view history through has added to the depth and perspective we have on history, and has been useful. Even some of the research that has refuted the Marxist historical claims has itself been useful.

        • ksvanhorn says:

          Marxism not a giant mistake? What would you call 140 million murdered in pursuit of an ideology?

          And while you are praising Marx for telling us “useful stuff” including “that conflicts of class interest matter,” perhaps you should reflect that that one particular idea was a major driving force behind this mass-produced carnage.

          • Marxism may well have been a mistake, but I don’t think the fact that it produced bad consequences demonstrates it was. Ideas can be true and still have bad consequences.

            Nuclear physics is not a mistake, and wouldn’t become a mistake even if we wiped out humanity in a thermonuclear war.

          • Swami says:

            David,

            “Nuclear physics is not a mistake, and wouldn’t become a mistake even if we wiped out humanity in a thermonuclear war.”

            Perhaps we are combining wildly different levels of the term mistake. In terms of does the theory work in creating energy then of course it works. But the point of Marxism was specifically to create better outcomes. The fact that it led to what is arguably the worst outcome of any ideology ever would indicate that it did not work according to its own or any reasonable definition of success. Therefore Marxism was a mistake, or at least as close to a clear-cut example of a mistake as we are ever likely to find in the social sciences.

            To paraphrase McCloskey, after the 20th C, anyone still thinking Marxism is a good idea hasn’t been paying attention.

        • Urthman says:

          I think a big factor in the emergent/non-emergent difference is that people are more likely to complain or fight if they think complaining or fighting will make a difference.

          And I think there are a lot of cases where it is easier to pressure the government to do something in your favor than to obtain the same benefit in the marketplace. So it would be rational to complain more about the outcome of a government decision than the outcome of a market decision.

      • Christian Kleineidam says:

        Marxism was from the start about conflict theory. According to Marx the only way Marxists can win was through a revolution and taking power by force.
        Major political parties in the West don’t follow that ideology and even most Bernie supporters don’t believe it.

        This aspect of Marxism is quite different to the idea of democratic socialism according to which politicians should be elected that take from the rich to give to the poor.
        Mixing the two up makes things unclear.

        • Doug says:

          Most major European left-wing parties can trace their lineage directly to Marxist groups or avowedly Marxist founders. The German Social Democrats were part of the Second International. The British Labor Party was formed from a union of the Fabian Society and Marxist Social Democratic Party. France’s Socialist Party was co-founded by Karl Marx’s son-in-law. The Dutch Labor party was founded by the union of the Democratic League with the explicitly Marxist Socialist Democrats.

          There’s a reason that virtually every left-wing European party has red as its primary banner color. You may assert that social democrats cannot be Marxists, but most of the major founders of the social democratic movements would disagree with that. I think at the point that you’re excluding Rosa Luxembourg from the set of Marxists, your definition has basically lost all explanatory power.

        • Tatu Ahponen says:

          As stated numerous times in the other thread, you don’t have to believe in revolution to have a conflict-oriented worldview. This seems to be the most essential mistake either Scott is making or people are making far too easily based on Scott’s posts.

      • Galle says:

        I’d also say that once a mistake is made long enough, there’s often an entrenched group who’s entire raison d’être is the continuation of said mistake. Hence correcting the mistake may often bring you into conflict with that group.

        Could you provide an example of this happening where you agree with the “mistake”? With all due respect, as written, your post sounds suspiciously like a right-wing conflict theorist trying to pretend to be a mistake theorist and failing at it miserably because he just can’t quit bashing the left.

        • cassander says:

          If you agree with the mistake, by definition, don’t you think it isn’t a mistake?

          • Galle says:

            That’s why I put “mistake” in quotation marks. I’m asking Doug if there are any cases where he’s on the side of an entrenched academic orthodoxy that’s defending their ideology out of self-interest, regardless of whether or not that ideology is actually correct.

          • Doug says:

            Examples might be the existence of property rights, the legality of the join stock corporation, free trade between nations and the repeal of prohibition.

            These were all non-mistakes that nonetheless created entrenched groups: property owners, corporate stockholders, importers/exporters and liquor distillers. If tomorrow we realized anyone of these things were mistakes we’d have a concentrated special interest to fight against.

            For any one of those example, if we decide that we don’t want that policy, it would be much easier to never allow it then to try to reverse it.

          • Galle says:

            Alright, that’s an improvement.

    • paradigmshiv says:

      I think this is a little bit of a misstatement of the conflict position. I’d say a better statement might be, “The people who have the power to make decisions about the minimum wage don’t want to have to pay the people who pick your tomatoes and mow your lawns more. It doesn’t matter what the economists say, because the people in power will use economic arguments when they support their interests, and cast them aside when they don’t. The people most affected by these policies don’t even have a seat at the table.” So I’d say the division is more that the conflict people tend to emphasize power relationships while the mistake people assume the playing field is mostly neutral.

      • Tracy W says:

        At which point we can safely conclude that conflict theorists, on this point at least, are mistaken because minimum wages are very common and occasionally they are raised.

      • cuke says:

        What you say here was my interpretation as well:

        “I’d say the division is more that the conflict people tend to emphasize power relationships while the mistake people assume the playing field is mostly neutral.”

        I think the terms in this dichotomous framework could use some greater specification, as well as proposals about how it’s useful.

        As a psychologist, I wonder often about whether the introvert/extrovert dichotomy (that Scott references above as part of this conversation) is either real or useful. I can talk myself into either position (real and useful; not real, not useful) depending on the day.

        The idea that some people are drained by a lot of social interaction while others are fed by it, seems a useful characterization in terms of understanding people’s needs. But then when I read research saying that introversion is associated with a whole host of other issues, like antisocial personality disorder, etc, then I start to wonder how much stuff is being put into the introversion bucket. A high degree of empathy, for instance, can lead people to “introversion” while an utter lack of empathy can as well, and the distinction between those two seems pretty important. The norm seems to be built around extroverts, who are the majority and introverts can appear to be “everyone else who doesn’t behave like we do.”

        Similarly, it seems like “mistake theorists” is the norm against which “conflict theorists” is being defined as an approach that doesn’t prioritize “the facts” (or something like that?). It’s not clear to me whether conflict theorists are being said to approach arguments based on tribal affiliation, ignorance and anger, a sophisticated understanding of the workings of power, or well considered ethical priorities.

        In any case, what’s being characterized as mistake theorists and conflict theorists both make use of various kinds of evidence and both layer various interpretations and priors onto that evidence when making arguments. We are all telling stories all the time. Is it a matter of emphasis that defines the distinction? If so, can we get clearer about what the indicators are and how we’re measuring them?

  2. benwave says:

    Well, the comment on Dialectics certainly got a chuckle out of me! I always struggle to express dialectics in words, but I’ll have another stab. The way I have been taught about it – which is admittedly slipshod and without direct reference to Hegel – it is that dialectics proposes that you can build more a better model of something by taking a thing and looking for a way to describe it as a result of two conflicting processes. In particular, this should be expected to give you some insight on how the thing might end/change, and what would result from that.

    I’m honoured to be featured a second time Scott! Thank you for that. What I meant to imply with my comment about the lives marginalised people live, is that as a result of their experiences they are more inclined to see the world in a conlict-y way. But I admit that I was making the mistake of internalising that without giving it enough thought. I will have to think about it more!

    • benwave says:

      So, after some reflection: I Think what I may have really meant was not so much that marginalised people experience an overabundance of conflict in their lives, but that mistake theory, when it interacts with marginalised people, gives the impression of not listening to them or caring about them (independently of whether or not this actually is the case). So, an absence of what appears to be good-faith engagement from mistake-theory in their realities, rather than what I said in the previous post.

      Marginalised people are often faced with situations where some smart, qualified people have come around a table, listened to their input, discussed matters dispassionately, and as a result decided to evict their community from their tenements and rebuild a gated community where it once stood, for example. They are told that this is correct, that it is better for everyone including them in the long run. If they accept this to be true, then I can see why they tend to lose faith in the mistake-theoretic view of the world. It’s hard to cooperate for something you don’t believe you have any stake in.

      This suggests a clear actionable, which is to consider ways to encourage marginalised people to believe they have more of a stake in the mistake-theory view. And I guess that’ll be the next thing I spend hours contemplating!

      • Alsadius says:

        > This suggests a clear actionable, which is to consider ways to encourage marginalised people to believe they have more of a stake in the mistake-theory view.

        This is, IMO, the fundamental genius of mass democracy. It’s the only system yet devised where “power”, in the usual senses of the term(money, connections, etc.) are pretty thoroughly removed from the decision-making process. The vote of a sketchy homeless dude is equal to the vote of a billionaire, even if nothing else in their lives is remotely comparable.

        This is also the reason why I tend to push a slightly idealized view of democracy and get annoyed at cynics, despite my cynicism about many other things. It seems like the people talking about “vested interests buying elections” or “what’s wrong with Kansas?” or “one vote doesn’t matter” are corroding that system. When it comes to keeping the marginalized engaged, mass cynicism is almost as destructive as getting rid of the system entirely.

        • It seems like the people talking about “vested interests buying elections” or “what’s wrong with Kansas?” or “one vote doesn’t matter” are corroding that system.

          Are they also telling the truth? Is the implication that true statements (one vote has a negligible chance of changing the outcome of a presidential election) that have bad consequences should not be made?

          It’s a defensible claim. At one point in my exchange with Bob Frank I argued that if his view (that the rich benefited by the poor being poor and the poor were harmed by the rich being rich, for value of relative status reasons) was correct he shouldn’t be publishing it, since it would give rich people an incentive to try to hold down the poor, poor people to try to pull down the rich.

          But I’m not sure if it is the claim you are making.

          • Alsadius says:

            I suppose I’m making two claims here.

            Claim 1: All three of those arguments I quoted are false.

            a) Money has very little impact on electoral outcomes – it’s an endogenous variable, not an exogenous one. Popularity creates money, not vice-versa. For evidence, I submit to you the political career of Meg Whitman.

            b) The thing that’s “wrong with Kansas” is that they have principles. Similar to how wealthy New Yorkers will often vote for higher taxes on the wealthy – they think it’s right, even if it’s not expedient. This argument is stupid and insulting.

            c) The odds of influencing an election singlehandedly are of course quite low – in a nation of millions, we can’t each swing the election ourselves. I think Scott’s argument about the dollar value of a vote is apt, however. Also, we just got a pretty clear lesson in the value of a single vote. I have long stated my belief that nothing a typical person can do will exceed political impact per unit time spent than voting – yes, the impact is small, but big impacts are usually dedicate-your-life-to-it affairs, not 10 minutes on a Tuesday evening. This is why I use the old “Don’t complain if you didn’t vote” argument – if you can’t do something really simple with fairly good time efficiency, why are you doing the thing that just makes everyone cranky instead? (I’m not fastidious for people in very lopsided elections, FWIW – ignore the vote in DC if you wish – but you should still show up in Ohio)

            Claim 2: Even if the arguments against democracy were literally true, they necessarily imply false things on a societal level. If everyone decided that one vote was meaningless, then nobody would vote, and the election would get very unusual very quickly. There’s clearly an equilibrium point somewhere, and it’s nowhere near 0% turnout. (I think that for elections to major governments, the equilibrium is far higher than 100% turnout – i.e., if you allowed people to stand in line and vote multiple times, the number who did so would be extremely large, and they would be sensible to do so. The importance of the vote scales with population, so I don’t expect this to change substantially by country size either. Equilibrium is much lower for less important positions, like student council, but for the national government it’s quite high.)

            Further, the nature of arguments is that different groups will believe them to different extents. If political scientists all think voting is irrelevant, but plumbers vote because that’s what good Americans do, then political scientists have just disenfranchised themselves. That doesn’t make it false, of course, but it does make it a pretty good weapon to use against the sort of people who listen to voting theory arguments.

          • Also, we just got a pretty clear lesson in the value of a single vote.

            And each time someone wins the lottery, we get a pretty clear lesson on why you should buy lottery tickets?

            I have long stated my belief that nothing a typical person can do will exceed political impact per unit time spent than voting – yes, the impact is small, but big impacts are usually dedicate-your-life-to-it affairs, not 10 minutes on a Tuesday evening.

            It takes more than ten minutes to vote, especially if you want any reason to think you are voting for the right candidate. The relevant question isn’t “is this more effective than other things you could do” but “is this worth doing?”

            I figure, at a rough estimate, the odds that one vote will swing a presidential election are about one in five million. If you are sufficiently altruistic to value benefits to other people equally with benefits (and costs) to yourself it looks like a profitable gamble, at least if you think you know which candidate will be better for most people. But almost nobody is that altruistic. For someone who weights benefits to strangers at close to zero, as most people do, the value of the benefit to everyone is more like ten times the benefit to himself. If you count that at $100,000, which is pretty generous, your return from voting is about twenty cents. That isn’t an adequate payment even for the time and effort to go vote, let alone for the much larger effort you would have to take to be confident you were voting for the right candidate. Everyone believes he knows–but in each election, about half of them must be wrong.

            That’s twenty cents without even discounting the value for the significant probability that you are one of the ones who is wrong.

            Even if the arguments against democracy were literally true, they necessarily imply false things on a societal level. If everyone decided that one vote was meaningless, then nobody would vote, and the election would get very unusual very quickly.

            The statement “it is not in your self interest to vote” is still true even if it is also true that “if everyone chose not to vote we would be worse off.” You seem to be smuggling in the categorical imperative in a context where it makes no sense. I have massive evidence that many people will vote, so the relevant question for me, or any other individual, is the cost and benefit of his voting given that many other people will.

            If you believe that pointing out to people that it isn’t worth voting has bad effects, perhaps because smart people will be convinced and dumb people won’t, that’s a reason not to point it out. But it doesn’t justify the “Don’t complain if you didn’t vote” argument.”

            if you can’t do something really simple with fairly good time efficiency,

            requires that the thing has good time efficiency, not merely that it has better time efficiency than other things you are also not doing.

          • Alsadius says:

            > And each time someone wins the lottery, we get a pretty clear lesson on why you should buy lottery tickets?

            It’s a clear lesson on the upside. The probability requires mathematical analysis, of course, but I also linked a discussion of that.

            If lottery tickets were 1/100 the price they are now, and payout schemes were identical, would you still disagree with people who buy them?

            > It takes more than ten minutes to vote, especially if you want any reason to think you are voting for the right candidate.

            The “Don’t complain if you didn’t vote” discussion is aimed at people who express opinions, meaning that the heavy lifting of generating opinions is already done. Rational ignorance I’m perfectly okay with, but involvement without voting(barring unusual cases like anti-democratic types or those who want to keep themselves non-partisan for career reasons) has always struck me as thoroughly suboptimal.

            > the value of the benefit to everyone is more like ten times the benefit to himself

            That strikes me as ridiculous. If nothing else, the typical person has 10 people they’re close enough to to count substantially in their thinking, never mind the millions of others.

          • If lottery tickets were 1/100 the price they are now, and payout schemes were identical, would you still disagree with people who buy them?

            No. I provided some rough calculations on cost/benefit for voting.

            > It takes more than ten minutes to vote, especially if you want any reason to think you are voting for the right candidate.

            The “Don’t complain if you didn’t vote” discussion is aimed at people who express opinions, meaning that the heavy lifting of generating opinions is already done.

            In calculating the benefit of voting, you have to allow for the chance that your opinion might be mistaken. Either you discount heavily for that or you have to do more work to reduce that probability.

            > the value of the benefit to everyone is more like ten times the benefit to himself

            That strikes me as ridiculous. If nothing else, the typical person has 10 people they’re close enough to to count substantially in their thinking, never mind the millions of others.

            There are more than ten people who count substantially in my thinking. There are fewer than ten people benefits to whom I value equally with benefits to myself.

            There are many millions of people who would obviously benefit a great deal from open immigration–the people who would immigrate. Most discussions of immigration policy, outside the small minority of open borders supporters, almost totally ignore their welfare and put the argument in terms of effects on us.

      • aaeiou90 says:

        > mistake theory, when it interacts with marginalised people, gives the impression of not listening to them or caring about them
        In a sense, this is not merely an impression.
        Consider Alice, who drives to work everyday because she cannot afford to live closer to it. Now let’s say the city where Alice works decided to eliminate most of free parking. This is a sensible policy, that will undoubtedly benefit a lot of people, but from Alice’s perspective, her car is being taken away by a tow truck for failing to pay a fee that she didn’t have to bay the day before. She is excused to think that the city government and policy wonks conspired to make her life harder, because that’s essentially what’s happened. That’s the entire purpose of the policy — to make it so that fewer people take a trip by car. By making it prohibitively expensive for certain people.

        So every policy, somewhere down its implementation, contains an implicit threat. Fail to pay a tax? Go to jail. Cannot afford to pay your workers minimal wage? Go bankrupt by trying to, or by not trying to and getting sued. Of course, reversing a policy would similarly affect other people.

        Conflict space is a tangent space on policy manifold.

    • paradigmshiv says:

      My understanding of the dialectic is that it’s a way of combining concepts to produce new concepts. So for example, you start with the idea (thesis) of “male”. You combine it with its perceived opposite (antithesis)–in this case, “female”. Now we look at what these supposed opposites have in common, and come up with the concept of gender (synthesis), which gives us new ways to look at the world. With that said, I’ll admit I don’t really understand most of Hegel and my eyes tend to glaze over when people start talking about dialectics.

      Applied to the current conversation, I really think Scott should embrace the dialectic in this case. He’s taken two opposing ideas and synthesized a new way of looking at the world from them, and then he began his formal response to the comments by defending the idea that his synthesis is (in a sense) a novel concept worthy of consideration.

  3. Nearly Takuan says:

    In support of the correctness of your thoughts on “conflict theory” vs “mistake theory”, I would like to point out that when sociologists decided to perform sociology on themselves, they came to basically the same conclusions you did, and even used some of the same language to talk about it. Here are, literally, the Cliffs Notes.

    Key quotes:

    Functionalists believe that society is held together by social consensus, or cohesion, in which members of the society agree upon, and work together to achieve, what is best for society as a whole.

    The conflict perspective, which originated primarily out of Karl Marx’s writings on class struggles, presents society in a different light… challenge the status quo, encourage social change (even when this means social revolution), and believe rich and powerful people force social order on the poor and the weak.

  4. Jack Lecter says:

    I find this interesting except that I can’t figure out why marginalized people being harmed by inequality, bad medical care, bad working conditions, etc makes conflict “the reality” for them. Surely it means bad things are the reality, and we’re back to the original question of whether bad things are mostly due to conflict or mistake?

    I’m inclined to view this in relation to the dynamic I was gesturing at here. It seems like people are able to pretty easily assume bad things are due to hostile agentic forces (cf. witch burnings), while linking bad outcomes to complicated game-theoretic structural failures is less intuitive and more computationally expensive. If people are desperate and miserable, they may not have the mental and psychological resources to form the second type of worldview.

    I think this is sometimes linked to a sort of broad statistical tendency. I have to be careful how I talk about it, because it’s easy to interpret normatively, and I don’t have any firm normative position on it. But speaking descriptively, I’d put it like this: Angry people tend to be less empathic, and, well, angrier. People in bad situations tend to be angrier, because they have more to be angry about. Angry, lower-empathy people will likely tend to find Mistake Theory less intuitively appealing. So people currently in bad positions will, in a broad statistical sense, be more emotive, meaner, less tolerant of computationally expensive theories, and more inclined toward solutions that involve smashing things.

    There’s a right-wing narrative here, where disprivileged people aren’t as kind or thoughtful as the rich, and so we don’t need to worry too much about them. And there’s a left-wing narrative here where a lot of what seem like individual moral/intellectual failures can be improved by reducing poverty. I’m trying to avoid falling into either of these, since both contain normative elements that I can’t really vouch for.

    • Ketil says:

      I find this interesting except that I can’t figure out why marginalized people being harmed by inequality, bad medical care, bad working conditions, etc makes conflict “the reality” for them.

      I think the conflict/mistake theory narrative is interwoven in a quite wide web of ideas and concepts. Marginalized people, almost by definition, have limited influence on their lives. Or, at least, they are prone to blame their misfortune on others (e.g., “the system”). Mistake theory requires the belief in ability and opportunity to intellectually influence the debate – or at least a deeply felt trust in authorities to make the correct decisions. Conflict theory appeals more to emotions than to intellect, and builds strongly on ingroup-vs-outgroup dynamics. Where mistake theory leads to technocracy, conflict theory leads to populism.

      Ethically, mistake theory is coupled to consequentialism, while conflict theory is connected to virtue ethics and deontology – and especially the thought that motive determines whether an action is ethical. A conflict theorist thinks people who oppose – or even just question – the cause are doing so from nefarious motives (self enrichment, say), and are therefore morally bankrupt and not to be trusted – on anything. Blam: outgroup!

      I attended a meeting last night, on climate change. There were a lot of well-known political figures present, and people representing various interest. What was interesting, was the total lack of conflict – it was all quite gemütlich, with a total lack of criticism. Everybody presented their views, which were quite convincing (unless you happen to notice what they leave out), and of course ended with the conclusion that their own particular business or technology was the best thing for our future climate. So perhaps I am somewhat conflict-theoretical in thinking that this is mistake-theory being hijacked by special interests. We get the semblance of intellectual discourse, but with any inconvenient truths weeded out.

      It has been obvious for years now that we will not manage any 1.5°C or 2.0°C goals. In a free society, why it is so hard for politicians or the media to say it?

      • Jack Lecter says:

        I’m not familiar with the subject in question, but maybe what’s obvious now wasn’t obvious a few years ago, and a social norm took root in the intervening time of being optimistic, and now violating that norm would also signal that you’re the sort of person to violate norms?

        This feels like the handiwork of a certain Carthaginian demon. Maybe because it’s a suboptimal equilibrium manifesting in the absence of centralized coordination?

      • Mistake theory requires the belief in ability and opportunity to intellectually influence the debate – or at least a deeply felt trust in authorities to make the correct decisions.

        I think this is almost the opposite of the point I made and Scott misunderstood in the previous round. Mistake theory assumes that the authorities often make incorrect decisions, mistakes, hence that outcomes can be improved, in terms of values shared by almost everyone, if those mistakes are corrected. Conflict theory assumes that the authorities are making decisions that are correct not only for them individually but for some substantial part of the population–the ruling class, supporters of the party in power, or equivalent.

        So the basic mistake theory tactic is to show enough people that the decision is a mistake so that it is no longer in the interest of the decision makers to make it–that might include showing the decision makers that it is a mistake for them but is more likely to mean showing it to other people in order to change the incentives of the decision makers.

        The basic conflict theory tactic is to increase the strength of your faction so that decisions will be made to benefit it instead of the other faction now controlling things.

        • benwave says:

          I think the confusion/difficulty comes in where we assume that the ‘correct’ or ‘best’ decisions Are being made by authorities, and that the marginalised person in question believes that this is true as well. Then what they to do? They either have to accept that they should take one for the team, or they have to fight against it. Which one they do probably depends a lot on how likely they feel they are to be left holding the short straw in the next decision to be made. And the next after that.

        • Ketil says:

          I have a hard time understanding what you mean here, which I think means we have different understandings of what conflict theory and mistake theory is. (Taking a mistake-theroretical approach here 🙂 I am not sure what the disagreement actually is, but:

          “Mistake theory assumes that the authorities often make incorrect decisions”

          and

          Conflict theory assumes that the authorities are making decisions that are correct

          To me, MT and CT are not about the tendency to (or frequency of) erroneous decisions, but about what we ascribe to be the cause: an honest mistake or selfish, often hidden and group-oriented motives. If anything, I would say mistake-theoretical oriented people will make a lot less errors, since they are – at least in theory – disposed to listen to counterarguments to their case, rather than dismissing them as machiavellian subterfuge.

      • Aapje says:

        @Ketil

        It has been obvious for years now that we will not manage any 1.5°C or 2.0°C goals. In a free society, why it is so hard for politicians or the media to say it?

        Because that will shift the moral norm.

        If the expected behavior is to do what will achieve less than 2.0°C, people will feel increasingly like deviants for behavior that doesn’t achieve the expected outcome (if everyone does it). If we assume that people are not strictly altruist, but also to want to be socially expected, they can be expected to have a more or less fixed gap between the expected behavior and their actual behavior (which is a compromise between selfishness and social acceptance). So if you change the expected behavior to what will achieve 3.0°C, people will be more likely to shift to behavior that will achieve 4.0°C (for example).

    • zzzzort says:

      It seems like people are able to pretty easily assume bad things are due to hostile agentic forces (cf. witch burnings), while linking bad outcomes to complicated game-theoretic structural failures is less intuitive and more computationally expensive.

      I find it a lot more clear to turn it around (which I guess is the lefty position?) and say that high status people tend to believe that their position is fair, justified, deserved, what have you. Conflict theory does not lend itself to choosing fair outcomes (though a marxist might say it can lend itself to effecting outcomes known to be fair), and thinking that your awesome job and big house is a result of your group’s past success in conflicts isn’t very comfortable. Relatedly, I would predict that support for meritocracy will be much more associated with mistake theory people.

      • Jack Lecter says:

        @zzzzort:

        Yeah, I find that plausible, to the point I’d be surprised if it weren’t happening.

        And if you’re purely a conflict theorist, that’s all you need.

        I am not much of a conflict theorist at all, though. So I still need an explanation for the (apparent?) disproportionate popularity of conflict mindsets among the disadvantaged.

        And I’ve noticed, in my own mind, a strong reluctance to suppose that people disadvantaged through no fault of their own are damaged by the experience in any way that my mind might associate with being… less. Even very roughly. It seems, for my mental censors, that poverty and racism are allowed to be temporary setbacks, but not to have long-term effects on character. And once I noticed the aversion in myself, I kind of had to poke at it.

        This has been a (halting and not altogether successful) attempt to put that particular dynamic to paper. It isn’t intended to preclude other dynamics, such as the one you mention, which seems to me obviously valid.

        • zzzzort says:

          And if you’re purely a conflict theorist, that’s all you need.

          Not sure I understand how the two explanations differ on that axis, just putting the mistake in a different place.

          I am not much of a conflict theorist at all, though. So I still need an explanation for the (apparent?) disproportionate popularity of conflict mindsets among the disadvantaged.

          Mistake theorist: I disagree with some group about how well conflict theory describes the world; there must exist some cognitive bias to explain this persistent mistake.

          Conflict theorist: Funny how you always end up finding cognitive bias explaining why the other group is wrong…

          (very unfair of me, I know, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to point out one of my pet peeves about rationalist spaces)

    • Urthman says:

      If I’m being directly harmed by something there is a much higher cost to giving mistake theory the benefit of the doubt. If I incorrectly choose conflict framing, I still might prevail and end the harm through conflict that I initiate. But if I incorrectly choose mistake framing it’s more likely I’m going to waste my energy and fail to obtain relief trying to correct the mistakes of someone who doesn’t care whether their arguments are correct but only cares about winning.

      I think it’s also partly a matter of urgency. If someone has a gun pointed at my face, it’s too late to be talking about the incentive structures that allow him to have a gun and that motivate him to want to shoot me.

      • lvlln says:

        If I’m being directly harmed by something there is a much higher cost to giving mistake theory the benefit of the doubt. If I incorrectly choose conflict framing, I still might prevail and end the harm through conflict that I initiate. But if I incorrectly choose mistake framing it’s more likely I’m going to waste my energy and fail to obtain relief trying to correct the mistakes of someone who doesn’t care whether their arguments are correct but only cares about winning.

        I don’t find this argument convincing. If I incorrectly choose conflict framing and somehow prevail – despite incorrectly choosing conflict framing – then that prevailing might not actually alleviate the harm, because I was incorrect in choosing conflict framing in determining how best to alleviate the harm. Furthermore, if I incorrectly choose conflict framing and lose, I could be faced with many more harms than the original harm I was originally trying to alleviate.

        Incorrectly choosing mistake framing is pretty bad, too, but it seems being incorrect either way is pretty bad.

        I think it’s also partly a matter of urgency. If someone has a gun pointed at my face, it’s too late to be talking about the incentive structures that allow him to have a gun and that motivate him to want to shoot me.

        If someone has a gun pointed at my face, I think the best way to get out of the situation without a bullet in my face is to figure out the incentive structures so that I can manipulate the other person to lower their gun without pulling the trigger. That might take many forms, like giving them my wallet, yelling really loudly, appealing to our shared humanity, or one of many other things, depending on the idiosyncracies of the situation. Trying to whip out my own gun and fire before they can seems like a formula for catastrophic failure, since unholstering a gun, aiming it, and pulling the trigger takes longer than just pulling the trigger on gun that’s already unholstered and properly aimed at my face.

        • Urthman says:

          I don’t find this argument convincing. If I incorrectly choose conflict framing and somehow prevail – despite incorrectly choosing conflict framing – then that prevailing might not actually alleviate the harm, because I was incorrect in choosing conflict framing in determining how best to alleviate the harm.

          If the harm is severe enough, any change is likely to be an improvement. And incorrectly choosing a conflict framing seems more likely to achieve a change (even if it’s not the ideal one) than incorrectly choosing mistake framing.

          The failure mode of conflict framing is creating a situation that is worse than what you started with, a revolution that’s worse than what it replaced. But the worse your current situation, the less danger that the results of a radical change will be even worse. Choosing conflict framing might be a result of believing you have “nothing left to lose.”

          • lvlln says:

            The failure mode of conflict framing is creating a situation that is worse than what you started with, a revolution that’s worse than what it replaced. But the worse your current situation, the less danger that the results of a radical change will be even worse. Choosing conflict framing might be a result of believing you have “nothing left to lose.”

            This would just imply a severe failure of imagination or lack of historical knowledge, though. The number of people for which this is anywhere close to an accurate statement is vanishingly small, certainly a tiny, tiny minority of the marginalized segment of the population. It could, at best, explain why it’d make sense for like 0.001% of marginalized people (as well as like 0.0001% of non-marginalized people, for that matter, since there are non-marginalized people who reasonably believe they have “nothing left to lose” as well, even if the proportion might be lower) to choose conflict framing, which just doesn’t impact the overall trends within that population.

            Actually, writing this out, I think I’m starting to work out how this explanation can make sense. Marginalized people experience more stress and suffering, as well as have to spend more time and effort just to keep surviving, which means they have less opportunities for education, which makes them more likely to inaccurately assess their situation as “nothing left to lose” (or something close to it), which makes conflict theory seem more appealing to them. Or it might also be that the lack of mental bandwidth leaves them more susceptible to bad actors who deceive them into believing that their situation is accurately described as “nothing left to lose” (or something close to it).

          • Urthman says:

            lvlln, I apologize for the confusing language. I didn’t mean they literally had “nothing left to lose” but rather that some people might feel like they were in such a bad situation that a change would be more likely to make things better than worse if for no other reason than regression to the mean.

          • John Schilling says:

            If the harm is severe enough, any change is likely to be an improvement.

            Not if you are still alive it isn’t. Things can always get worse, until they become irrelevant.

        • Sebastian_H says:

          “If I incorrectly choose conflict framing and somehow prevail – despite incorrectly choosing conflict framing – then that prevailing might not actually alleviate the harm, because I was incorrect in choosing conflict framing in determining how best to alleviate the harm.”

          You’re still thinking like a mistake theorist.

          If the harm can be framed as something like “THEY are screwing US over”, you might be wrong and the real answer is “if we messed with this weird thing over here THEY could do well and WE could do well”.

          However, if you still might win as a conflict theorist you could very well find yourself in the “WE are now screwing THEM over” Which even if you could have found a Win-Win situation if you were correctly thinking like a mistake theorist, still puts you in a better situation so long as you are the winner in the Win-Lose situation.

          Similarly if you are a mistake theorist but you are really dealing with people who are screwing you over, you are just going to continue to get screwed over.

          Furthermore if you are a mistake theorist, and correctly diagnosis that there may be a Win-Win situation, you may not be a good enough technocrat to actually get to the Win-Win situation, which will make it look like you were trying to screw THEM over. (This is pretty much what I think happened with globalization. The technocrats let average GDP lure them into thinking that there weren’t serious harms that needed to be alleviated. This eventually caused a huge section of the population to concluded that the technocrats were actually conflict theorists who were just lying to screw them over.)

          • lvlln says:

            However, if you still might win as a conflict theorist you could very well find yourself in the “WE are now screwing THEM over” Which even if you could have found a Win-Win situation if you were correctly thinking like a mistake theorist, still puts you in a better situation so long as you are the winner in the Win-Lose situation.

            The issue I see is that it seems entirely possible that the conflict theorist could win such that “WE are now screwing THEM over,” and still end up worse off than in the previous situation where “THEY were screwing US over.” Life isn’t a baseball game where if you defeat the other team, you’re strictly better off than if the other team defeated you. It’s entirely possible for you to win and end up in a worse-off place relative to if you had lost/when you were losing. Sure, your opponents are probably in an even worse-off place relative to you now, but is that really worth it if you’re still worse off than when you started?

            Well, perhaps some people value really really highly the suffering of people whom they deem their opponents. I don’t think there are enough marginalized people who are of this stripe, though, to really affect overall trends within the population. I could see the argument that being marginalized causes people, on the margins (heh), to be more likely to have that sort of resentful attitude, but, again, I think we’re dealing with a tiny, tiny minority in the worst case scenario.

      • RobJ says:

        This makes the most sense to me. The more my well-being depends on my side winning, the more my focus will be on winning rather than hashing out the most fair/correct solution.

  5. johnswentworth says:

    I’m kind of surprised at the degree of different interpretations. I had interpreted the conflict/mistake dichotomy as just simple object vs meta-level reasoning, applied to agent conflicts. So, e.g., a conflict theorist looks at Pfizer’s sins and says “Pfizer is evil! We need to get rid of them/reign them in!” A mistake theorist looks at Pfizer’s sins and says “What incentive structures led to this problem? We need to design new incentives which better align with what we want.” The main difference between the two would be that a conflict theorist expects the problems to go away if you create a new regulatory authority to watch over Pfizer, whereas a mistake theorist would expect that to just create a host of new problems since the fundamental alignment problem is still unsolved.

    Conflict theorists locate the problems in the agents, mistake theorists locate problems in the incentive systems. Conflict theory says the problems will be fixed if you take out the bad agents. Mistake theory says the problems can only be fixed by changing the rules which govern the system, and creating well-aligned rules is hard.

    But a bunch of the comments seem to interpret the dichotomy in other ways? Like, assuming that people want the same things or that negotiated outcomes are best or that we need a revolution all seems orthogonal.

    • Deiseach says:

      The main difference between the two would be that a conflict theorist expects the problems to go away if you create a new regulatory authority to watch over Pfizer, whereas a mistake theorist would expect that to just create a host of new problems since the fundamental alignment problem is still unsolved.

      No, the conflict theorist expects that unless the watchdog has real teeth and continually performs its function of overseeing Pfizer, then the same problems will keep cropping up, while the mistake theorist’s happy conclusion of “Now we’ve aligned our incentives properly!” and then leaving will ignore that (a) what Pfizer says they really want may not be what they really want (b) even if Pfizer aligned its incentives with its underlying wants properly, how it get what it wants may not be good – which is the “sins” in the first place (c) Pfizer comes up with some vague mission statement to keep the mistake theorist happy about “we won’t kill anyone anymore, we promise” and then once the mistake theorist has left, they continue following their real aims which is “increase our quarterly profits year-on-year”.

      • johnswentworth says:

        Ok, how about this: conflict theorists expect the problems to go away if you create a sufficiently toothy watchdog, whereas mistake theorists expect the problems to go away under an incentive system created by someone who actually understands economics (i.e. one designed under the assumption that Pfizer mainly wants to increase quarterly profits, politicians mostly want to be re-elected, etc.)

        Anyway, I think this basically agrees with the nature of the dichotomy as I saw it.

        • cuke says:

          So are mistake theorists in this formulation well-meaning people who don’t understand enough about the problem to solve it?

          This is my problem with the construction of the dichotomy so far is that in at least half of the discussion, conflict theorists are portrayed as ignorant or angry, while some portion of the conversation (less than half), conflict theorists are portrayed as people who understand that power dynamics complicate scientifically-arrived-at-solutions or people who have overriding values that make certain approaches untenable, or some other thing.

          I’m not on either side of this dualism because I’m not seeing it clearly yet, but the discussion so far continues to have a bit too much of a “people who really really know stuff” versus “people who only think they know stuff” flavor to it. If that’s what we mean, then let’s call it that, but it would change the nature of the conversation significantly.

          • johnswentworth says:

            I don’t think we need to assume mistake-theorists are well-meaning, or don’t know how to solve the problem. We just see the problem as not fundamentally about power struggle. We see the outcome of any power struggle as determined, up to team jersey color, by the (economic) equilibrium of the system – and would rather change the equilibrium than the jersey color.

            I have yet to think of a non-artificial example where it does not seem like conflict theorists are obviously ignorant, usually of economics. As deiseach’s comment above illustrates, conflict theorists *do* seem more-or-less-universally ignorant of economics. But that doesn’t mean the *smartest* conflict theorists don’t have something of value to add.

            I guess it would be helpful if someone could point to an actual conflict theorist who obviously understood what problem we’re even talking about? Like, someone who sees “Pfizer” and “incentive alignment” and at least understands that we’re talking about changing the system so that production of cheap and effective drugs is the profit-maximizing strategy.

          • liquidpotato says:

            @ johnswentworth

            In your mind, how would you classify Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi back when she was under house arrest?

            Which of them are conflict theorists and which of them are mistake theorists?

          • johnswentworth says:

            @liquidpotato Not sure; I haven’t read enough of any of their writing to classify how they thought. I will say that all three of them were mainly figureheads; the injustices they fought had largely ceased to be stable political-economic equilibria before they came along. So their own thinking was mostly irrelevant anyway; they were riding a tide.

          • Galle says:

            I have yet to think of a non-artificial example where it does not seem like conflict theorists are obviously ignorant, usually of economics.

            Well, if we want to look at extreme examples, there’s the recent election in Alabama, where Republican candidate Roy Moore was accused of being a child molester, and yet people nevertheless endorsed and voted for him. Shockingly, most of the people who said that they didn’t believe Roy Moore was a child molester were Republicans, and most of the people who said they did were Democrats. There was also the rather unique phenomenon of certain politicians saying they would support him even if the accusations were true.

            I do not see a way to explain this without resorting to conflict theory to at least some extent. Even a mistake theory analysis would have to acknowledge conflict as the reason for the mistake, as otherwise there’s no way to explain how the disagreement was split so perfectly along party lines.

          • johnswentworth says:

            I’ve thought of a clear example of a conflict theorist who understands mistake theory: Moldbug. He talks a ton about the hard problems of social system design, but then contends that society used to handle these things just fine, and those darn liberals are ruining everything. Oversimplification, sure, but he seems like a clear example of someone who understands exactly what mistake theorists are saying, and also thinks that the problems really will go away if we can defeat the Enemy.

          • liquidpotato says:

            @ johnswentworth

            I will say that all three of them were mainly figureheads; the injustices they fought had largely ceased to be stable political-economic equilibria before they came along.

            And? How is that at all relevant to whether they should be classified as conflict theorists or mistake theorists?

            Here’s an even more interesting figure to consider. Lech Wałęsa of the Solidarność. Do you think he is a conflict theorist or a mistake theorist?

            Further, you know those circumstances to be unstable only with the benefit of hindsight. From within, at that time, the situation might have seemed very entrenched and stable to the people in it. I think this matters a great deal in terms of game theory.

            And honestly, why would you be considering someone of such un-importance as this Moldbug fellow relative to the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King?

            Edited to add:
            Even better than Lech Wałęsa. Do you think Mikhail Gorbachev is a conflict theorist or mistake theorist? Here is a literal Marxist, with his policies of glasnost and perestroika. Are you similiar to some of the people upstream that think Marxists are incorrigible conflict theorists?

        • Tatterdemalion says:

          I think that you may in fact be describing the same thing in two different ways, without realising it.

          If you want to change Pfizer’s incentives, you’re going to need to introduce new sticks and carrots, conditional on its behaviour – that’s what incentives are. Some organisation or system is going to have to monitor Pfizer’s behavioru, and apply those sticks or carrots depending on what it observes. And what do you call a body with a stick that it applies if Pfizer acts in ways you don’t want it to? A watchdog.

          • johnswentworth says:

            Ideally, a well-designed system should not need any specific organization to monitor Pfizer – that would just shift the whole problem up one level, to designing an incentive structure for that organization.

            The easiest solution is to have pfizer monitored by its customers, i.e. leave it to the market. If you have well-informed consumers and low barriers to entry, that usually works pretty well. The drug industry has neither of those, so it doesn’t work so well, but it does illustrate one class of “good solution” which works for some problems without anything resembling a “watchdog”. Unless you count the market as a watchdog?

      • Galle says:

        This seems like a strawman of mistake theory.

        Mistake theorists are not naive, gullible idiots. Nobody seriously believes Pfizer when they say that their goal is anything but “increasing our quarterly profits year-on-year”. The point of all the tinkering with incentive structures is that, if you take it as a given that Pfizer is going to try to increase their quarterly profits, then the solution is to align Pfizer’s incentives such that increasing their quarterly profits requires being on their best behavior.

        The conflict theory reaction to this is that taking it as a given that Pfizer is going to try to increase their is an act of surrender and they should be forced to change their goals to something else.

    • zzzzort says:

      I think object vs meta-level implies more of a heirarchy than actually exists between those concepts. I would be more comfortable with a terminology of motivated actors vs. incentive structures as the description. The reality, of course, is that the actor’s motivations depend on the incentive structure and that incentive structures are created and changed by motivated actors for their own benefit.

      Also, this dichotomy could be somewhat orthogonal to the original mistake/conflict one, as systems can be both flawed and rigged and actors can both mistaken and greedy. If Pfizer is acting to take advantage of a law pushed through by Pfizer lobbyists then it would seem wrong to call it a mistake. And if you repeated the same legislative process again, you might reasonably expect an outcome similarly favorable to Pfizer.

      • johnswentworth says:

        So obviously I fall all the way on the mistake end of the spectrum, but from this perspective, it does look like an hierarchy. The actor’s utility function does not depend on the incentive structure; that’s roughly the point of a utility function. If the actor’s motivations seem to depend on the incentive structure, then we probably have not correctly worked out the actor’s utility function.

        The point about actors changing the incentive structure is more important; that’s really the core problem of incentive system design. Either the actors need to not be motivated to change the structure (unlikely), or they have to somehow be made unable to change it. For instance, if some technology change makes consumers much better informed about the drugs they buy, then Pfizer can’t really do anything about that. That’s a change to Pfizer’s incentive system; they will then be incentivized to focus more on the quality of their drugs.

        Or, toward your legislative example: the problem is to design a legal system where Pfizer lobbyists can’t easily push through laws which are detrimental to everyone else. Or to modify the existing legal system, or to modify the technology around the existing legal system… whatever is necessary to make the system resist concentrated benefit-diffuse cost problems (ideally without creating other problems in the process).

        I guess my point is that, if it doesn’t look like an hierarchy, then our supposed mistake theorists are insufficiently meta.

        • zzzzort says:

          *oops, hit the report button by mistake, sorry!*

          I guess my point is that, if it doesn’t look like an hierarchy, then our supposed mistake theorists are insufficiently meta.

          You can always meta higher in either mistake theory or conflict theory; systems are implemented by people all the way up. For example

          the problem is to design a legal system where Pfizer lobbyists can’t easily push through laws which are detrimental to everyone else.

          -The problem is more precisely to design and implement a legal system that insures good outcomes for everyone.
          -Using the sentence structure ‘the problem is to’ elides the actor. Who is doing the designing? What are their incentives? Who pushes for implementation, and who decides if that push is successful? It’s all well and good to say there oughta be a law, or a way to make laws fairly, or a way to prevent people from making it hard to implement a system of making fair laws,… but at every step of the way changes will have to be made by actual people, which a meta conflict theorist will say act to benefit their own side. Do conflict theorists think that the current campaign finance laws (about as meta as you can get) are a mistake that just happen to allow rent seeking? Does anyone? The article claiming that public choice theory is racist surely goes to show that conflict theorists can meta with the best of them.

          The actor’s utility function does not depend on the incentive structure

          Maybe I was less than clear, but I meant in the more specific and proximal sense. I am motivated to obtain green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them because of a structure that says they are worthwhile. Politicians seek popularity because political power in democracies is dependent on votes.

          • Aapje says:

            The problem is more precisely to design and implement a legal system that insures good outcomes for everyone.

            This is not possible, though, because the maximally good outcome for one person can and often will come at the expense of a worse outcome for others.

  6. Anon. says:

    Spelling:

    I notice Jacobite’s describes itself

  7. Ursus Arctos says:

    User no_bear_so_low here. I put some thoughts up describing the differences in Scott’s understanding and my original intent here:

    The Conflict and Mistake theories of politics- further thoughts
    https://www.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/7t4v2e/the_conflict_and_mistake_theories_of_politics/

    The differences are mostly subtle, but I think important. They lead to a more sympathetic view of Conflict theory, and also a somewhat more refined conception of what hybridization between the theories looks like.

    I’m glad the rationalist community is having this discussion. Just because many people understand a thing intuitively doesn’t mean everyone does, and admitting a way of thinking is novel is a sign of intellectual honesty, not naivety.

    • bosun_of_industry says:

      This is an excellent clarification that does a much better (unsurprisingly given it was your post that sparked things) job of conveying the complexities than my comment. This sentence especially is an excellent summation of why public policy is hard:

      “The world is hideously complicated in such a way that it is easy to make dreadful mistakes, even with good intentions, and also there are people who, due to their social position and the incentives that apply to them, don’t have intentions which lead to the good”

    • cuke says:

      Thank you for writing that post, helpful.

      It strikes me that if the overarching goal is to explain sources of political disagreement, we might widen our view considerably. And indeed through the course of this discussion, other factors besides “lack of sufficient information” and “lack of appreciation of power dynamics” keep creeping in. Some of these include:

      * How much is at stake for each party in the disagreement;
      * How each party defines the problem and what they see as a solution state;
      * Pre-existing moral frameworks that each party brings to the disagreement that may create very different ideas about goals, acceptable means, and rules of engagement;
      * Different interpretations of the same “facts”;
      * Degree of trust that the other party is speaking in good faith;
      * The prior experience (whether lived or based on research) people have related to the problem and prior efforts to solve the problem;
      * The psychological dispositions of the participants in the disagreement.

      If the goal of all this discussion is to have a better explanatory framework of what causes intractable political disagreements, I can’t wrap my head around why privileging two variables above a bunch of other ones that also shed light on causes of disagreement would be desirable.

      I get why you would if you’re an academic and you need to publish books and articles. My last contact with sociology involved a long review of social movement theories. My memory is it amounted to people arguing for their favorite explanatory variable and then hanging a bunch of historical evidence on their favored theory. “Social movements succeed or fail based on how well they mobilize resources!” No, it’s how well they construct a widely or deeply-felt story. No, it’s whether they can get elite opinion to their side. No, it’s whether they arrived at an opportune opening in the political/historical moment. No, it’s whether it had a really charismatic leader. No, it’s…. I can’t remember now all the variations, but you get the idea.

      I guess I’m sideways-about proposing that better models are built on multiple interacting factors and not on dichotomies or single variables. But I’m open to persuasion…

  8. skybrian says:

    re: “Some examples of circumventing conflicts: free religion, free speech, federalism, reliance on scientific consensus. Free religion because instead of pushing for any one religion to win, you just create a system that defuses the threat of religious violence.”

    Rather than circumventing conflicts I would say these are ways of transforming conflicts. So the idea with freedom of religion is that religions still compete, but they do so by attempting to attract followers rather than by raising armies.

    We also have competitions to come up with most effective memes, raise the most money, get the most votes, win in court, or a combination of all of the above.

    The extreme mistake-theorist position seems to be that most of these ways of competing are illegitimate and they all should be replaced with rational argument, which is the unique form of competition that results in the best outcomes. (Best according to what criteria?)

    What other flavors of theorists might we come up with? Maybe a market-theorist believes that talk is cheap and winning in the marketplace (by whatever means) is all that matters? Or maybe a politics-theorist believes that winning elections is all that matters? (If people vote your way, does it matter if they did so for mistaken reasons?)

    I wonder how many people actually believe that rational argument is more legitimate than other forms of competition?

    • emblem14 says:

      A lot of things the liberal project put forth were designed to redirect proclivities from violent tribal warfare toward non-violent, regulated competition. There is a difference however between thinking, “I don’t like those people, but I won’t interfere with them because it’s really none of my business, plus what right do I have to impose on them yada yada Golden Rule” and “I don’t those people, and I want to get rid of them them by any means short of violence because violence is out of bounds for some reason.”

      In my previous post, I said the genius of classical liberalism was recognizing the necessity of social Detente between groups with different value systems, IF the true aim of said groups was to live in peace and freedom and basic sovereignty over their own affairs. However, if any group actually had some intrinsic expansionist/imperial/conquest oriented character, society would be faced with the paradox of tolerance. If that’s the case, maybe you really need a supreme Mommy state with a monopoly on violence whose role is essentially to glare at her subjects and warn “no hitting!”.

      Even so, it’s still easier to convince a person that it’s in their best interest to make a truce with their enemies, rather than getting them to change their minds about what their values should be or who their enemies are. By extension, the most persuasive arguments for a liberal society are selfish – you shouldn’t wage wars you might not win at the risk is losing everything, when you can have what you say you want through toleration and mutual deterrence.

    • Helaku says:

      but they do so by attempting to attract followers rather than by raising armies.

      Then, after the “attract as many followers as you can” thing, they are raising armies to enforce followers.:)

  9. Aleph Garden says:

    I recently remembered there is a Robin Hanson take on (roughly) this subject: Why We Mix Fact & Value Talk:

    [B]y mixing enough facts into a value discussion, we can explain to ourselves and others why crushing them is really best for everyone. We can say that they just don’t understand that global warming is a real thing, or that kids really need two parents to grow up healthy. It is the other side’s failure to accept key facts that can justify to outsiders our uncompromising determination to crush them for a total win. Later on they may see we were right, and even thank us. But even if that doesn’t happen, right now we can feel justified in dismissing them.

  10. amaranth says:

    people are *incredibly bad* at discoursing about basics like “start understanding a concept by giving binary examples of opposite sides, then correct it and make it more sophisticated later” & their existence & whether or not they are doing them

    incomprehensibility is a common tactic to at least prevent the people who arent moving the discourse further from ruining it

    e.g. tao te ching

    • Kindly says:

      Incomprehensibility can convince people not to contribute to the discourse pretty much independently of whether they’re likely to move it further or ruin it.

      (More precisely, it excludes the people who are unwilling to do lots of work to get past the incomprehensibility, but are responsible enough not to try to engage anyway, leaving only the willing and the irresponsible. Those who know talk not, those who talk know not.)

    • azhdahak says:

      It’s not just that — if the beginning is too readily comprehensible, it’ll spread much further than any of the refinements. Haidt’s moral foundations theory has undergone some major, compatibility-breaking updates since it was first published, but the version that’s caught on is the patently absurd “liberals have two moral foundations and conservatives have five”.

  11. antilles says:

    Let me see if I can explain this correctly: OF COURSE the Hegelian Dialectic refers to the process of conflicting oversimplified versions of reality competing and arriving at a synthesis which takes the best features of both. It just ALSO refers to a bunch of other stuff. The Hegelian project grew out of the Kantian project of attempting to understand the structure of the mind, which in turn would (it was hoped) illuminate the structure of society. So the old-school Hegelian thinks that just like we use this dialectic to arrive at progressively better knowledge of reality and concepts for categorizing it, they also think that *political* conflict looks like that, and the progression of changes in governments and societies themselves! And once you’re at that level you have an extremely compelling but oversimplified narrative about reality so you want to apply it to everything, hence critical theory using this framework being so utterly obtuse.

    • WJP says:

      It’s not quite like that, as I understand it. Hegel took Kant and *flipped* him, from transcendental to speculative, meaning that instead of describing the limits of the mind as regards the thing in itself, you come to see the limits of the mind as revealing about reality, and the thing in itself is discarded/absorbed.

      So all reality reflects the process of Hegelian dialectic because all of reality reflects the mind–or more accurately, all of reality IS mind (spirit). Instead of saying “There is mind and reality but all we can really talk about is what (the) mind thinks about reality, not about reality itself” (Kant), Hegel went a step further, “what the mind thinks about reality IS reality”, or, “the limits of the mind are not failures of knowledge but are themselves knowledge since they describe the limit of what is. which is why he’s called an idealist.

      But I’m in no way a Modern philosopher (I mean Modern as “post-medieval”) so I’m almost certainly simplifying in a way that would cause Hegelians pain.

  12. MarginalCost says:

    So I appreciate that Scott is going out of his way to engage with his critics, but does anyone else feel like this blog was better back before it got so popular? (That is not intended to be as hipster as it sounds.)

    I feel like in the past few years Scott’s been forced to defend himself and explain himself for what always seemed to me to be relatively clear-headed explanations intended to be thought-provoking than the Final Word on anything. Scott’s great gift is in being generative and creative, not just critical, and I’d hate to see him get bogged down in defending answers he never gave to questions he just wanted to ask.

    I’ve seen this happen to other bloggers I’ve admired, where after achieving some level of success, the desire to defend one’s ideas from criticism ends up sucking up some of the creative energy, eventually almost capturing the blog. Scott, I hope reactions like these don’t prevent you from letting us in on your thoughts even while they’re still forming.

    • amaranth says:

      yess

    • axiomsofdominion says:

      This is the argument for seasteading/general anarchy. I wondered if you noticed. Don’t fight, segregate. Its also what feminists mean by “its not my job to educate you”. There are certain discussions you can only have when everyone is on the same basic foundation. Erm, the old conflict theory in the streets, mistake theory in the sheets dichotomy. You can only have mistake theory discussions that move you forward rather than slowly pulling others up to your level when the people below your level are not involved.

    • yodelyak says:

      I liked the conflict vs mistake post much more than this one, for what that’s worth. And I think Scott should do more Santa poems.

    • I rather like it when Scott tries to defend his ideas.

      On the other hand, I do think his genius is more bringing up new ideas than it is discussion back and forth, so I don’t want him to over do this thing. I often find his new ideas somewhat convincing, but his re-hashes I don’t find as enlightening.

      Even so, it is refreshing for a pundit to respond honestly to his critics, especially when his critics are all the self selected commenters on his blog.

  13. AnonYEmous says:

    whew

    not to oversimplify everything you just wrote (especially since I was too lazy to read either post on the subject), but isn’t “conflict theory” just what you employ in cases of bad faith, and “mistake theory” what you employ in cases of good faith? Then of course most employ a mixed strategy, and you’ve got some people that go hard on either (marxists versus liberals, perhaps?). Of course employing one strategy where it doesn’t fit leads to errors and may make you look foolish – either by being conspiratorial or by trusting people who don’t deserve your trust.

  14. Garrett says:

    You might want to consider looking at special interests as a form of utility-function unification much like specialization in studies leads to PhDs in geology.

    Pressure groups (real-world manifestation of special interests) like the AARP, Chamber of Commerce, NRA, Sierra Club, etc. are due to both the combination of the desires of real-world people and of a collection of specialized knowledge around those issues. If you’re looking to improve air quality, running your proposed regulation by the Chamber of Commerce will tell you how businesses will see the associated burden. That you’ve heard of the Chamber of Commerce is because there are enough real people (directly or through corporations) who care about the business environment to make themselves known. Same with the Sierra Club – they’ll certainly be able to point out issues in proposed regulation and how something might be easily avoided.

    We might all be in favor of clean air in the abstract, but the money they raise is an indication of how much people care. So these special interests are actually signalling in proportion (subject to a huge error term) to the overall utility that these interests bring to the overall population.

  15. blacktrance says:

    By analogy, should we ever talk about the left vs. right axis in politics? Isn’t that just a “dichotomy”? After all, almost nobody is 100% leftist on everything or 100% rightist on everything.

    The issue is how well the dichotomy (whether binary or continuous) describes the territory. For example, short-tall is good, but bald-blond would be bad, and maybe conflict-mistake is more like the latter.

    It’s not entirely clear what conflict theory really is. Is it (1) “everyone is in it for themselves and we have to get the biggest slice of the pie we can”, (2) “my enemies hate the good”, or (3) “my enemies have a fundamentally incompatible idea of the good”? I see 1 from some alt-righters and leftists in their meta moments, 2 is commonly expressed in extremely uncharitable comments (e.g. “they just want poor people to starve”), and 3 sounds like Hard Conflict. If conflict theory contains all three, does it make sense as a cluster? 1 doesn’t accuse its enemies of moral failure or fully reject symmetry – if consistently held, it looks kind of like mistake theory minus the mistake. 2 is sincerely dedicated to passion, 1 and 3 see it as instrumental. (And there are some mistake theorists who seem pretty passionate – “Maybe if we yell ‘global warming is real, you dumb sheeple!’ enough, they’ll finally get it.”) Also, rather than treating moral vs intellectual failure as a one-dimensional spectrum, I think it’d make more sense to separate them, so you’d have moral, intellectual, both, neither (the last of these being “They might be right about some things, I can’t be sure of my position”).

    • Sniffnoy says:

      The issue is how well the dichotomy (whether binary or continuous) describes the territory. For example, short-tall is good, but bald-blond would be bad, and maybe conflict-mistake is more like the latter.

      And I’d say that left-right is more like the latter. 😛 (Note: This is not a statement about whether conflict-mistake is a good distinction or not.)

    • Deiseach says:

      It’s not entirely clear what conflict theory really is.

      It’s that example of the lake full of fish that often comes up here. It’s in the interests of all the fishermen as a whole to maintain the lake, not pollute it, not over-fish and so on; it’s in the interest of each individual fisherman to take as much out of the lake as he can and spend as little maintaining it or not polluting.

      Conflict theory is that each fisherman may agree in principle that limiting his own share of the catch will benefit the group as a whole, and himself as an individual, in the long term (by ensuring that the lake is always stocked with fish), but each fisherman will also want, under the pressures of trying to make the most money they can because they have bills to pay and need a new boat and their families are growing up, to exploit the lake for his own short term benefit and leave the others to pay the price. Some fisherman may succeed in obtaining a privileged position where he over-fishes and pollutes, or a small group of fishermen may combine to pursue their interests at the expense of the group as a whole.

      That’s where the conflict comes in: all of them are fishermen, all of them rely on fishing to make a living, all of them rely on the lake as their source of livelihood, but for each of them grabbing a bigger share makes more sense in the short term than co-operating, and one or a small group of them may succeed in this resource-grabbing, and then they will attempt to justify this, and to establish themselves as having a right to that greater share because they ‘enclosed and developed the lake’ and now ‘the economy of fish production is more productive and profitable by having one major lake fisher than having everyone able to equally fish’, and the successful exploiter will convince himself that he has a genuine right to the ‘fruit of his investment’ and will resent any implication that he is an exploiter or ‘cheating’ or ‘taking more than his fair share’ – after all, if the other fishermen wanted to be as rich as he now is, they could have done the same as he did! It’s not that he’s greedy or immoral or any of the other accusations thrown at him, and he certainly is not a special or vested interest!

      And that can be perfectly true – he needn’t be greedy or immoral. But he is a special interest and pretending he has no interest in maintaining what he has against the claims of the other fishermen, other than some impartial objective ‘let’s all sit down and find a way to agree to let me keep on doing what I’m doing’ debate, is not the truth of the matter, even if to him he is making a good faith effort to be reasonable and to compromise.

  16. Wrong Species says:

    You alluded to this but I’m still not sure what your answer is. What is the fundamental distinction between mistake vs conflict theory? Is it empirical facts vs values or fighting vs debating?

    • AG says:

      Mistake/Conflict is meant to be an additional axis that makes horseshoe theory possible. The distinction was gestured at in the SSC survey, of what people assume as the default interiority of their opponents, and at the possibility of their redemption.
      The other distinction comes from the type of solution a person defaults to: mistake theorists attempt to sidestep things (via an appeal to an external standard), while conflict theorists attempt confrontation.

      For a nonpolitical example, consider how a supervisor might deal with an employee performing below expectations. The pure mistake theorist supervisor would prefer to first nudge the employee with praise/encouragement, or if they do have a disciplinary action, frame things through a “this is according to a corporate policy” interpretation. The pure conflict theorist supervisor will prefer to tell them to their face that they’re not up to snuff. Note that in this instance, the conflict theorist is more in line with the “environment of truth” paradigm, whereas “it’s true, but they shouldn’t say it [because it creates needless conflict]” is the mistake theorist approach. Note that both mistake and conflict theorists believe that their way is creating incentives for the employee to do better.

      • Aapje says:

        @AG

        I think that it was very unfortunate that the intellectual failure vs moral failure question was presented as a binary choice, rather than a scale. I think that there are very people on SSC who see everything as one or the other. Something similar is true of the other ‘Political Disagreement’ questions, which also seemed to require people to round themselves to a position very strongly.

  17. emblem14 says:

    I have an intuition that whatever difference there is between these two mentalities boils down to something like certitude. Are you sure you’re right? How do you know you’re right? Is it possible you could be wrong? Are there possibilities that you’re not aware of/not seeing? How certain are you that what you think is happening is actually the reality of what’s happening?

    People who are conflict theory oriented are, I think by definition, in an unquestioning mental state regarding the underlying factors they believe characterize a conflict. That makes it easy for them to draw bright lines. I think even when conflict/mistake are equally valid lenses through which a given problem can be analysed, the conflict lense will take some foundational propositions for granted, such as what the conflicting interests are and why they must be in conflict. The mistake lense allows for a deeper skepticism about any given set of assumptions – it’s more exploratory.

    Finally, as Scott mentions, mistake theory is more likely to yield a more liberal or pluralistic solution set by acknowledging that there may be alternatives to a zero-sum framing, and searching for those alternatives. Conflict orientation takes a zero sum landscape for granted. There’s also a sense in which a mistake lens is aiming at a generalized “good” as an optimal solution, (assuming such a thing exists) whereas a conflict lens can’t help but set things in particularist terms (assuming nothing else can exist).

    Obviously, there will be situations in which conflict theory is the “correct” analytical lens, in that it most accurately describes reality. However, if one has a bias toward seeing everything as conflict, then it becomes a self-fulfilling proposition since one of the conditions that makes conflict theory applicable is the mere fact that people start thinking in those terms. In doing so, they’ve already foreclosed on a whole range of possibilities prior to the analysis.

    • Jack Lecter says:

      I also get this feeling, pretty strongly.

      Sniffnoy also referenced this in the other thread:

      Scott breaks it down here as if it’s fundamentally this one disagreement between the two points of view, but really there’s a number of disagreements — we’re looking at two clusters here — and one of those is the fact that conflict theorists just don’t really worry about mistakes, like, at all. They don’t seem to consider it important to put systems in place to keep one aligned with reality; they seem to think that if they win the conflict the right things will happen automatically.

      I’ve met people like this, but I still can’t really picture how that would feel from the inside. Failure of imagination on my oart, or do they have some piece I’m lacking? If they were lacking a piece I had, I’d think I could just sort of mentally subtract it…

      Anyway, I agree that a (the?) foundational difference between the clusters is… something to do with epistemology.

      • emblem14 says:

        I think for those people, their favorite conflict theories seem to have enough predictive power regarding human behavior, events and social patterns, that they’re accepted as functionally true, or at least “true enough”, allowing for some additional complexity on a micro level or in edge cases if pressed. You can’t fault people for adhering to a worldview that appears functional and happens to align with their moral intuitions – that’s a better recipe for psychological stability than being radically skeptical about epistemology.

        What’s fascinating is that there’s such a diversity of mutually exclusive and incompatible worldviews that meet this criteria.

  18. apotropaic745201351 says:

    On how this tends to work:

    Say Alice (a Bay Area software engineer who likes technocracy) and Bob (a Bay Area social worker who likes Marx) are having a conversation about politics. Alice tends to see her personal future and the more neoliberal status-quo as relatively bright; Bob is worried about his future and believes that a socialist revolution is more likely to improve things.

    Alice and Bob are both genuinely interested in finding out the best possible solution to the problem of designing a thriving and just society, and the mistake theorists’s approach is definitely the one that would get them there, given perfect information.

    That said, Alice groks enough conflict theory to understand that some of what Bob tends to say about wealth redistribution is putting her in a privileged class of people on the wrong side of history. Even if the causal arrows of history don’t actually put Alice among the Nazis, Alice has a sense that Bob might be thinking they do.

    Alice’s wants to be liked and wants to keep things friendly with Bob and thus wants the conversation to take place using mistake-theorist rules. Alice is sympathetic to Bob’s position, and wants to find the best, evidence-based set of policies to fix the problem. She wants to hear Bob’s policy proposals and compare them with the most up to date political-science/economic literature to try to figure out what she wants.

    Bob’s begins the conversation with Alice on her terms, using a mistake-theorist’s approach to the problem, but Bob doesn’t feel like he is managing to persuade Alice with some of these minimum-wage studies and suspects that this is at least in part because of Alice’s privileged position.

    Bob realizes that convincing Alice is going to be hard, since Alice has a vested interest (with that high salary) in his being wrong. Bob understands that Alice and Bob have differing interests and thus good reasons to favor different solutions personally. Since Bob groks some conflict theory, he understands that conflict theory predicts Alice will prefer to be a mistake theorist.

    Even when Bob is nice, he ends up slipping at times into conflict theory mode by making the argument more personal than Alice would like it to be. When Alice makes a few snarky comments she fails to keep the conversation on friendly mistake-theory terms, and Alice and Bob end up yelling at each other.

    It’s easy enough to point to Bob and saying he’s not being charitable enough to Alice, but Bob is right to be skeptical that Alice’s reasoning is as purely rational as she says it is.

    Their best approach is to do a literature review together with a conflict theorist’s sense of suspicion about self-serving reasoning and biased sources of evidence in the service of a mistake theorists goals; but they have to get along well enough together in the first place.

    • axiomsofdominion says:

      This seems to me to be a pretty accurate description of how this goes. Say with my wealthy cousins.

  19. Sniffnoy says:

    Marginalised people are often harmed or killed by inequality (medical, prison and law-enforcement, unsafe conditions of work or home life), so conflict is the reality that some of them face.

    I have to point out the obvious liberal response is that, no, they’re harmed by themselves not having enough, not by other people having more…

    • Deiseach says:

      they’re harmed by themselves not having enough, not by other people having more

      And the obvious retort to that is that the other people have more by taking an unfair amount of what might otherwise go to those who don’t have enough.

      We can go round and round in circles here. This is the “Okay so you don’t have a job in the rustbelt anymore but now you can buy even cheaper smartphones because China!” argument.

      That argument works in some cases (e.g. “gay marriage means more freedom all round, them being able to marry and access the same advantages straight couples enjoy has not affected your right to marry or enjoy those advantages”) but not in all (see the minimum wage debate where “no you can’t set a minimum rate because this will knock out the low-paid jobs for the really useless losers if an employer isn’t free to set a rate of three dollars an hour to hire a moron to sweep the floor” – there the argument is that somebody having more very definitely takes away from somebody else).

      • Sniffnoy says:

        You have to know what you’re optimizing for. If you identify people not having enough with others having more, you are going to do the wrong thing, regardless of what might have caused that state at present.

        (In addition, it’s worth noting that “taking an unfair amount of what might otherwise go to those who don’t have enough” isn’t the same thing as inequality — it’s a cause of inequality. Inequality itself rarely causes anything, it’s its causes that cause things. All these distinctions matter if you want to go altering things!)

        • Jack Lecter says:

          @Sniffnoy:

          it’s its causes that cause things.

          Speaking as a grammar nerd: well done, sir!

        • Deiseach says:

          “taking an unfair amount of what might otherwise go to those who don’t have enough” isn’t the same thing as inequality — it’s a cause of inequality

          Agreed. At the same time, taking an unfair share and then acting as though the resulting inequality is some mysterious fundamental principle of the laws of nature into which your actions had no input, whereby the virtuous succeed and the immoral/sinful/slothful/genetically inferior do not, is also doing the wrong thing and will put you astray when you want to alter things.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            No disagreement there! I really was just trying to point out how causal structure is important and identifying things obscures it.

  20. Sniffnoy says:

    It can be about the amount of each person’s soul devoted to their special interest as rich/poor/white/black/rural/urban, vs. the amount of each person’s soul devoted to loving truth and doing good.

    Let’s not forget of course each person’s own selfish interests. Leftists and SJers (for example) seem to assume that people automatically sort themselves into groups which automatically coordinate (the leftist model seems to be that classes act, not individuals). But it’s not clear how this group-sorting works and coordination is certainly not automatic. I mean there definitely does seem to be something to this idea but one has to remember that groups are composed of individuals and that one certainly cannot just identify the overall interests of the group with the interests of the individuals in that group as Leftists seem to.

    • Aapje says:

      @Sniffnoy

      Indeed. I think that the concept of Moloch would serve these people well, as well the idea that many choices have both major upsides and major downsides (where the preference for a certain trade off doesn’t necessarily align by identity, for example, many men AND women like (parts of) traditionalism and many women AND men dislike it).

      As it is, way too much is explained as: “group A coordinates to oppress group B, giving A enormous benefits, while B faces enormous downsides.”

      It’s especially amusing/sad when groups get accused of coordinating that actually seem chronically incapable of coordinating as a group. One example is that men seem to be really, really bad at it. Men’s ability to coordinate for men’s interests is minimal, yet they get accused of this constantly (ironically, the inability to coordinate might be a major cause for lack of push back against the claim).

      Another example from the other side of the political spectrum is the idea that Muslims will coordinate to create a Sharia society, when the ability of Muslims to coordinate as Muslims (rather than as Shi’ite/Sunni/whatever) seems very minimal.

  21. Sniffnoy says:

    But most of the ones I’ve met think that avoiding conflict is a better deal for the enemy than for them, and so would rather just have it and see what happens.

    “A better deal for the enemy than for you” is a point of view that assumes that how good something is for the enemy matters. Whereas the liberal view is that, you know, other people’s gain is not your loss (and not your gain either). But Leftists seem to take a quite zero-sum view of the world, sometimes explicitly endorsing this — sometimes it’s merely said to be zero-sum between classes, but sometimes they actually say it’s zero-sum between everyone (even though they don’t ever seem to do anything resembling acting like the latter).

    In a truly zero-sum world, always fighting is in fact the right answer. Two warring countries negotiating a ceasefire (to take an example) works because it means has to spend money, lives, and other resources fighting a war, so both sides do better than if they fought; in a zero-sum world, to have two possible outcomes one of which is a Pareto improvement on the other (to the parties involved) is impossible. (Really I’d identify this “no outcomes Pareto comparable” criterion, rather than the actual zero-sum criterion, as the important thing, but I’ll continue to use “zero-sum” as shorthand even though it’s not technically the right thing.)

    The thing is of course that actual zero-sum situations just don’t really come up; it’s an absurdly restrictive condition. Leftists may believe in fighting and winning, and may employ the rhetoric of zero-sum situations, but in an actual zero-sum world, the correct answer isn’t merely to fight, it’s to fight and never negotiate, fight and never so much as communicate with the other side, fight and never surrender or accept surrender, fight until one side is exterminated. Fortunately, Leftists don’t actually do this! I think most people just don’t realize how absurdly restrictive the condition of zero-sumness is and just describe things as being such when they aren’t.

    • Tracy W says:

      Isn’t it more likely that leftists are defining zero-sum differently, as in zero-sum is a best case, but a negative-case outcome is still possible?

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Possible, although since “zero-sum” is a technical term I think such a situation would be better described as “they’re using the term ‘zero-sum’ to get at a different concept”; I don’t think we want meanings for “zero-sum” other than the technical one to start proliferating here. 😛

        Problem is such a thing doesn’t seem to justify how they use it. Also I’m worried the concept you suggest is trivial — what wouldn’t fall under it?

  22. Henry Gorman says:

    I think that your efforts to represent the broader liberal project as being about conflict-avoidance are fairly ahistorical. The establishment of liberal democracy in the period between the 17th and 19th centuries usually required bloody revolution or civil war. Its proponents were passionate ideologues who overturned their societies’ existing institutions with violence. Rulers generally perceived them as incredibly dangerous. They usually attributed society’s problems to members of a ruling class who they wanted to destroy or dethrone. The Declaration of Independence and “What is the Third Estate?” are calls to arms against enemies of the people. Somebody like Thomas Hobbes– who we might now see as the the ultimate conflict theorist– would have represented the “social peace” perspective in his own time.

    • Deiseach says:

      The establishment of liberal democracy in the period between the 17th and 19th centuries usually required bloody revolution or civil war.

      This. On my Tumblr dash I have someone who is a complete Robespierre fangirl (he was misunderstood! his enemies have blackened his name! he has been misrepresented in history!) and even taking what he did at its most charitable, a river of blood was flowing from the lofty ideals he and his comrades espoused (until he finally fell off the tiger’s back and was devoured in his turn).

    • Tracy W says:

      It’s not like 17th to 18th century rulers were adverse to violence themselves. The proponents of liberalism often had ample reason to perceive their rulers as deeply dangerous.

      • Henry Gorman says:

        Oh, I don’t think that the 17th-19th century liberal revolutionaries were wrong! I’m just pointing out that liberalism could only claim the “neutral ideology of coexistence” position after centuries of violent struggle! The tree of liberty only flourishes when it’s watered by the blood of the martyrs.

    • The establishment of liberal democracy in the period between the 17th and 19th centuries usually required bloody revolution or civil war.

      I don’t think this is true at all. What liberal democracy required war? Arguably this is true of the US, except that England was moving in the direction of democracy anyway, so at most the American revolution moved it forward a bit. I don’t think the French revolution established liberal democracy in any sense. Can you give an example of a war that resulted in a liberal democracy? It seems to me that they were all established in an evolutionary process. Is it even possible for a democracy to follow a civil war?

      • cassander says:

        Germany needed a war to get it and another one to make it stick. France……depends how you count. The former hapsburg lands, at least one. Italy, at least one for unification.

  23. Barr says:

    I still feel like there are a ton of mistakes being made by mistake-theorist people in these threads. Some are claiming that the conflict-theorist approach is more appropriate in zero-sum games. Actually, the conflict-theorist approach is more appropriate in all sorts of simultaneous games. In the single-shot prisoner’s dilemma, the most pragmatic strategy is to defect. In repeated prisoner’s dilemma, the most pragmatic strategy is to convince your opponent that you will accept and to defect yourself. In other words, if you look at the world as a contest of people struggling for finite resources, your perspective is going to be pretty damned accurate. This principle applies in games. It applies in economics; it applies to speech, to language, and even to basic thought.

    The kind of impartial honest Socratic speech with dialectical truth-seeking intent and where statements correspond to states of affairs should be seen as a bizarre alien aberration of thought. I’m even more pessimistic than that. I think that once we get our shit together we’ll be able to peak below the curtain and see how the use of objective-level speech really fulfills some pragmatic advantage.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I mean, if nobody’s going to communicate honestly there’s no point to communicating at all, since deceptive communication has nothing to cloak itself as. (In an actual zero-sum situation, you don’t talk to the other side; any communication is pointless.)

      (Note btw that your Prisoner’s Dilemma example doesn’t really work; perhaps you meant to use Chicken as an example instead? In Prisoner’s Dilemma convincing your opponent that you’ll cooperate doesn’t really do anything.)

      • Barr says:

        Communication still works insofar as we know something about each others’ motivations. And since that’s the case, notice how much of speech is devoted to implicitly or explicitly conveying intention. Once someone has conveyed their intention, it is often very clear how they are going to act. Notice that there really is not really any objective, state-of-affairs level language that can convey intention. I can say, ‘I have not had food in over 36 hours,’ but this still requires an implicit call to [‘as a fellow human being, I desire food in regular intervals of five to eight hours discounting sleep’].

        In the intentional model of communication, communication is still very useful. Suppose we are in a trading situation. You signal that you desire cheeseburgers and I signal that I have many a cheeseburger and a desire for gold it’s perfectly rational for both of us to exchange.

        I made a mistake about repeat prisoner’s dilemma. I meant to say, you want to convince your opponent to accept. The way you convince your opponent to accept, is by offering an incentive. For instance, in tit-for-tat, you will reward your opponent’s acceptances with your own. For some reason, I thought my short-hand ‘the most pragmatic strategy is to convince your opponent that you will accept’ was in any way clear.

    • Jack Lecter says:

      @Barr:

      Probably relevant:

      Older theory here.

      iirc these try to outline a rational justification for not defecting in the one-shot prisoner’s dilemma. I think they may be worth reading.

      It’s a different argument, but I’ll volunteer that I want more from other people than I could take by force, even given very optimistic assumptions regarding my ability to do so.

    • emblem14 says:

      if you look at the world as a contest of people struggling for finite resources

      But it’s not that simple is it? Or at least it doesn’t have to be – there are alternative rule sets and arrangements that, if enough people “buy-in” can create win-win scenarios. Real world examples of cooperation strategies being more successful than antagonistic ones are abound. Sure, there might be relative losers and relative winners, but enough people are willing to live with that instead of risking annihilation.

      The big error of the conflict theory that takes your sentence as a priori, is it precludes the possibility of imaginative and creative solutions that might enable more options. If you don’t question the conflict framing, those possible alternatives will not occur to you.

      I think that once we get our shit together we’ll be able to peak below the curtain and see how the use of objective-level speech really fulfills some pragmatic advantage.

      Maybe this is correct- but it’s assuming the same foundational proposition, and possibly making the same error, as the first quote. I happen to think that analysing a problem from a position of emotional detachment and indifference to outcome is possible, and actually does yield a different kind of perspective than the myriad positions of embedded interests that are partial to certain outcomes. I believe that intentionally deciding to jettison your precommitments is the only way one can truly think, if thinking is meant to be something beyond just complex motivated reasoning. Obviously there will be those who say this is illusory – we can’t extricate ourselves from our positionality, our contingent state of being – consciously or subconsciously, and any attempt to take the “martian’s point of view” of some human problem is confounded with intractable biases.

      IDK, when intelligence agencies run wargames, it’s only effective if you leave your partiality to an outcome at the door. Perhaps the issue is that we get caught working backwards from our own arbitrary notion of the Good, which immediately makes us narrow minded and biased, when we should be approaching problem solving by exploring the broadest possible band of potentialities and then cataloguing the various trade-offs. Only then should we debate what’s “best”, because only then will we know we’ve actually made an effort to explore the widest range of what’s possible.

  24. Radu Floricica says:

    > But this sounds a lot like…mistake theory. If people push their policies because they’re biased into thinking that’s the morally correct thing to do, then surely solving their biases and convincing them otherwise could change their policy preferences. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe this model? If so, what exactly are we talking about?

    I can’t believe you’re theorizing the concept of “shill” when all you have to do is go to reddit with an alt account and try to have a conversation on a controversial subreddit. Just for fun, play on being a Red in purplepilldebate, or a libertarian pretty much everywhere. You’ll find out very soon that selfish or selfless motivations are not the problem – simply that once they get into a debating mindset, very few people are able to try to change their own mind. Arguments are soldiers and so on. This is possibly the greatest problem of our times, much exacerbated by the fact that debates moved from face to face to beyond the keyboard.

    Both the original article and comments touched on a point, but I think too briefly: a rational mistake theorist should be able to accept conflict theory as a useful tool, and put most of its effort in upgrading the rules of the debate to make it productive. And then go forth and debate.

    • I can’t believe you’re theorizing the concept of “shill” when all you have to do is go to reddit with an alt account and try to have a conversation on a controversial subreddit.

      I find the hypocrisy implied by your proposal amusing.

  25. Deiseach says:

    That doesn’t mean there’s not a difference between people who choose their side based on intellectual debate, and people who engage in intellectual debate if it helps their side.

    Okay, this is where I’m going to finger-wag. Conflict theorists can indeed have an intellectual basis for their ideologies – if we’re using Marxists as the exemplar of conflict theory, they have an entire effin’ philosophical and intellectual basis for their world-view! The caricature is of the comrades debating over who is more ideologically pure and purges over wrong-think and not being sufficiently steeped in the pure Gospel historical analyses! They’re the ones who are all about the dialectic!

    A related difference: because mistake theorists think there’s some stable ground other than conflict, they picture themselves as potentially neutral referees (even better: Geneva Convention delegates) looking for ways to circumvent the conflict.

    And just because they think, or like to think, they are does not necessarily mean that they are as they think. That’s the point behind my plaints over technocrats in previous comments.

    A lot of this discussion is conflating “conflict vs. mistake” with “protester vs. wonk” and “Marxist vs. neoliberal”

    So what is the Wonk Version of Conflict Theory? “There are two sets of people out there: the great mass of stupid schlubs who vote ignorantly, if they even bother to vote, have no understanding of policy, are moved by emotional appeals, and need to be told what to do by the second, smaller, elite of intelligent, impartial persons who understand the complexities and have the grand vision of what a progressive society should look like” – the kind of ‘dreams about being a party operative just like on The West Wing‘ type? May be full of genuine idealism but is unaware of the contempt that attitude demonstrates for the people for whose benefit they ostensibly are pushing all this technocrat implementation of better mousetraps?

    Likewise, any mistake theorist who didn’t acknowledge that there are lots of self-interested parties would be an extraordinary idiot.

    And do they ever consider that they themselves may be a special interest group? Conflict theorists have to acknowledge this, but if mistake theorists are floating around in a beautiful haze of perceiving themselves, as said above, acting and thinking in pure “Geneva Convention” neutrality, someone needs to burst their bubble.

  26. Sniffnoy says:

    I think an important question that’s been overlooked here is the question of, how much can you trust yourself?

    This is another liberal-vs-Left thing; I dunno how well it ties into mistake-vs-conflict, but it definitely seems at least related.

    Like, the liberal view is that, since you’re biased in all sorts of ways, you can’t necessarily trust yourself; you need systems, mechanisms, outside assessments, negative feedback loops to keep yourself on track and aligned with reality. The Leftist view seems to be, as best I can tell, that sure, you’re biased, but that’s OK, because you’re always biased in a way which advances your own interests (which are identified with those of your class). (Thus the mistake-vs-conflict tie in, even if it’s a bit loose: The liberal view is that you need to be on guard against your own mistakes, and the Leftist view is that as long as you win the conflict your mistakes are irrelevant.)

    I’m going to skip writing a long thing about it here, but I want to say that this latter point of view is, like, really really wrong. Partly because of this group identification problem that Leftists seem to ignore as best I can tell — that a person’s interests are not the same as that of some group they happen to be in, and that if they do decide to join up with some group, they have multiple groups to choose from.

    Which is to say — if you’re from group A whose interests you want to advance, so you form a group B to do so, what will eventually start happening, absent mechanisms to prevent it, is that you will (without even noticing it) start working towards advancing the interests of B, not A (not realizing these have become distinct). Well, OK, actually the truth is much worse than that, but that’s something of a pointer in a direction of the simple version of the problem. (For a start on the rest of the problem, note that as group B becomes more powerful, outside individuals will join and try to further decouple B’s goals from being about anything other than advancing B, and putting themselves on top of it, because that’s a way that they can gain. But this is just a start…)

    To put it differently: Common routes to power, including those Leftists see no problem with, will effectively corrupt you without you realizing it, so that even if you “win”, you won’t accomplish what you wanted to, because you’re no longer the same person and no longer want to do what you originally set out to do (even as it seems to you that you are doing so). If you want to prevent this from happening you need liberal mechanisms.

    But like I said I’ll skip writing a long thing about this right now…

    • Jack Lecter says:

      @Sniffnoy:

      Would like to read the rest, if you ever get around to writing it.

      This reminds me of Scott’s

      I mean, we live in a world where the Chinese Communist Party is the group that enforces Chinese capitalism and oppresses any workers who complain about it. We live in a world where the guy who spoke out against ritualized purity-obsessed organized religion ended up as the founder of the largest ritualized purity-obsessed organized religion of all time. We live in a world where the police force, which is there to prevent theft and violence, is confiscating property and shooting people right and left. It seems neither uncommon nor unexpected that if you charge a group with eliminating an evil that’s really hard to eliminate, they usually end up mildly tweaking the evil into a form that benefits them, then devoting most of their energy to punishing people who complain.

      Which also helped me a lot- this stuff is tricky, and I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        OK. Fortunately I’ve written some similar stuff already elsewhere, maybe can edit it together and post it on an open thread here.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Although I should warn you, you may be quite disappointed with what I have to say. I have no great explanation of such matters. Just something of a pretty ranty warning.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think an important question that’s been overlooked here is the question of, how much can you trust yourself?

      Me personally? I don’t trust myself because I know my stinking flawed self, which is why “constant vigilance” and so forth (I strongly believe in Original Sin). People don’t need to be moustache-twirling villains, it’s just that we’d all like our lives to be a little easier. And if you take stuff away from me that makes my life a bit harder, or less comfortable, I’m not going to like that. So I’m going to do my best to find some way to deny your claims on that stuff, or that you have a right, or that you have been mistreated.

      I think mistake-theory is a very good way to run things in the ordinary course (rather than going “To the barricades!” at the drop of a hat) but conflict-theory keeps the necessary awareness of that ape in the centre of our brains that doesn’t care about crap like being reasonable and agreeable, it just wants to be warm, dry and well-fed. We forget about that, we start thinking we’re actually running on reason and goodness, and mistake-theory then gets slowly, slightly, subtly, but increasingly bent and ends up “and this is why we the elite have the right to tell you peons how to breathe, because we’re the ones who know things”.

    • azhdahak says:

      Consider the possibility that your ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ are just playing different games.

      Your ‘liberal’ just sounds like a rationalist. If you want to hold true beliefs, you have to guard yourself against cognitive biases; and if you want to win, it probably helps to hold true beliefs, at least where it counts.

      But there’s no reason your ‘leftist’ has to be playing a similar game. He could just want to be an asshole. Not everyone cares about epistemic rationality; some people just want to punch the outgroup.

      If you see someone who’s playing a terrible game of baseball, consider the possibility that he’s actually playing football.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      You seem to be characterizing the Left as following what I’d call amoral conflict theory. I don’t think this is what most leftists actually believe, because on that framework there’s no possible reason for a rich white man to fight against, rather than for, his privilege, and yet it seems pretty common to try to persuade them to do just that.

      (But see the Hillquit-Gompers debate, which was a pet topic of a (socialist-leaning) history teacher of mine. Socialist intellectual Hillquit wants to attain an ideal of economic justice; union leader Gompers wants ever-better pay for his union and doesn’t care what is or isn’t just)

      • Aapje says:

        @ADifferentAnonymous

        I think you are reading it wrong, because what Sniffjoy wrote seems compatible both with moral and amoral conflict theory.

        In moral conflict theory, morality still exists and the idea is that the rich white man can desire to be moral, but that he can’t actually determine what is moral, because his experiences corrupt him. He cannot distinguish his deserved rights from his undeserved privilege. So he will act wrongly if he trusts his own intuitions, not because a desire to do wrong, but because what is wrong seems morally correct to him.

        So he can only act justly if he ignores his own intuitions and instead, acts according to the intuitions of those without the corrupting experiences (aka the ‘oppressed’).

        • Sniffnoy says:

          I guess what I wrote does seem to fit the amoral conflict theory better. However with moral conflict theory the problem is even worse (since then mistakes can really matter).

    • Tatu Ahponen says:

      The leftist sees the liberal claim that he’s a honest seeker of the truth, one who knows that he has his biases and who works against them, who takes outside opinion into account etc… and who still is not aware of *all* of his biases and, worse than that, seems think he is aware of them which just makes the biases he is not aware of stronger, who is biased in factoring in *whose* outside opinion he takes into account and so on. It’s a bit of a known unknowns vs. unknown unknowns situation.

  27. melboiko says:

    What I found weird wasn’t that Marxism was defined as focusing on conflict between classes rather than friendly solving local problems; I think it’s quite explicit about that. What I found weird was that Marxism was conflated with moral thinking: the people should win because the people are virtuous and the exploiters are bad. This is literally the opposite of what orthodox Marxist theory unequivocally claims. Marx indeed goes out of his way to make it clear that the capital-owner might be a decent and honest person, even a caring family man who worries about the poor and donates to good causes etc., and he still will exploit workers, by necessity; because the cause of exploitation isn’t lack of morality, it’s the economic system. (If you own capital—if there’s a piece of paper that declares “this factory/farm/intellectual property/etc. is mine” and a government backs you in profiting from anything other people use it for—and if you, the “owner”, don’t take as big a cut as you can, then you’re earning sub-optimally; which means that, when capital concentrates on someone else’s hands—and it will—they will acquire yours; and the ones who end up at the top of the inevitable monopolies are, necessarily, the ones who are most ravenous, most ingenuous at finding new ways of keeping the lion’s share; cf. globalization, Panama papers etc.). This is because of what Marxism calls “materialism”, which boils down to people being caused: given a certain economic-social environment, people will act in a certain way; if you want them to act in a different way, you need a different social-economic environment. (If you have slavery, people will murder, abuse and rape the slaves; the solution isn’t to try and find kinder, more moral people be the masters, or even to make the slaves masters—this will fail, every time—the only solution is to abolish slavery. Or the divine right of kings, or castes, or abstract, government-backed ownership of the means of production.) (Capitalist believer: “it’s people’s nature to to seek their own benefit; therefore, socialism will never work”; socialist: “it’s people’s nature to seek their own benefit; therefore, capitalism will never work”.)

    (Traditional Marxist theory goes out of its way to make it clear that capital owners gonna exploit, regardless of their virtue; it doesn’t goes out of its way to discuss the converse, viz., that the people are every bit as unethical as the capital-owners. Later theory does deal with that. The answer is that the situation of exploitation is, itself, unethical; the fact that it would continue if you swapped places doesn’t change the actually occurring fact that exploitation is unfair right now. “The People” are deeply flawed, and out of statistical necessity, some of them are even wife-beaters, thieves, murderers etc.; they still don’t deserve being born in a capitalist system, for the same reason that rapists, murderers etc. don’t deserve prison cruelty.)

    What confuses me is that, if I’m reading your data analyses correctly, you’re saying that self-identified Marxists are actually justifying their positions out of moral reasoning. I can’t deny the facts, so if that’s true, the only thing I can conclude is that self-identified Marxists (at least, SSC ones) are not actually professing Marxist rationales (and I’m not talking just about Marx but about the entire intellectual tradition).

    This is related to one of the veiled criticisms in the original post: that Marxists don’t try to provide solutions to small-scale problems, like, what should be the tariffs on agriculture or whatever. That’s actually true of traditional, orthodox Marxists at least; and there’s an explicit reason for that. (Now we have to get into philosophy, but I’ll try to avoid all the Hegelian stuff and phrase it in SSC-friendly terms.) As we said, Marxism believes peoples’ behavior to be caused. I think this is more or less uncontroversial by now, but Marx took it to extremes that make many uncomfortable: he claims that the structure of a social-economic system is caused by its history, resources, and environment… especially technology. All the horrors of agricultural exploitation, the Fall of Grace from original hunter-gatherer socialism, follow inevitably from the invention of agriculture (thus their uncannily similar repetition in different world stages). Industrial capitalism follows from the steam engine; our growingly dystopic state of affairs in the Internet follows from the Internet. Crucially, it is only after conditions have changed that we can have any idea of what will it be like. When Bill Gates said that the Internet was for nerds and would never take off, it was humanly impossible to predict that one day it would e.g. threaten the system of intellectual property while simultaneously concentrating tremendous power at the hands of a few Orwellian Huxlerian walled-garden-owners who would weaponize Skinner. The hunter-gatherer can’t possibly design a fully functional capitalist system with a government based on 3 powers and inheritance laws etc. Accordingly, Marxism disdains concrete proposals for a communist society as “utopianism”, as sci-fi escapism. According to orthodox Marxism at least (this part has challengers), we can only find out what communism will be like after capitalism is over; which is bound to happen, because capitalism necessarily concentrate power and wealth in ever-fewer hands, which at some point undermines its own economic system. Any day now.

    Thus the goal of Marxists isn’t figuring out how to produce iPhones without slavery in the Congo; it’s to accelerate the contradictions that will undermine the private-ownership-of-capital system, which would prevent any slavery-in-the-Congo situation in the first place. (That’s why Marx said communism in a nonindustrial, low-tech, agrarian society would be a bad idea; communism follows from capitalism, you need a postindustrial society… one that’s, say, fully automated… gay…). How to produce iPhones after that is literally impossible to figure out right now (say the orthodox). This is how as avowed a Marxist as Slavoj Žižek can in good faith argue for the election of Donald Trump: of course Trump is, in his words, a “monster’, but Clinton would be worse precisely because she would be better; she would be the gentler slavemaster. (Oscar Wilde has a classic socialist essay about this topic.) (I don’t think most left-oriented people, or even Marxists, go as far as Žižek in “accelerationism” as to support Trump; rather the most common position is the Chomskian one, of “increasing the room in the jail cell”; yes, the current system is a cell, it will always be a cell, but we need more wiggle room before people can even begin to break free, i.e. we need unions, workers’ rights, income redistribution, education etc.; nonetheless, it’s Marxist consensus that this kind of small-scale problem-solving is emergency care, it’s still treating the symptom.)

    Therefore, an SSC-oriented Marxist might legitimately argue that the best way to help capitalism transcend itself is to invest in friendly AI. (Please don’t try to suggest this at the next students’ council, though.)

    • a reader says:

      It’s not clear to me if melboiko is a real Marxist or just tried to steelman marxist worldview, but on that last point I agree with the supposed “SSC-oriented Marxist”: IF (that’s a big IF) that friendly, powerful and knowledgeable AI is ever realized, it will most probably create something quite similar to communism, because if all the work (physical and intellectual) will be done by the machines, communism will finally become possible.

      But before that, as long as prosperity depends on human effort, not only communism (“to anyone according to his needs”) but even socialism as in “communist” countries means poverty for (almost) everybody (an obvious thing comparing West Germany with East Germany or North Korea with South Korea) – and a kind of communism is possible only in the small-scale community and absolute poverty of hunter-gatherer primitive commune.

      • melboiko says:

        I of course can’t claim impartiality, but I did my best to present the orthodox Marxist theory, not my personal beliefs. I’m a socialist and mostly sympathetic to orthodox Marxism, but I disagree on several points; though I expect that’s to be case for most Marxists, thanks to the Dialectic. So if a typical SSC commenter asks me “are you a Marxist?” the simplest answer is “yes”, but if Marxists ask me the same question I have to start with “the problem with Marxism is…”

        As for my position: I do not believe systems like those of East Germany, Norh Korea, the URRS, China, Venezuela etc. count as “socialist” in the sense I mean the word. Before y’all start writing about Scotsmen, please hear the sense I mean. I don’t think it would be a good idea at all to implement in Germany, France etc. systems like those of China, Venezuela etc., and I would completely oppose that. I don’t think “to each what they need, from each what they can” is a very useful description of a socialist system; it’s a description of the goal of one, but says nothing about what it is (“what’s a book?” “it’s people becoming smarter”). A more specific definition of socialism, as me and my comrades use the word, is “worker ownership of the means of production”. I.e. it’s a proposal to abolish government- and mercenary-backed rent systems, externality-gambling, wealth concentration, de facto hereditary castes and so on. For us socialists, this state of affairs in which someone is, by virtue of birth, decreed to be the abstract “owner” of a farm, a shares portfolio etc., from which he continuous profit while doing nothing, while those who actually produce wealth are only entitled to a small fraction of it, is a state of affairs that’s clearly a historical aberration and must eventually be corrected, for the same reason why Aztec pyramid sacrifices etc. were eventually corrected.

        You can tell whether a society is socialist, or at least attempts to be, by answering the question: who owns (run, organize, hire, plan, decide what’s going on in) the factories, farms, office buildings, universities etc.? If you said “all those who live and work there”, it’s a socialist society (or at least, generously, if the society is clearly trying to get there—and succeeding). Who owns the city buildings? If you said “those who live in each apartment”, it’s a socialist country. Who decides what’s get thrown in the air? If you said “all those who breath air”, it’s a socialist country. If you said “a small group of privileged people protected by force of arms, called the ‘landlords’, ‘shareholders’, ‘investors’ etc.”, it’s a capitalist society. If you said “a small group of privileged people protected by force of arms, called the ‘government'”, it’s a capitalist as frig society. (If the state owns the capital, the country isn’t remotely socialist; its system is that of state capitalism, which is what Lenin called the URRS, which it was). This simple misunderstanding generates all sorts of difficulties when I’m trying to talk with Americans (American: “Governments will always be corrupted by too much power!” Me: “Yasss girl, you tell’em!” American: “Therefore socialism is evil!!” Me: ???).

        I believe socialism (=worker ownership of the means of production) is a good idea; I don’t believe state capitalism is a good idea. I’m far from the only socialist with this criticism of such systems. Bakunin said as much as soon as Marx showed up; Goldman’s My Disillusionment in Russia is all about this; Orwell parodied it brilliantly in Animal Farm (a lot of people here seem to misunderstand what Orwell, a devoted socialist, was saying with this book; the moral wasn’t “socialism is bad, boo commies”; the moral was “capitalism is bad, therefore don’t just take the power and do capitalism again goddamit“; it’s the same moral as the orthodox Marxist position that i explained above; the farm owners weren’t bad because they were humans, they were bad because they were owners, and as soon as the pigs are owners, they will act precisely the same as the humans did; there’s no essential difference between human and pig, it’s not enough to switch places, the problem is the farm-system).

        Re: hypothetical singularitarian-socialist: it’s not my belief that socialism wants to provide everything for everyone and needs complete automation etc. Socialism just wants to eliminate rent-seeking, externality exploitation and so on. The only problem is that the tiny minority of rent-seekers who abstractly “own” the means of production are hoarding them with firepower; capitalism is a Smaug situation. Singularitarian-socialism (this is a joke) (I think) amounts to saying “the best way to give the means of production back to the workers is to accelerate the production of a friendly AI, who will then abolish these outdated legal systems (=capitalism) for us”. Most socialists probably figure there must be some other way of rationally distributing the means of production.

        • Tracy W says:

          You’ve made a mistake about capitalism. Things in capitalism aren’t determined by a small group of privileged people, they’re determined by the interaction of *everyone* as communicated via prices determined by the intersection of supply and demand.

          Which is why the music industry couldn’t stop its decimation by free downloads, or New York couldn’t stop the movie business moving to Hollywood, or NZ sheep farmers couldn’t keep people buying wool en masse.

          That’s why the equation of the USSR with ‘capitalism’ is so ridiculous. The key difference of capitalism is private property and market-determined prices.

          Incidentally, when Lenin talked about ‘state capitalism’ he was talking about the New Economic Policy, which was a conscious retreat from War Communism to bring in some aspects of private industry and profit. Lenin was seeing that Communism wasn’t working in Soviet Russia and thought it might be years before it should be tried again. However Lenin died and Stalin deliberately brought in collectivism of agriculture and 5 year plans and the like, which was totally out the New Economic Policy.

        • For us socialists, this state of affairs in which someone is, by virtue of birth, decreed to be the abstract “owner” of a farm, a shares portfolio etc., from which he continuous profit while doing nothing, while those who actually produce wealth are only entitled to a small fraction [emphasis mine] of it

          The estimate of labor’s share in output varies over time, but for the U.S. data from 1947 to the present it’s always been above fifty percent. That suggests that your view of the world is wildly distorted.

          Of course, if labor is entitled to a hundred percent and gets less than that you still have grounds to object. On the other hand, if you concede that there are other factors of production, then the difference between a tiny share and a majority matters. It also matters if, justice aside, you recognize that a form of economic organization without private ownership of capital goods would be significantly less productive, since then the claim that labor’s larger share would make up for that becomes less plausible.

          • benwave says:

            For the uninitiated such as myself, what is the significance of the fact that this data tracks “the non-farm business sector”?

        • Skivverus says:

          Who decides what gets thrown in the air? If you said “all those who breathe air”, it’s a socialist country. If you said “a small group of privileged people protected by force of arms, called the ‘landlords’, ‘shareholders’, ‘investors’, etc.”, it’s a capitalist society.

          I don’t know that I’d call that a dichotomy between socialism and capitalism, myself; democracy and aristocracy/oligarchy/monarchy seem the more conventional terms there.
          And in any case, there’s a few things to be said for “small groups of privileged people” (e.g., moderators) – namely, computational complexity. In the worst case – everyone with full input on every decision, no prior common ground – the number of conversations required scales combinatorically with the size of the group. (Two people? One conversation. Four people? Twelve conversations, or one conversation lasting twelve times as long.)
          So in theory we have to cut back on at least one of “full input”, “every decision”, “everyone”, and “no prior common ground”; in practice we’ve cut back on all four (and have managed to regain some of that lost ground via technological, political, and cultural means).
          The issue with socialism as I think of it (so, may not coincide with your view), is that it’s simultaneously demanding more weight on “full input”, “every decision”, and “everyone”… which leaves only “no prior common ground” as the outlet to be traded off against.
          Or the “everyone” bit, but I’m assuming we’re not counting dictatorships as socialist.

    • azhdahak says:

      What confuses me is that, if I’m reading your data analyses correctly, you’re saying that self-identified Marxists are actually justifying their positions out of moral reasoning. I can’t deny the facts, so if that’s true, the only thing I can conclude is that self-identified Marxists (at least, SSC ones) are not actually professing Marxist rationales (and I’m not talking just about Marx but about the entire intellectual tradition).

      I think you’d have a hard time finding Marxists who don’t fall into this trap. Maybe slightly less of a hard time than before accelerationism caught on, but a hard time nonetheless. For all that Marx gets trotted out (or Lenined out, or Maoed out…) as the latest and greatest of the bearded Jewish prophets… well, the resemblance between the holy scriptures and the religion as she is spoke is about what you’d expect from the reference class.

  28. WJP says:

    With regards to the last comment on dialectic: Platonic dialectic is certainly that, sometimes. Plato built his ideas around unbounded dyads (“more” versus “less”, etc.), where each side describes something real but neither is actually instantiated in the world except via comparison. So Platonic debates often proceed from ideal extremes that then inform, and are mediated in, the more complex debate that follows.

    There are some suggestions (e.g. the Parmenides) that even the vaunted “Ideas” or “Forms” were like this, something necessary for discussion but not existent in themselves, at least not as they are presented by Socrates (but nobody agrees about this because Plato was a good teacher, and so never gave an answer if he could instead give a problem).

    Side note: it saddens me that few of the rationalist community seem to read Plato and his ilk. It seems, much like the atheist community and the analytic philosophy community, there’s a general chauvinism towards the ideas of the past/towards studying the history of ideas. A corollary of a belief in progress? This chauvinism is a valuable meme when it serves as an antidote to an excess of mystifying ancestor-worship, of the kind we more often find in religion/in continental philosophy, but it is not, in itself, particularly virtuous.

    • Protagoras says:

      I’ve read all of Plato. I guess I would agree with you that I think some people would benefit from reading more Plato, but while I personally entirely agree with your interpretation of Parmenides and Plato’s procedure generally, it seems very many people can’t cope with the thought of someone not offering answers. And so persistently interpret Plato as offering definitive answers when the text is much more ambiguous (even among Plato scholars, never mind other readers). And the definitive answers people think they find in Plato are often badly flawed. As a result, I can understand why plenty of people just don’t like Plato, and I think a lot of people are unlikely to be helped by reading him (because they will invariably end up extracting the illusory definitive answers, and so miss the point).

      • WJP says:

        I worry that this recommendation is practical, in some senses (obviously many people have just assumed Plato tells us the direct answers), but I am concerned about the general rule that it implies… if the problem is an insufficient ability to deal with uncertainty, then telling someone to avoid situations of uncertainty only decreases their potential ability to deal with it.

        I also think that, in general, education is a process that begins with believing what you are told without understanding (most of school) and then moves towards analysis, genuine understanding, (rebellion), etc. The mistakes one makes when naively believing the surface are a necessary part of learning, and are usually as much useful as not: e.g. the rule of thumb “i before e except after c” is false, but is a useful way for an English learner to simulate a better understanding until they actually gain this understanding. Even a wholly incorrect dogma is useful as a stepping stone (it teaches us, if nothing else, how easily we believe things despite their being wrong/nonsensical).

        But as I said, yours is a practical position: many people obviously don’t correct earlier beliefs (and this seems to be the source of the Platonic argument that you can’t make everyone a philosopher, the utility of making dogmas useful even if they’re untrue, etc.)

        This problem reminds of the Cleitophon, sometimes marked as non-Platonic due to an accident of history (one edition left it out and then later writers assumed it was left out for reasons). It’s just one long complaint, by a student who insists on answers, that Socrates doesn’t give him any. And it’s a problem faced by any educational system/any teacher. To use the saying about teaching people to fish, we want to do that, not just give them a fish to keep them fed for tonight. But refusing to give someone a fish because they’re better off in the long run learning to fish themselves, that only works if we are sure they’re capable of learning to fish. So denying answers because what people need is the ability to deal with questions might not help those who will never be able to deal with questions. It just leaves them feeling more lost than before. And yet to decide that for your students (“you are to stupid to learn!”), or worse “here’s a useful half-truth that is all you can understand, now I’m going to teach the real stuff to the others”, seems manifestly unfair, especially given how hard it is to judge someone’s capacity.

        So your rule seems practical as a comment on the wider effect of reading Plato, but I’d be hesitant to apply it to any individual who asked me if they should read Plato, if you see what I mean.

  29. joncb says:

    I think i’m so very confused. I think the most sensible option is that i didn’t get the same meanings for conflict/mistake theory as others. In my head I see mistake theory as basically liberalism as described previously on this blog. Even if i disagree with someone, there’s always the possibility that maybe i’m wrong. Heck it’s even likely that even if i’m not really wrong i’m not completely right either. So the only reasonable position is to talk about it and see where it goes.

    Conflict theory ultimately cashes out to me as barbaric tribalism… either agree with me or be ostracized. Perhaps it is to be regressed to in extreme circumstances where no dialog is possible (e.g. WW2/Nazis etc…) but civilized society should be better than this. I’ll also agree that it’s probably a more effective way to change minds (at least in the short term) but then logical fallacies are a more effective way to win arguments and we long ago decided that was stupid.

    For those who see themselves as primarily Conflict Theorist at heart, what am i getting wrong?

    I accept that i’m probably a mistake theorist to the core, and if this comes across as judgemental or derogatory, i’m really sorry, i’ve already deleted half of it twice because it sounded terrible when i re-read it.

    • azhdahak says:

      For those who see themselves as primarily Conflict Theorist at heart, what am i getting wrong?

      I’m not terribly happy with the “theory” part of the terms. These are not theoretical frameworks; they’re pre-theoretical approaches regarding the salience you apply to different patterns when you observe the world, and I’d rather they have been called “approaches” or “dispositions” or something of that sort.

      No theory is committed to one or the other approach. You might be inclined to define Marxism as a conflict theory and liberalism as a mistake theory, but you’ll find concepts in liberalism relating to conflict (public choice theory) and concepts in Marxism relating to people simply being misled (false consciousness).

      Conflicts of interest certainly exist, and there’s no great overarching principle that can solve all of them to the satisfaction of everyone involved. There’s no scientific experiment that can determine whether Arunachal Pradesh should be part of China or India, or whether Syria should be ruled by Alawites or Sunnis; and no solution has yet been found that’s acceptable to all parties involved in the conflict. Abstract moral reasoning isn’t likely to be of much help in conflicts, because real people don’t morally reason as disembodied shards of the Animating Principle; they morally reason as actual people, who live in an actual world, and have connections within the world.

      I suspect some of the variation in the extent to which people take one or the other approach boils down to what they find persuasive. If you believe people are abstract moral reasoners, you’ll talk abstract moral reasoning. If you believe people generally like to be correct about the world, you’ll talk correctness about the world. If you believe people generally follow their interests, you’ll talk interests. And so on. But the people who want to talk correctness about the world tend to recognize sooner or later that it’s hard to convince people of something that’s true but counter to their interests — if all your social ties are mediated by a young-Earth creationist church, you may not be very willing to adopt beliefs that are contrary to young-Earth creationism, and you may even see it as a harm committed against you when someone tries to convince you of beliefs contrary to it. And the people who want to talk interests tend to realize sooner or later that they have to talk correctness — if people followed their interests perfectly with no regard for the truth, there’d be a lot fewer atheists.

  30. poignardazur says:

    I’m a bit annoyed that you quoted the “When Marxists / feminists / Nazis are in their safe-space forums” part without comment. That kind of shit is why people are accusing SlateStarCodex of being an alt-right community.

    • azhdahak says:

      On the contrary, it’s a virtue not to cease to treat dangerous extremists as dangerous extremists just because they’re popular among parts of the prestige set.

      • poignardazur says:

        Oh come on. Identifying as a feminist and believing in safe spaces is in no way equivalent to being a dangerous extremist.

        Seriously, feminists are known for defending women, and sometimes harassing people. Nazis are known for large scale genocide. THEY ARE NOT FUCKING EQUIVALENT.

        Come the fuck on. I frequent rationalist communities specifically to get away from this kind of ridiculous tribe-bashing.

        • azhdahak says:

          What I said is that they’re dangerous extremists. Is Yarvin a dangerous extremist? Plenty of people think so. What about Joe McCarthy? Plenty of people think he was. Certainly one would expect there to be a consensus that Dominionists are dangerous extremists, despite the fact that death camps aren’t in the Bible.

          It seems that a certain degree of illiberalism is enough to make something dangerous and extremist. This doesn’t even have to be a very large degree — the sovereign corporation people are generally libertarians at heart, and often explicitly support liberal values, but they aren’t terribly keen on the whole voting thing so they’re dangerous extremists.

          Why should groups that disproportionately attract the sorts of people who decide what to call dangerous extremism and what to call reasonable get an exemption?

    • Nietzsche says:

      Sure, refer to Marxists and Nazis in the same breath and you must be alt-right. Solid reasoning there.

  31. JoeCool says:

    A lot of the ambiguity here seems to be trying to figure out what average people think vs trying to figure out what intellectual leaders of the various movements on average think. The criticism leveled against the last post I broadly agree with when talking about intellectual leaders of the various schools of thought, but i totally disagree with it when applied to mass movements as a whole.

    It isn’t straw manning when a huge percent of the population honestly believes things that seem clearly wrong to professionals and even amateur intellectuals, and dare I say, are obviously wrong i.e every problem is a conflict theory problem or a mistake theory problem.

  32. a reader says:

    I think both main types of “conflict theorists”, the Marxists and the Alt-right, actually think that some of their opponents are mistaken.

    Typical Marxists probably believe that:
    1.rich people who vote for the right are greedy capitalists
    2.poor people who vote for the right are mistaken, gullible, manipulated by religion or populist propaganda
    3.rich people who vote for the moderate left are trying to fool themselves that the system can be reformed
    So they think (1) act in their interest, but (2) are mistaken; for (3) it’s complicated.

    Typical Alt-righters probably believe that:
    1.Blacks and Hispanics who vote for the left want more free stuff
    2.Jews who vote for the left want to rule the world
    3.Jews who vote for the right also want to rule the world – by infiltrating moderate right, using it in Israel’s interest
    4.(gentile) Whites who vote for the left (so-called “goodwhites”) are naive, gullible, manipulated by PC propaganda
    5.(gentile) Whites who vote for the moderate right (so-called “cucks”) are also partly manipulated by PC propaganda
    So they think 1-3 act in their interest, but 4-5 are mistaken.

    Like most SSC readers, I am strongly inclined to “mistake theory” and debating with arguments, but I think that in many cases, among the extremists, there are both mistaken people and people guilty of moral failure. For example, Che Guevera was mistaken (intelectual failure), but Fidel Castro, like most communist dictators, was just power-thirsty (moral failure). Among communists in the free world, especially among communist intellectuals, the idealist mistaken types predominate; among the communist apparatus in communist countries, the morally failed, power-thirsty types predominate and push the idealist types (who sometimes start to understand their mistakes) to periphery or even condemn them as “contra-revolutionaries”!

    • cuke says:

      The following inspired by your comment here, but not intended to argue against it…

      There seems to be a view of the mistake/conflict dichotomy that defines conflict theorists as people who hold ideologies at the extreme of the political spectrum versus all the more “moderates” of whatever political stripe. So it’s a tail-vs-center of the political bell curve distinction.

      How would people be classified whose religious faith leads them to believe that life begins at conception and all abortion is murder when disagreeing with people who want to set specific conditions about when and how abortion based on what we know about medicine and science?

      How would one classify people disagreeing over the relative urgency/legitimacy of AI threat? One side says “my experience and research tell me this is not a big risk and it’s being overblown by people on your side” and the other side says “my research tells me it’s a huge risk and your side is putting us in danger by not taking it seriously.” (and one can substitute global warming I suppose in here)

      Also, if this analytic tool of mistake vs conflict theory leads us to put Marxists and the alt-right in the same container, I think it’s worth investigating the extent and history of intellectual rigor being brought to bear by those two positions. There’s a lot of legitimate scholarship that’s gone on for a long time under the rubric of Marxist theory. I don’t mean to argue with you on that point. I’m more just continuing to notice that the lack of clarity about the concepts we’re discussing keep catching me up.

      If this dichotomy is seeking to shed light on the causes of political disagreement, then part of what we’re looking at is the kinds of evidence people bring to those disagreements. Some places in this discussion it seems like people are saying one side brings “real” evidence and is “open” to other views, while the other side is just mad, has no evidence, and is not open to other views. From where I stand (on neither side), it seems to me we’re looking at different kinds of evidentiary claims. If we’re just talking about people who are mad and epistemically-closed versus people who are reasonable and informed, I don’t know that this conversation has much to illuminate.

  33. humeanbeingblog says:

    I was thinking of posting this on they original post, but couldn’t organize my thoughts well enough.

    I think there is a critical confusion in your framework between NORMATIVE conflict/mistake theories and DESCRIPTIVE mistake/conflict theories. Are we describing how political conflicts actually play out, or are we describing how we ourselves should pursue political conflict?

    I’m a descriptive conflict theorist and a normative mistake theorist. Actually people just want to fight the other team. But rationality is better.

    P.S. Hegel’s framework is vague and malleable, so it’s very recognize “dialectics” wherever there is anything that looks like conflict. Dont worry about this one.

  34. azhdahak says:

    Scott, you’re making a dangerous mistake. Part of the danger is that “conflict theory” is being used as a proxy for something that correlates with belief in conflict theory but doesn’t imply it or vice versa, and part of the danger is that that thing is something you do not want anywhere near you.

    There are old stories about Communists and Nazis competing for members in Weimar Germany, and we can see the same thing in America today. There seems to be a general variable of radicalism, which is to some extent separate from subscription to any particular political belief system; and since it’s separate, the political radicalization is likely caused by something other than rational adoption of the belief system.

    (As a former radical myself, I of course take personal interest in the subject of radicalism. And there aren’t very many former radicals around, so what the hell, it’s a niche.)

    I don’t think there’s only one general variable of radicalism. There is no Radicalism Quotient. Radical movements are social groups, and different social groups appeal to different sorts of people. Social groups will tend to appeal to certain sorts of people, and tend not to appeal to other sorts of people; and once it’s established that there’s a certain sort of person to which a social group appeals, people of that sort will join and make it more appealing to others of that sort.

    And I do think the conflict theory post is gesturing at something that exists. I’m sure I’d be categorized as more of a “conflict theorist” myself. But I worry that it’ll be used to legitimize the sort of behavior that is known in colloquial English as “sociopathic”, and to bring SSC closer in social space to the sorts of people who are known in colloquial English as “sociopaths” — sociopathy being a personality trait that modern-day leftism is very, very good at selecting for.

    You should think very hard about who you want to be adjacent to. The unnamed Tumblr user you’re quoting up there once doxxed and posted the address of a political opponent, because political opponent, and at least posted approvingly about other leftists getting the credit card number and parents’ contact information of another political opponent, because political opponent. Is that the sort of company you want to keep? Is that the sort of person you want to be anywhere near? I hope not.

    There’s no necessary reason that either conflict theory or Marxism has to lead to sociopathy. As a “conflict theorist”, the thing I’m interested in doing is developing coalitions that it’s in other people’s interest to join. (This is exactly what I’m doing here — I’m not trying to equate the contents of the Marxist belief system with flat-earthism or neo-Nazi street gangs or whatnot; I’m just pointing out that it’s in your interest not to cultivate an audience that’s likely to steal your credit card number or send nastygrams to your parents or your boss.) And it seems to me that Marxism implies a great deal of mistake theory in addition to conflict theory — after all, if workers have false consciousness and uncritically absorb capitalist ideology, doesn’t that mean they’re… mistaken? The sociopathy shown by today’s leftists is a result of selection effects; but these selection effects mean it’s necessary to either ignore their ideas or ensure that examining them doesn’t invite in their believers, who you do not want anywhere near you. Even if you make a point of picking up only the leftists who aren’t sociopaths, which you have not, they still have sociopath friends.

    If there were no distance between intellectual rightists and neo-Nazi thugs, or even Pepeist keyboard stormtroopers, I don’t think you’d be at all worried about the underrepresentation of rightists in the SSC readership. It would make sense to actively be proud of it — especially if almost nothing else of the type could say the same thing. And I think you’d recognize it as a mistake to start worrying about how to ‘remedy’ it.

    • Tracy W says:

      You should think very hard about who you want to be adjacent to.

      Doesn’t this attitude just set you up for a purity spiral? If you judge the company you keep, then any company you keep will get scrutinised and you have to either defend every flaw or cut off everyone who is flawed. And you’ll get accused of all sorts of biases in who you cut off.

      But if you talk to everyone, yeah there will be a low-level rate of grumbling, but at least you won’t get into a purity spiral. It’s like defence lawyers taking the “first cab off the rank approach”, if you start saying “these people don’t deserve a good defence” you’ll never stop.

      • azhdahak says:

        It sets you up for a purity spiral if your conditions are overly strict. I don’t think it would be a problem to cut off contact with active members of neo-Nazi gangs, or people who keep hanging out with active members of neo-Nazi gangs.

        If you talk to everyone, you’ll end up talking to skinheads. This is a problem not just for you, but for the Jews you’re talking to, because suddenly there’s a lot less distance in the social graph between them and the skinheads.

        It’s easy to get into a purity spiral if you lose track of your standard. If someone convinces you that expressing moral disapproval of partial-birth abortion is actual, substantive harm to women, you get a purity spiral. But it’s easy to distinguish between expressing moral disapproval of partial-birth abortion and posting people’s addresses because they disagreed with you on the internet.

    • Tatu Ahponen says:

      > There are old stories about Communists and Nazis competing for members in Weimar Germany, and we can see the same thing in America today.

      In all likelihood, this subset was pretty small for each, and Nazis rather conclusively purged their more left-wing section in the general process of the purge of the SA. Communists generally competed for members and supporters with the Social Democrats, and Nazis with the other nationalist parties.

  35. Freddie deBoer says:

    The dialectic, for a Marxist, is not a debating tactic but a theory of history. And yes it’s a lot more complicated than that, whether you’re talking Marx or straight Hegel. But more to the point: as with Freud, Marx’s contributions to human understanding underpin so many of our basic assumptions now that we no longer recognize them as innovations. The very notion of history as a clash between ideologies is a Marxist idea.

    • Jayson Virissimo says:

      Liberal theories of class struggle predate those of Marx. I could quote Adolphe Blanqui, Jean-Baptiste Say, etc… but there’s no point, since Marx himself admitted he didn’t originate these ideas:

      … no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes.

      That quote is from here.

      • cuke says:

        Both of these things can be true:

        1. “as with Freud, Marx’s contributions to human understanding underpin so many of our basic assumptions now that we no longer recognize them as innovations”

        and

        2. “Liberal theories of class struggle predate those of Marx”

  36. Thegnskald says:

    There are probably a lot of things wrong with how I described it, and the remaining comments will go over a lot of them, but I can only make the excuse that I’m groping towards something useful without any of the people who claim to already understand it perfectly helping me at all.

    Ok.

    First, strategy, not personality. The religious nut shouting with a sign on the street corner is (probably) much more mistake-oriented while talking, say, religious philosophical specifics with his fellow sign-wielders. Conflict is how you interact with the outgroup, mistake is how you interact with the ingroup. Weak movements can’t afford to alienate anybody, so tend to lean “mistake”.

    Second, there is a lot of conflation here between these two strategies and a genuine personal trait, which I have only come across a description of once, in a long forgotten blog post criticizing objectivism. The blog author described a trait he called “implicitism” as a characteristic by which someone concludes they are (more) correct just because they are (more) intelligent. In a more general sense, I would say an implicitist is somebody who believes they are correct for a non-transferable reason; they can’t make you more intelligent (or morally or emotionally or whatever insightful) such that you will understand, and trying to convince you is therefore pointless; you just have to take their woke word for it.

    Implicitism can lead to conflict theorizing, because mistake theory is mostly worthless – you can’t convince somebody of something they aren’t sufficient to understand – but, and this is critical, it is not the only path to conflict theorizing. It also does not necessarily lead to conflict theorizing; some implicitists may believe you can’t grok somethibg, but might believe you can be shown enough of the shape of a thing to be able to know they are correct even if you can’t fully grasp why. (Consensus science is a form of communal implicitism, as an example; the public isn’t expected to beable to understand the specifics, just the shape of the thing. Internally, the individuals are explicitists; they have specific reasons for believing what they do, but as a group, they are implicitists, as other people are expected to take their word for it)

    A prerequisite for mistake theorizing is believing you may be wrong; if you know you are right, and are trying to show other people their mistakes, you are conflict theorizing at the metatheory level.

    Conflict theorizing is rational at the value level. It is also more open to compromises, so long as both parties get their interests advanced, which isn’t always possible; to a mistake theorist, any compromise is just settling on inferior policy. (A compromise with death, as Ayn Rand melodramatically put it). To a conflict theorist, a compromise is necessary in order to mediate opposing interests. This is part of what makes conflict theorizing rational in dealing with outgroups; another is that overstating your position is a useful bargaining strategy, as whatever compromise you arrive at might be closer to your true position if you stake out a ridiculous position first.

    Oh, and since I suspect this might be a thing even though it hasn’t been made explicit, Trump voters aren’t strictly conflict theorists, and conflict theory isn’t why Trump was elected.

    • Morgan says:

      Also, the religious nut shouting on a street corner is often actually mistake-theorying anyway, by my understanding?

      A lot of religious steet-shouting seems to be based on attempts to inform passers-by that Jesus died for their sins, on the apparent assumption that non-Christians are ignorant of the idea, rather than having encountered it, considered it and decided it’s not true/not relevant to them.

      If your religious nut is the Westboro Baptist Church and the thing they’re shouting is about how gay people are ruining America, then there is a direct gay people vs. WBC conflict going on in that mentality. If your religious nut is shouting through a megaphone at people that Jesus loves them, that seems to me like a far more mistake-oriented mentality, where non-Christians aren’t inherently the enemy, they’re poor unenlightened souls who just need to be given the Good News.

      His attitude with other members of his religious group will probably be more nuanced, but that’s hard mistake vs. easy mistake, rather than mistake vs. conflict.

      (Scott’s initial post did include considering passion and loud shouting suspect from a mistake theory point of view, but I think there’s a lot more temptation for easy mistake theorists to try and shout down Obvious Stupid Mistakes, partly to clear space for detailed discussion of the nuances, which is hard to have if you haven’t agreed on your base assumptions.)

  37. paradigmshiv says:

    I think suggesting freedom of religion as a way to avoid conflict is a perfect example of mistake theorists (ignorantly, imo) dismissing the necessity of conflict. The Protestant Reformation was basically about freedom of religion. There were lots of wars fought over it, mainly because the Catholic Church didn’t want to lose its entrenched position of power. And in fact, the Roman Catholic Church itself was established under conditions (the Roman empire) in which all religions were more or less tolerated. Christianity was the exception because Christians more than any other group insisted that theirs was the one true religion (and even still, the Empire’s response to Christianity was fairly tepid, as far as historical crackdowns on religious groups go). Freedom of religion isn’t post-politics, it’s a temporary reprieve from politics at best.

    Same goes for freedom of speech and federalism, both of which have often been temporary conditions and subject to the changing winds of conflict. Reliance on scientific consensus is an interesting case, because nobody has ever staged a revolt on the basis of scientific principles (unless you count Marxists!). In fact, I’d say the reticence of the scientific community with regard to political conflict is exactly why we have a government that for the most part refuses to consider scientific consensus at all.

  38. johnWH says:

    “So like, if you learned that your doctor’s recommendation was influenced by Pfizer owning the hospital and restricting doctors’ choices and suppressing information about their medication…wouldn’t that be an excellent reason not to be a mistake theorist in this case? Like, this is literally an example of where you can’t trust expert opinion because things are being controlled by a powerful entity whose interests do not align with the common good. This is about as clear-cut an example of conflict theory getting it right as can be imagined.”

    Knowing that the doctor is paid by Pfizer might make me more suspicious of his recommendations, but that knowledge doesn’t prove — in and of itself — that the doctor’s recommendations are wrong. You still have to do some science to find out if he’s wrong. So, no I wouldn’t say its a clear-cut example of conflict theory getting it right. Even someone who is bought-and-paid-for isn’t necessarily wrong. Labor unions might pay some people to promote pro-minimum wage research and corporations might pay other people to promote anti-minimum wage research; one side is right and the other is wrong, but both sides are paid.

  39. Deej says:

    I find this interesting except that I can’t figure out why marginalized people being harmed by inequality, bad medical care, bad working conditions, etc makes conflict “the reality” for them. Surely it means bad things are the reality, and we’re back to the original question of whether bad things are mostly due to conflict or mistake?

    I think the point being made was that when something is actually hurting you, you’re more likely to approach it from a conflict perspective, and if you’re poor things are more likely to be hurting you.

    I also think this suggests a way in which people think that think it’s mostly ‘mistakes’, might tend not to notice conflict issues. If I’m in a secure, well paid job, it’s easy for me to pontificate about what the ‘right’ option in terms of the greater good is, without worrying about distributional impacts, even if they impact me to some extent. If I’m poor and on the wrong end of those distributional impacts in a way that really effects me, I might worry about them more.

  40. Rm says:

    What I noticed is mistake theorists and conflict theorists are not different only in what they think. (And so they might not agree even if their “goals” are “aligned”; act together, sometimes, agree – rarely.)

    For example, I use the concept of “a standard” as something that not only “is”, but also “requires” that measurements be comparable between studies. It is, for me, a loaded, modal noun. A standard [unit] is something I will not dispute the size of, but whenever I cannot express a value using this [unit], I won’t. A mistake theorist stops trying to do it after a longer braking distance, which I will find annoying. Like, I don’t like when people talk about “pristine” nature, because I know it cannot be so (and what would it mean for nature to be pristine?), unless they dilute the meaning of the word. After a few such annoyances I’m convinced the other person is a mistake theorist who will go on talking about spherical horses in a vacuum and should be cut off, and the other person is convinced I cannot listen.

    So I cannot say I become a conflict theorist in response to a perceived conflict-theoritic attack. I find it perfectly natural to be a conflict theorist even when there is no conflict, because it shortens the debate.

  41. Nietzsche says:

    I struggle to understand what “conflict theory” is truly marking out. The entire history of the world is a collective action problem. All the shills, special interests, incommensurable goals, those wanting to fight, those wanting to debate, those walking away in disgust—it all gets tossed into the same hopper and the machinery of game theory starts grinding away. Why isn’t that game-theoretic perspective the overarching God’s-eye view? We find out how we are trapped in local minima or suboptimal Nash equilibria or whatever and try to find the formal solution to escape. In other words…. all is mistake theory. It absorbs the supposed opposition.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Conflict theorists are playing The True Prisoner’s Dilemma.

      • Nietzsche says:

        Hmmmm. Well, Yudkowsky’s discussion is not very persuasive. He says “in the classic visualization you’re supposed to pretend that you’re entirely selfish, that you don’t care about your confederate criminal, or the player in the other room,” and that’s what’s fake. But Yudkowsky is wrong about this. Prisoner’s Dilemma doesn’t even assume conscious reasoning, and PD scenarios arise all over the place in the non-human natural world. Ziczac birds cleaning the mouths of crocodiles, for example. C/C leads to ziczacs getting a meal and crocs getting dental services. Croc defection leads to free ziczac dinner, and so on. There are computer tournaments in which computers play iterated PD games against each other. No psychology at all is needed.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Right, that’s why he said that the classic visualization is fake and not that every purported prisoner’s dilemma example is fake.

          I think mistake theorists tend to end up focused on achieving C/C to the point that they start to actually prefer it to D/C, and so it sounds hollow when they try to convince conflict theorists to cooperate–but they still should.

  42. tcheasdfjkl says:

    My favorite take on this is unknought’s, and I think there is an important thing missing from your response to her. Namely, your response is (paraphrasing) “of course most people aren’t purely mistake/conflict theorists, it’s a spectrum just like liberal vs. conservative”, which doesn’t really engage with what I see as her main point, which is that conflict vs. mistake are really features of specific situations, not (just) observers of those situations (“theorists”).

    Disagreements caused by conflict of interest clearly exist, as do disagreements caused by factual disagreements (“mistakes” from either side’s perspective), as do mixed situations (mistakes caused by bias caused by conflict of interest). If you want to accurately perceive the world, you should want to discern, in any given disagreement, whether the other party is making a mistake or has different goals or both.

    The ideal observer should not be a conflict theorist or a mistake theorist, they should see every situation how it is. If This Disagreement Is Caused By A Mistake I Want To Believe It Is Caused By A Mistake; If It Is Caused By Conflict I Want To Believe It Is Caused By Conflict, etc. Mistake vs. conflict is a part of the territory; your map should ideally reflect the territory correctly for every disagreement. (Which, by the way, would benefit a lot from the “near vs. far mode conflict vs. mistake theory” idea unknought also introduced.)

    On this view, “mistake theory” and “conflict theory” are biases. Seeing every disagreement as a pure conflict is incorrect; so is seeing every disagreement as caused by mistakes. I guess it might also make sense to call someone a “mistake theorist” if they are in fact correctly calibrated and it happens to be true that most disagreements are caused by mistakes? But I’m not sure; that’s probably not the best use of the phrase.

    Possible actionable suggestion: make predictions about whether you think any given disagreement someone has with you is due to conflicts or mistakes, and then try and check. (I guess your “checking” may also be biased in the same way you are, but it’s probably better than not trying to check.) Then update.

    • Iain says:

      I second this entire post, but especially this paragraph.

      My favorite take on this is unknought’s, and I think there is an important thing missing from your response to her. Namely, your response is (paraphrasing) “of course most people aren’t purely mistake/conflict theorists, it’s a spectrum just like liberal vs. conservative”, which doesn’t really engage with what I see as her main point, which is that conflict vs. mistake are really features of specific situations, not (just) observers of those situations (“theorists”).

      If somebody is conservative, I would expect them to be consistently conservative in a wide variety of situations. If somebody is introverted, I would expect that to be displayed in many circumstances. I’m not convinced the same thing is true of conflict theorists or mistake theorists.

      The running example of conflict theorists appears to be Marxists, who (purportedly) believe that politics is just a power game. Should we therefore assume that Marxists are disproportionately likely to assume disagreements are due to unsolvable conflicts in other domains, as well? When arguing amongst themselves, are Marxists less likely to engage in rational discourse, and more likely to resort to emotional appeals?

      I have no special insight into Marxist discourse, but that seems silly to me. I think we are conflating two related but distinct ideas:

      1. Ideological disagreements can be interpreted through a mistake-based lens or a conflict-based lens (or on a spectrum between the two).
      2. Some people are dispositionally attracted to one set of interpretations over the other.

      The first point looks correct and useful. The second is — not wrong, maybe, but I think incomplete and misleading. For the majority of people, in the majority of disputes, the decision between the mistake lens and the conflict lens is less determined by their own innate “conflictness”, and more determined by their relation with the person on the other side. If you trust that the other side is engaging in good faith based on shared beliefs, you’ll see disagreements as mistakes to be resolved. If you are convinced of ulterior motives, you’ll see the issue in terms of the underlying conflicts.

      In other words: to a first approximation, people use Mistake Theory with their in-group, and Conflict Theory with out-groups. Take this bit, for example:

      That doesn’t mean there’s not a difference between people who choose their side based on intellectual debate, and people who engage in intellectual debate if it helps their side.

      Intellectual debate is not a solo activity. The purpose of intellectual debate depends on your interlocutor. By and large, across ideologies, people choose their side based on intellectual debate with people they trust, and use intellectual debate to help their side with people they see as opponents. We can absolutely talk about individual differences in where people draw this line, or differences in how much ideologies encourage one lens over another, but the biggest difference between “mistake theorists” and “conflict theorists” is the situation, not the person. I’d rather be talking about mistake styles and conflict styles.

      Why does this matter? Because ignoring the situation-dependent context makes it a lot easier for people to justify ignoring each other: “He’s just a conflict theorist, and there’s no way to reason with him,” they said simultaneously, patting themselves on the back for their perspicuity. Your out-group is always going to look like a bunch of untrustworthy weirdos with ulterior motives offering up arguments that nobody could possibly believe. The last thing we need is an easier way to crystallize that thought.

      • cuke says:

        This is very well said:

        ‘“He’s just a conflict theorist, and there’s no way to reason with him,” they said simultaneously, patting themselves on the back for their perspicuity. Your out-group is always going to look like a bunch of untrustworthy weirdos with ulterior motives offering up arguments that nobody could possibly believe. The last thing we need is an easier way to crystallize that thought.”

        And my favorite part from tcheasdfjkl’s comment above is:

        “The ideal observer should not be a conflict theorist or a mistake theorist, they should see every situation how it is. …. On this view, “mistake theory” and “conflict theory” are biases.”

        Which speaks to your point about why talking about these modes should pertain to specific situations and not personality types.

        And then I’d like to get more precise about what constitutes a “mode” (or “strategy” as it’s been called here too).

        To my mind, a “mode” is about what kinds of tools you use to craft what kinds of objects to serve the argument. In other words, what sorts of evidence are seen as legitimate to make a case. I mean evidence in a broad sense, beyond just “facts” — to include interpretations of facts, moral arguments, past experience, and so on.

        In this frame, “I’m smarter than you so you should just trust me” would be considered a particular kind of evidence. And then we can talk about whether we consider that kind of evidence to be legitimate, or how we’ll weigh it, or what kinds of “standards” we’re agreeing on. And that brings us to the level of talking about rules of engagement when we disagree.

        It seems to me disagreements proceed more productively when people have worked through these layers together. I mean, it’s a bit overdone for arguments over a pint, but as long as we’re theorizing about conflict resolution, we might as well look to the folks who have studied conflict resolution.

      • azhdahak says:

        When arguing amongst themselves, are Marxists less likely to engage in rational discourse, and more likely to resort to emotional appeals?

        Former radical leftist here. Yes. I saw fewer abstract political arguments resolved by rational discourse than by everyone involved throwing out accusations of vague sexual misconduct against everyone else and it being decided after the smoke cleared that any position associated with anyone who lost the clash of allegations was wrong.

        (To be fair, that was a rare way of handling things even for that crowd. Most arguments came down to status competitions.)

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      Some disagreements come from people having different terminal values; those are conflicts that can only be resolved through trials of strength (although reasoned argument to convert third parties may be the most effective way of fighting). In particular, some disagreements come from A having the terminal value “what is best for A” and B having the terminal value “what is best for B”.

      Some disagreements come from people having the same terminal values, but different instrumental values. Here, unlike in the case of terminal values, we can talk about one side being objectively wrong: if you agree about a shared goal, there will be an optimal strategy through which to pursue it. And the best way to work out that strategy will generally be through reasoned argument, starting from your shared value system (although that strategy may well be “do battle through force and passion against the people opposing the policy that will best achieve terminal value”).

      Thinking about specific people as mistake theorists vs conflict theorists, as opposed to just thinking about situations arising from and being explained as conflicts vs mistakes, has some value, because some people are much more prone to reach for one sort of explanation or the other. But almost everyone will acknowledge at least some element of each in some situations.

    • CthulhuChild says:

      I think there’s also a less overtly political aspect, which is that the conflict/mistake perspective has significant explanatory and predictive value, regardless of where you stand on the spectrum. IE I am very much in the mistake camp, but it is virtually impossible for me to look at the realities of the 17th century as merely a bunch of misaligned incentives. It appears class conflict was very much in action, and a model of history that assumes everyone was a complete moron until sometime in the 1950s when we sorted ourselves out into the modern order is going to be badly flawed.

      There is also a predictive element here. If some areas of debate are more conflict driven, and others are more mistake driven, being able to identify which is which has some predictive utility. I don’t think it is rational to view the Civil Rights movement as merely a bunch of whites making “mistakes”, as though convincing them of the economic benefits of racial equality would overcome their hostility.

      So more than merely understanding the other camp, I think Scott’s concept is useful for predicting things. The election of trump makes way more sense if you believe American politics has moved from a mistake-centric to a conflict-centric disagreement, while the steady resistance (and backlash) to 3rd wave feminism makes sense if you see the disagreement going from a conflict-driven mode to a mistake-driven mode.

  43. 1soru1 says:

    > I think the point being made was that when something is actually hurting you, you’re more likely to approach it from a conflict perspective, and if you’re poor things are more likely to be hurting you.

    On the contrary:

    “You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common,” the Doctor said. “They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views.”

    Why would the rich and powerful care if they make a mistake, if the only ones affected are people they don’t know and have no reason to care about? Whereas if there is a conflict, they will win; see dictionary under ‘powerful’.

    Only when both sides hold some comparable measure of power is there any incentive to avoid conflict by looking to see if there is a relevant mistake.

    • Deej says:

      I was thinking something along the same lines. That the poor and rich/powerful might be more prone to approaching things as conflict. I don’t think that contradicts my point, though.

      • Nearly Takuan says:

        1soru1 said nothing about the poor; the quote talked about “the very powerful and the very stupid”, so either you misread things and made a mistake, or you’re deliberately giving a false interpretation to mislead The People.

        (This post written with tongue lodged in cheek. Please reprimand me immediately if I have been insufficiently gentle.)

  44. VolumeWarrior says:

    I find the comments on the powerpoint example really hollow. 99% of the reason the commenter cares that you’re wrong about Yellowstone is *because* you’re being paid by the Big Bad Capitalists. No one would bother with you if they knew you had been isolated from society and just miscalculated your physics equations.

    The insinuation that their primary method of attacking you would be to debate facts and logic with you also rings hollow. “Facts and logic” is a liberal signaling tactic that they’ll get their opinions from liberal-leaning groups like scientists and NPR, as opposed to getting their opinions from evil corporations.

    “Facts” are just memes the left feels comfortable repeating. If this sounds overly cynical, most issues we debate are in fact really complicated. But we just ignore the facts we don’t like.

    For an example of this: My favorite go-to on birth control is to ask if the person has read the wikipedia article on birth control pills. Most people are not aware that the wiki article cites research showing that it reduces serum testosterone by 60%. In general people should be more wary of altering their endocrine systems. AND AN UNBIASED PERSON WOULD READ WIKIPEDIA.

    How many people can recite the distribution of expert opinion on the issues they are So Passionate about? It’s identity politics all the way down.

    Again, “facts” are just memes the left feels safe repeating. But they are not self-aware of this dynamic, which is why people respond on tumblr saying that OF COURSE they think intellectual debate is good. Because being an intellectual is good, and they are good. Bla bla bla…

    The way these debates play out is that the liberal recites a couple of talking points in a really condescending manner. Then, when the debate gets complicated, the liberal will lean on conflict theory to discredit the opposition.

    I am sure you can lure them into “intellectual” debate if you are outright accusing them of being anti-intellectual. But their pet interest is definitely still conflict theory. Can you imagine if it turned out that “trickle down” economics was actually the best way to provide for the world’s poor? Do you think the leftists would adopt a nuanced position and say: “Well, it is counter-intuitive, but if we let Chad Privilegeburg keep his collection of yachts, 50 years from now we’ll have 12.37% less poverty because of the invisible hand”.

    This leftist would be immediately ousted and replaced with more appealing narrators. The same thing happens to conservatives and Christians who adopt nuanced positions that fail to put sacred values on a pedestal. As humans, we are programmed to know this in our heart of hearts. So we say we arrive at our conclusions using “facts and logic” (because this is the highest pedestal right now). There is no way to get someone to admit that they are NOT interested in mistake theory.

    Only a really socially awkward bayesian would say something to steelman conflict theory: “The probability of X being good for society goes down if it’s supported evil people”.

    I’d say my biggest problem with leaning on conflict theory is that it just assumes that there’s a group of evil vampires out there who will do anything it takes to amass ever-growing fortunes. But I’ve never seen an interview or quote from a billionaire where they struck me like psychopaths. At least not more psychopathic than regular middle class people who decide that smartphones, videogames, and netflix are more important than donating to charity.

    • 1soru1 says:

      > Again, “facts” are just memes the left feels safe repeating.

      > I’d say my biggest problem with leaning on conflict theory

      VolumeWarrior, first know thyself.

    • Morgan says:

      On the specific question of birth control:

      I am aware of the testosterone thing. I have always decided against taking birth control pills for that precise reason.
      However, that was a decision I came to not because “altering your endocrine system is bad”, but because, as a trans man, I want to alter my endocrine system in the opposite direction.

      I would still advocate birth control pills being available to people who actually want them, unless there’s a specific medical contraindication beyond “in general don’t mess with your endocrine system”.

  45. tcheasdfjkl says:

    As for whether/why marginalization makes you more conflict theorist: I think the more marginalized you are, the more you experience people hating you for bad reasons and treating you poorly, which makes you more inclined to consider conflict-type explanations. Also, if you are more stressed you often don’t have the patience to be charitable to people you disagree with, and you tend to be in a mode where you have to defend yourself from danger, which leads you to not give people the benefit of the doubt.

    That is, the specific way that things are bad is often that people treat you poorly.

    (When I find myself arguing for a mistake theorist explanation of a given situation to someone who sees it through a conflict lens, this does seem to often be because they have had to deal with much more hostility, adversity, and general shittiness than me.)

    • Aapje says:

      Being charitable can be seen as giving another chance, which logically is a worse strategy the more often people will take that opportunity to attack again.

  46. Confusion says:

    I think what the comment by HeelBearCub makes clear is that you cannot repeat things like ‘The point isn’t “mistake theory is good and normal and conflict theory is bad”’ often enough. People fall into the trap of thinking in terms of a dichotomy so often it’s just not funny. I literally had to point this out twice in 30 seconds this afternoon.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      The point isn’t “mistake theory is good and normal and conflict theory is bad”’

      I’d argue that if you are having to repeat that frequently, then it means you are probably arguing as if one is “good” and the other is “bad”.

      This is the mistake I was referring to Scott making. He knows that the binary viewpoint is incorrect, but he attempts to explore the edges of the knowledge space by assuming that one viewpoint or another is completely correct. A typical argumentative point might take the form: “Viewpoint X of course cannot be correct because of evidence Y (which supports viewpoint Z)”.

      As an example of the kind of mistake I think he is making, imagine if Scott were to argue about Relativity vs. Quantum Mechanics in this way.

      • Confusion says:

        he attempts to explore the edges of the knowledge space by assuming that one viewpoint or another is completely correct.

        The attribution of ‘what is being attempted’ and ‘what is being assumed’ may be an error on the part of the reader and is not necessarily caused or preventable by the author.

        If I’ve carefully explained that I believe controversial technique X indeed doesn’t work in situations A, B, C and D, but it does work in situation E and I thus think we should not rule it out completely, then when someone responds with “I don’t understand why you support technique X, because it leads to all kinds of trouble in situations C and D”, then the mistake is not mine, but on the listener still engaging in binary thinking.

        As an example of the kind of mistake I think he is making, imagine if Scott were to argue about Relativity vs. Quantum Mechanics in this way.

        Yes, I can very well imagine giving an explanation of the theoretical predictions for a certain scenario where they seem to conflict and readers interpreting the explanations as me favoring either Relativity or QM for this case where they conflict, where different readers attribute conflicting viewpoints to me.

      • Nearly Takuan says:

        It is trivially obvious that some disagreements are driven by conflict of interest, while others are driven by sincere disagreement over the right way to solve a mutually-acknowledged problem. By implication, Scott seems to be placing “Conflict vs. Mistake” specifically in the domain of political dialogue, where his own inclination is to rate candidates and policies based on effectiveness and competence rather than commitment to a specific ideology. (The “archipelago” ideal, as I understand it, basically takes as an axiom that most political ideologies are simply optimizing toward different local maxima, and if they were properly organized and spread out so that they didn’t have to pull against each other all the time, we’d all have an easier time finding the peak where we flourish.)

        Scott described several examples of Conflict Theory being the obviously-correct way to explain a disagreement between parties, so I really don’t think he’s anti-Conflict in every case. Rather, he sees politics, specifically as a domain where Mistake Theory is typically the better tool. Given this plus the observation that certain political parties tend to be more Conflict-Theorist than others, we can now amuse ourselves with the recursive properties of the situation.

  47. Ghatanathoah says:

    A related difference: because mistake theorists think there’s some stable ground other than conflict, they picture themselves as potentially neutral referees (even better: Geneva Convention delegates) looking for ways to circumvent the conflict. Conflict theorists just want to win it.

    The most annoying thing on Earth has to be when you are trying to find a way to circumvent a conflict and conflict theorists assume that must mean are secretly trying to win it for the other side. They then insist that you have to understand that you have some sort of unconscious bias towards the other side, because they literally can’t imagine that someone could really want to not fight.

    It is actually possible to be neutral and impartial. The idea that it isn’t owes more to the concept of Original Sin than it does to any real psychological findings. People have biases, but the actual biases we have are more often “faulty heuristic” biases rather than simply, “biased towards one side.”

    • Jack Lecter says:

      Also, I feel like people have equivocated the @#*% out of the word ‘bias’.

      I’m not sure which people, and it’s possible it was a vague mishmash of concepts to begin with, but I think some part of the conclusion here is due to confusion between LW-type cognitive bias, statistical bias, and a fuzzy interpersonal concept that might be summarized as “being mean”.

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      I agree that it’s quite often possible to be neutral and impartial about things.

      But – and I think this is really important – I don’t think it’s possible to *know* that you are being. Sometimes you will succeed, and sometimes you will fail in ways that are invisible precisely because of your biases and preconceptions, and from the inside those two states are wholly indistinguishable.

      So I think “distrust anyone who asserts confidently that they are neutral and impartial” is a sound maxim.

      The “Aspiring” in “Aspiring rationalist” is vital.

      (On the other hand, sometimes I at least fail to be neutral and impartial in ways that I /am/ aware of, just because someone or something annoys me so much that being fair to them would be too irritating to be worth it…)

    • The Nybbler says:

      That may be the most annoying thing on Earth for a mistake theorist, but to a conflict theorist, what is happening is someone is proposing a solution that appears reasonable on the surface but really results in them giving away the store in exchange for almost nothing. To the conflict theorist, the only thing more annoying than that is the onlookers who support this proposal because they don’t care about the issue, they just want the conflict to go away. (e.g. “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”)

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I can see why conflict theorists might sometimes think mistake theorists’ plans to circumvent the conflict offer them a crappy deal, but I don’t understand why they don’t bargain for a better deal instead of getting angry and saying the conflict shouldn’t be circumvented.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The conflict theorist figures if the person proposing the deal is actually on the other side, they aren’t acting in good faith. On the other hand, if they really are a mistake-theorist third party, there’s no point in bargaining with them, because they don’t have the authority to negotiate.

        • azhdahak says:

          “I don’t understand why the soldiers don’t bargain for a better truce instead of getting angry and saying the war shouldn’t be ended.”

          Many soldiers don’t like war, of course. But some do.

        • Sebastian_H says:

          One particularly nasty failure mode of mistake theorists is when their technocratic ‘solution’ ends up being a mistake/wrong/harmful. If the mistake theorists doesn’t own up to it quickly, they end up looking like disguised conflict theorists who were just trying to stick to their enemies.

          And heaven knows, humans don’t own up to their own mistakes very quickly.

          This failure mode has caused the current crisis with the technocratic left (in the Trump election, the Brexit vote, and a number of other European vote scares). The mistake oriented technocrats aren’t good at owning up to the fact that they spent 30+ years saying that globalism would be generally beneficial to a country, while it turned out that it was mostly beneficial to the elite and outright harmful to a large segment of the population.

          Taking so long to address that makes it very easy for conflict oriented people to suggest that the technocrats were just liars all along.

        • Aapje says:

          @Scott Alexander

          In negotiations, it’s normally the better strategy to hide your minimum acceptable outcome, in favor of asking for something unreasonable and then negotiation down from that.

          A person who publicly wants to discuss what is reasonable, undermines this.

  48. Icedcoffee says:

    How important is the marginal benefit of winning via conflict theory vs. winning via mistake theory?

    In a sufficiently advanced society, the marginal benefits of any given improvement (a la mistake theory) become fairly small. Winning a culture war battle may simply be more satisfying than a 1% change in finances in either direction. (I’d also imagine there’s an immediacy component: winning a culture war battle today may be more satisfying than a 10% change in finances in 10 years.)

    • Jack Lecter says:

      @Icedcoffee:

      I’d also imagine there’s an immediacy component

      I think so too, a pretty strong one.

      I think a lot of people aren’t distinguishing between ‘this is hedonically rewarding’ and ‘this will make the world a better place’. For instance, I kind of doubt a lot of the people wanting to force conservatives to bake wedding cakes are doing so because they’ve carefully weighed the expected social effects and decided it will lead to greater tolerance on net.

      (There is a parallel, although not a perfect one, to the Civil Rights Act. Which has, of course, worked out so well. I don’t know how I’m going to explain to my sister’s kids that racism was ever a thing in the first place.)

      (Sarcasm off, I grant that there’s plenty of room for debate as to whether the CRA was good or bad. It’s still weird to see people who think racism is society’s biggest problem today treating it as an unambiguous, unadulterated good.)

    • Swami says:

      If I remember my Mancur Olson correctly, the negative dynamic is created because the immediate payoffs are better for exploiting a larger share of existing resources (conflict theory’s focus) than there is by getting one’s share of a growing pie.

      Of course, following these impulses leads to stasis or longer term disaster.

  49. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    There was a post I found digging around tumblr, that I can’t remember where I saw, that seemed like a very clear example of conflict theory. The gist was to imagine a bunch of people on a big spaceship that came equipped with bike-powered food replicators, such that a modest amount of pedaling gets you decent food for a day, and there are enough bikes for everyone to easily do this for themselves. Except gangs formed, seized the bikes, and started forcing other people to pedal to exhaustion in exchange for scraps, in order to make luxury foods for the gangs.

    a) Does anyone have the link to that post?
    b) Conflict theorists: Is this a fair example, or a weakman?

    • AG says:

      I know the post you’re talking about, but I wouldn’t consider it necessarily conflict theory on the part of the “this is why we can’t have nice things” rent-seeking exploiters. The “I get mine” mindset can be implemented through either a Mistake Theory or Conflict theory mindset.

      Whether the story itself is CT or MT is dependent on how the gangs are depicted by the storyteller. The MT interpretation is that the gangs don’t actually realize that they don’t need to implement rent-seeking to get everything they want, so getting them to realize they will still have basically infinity value with just one replicator should fix the issue. The CT interpretation is that the gangs have started rent-seeking because they want clear status over others, so they deliberately create inequality for the sake of being on the higher end of inequality.

  50. ksvanhorn says:

    I’m a leftist (and I guess a Marxist…)

    A Marxist reader of your blog reporting in!

    I count myself as a Marxist, …

    It’s no surprise that few people want to be known as fascists; after all, fascist regimes murdered somewhere around 30 million people in the 20th Century.

    What I can’t understand is why there’s no stigma to being known as a Marxist, when Marxist regimes murdered 140 million, or 8 times as many as the fascist regimes.

    • Tatu Ahponen says:

      Because Marxists did a rather greater variety of not-murdering things, and indeed stopping-people-from-murdering things, that fascists. And saying there’s “no stigma” to being known as a Marxist is untrue; of course there is, including on this very forum, where every mention that one is a Marxist seems to be followed by someone saying that Marxists murdered a large number of people.

      • ksvanhorn says:

        How many times have you seen a comment here begin with “I count myself a fascist”? How many university professors proudly label themselves fascists?

    • Skivverus says:

      Also, minor(?) nitpick: 140 million / 30 million = ~4.7, not 8.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      My guess is the weirdness goes the other way – Mussolini was a jerk, but not too much more murderous than the average despot. Somehow “fascism” got to mean “exactly like Hitler in every way and also murders kittens”, whereas “Marxist” still means an actual political philosophy (albeit one that has caused many problems). I’m not sure turning “Marxist” into the kitten-murdering thing would help much.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Where are you getting this 140m number from? Even the commonly-bandied-about 100m figure is pushing it a bit; something in the realm of 40-70m is more likely.

  51. AG says:

    Finally bit the bullet on making an account after lurking for over a year, so no matter the content merits of the original post, it fired up my inspirational juices with the concepts. (But you can also say that about the Hogwartz Classes, so)

    I think that giving these concepts terms was indeed very useful, because in taking the consequentialist view towards something, you can see how to use both in ideal tandem. I will attempt to demonstrate this by interpreting the film Hidden Figures with this lens.
    Hidden Figures is about the important roles black women computers (the people who did the actual number crunching as opposed to the theorizing the engineers did, similar to a lab technician/scientist divide) played in the Space Race, and how some of those computers had the intellectual capability of the engineers, but were often prevented from contributing to their full potential because of racial and gender discrimination.

    As per their intellectual personalities, the protagonists primarily take a Mistake Theory (MT) approach. They keep their heads down and do the work despite any obstacles, only complaining in private to each other as a means to vent, and then moving on to focus on doing the work. (“Oh, please. You’re better with the numbers than anyone in there and you know it. Make that pencil move as fast as your mind does, you’ll be fine.”) Their hope is that simply by proving their value to the engineers, they can all come together for the greater good of catching up in the Space Race. And they stay out of the way of the local civil rights activists, who then belittle them for being complicit in the system.
    This does work, to an extent. Katherine Goble is given access to more classified information after going above and beyond in her calculations. Dorothy Vaughan avoids getting laid off after the IBM 7090 makes human computers irrelevant by learning FORTRAN ahead of time. Mary Jackson goes to school to get additional qualifications to meet engineering job requirements, instead of suing NASA. John Glenn is so charmed by Goble’s demonstrations of her intellect, that he pushes for her to do the final critical checks of the math for his historical flight.

    But our protagonists still run into limits that MT cannot fix, of the segregationist society at the time. Those obstacles are put up by people who believe themselves to be using MT, using “that’s just the way the system is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ [and the system is good]” rationalizations. One engineer continually opposes Goble’s participation on grounds that non-engineers can’t write reports, that she doesn’t have the clearance to see the context for the math, that there’s no protocol for her attending meetings that set the context (which leads to lots of effort wasted on work already made obsolete). A librarian sics a police officer on Vaughan for looking a the FORTRAN books in the white section. NASA also continues to deny Vaughan a promotion to supervisor (an open position), in order to save money, although Vaughan is doing the duties of the job. NASA uses moving goalpost credentialism to keep Jackson from applying for engineer positions, justifying it by saying that their white applicants have to meet the same requirements, even though the only local school Jackson could study at to gain those credentials was still white-only.

    Ultimately, the major turning points in the film are when the protagonists resort to a bit of the conflict theory approach. Goble openly confronts her department with the reality of the bathroom situation, and how they dehumanized her by denying her access to their coffeepot. When the person who has been denying Vaughan’s requests for a promotion tries to justify herself from a MT standpoint (“Despite what you may think…I have nothin’ against ya’ll.”), Vaughan confronts her on it (“I know. I know you probably believe that.”). Jackson sues the school to allow her to take classes there.
    At the same time, these confrontations aren’t a rejection of MT, either. Goble’s argument is that the department is losing productivity through these protocols. Vaughan points out that the promotion she’s applying for has remained empty, which means some decisions are being made without proper authority, and others can’t be made at all (so NASA is violating their own created hierarchy, and losing some productivity on it). Jackson researches the judge evaluating her case, speaking to him in a MT way to convince him to her side. These confrontations reveal that the segregationist ways have created needless conflict. (See also how Las Vegas was ahead of the curve on integration because that’s where the money was.)

    But it still took framing those MT-derived arguments in a CT framing, that the apathy ends up enabling malicious effects, in order for the biggest and most effective changes to occur (on their white employers’ authority, finally persuaded by being confronted as equals instead of in their normal employer-employee relationship). As someone above pointed out with the example of the US’s founding, while Mistake Theory can be great for coming up with the optimized solutions to things, it often takes the Conflict Theory approach to get those solutions implemented.

    So, some of the concepts underlining social justice are the result of consequentialism, activists seeing how some of their previous MT tactics have hit a limit. Their opponents are using MT rationalizations to enforce a disparate impact. The emphasis on intersectionality and checking privilege and whatnot were grounded in a MT view: if their opponents are well-intentioned people with some internalized biases, then revealing those biases to them should help them discover the truth and become allies.
    Where the left has since become imbalanced is as per my paragraph above. Marxism and SJ used MT to diagnose some problems with society (variations of “who is getting marginalized?”), so it would make sense to use some CT to spread those ideas and raise the sanity waterline. But then they failed to use MT to construct solutions as well, jumping to using CT to implement the diagnosis as the solution (purity politics to remove those with the wrong biases).
    As per horseshoe theory, the right is imbalanced in this way, too. MT-based diagnosis (variations of “people are feeling alienated from each other”), but using CT to implement the diagnosis as solution (purity politics to remove those violating community norms).

    The thing that made Scott’s original post rub so many people the wrong way was the coding of MT/CT to Grey Tribe/Blue Tribe. If he had emphasized how the categorization could be used in the horseshoe way, it wouldn’t have been so immediately dismissed by leftists who picked up on the coding immediately. (Radicalizing the Reasonless, you might say)

    • Aapje says:

      I agree with you that CT often seems necessary for people to actually be willing to consider heterodox ideas based on MT grounds, however:

      Marxism and SJ used MT to diagnose some problems with society (variations of “who is getting marginalized?”), so it would make sense to use some CT to spread those ideas and raise the sanity waterline.

      The diagnoses that these ideologies come up with tend to be heavily based on assumptions that there are huge conflicts between identity groups, which doesn’t seem very MT to me.

      That fundamentally also makes their diagnoses hard to swallow by other identity groups. I absolutely don’t trust Marxists or SJ advocates to treat ‘the oppressors’ fairly. In fact, the very fact that the ideologies make such harsh judgments (which invite cherry picking to ‘prove’ the ideology right) probably prohibits a fair implementation of their ideals.

  52. Swami says:

    I am sorry, but I see only one path forward for the conflict theorists. As no bear lays out in the original referenced post, the conflict theory is based on the well known cognitive bias of a Zero Sum Worldview. Zero sum conflicts in an entropic universe lead to cycles of defense and offense, waste, intentional harm and net negative outcomes. They lead to at best Malthusian Stasis and at worst mutual annihilation. By adopting the zero sum (at best) view, they pretty much create the dynamic which ensures its own prophesy. 10,000 years of history across 10,000 zero sum societies show how that turns out (hint: median income of $3 a day for about one tenth as many people living for about 35 years in hard labor).

    I am sure we can identify gross exaggerations of the mistake theorists, but at least they recognize the foolishness of a prisoners’ dilemma. The optimal strategy is to redesign zero and negative sum games into positive sum games. If politics is indeed a zero sum game (and intrinsically it doesn’t always have to be, though it often is), the solution is to institutionally change the game to either create the possibility of mutual gains or to minimize the role of politics to those dimensions and problems with a positive sum outcome or at least positive net externalities.

    Which gets back to the only way out for conflict theorists. They are indeed making a mistake, and if they don’t correct it they are likely to take us all down with them as they did in Germany, China, North Korea and the USSR. These are not two flavors of ice cream. One path leads to the destitution of humanity, the other to at least a chance of continued flourishing.

    And yes, humanity is flourishing today at a level which is beyond the imagination of prior generations, much to the chagrin of those waiving the zero sum/Marxist/racist/nationalist/conflict theory banner.

    • AG says:

      Very few people are 100% conflict theorists, so this is a straw man. Most people switch back and forth between whichever style seems more currently effective, and we’re just currently living in a conflict theory swing of the pendulum. “Let them eat cake” is a Mistake Theory statement.

      • Swami says:

        Not really, AG. We aren’t talking about two practical approaches that might be appropriate to the circumstances. When I Google the term Conflict Theory I get the following:

        “Conflict theory is a theory propounded by Karl Marx that claims society is in a state of perpetual conflict due to competition for limited resources. It holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity.”

        This is a specific framing of the world, which as I mentioned above, leads to a zero sum, win/lose world view (and also to rampant tribalism and a radical demotion of reason and truth to types of power). There are a lot of social worldviews and shared framings out there. I do not believe this one has earned the respect that Scott has offered up.

        This one is as close to a failed and dysfunctional ideology as we could find. By naming an alternative “mistake theory’ and highlighting extreme abuses of rational experimentation I fear we are legitimizing something which has earned nothing but disdain (conflict theory that is).

        • Nornagest says:

          I don’t think Scott had Marx’s conflict theory in mind when he was writing the original thread, although Marx!conflict theory would be an example of Scott!conflict theory.

          Knowing that Marxism calls something “conflict theory” does shed some light on some of the comments that thread got, though. I’ve read Marx, but didn’t remember that phrase.

  53. Doesntliketocomment says:

    So as in many previous updates, I’ve noticed there is a strange disconnect Scott’s tone and the responses to the post. “Why is Scott so defensive?” I’d think, “Everyone seems very constructive in their comments.” With this post I’ve learned why: Because these posts are also made to Tumblr. Having seen some of the Tumblr replies to this most recent post, I realize where this defensiveness is coming from. I bring this up not just to remind Scott we like him and think his ideas are good, but to point out is almost as perfect a rendition of the “Mistake v. Conflict” theory one could have hoped for. Many people on SSC thought that maybe Scott’s ideas were wrong, or incomplete, or simplistic, but were all of the opinion that explaining the errors of his reasoning would help. From what I’ve seen of Tumblr’s response, people either absolutely embraced the concept or decided that this was the proof positive that Scott was an Evil agent of the Bad Guys™ and that the only sensible thing to do was burn him at the stake. So overall it’s been illuminating. edit: looking back I’ve had trouble finding the posts remembered reading, so I don’t know if I could prove this.

    As for my own opinion on the matter, I tend to throw in with those who say these are simply different strategies that people employ in response to different circumstances. Some people tend to weigh in more heavily to one side or the other in response to their circumstance, but I think both are available in everyone’s toolkit. However, because people can be so predisposed to one or the other the dichotomy of “Mistake v. Conflict Theorists” I think is a useful abstraction.

    One thing that I found interesting thinking about this is how an organization can employ Mistake or Conflict theorists at different levels for different effects, with one even actively seeking out the other. I think a fascinating example is Richard Nixon (a conflict theorist if ever there was one) employing Henry Kissenger, who I would argue is a mistake theorist.

    • cuke says:

      Your contrasting the comments here with the Tumblr comments as Mistake vs Conflict modes makes me wonder again what we’re distinguishing between.

      The distinction I hear when you describe it might be called in psychological terms “good emotional regulation” versus “borderline tendencies.” This emotional contrast has been raised elsewhere in this conversation when talking about marginalized people basically reacting out of fear in some situations because their survival feels threatened. In which case, the primary distinction being made seems to be between reason- and fear-based communication. It continues to feel to me like if this is the dichotomy intended to be described, that it doesn’t illuminate much. We pretty much know that the more afraid people are, the less access to reasoning capacities they’re likely to have. My sense is this is not the intended scope of the dichotomy, but it’s still not clear enough to me to say.

  54. Nearly Takuan says:

    Maybe a fixed-but-arbitrarily-chosen individual’s tendency to attribute disagreements to “conflict” or “mistake” is related to the perceived usefulness of each tool in past situations. This would explain any association between one of these worldviews and a particular social class. And we could begin to look into this by checking on some of the known examples of where one or the other is the obviously-more-useful perspective.

    For example, Scott mentioned the situation where employees negotiate wages with their boss. The employee, obviously, wants to be paid as much as they can get, with nice benefits, a consistent work schedule, etc. The boss wants to maximize profit, which means making the employee happy enough to keep them working consistently (maximize revenue) but minimizing the actual cost of employing the employee. These are not completely opposite concerns: both will agree that there’s a certain minimum value below which the employee derives no practical benefit from working (if the job doesn’t pay enough to cover rent, transportation, basic living expenses, etc., or if for any reason government aid begins to look like a better deal) and both will agree there’s a certain maximum value above which the employee is being paid more than the revenue they generate, and if the same were true of enough other employees the company would eventually lose its ability to pay. There’s often a pretty wide range in between, though. The employee’s ability to negotiate in the direction they prefer depends on some things that correlate loosely to their value to the company, but also lots of things that obviously have nothing to do with it: it’s generally understood that one’s bargaining position is tied to one’s ability to walk away, and a laborer who is already being crushed by debt has less ability to walk away from employment of any kind than a laborer who owns property, has a healthy savings account, IRA, etc. How many factors determining the boss’s power to negotiate down could possibly have anything to do with the employee? So when some (who may not actually be good representatives of whatever shade of tribe they are) say something like “I am paid what the market will bear, which means I am paid what I am worth”, I think they are making such a trivially-Easy Mistake that Easy Mistake Theory cannot adequately explain it, and the Conflict Theory genius on my left starts sounding more convincing.

    But Conflict Theory seems to admit its own inadequacies when people’s incentive patterns are mostly aligned. Doctors / Engineers / Detectives Alice and Bob each have a strong incentive to help the patient / fix the problem / identify the suspect and close the case / ticket / case. They each also have an incentive to promote their own ideas because it will raise their status, but only for as long as they believe their ideas will actually test out since the cost of failure (substantial status lost plus the patient dies / the system fails / the suspect gets away and maybe does more bad things) is usually higher than the potential status gain. In these kinds of situations, where there is literally a patient lying on the floor and we’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure, the worldview that says “it’s like we’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure” is clearly preferable to the one that frames everyone as belonging to this-or-that bloc and advocating this-or-that special interest.

    On matters of national policy, there are some incentives to cooperate toward mutually-beneficial ends like growing the GDP, so there’s room to think about some debates as disagreements between some experts and some non-experts who all want to grow the GDP but just don’t agree on what combination of policies will actually accomplish that. But there are also incentives to do things like lobby to prevent the minimum wage from getting higher, because a franchise owner would rather pay 10 employees $7.25/hour each and make ($20/customer × 20 customers/hour = $400) – $72.50 = $327.50/hour than pay 10 employees $10/hour each and make ($20/customer × 20 customers/hour = $400) – $100 = $300/hour.

    So: is Conflict Theory or Mistake Theory “more correct” about politics in general? Neither is self-proving; a “true” Mistake Theorist must allow for the possibility that any position, no matter how sincere and pure its motives, might come to mistaken conclusions, and must not assume that the motivation behind an argument automatically makes its conclusion false (suspect, perhaps, but if we think it’s outright false we are of course committing the Fallacy Fallacy); a “true” Conflict Theorist must allow for the possibility that Marxists only promote Conflict Theory modes of thought because they’re following a natural incentive curve to gain power for themselves even if it makes everyone else miserable. Try as we might to avoid nuance, even the extreme caricatures of the proposed “dichotomy” are forced to self-criticize.

  55. Jacobethan says:

    I think at least two very different kinds of issue are getting badly conflated in much of this discussion. This is closely related to the good comment above about “normative” vs “descriptive” conflict theory, but I’d put the point in slightly different terms. I’d say what’s being confused is a CAUSAL question about how political disagreement arises and persists, and an INTERPRETIVE question about how to evaluate the arguments that arise in the course of that disagreement.

    I’m like those people Scott links to in his defense at the top, the ones for whom the original “Conflict vs Mistake” post felt like a wonderful revelation, because they saw themselves in the mistake-theory caricature, and thought back to various frustrating interactions they’d had over the years with people or ideas or strategies they now recognized as being simply way more conflict-theoretically-oriented, for good reasons or bad. It may make me/us sound foolish to admit that, but there it is.

    But, for me at least, I don’t think any of that had anything to do with “conflict theory” being a theory about how much conflict there is in the world, or how much of political behavior conflict explains. If you were to ask me, before or after reading the post, whether political disagreements were mostly *caused* by people with shared interests making mistakes about how to realize them, or rather by people having essentially antithetical interests bringing them into conflict, I’d say on balance the latter probably captures more of the truth. Much of the argument on this thread seems to be assuming that that’s taking the “conflict-theory” perspective, and I can see how some of Scott’s formulations invite that interpretation, but I don’t think it’s a very useful way of understanding the binary.

    What I think a number of posters have tried to get at is that acknowledging the causal role of conflict, as above, is not only not incompatible with a mistakeist viewpoint but can in fact serve to motivate it. If we’re all self-interested actors, and if self-interest inevitably colors our particular notion of the good, then to point out how any given argument arises out of self-interest is to add no interesting information about it. Unless we have some a priori idea of which interest is *supposed* to prevail, then the only way to evaluate symmetrically self-interested arguments against one another is to abstract away from the situation of conflict from which they arose, and assess them instead by some formally neutral procedure.

    The mistake theorist, as I understood it reading the original post, is somebody who has a very strong ethical presupposition that this is how debate about ideas ought to go. The conflict theorist is somebody with a much stronger tendency to think that information about the conflict that generated opposing arguments, and the different interests involved, has a major heuristic value in deciding how much credibility those arguments should be given. At least that was the framing under which the post was useful to me: it’s not about whether you think there’s conflict or not, it’s about what role you think that information ideally ought to play in deciding which ideas to take seriously.

  56. Tatterdemalion says:

    Idle thought: did Archilochus preempt Scott by 2600 years? Is the distinction between “Conflict Theorists” and “Mistake Theorists” basically just the distinction between hedgehogs and foxes wearing a different hat?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hey, look, it’s a meta-hedgehog who reduces everything to the hedgehog-vs-fox distinction!

  57. MugaSofer says:

    There’s got to be a balance between having simple words that mean exactly what they say, and accurately tracking the weird subtleties of how people really associate.

    Obviously this idea isn’t useful if it totally fails to correspond to existing politics.

    I guess this reinforces the point from above: taking some of these terms literally, or trying to reason with them, gets very different results from looking at how they operate on political coalitions.

    Wait, I’m confused. Are you saying that Conflict and Mistake are political alliances? I thought they were supposed to be two modes of thought, like “paranoid” or “optimistic” or “binary”, that are both found in every political alliance?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      An analogy: “authoritarianism” is a mode of thought found both on the left and the right.

      But it also describes coalitions in ways that don’t 100% match its definition. For example, right-authoritarians might form a specific bloc within the rightist party, and be more likely to (to take a recent event) demand release of the FBI memo, even though demanding government transparency sounds anti-authoritarian on the face of it.

  58. MugaSofer says:

    I can’t figure out why marginalized people being harmed by inequality, bad medical care, bad working conditions, etc makes conflict “the reality” for them. Surely it means bad things are the reality, and we’re back to the original question of whether bad things are mostly due to conflict or mistake?

    Most marginalized people have whole groups of people dedicated to being jerks to them. (Of course, many of those people are well-meaning and simply mistaken.)

    E.g. if you’re a gay, disabled woman on welfare, then there are literal organizations of people explicitly organized with the goal of doing things that are harmful to you (or at least which you believe are harmful to you), as well as large numbers of people who aren’t members of any organization but absolutely hate “welfare moochers” or “homosexuals” and will go out of their way to harm you if they conclude you’re a member of these groups and have the opportunity.

    One could see how this might be easy to interpret through a conflict-theoretic lens.

    Unless, of course, there’s no such thing:

    If people push their policies because they’re biased into thinking that’s the morally correct thing to do, then surely solving their biases and convincing them otherwise could change their policy preferences. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe this model? If so, what exactly are we talking about?

    • Aapje says:

      Most marginalized people have whole groups of people dedicated to being jerks to them.

      So do privileged people (and/or those perceived as being privileged). For example: unions, feminists, BLM, and the tea party tend to be jerks to certain groups (in their eyes).

      So doesn’t this just make conflict theory the reality for everyone?

  59. wx says:

    You seem to be assuming a very strong relationship between the perspective people take when arguing and their theory of the cause of political disagreements, and I’m not sure that’s justified.

    As you acknowledge, public choice theorists, your main example of “mistake theorists”, themselves view politics as conflict between competing interests. What distinguishes public choice theorists from their Baffler critics isn’t a theory of political disagreement but that the public choice theorists position themselves rhetorically as outside their own theory, what you call “god’s eye perspective.”

    You seem to take this as meaning that public choice theorists aren’t actually conflict theorists, despite their theory being a conflict theory. This seems quite strange. You are placing a huge weight on their rhetorical positioning relative to their actual stated views. Despite taking a god’s eye view, presumably public choice theorists don’t actually think they have some special immunity to their own theories. Economists don’t say “incentives matter, except for economists.”

    Public choice theorists mostly don’t argue with their academic opponents by saying they are just acting under self-interest, but neither do Marxist academics, for the most part. Intellectuals largely seem to act as if intellectual debate is of value even if their own theories downplay it.

    • There is a sense in which public choice theories are mistake theorists, not conflict theorists. The steel firm correctly perceives that a steel tariff is in its interest. The airline correctly perceives that cartelization of the industry by the CAB is in its interest. The steel executive, stockholder, and worker all support steel tariffs, similarly mutatis mutandis for the airline.

      Costs and benefits are ultimately about individuals, not firms. Public choice theory implies that it is politically profitable to benefit a concentrated interest group at the expense of a dispersed interest group even if the benefit is larger than the cost–as in both of those examples it is. Each of us is a member of few concentrated interests, many dispersed interests. So it is likely that most of the people who benefited by the particular policies described are on net worse off by the general policy of trade restriction and regulation.

      So the analysis is about conflict–conflict that follows from rational behavior. But it implies that the set of institutions within which that conflict is happening is a mistake–almost all of us would be better off with free trade, unregulated industries, or whatever.

      More precisely, it implies that there is no reason to expect the outcome of the political market to be optimal–that it is likely to contain many mistakes.

  60. Maxwell Gurewitz says:

    I think that a better way to frame the “mistake theory”, “conflict theory” dichotomy is in terms of how one frames society’s game.

    A “mistake theorist” can be thought of as someone who believes society’s game is primarily positive sum. A “conflict theorist” can be thought of as someone who believes society’s game is primarily zero sum.

    If society were a positive sum game, one might feasible improve the game’s outcome by introducing a better strategy. Better yet, if that strategy resulted in a Pareto improvement one might expect to improve the game’s outcomes without any conflict.

    However, if society is a zero sum game, then the only way one can affect the game’s outcomes is by changing the shape of the reward distribution. Shifting rewards from one subset of the population to another requires conflict. In this context, one might be motivated to focus on smoothing out society’s reward distribution, on utilitarian grounds.

    Is society best modeled as a positive sum, or zero sum game? The answer I think is that society’s game possesses both positive sum and zero sum elements. Both growth, and equality outcomes are worthy of our attention.

  61. theodidactus says:

    Hello Scott,
    Fortunately for me, I’ve read enough of your stuff to trust you, so I kept reading the “Conflict v. Mistake” Article even though the first dozen-or-so paragraphs seemed really dull and obvious to me.

    Complete epiphany right when I got to the part where you wrote: “No. It’s the Baffler’s article saying that public choice theory is racist, and if you believe it you’re a white supremacist. If this wasn’t your guess, you still don’t understand that conflict theorists aren’t mistake theorists who just have a different theory about what the mistake is.” and I suddenly realized it was a profoundly insightful article after all.

    I only share my story in case it is exactly like someone else’s, because this was EXACTLY the concept-shaped hole I had, which I hadn’t noticed.

    Overall it was a valuable article and I think totally worth your time to write and our time to read.

  62. Questioner says:

    “Reliance on scientific consensus, because instead of arguing over whether to have school vouchers or not, everyone just agrees to have unbiased scientists do a study and trust their findings.”

    But there’s no such thing as an unbiased person. You write about “technocrats” and “scientists” as if they’re some sort of divine being, not subject to any of the weaknesses of mere mortals.

    I believe essentially nothing that comes from climate “scientists”. One major reason for this is seeing the aftermath of the climate-gate emails. A senior climate scientist writes “I’m not going to share any more data behind my published papers with you, because you’re just trying to prove them wrong.” WTF? The whole point of the scientific method is that you have to make it possible for other people to replicate your experiment, for the express purpose of giving them a chance to prove you wrong.

    Yet this person is still a respect “climate scientist.”

    That’s not science, that’s a bunch of whores selling themselves out to the highest bidder.

    In “David’sSling”. Marc Steigler postulates that there’s three types of decisions: Engineering, Political, and Military

    Engineering questions are ones for which there is a single correct answer (“Do plants like Brawndo?”). Whether or not a question is an engineering question is an engineering question.

    Political questions are ones where your principles determine the answer. So, for example, if you think the US gov’t owes more to US Citizens than to non-Citizens, and you believe that a public policy that helps more poor people get jobs, and get raises, is better than a public policy that makes sure rich people can get a maid or gardener for less, then you’re going to be opposed to letting in low-skills immigrants, and opposed to giving amnesty to illegal immigrants already here.

    If not, not.

    Essentially, any time you’re arguing about “fair”, you’re talking a political question, since different people define the word differently.

    Military questions are ones where the political process can’t solve the problem. Whether a question is military or political is a political question (we don’t want, or at least many of us don’t want, Iran to get nuclear weapons. Iran wants to get nuclear weapons. There’s no political solution to the problem. Either we decide we’ll get our way, and go to war against Iran to stop them from getting nukes, or else someday they’ll nuke Israel, Saudi Arabia, and probably the US).

    Mistake theory has a happy home with Engineering problems. It has a really obnoxious place in political problems as it’s practitioners generally spend all their time telling the rest of us that obviously X is right, because only a Neanderthal would disagree with their principles (see all the open borders types insisting that anyone who disagrees with them on immigration is a “racist”).

  63. Baeraad says:

    In fact, the idea of “shill” is really complicated here. People accuse me of being biased or selfish all the time if I make arguments that seem to benefit rich people, or Jews, or white people, or any other category I’m a member of. But by far the most important thing that affects my finances and social status right now is any threat to the guild-based nature of the medical profession. And I’ve consistently argued in favor of things like letting psychologists prescribe, even though this will cost me money and status way more directly than anything that happens regarding class or race. If people were interpreting shilling in its most literal sense, they would get surprised that I’m not writing 100% about how great medical guilds are, finally assume I was insane or some vanishingly rare moral saint, and everything about race or class would be so irrelevant to this calculation that it would never come up.

    The fact that nobody thinks this way has to be tied into some sort of answer to the class warfare free rider problem. Nobody is a first-level shill literally pushing their own self-interest, but weird class-consciousness/ideology style forces give people biases (mostly based on race or class) that they push at least somewhat honestly. I think this is at least sort of in accord with some forms of orthodox Marxism.

    But this sounds a lot like…mistake theory. If people push their policies because they’re biased into thinking that’s the morally correct thing to do, then surely solving their biases and convincing them otherwise could change their policy preferences. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe this model? If so, what exactly are we talking about?

    I would definitely say that shills are rare, and even second-level shills are a more complicated thing than the “you only believe you believe that because you’ve been brainwashed by The System!” theory allows for. I don’t think most people are shilling, but I do think that all people are biased. What’s more, I don’t think that “bias” just means “belief in whatever grants you objective, material advantages.”

    Scott points out that if he wanted to maximise his profit as a rich white guy, then he would argue for different policies than he does. To that I answer that to me that suggests that profit is not what he’s primarily concerned with. Rather, it looks to me like his motivation is to maximise his ability to be a very specific kind of rich white guy – an intellectual, an innovator, a gentleman scholar. One might call that “morals.” I am, uncharitably, more inclined to call it “intellectual vanity,” but either way, gaining or losing income is not what causes him to be biased.

    Likewise, I genuinely do not believe that most libertarians are libertarians because they think regulations and taxes are the only thing keeping them from getting rich. Nor do I believe, for a fragment of a second, that they are libertarians out of some saintly love of freedom and opportunity. I believe that they are libertarians because they grew up as nerdy kids reading a lot of Heinlein and Herbert and dreaming about the day when they’d get to go forth into the world and conquer it through their intellect and hard work. And even as adults, when they must have realised that they’re not going to end up conquering the world after all, they are absolutely not going to let go of the idea of the world being a test of intellect, where the smartest and most scientific-minded people are the best and most important ones.

    As for that sounding like mistake theory? I’d say that there’s one important difference – mistake theory assumes that if you just explained someone’s bias to a person, they’d abandon it and become objective. I don’t think that there is any way to make someone abandon their bias. I mean, ask yourself this, oh libertarian commentariat – is there anything, anything at all, that would convince you that the best and most ethical thing you could do would be to sit down, shut up and let someone else do your thinking for you? Or does just thinking about that idea kind of make you want to die?

    Yeah. Exactly. And I feel the same way about the world of constant stress and one-upmanship that libertarians want. That’s why we’re always going to be in conflict. Because it’s not about who knows the most facts or whose reasoning is the most impeccable. It’s about who gets to be the person they know they were born to be.

    (and seastead me no seasteading. Just splitting humanity into smaller and smaller fractions so that no one ever has to compromise is never going to work – it’ll just end with a whole bunch of one-person nations being swallowed by the real nations, the ones where people still remember how to work together. The kind of wishful thinking that would make someone think it could work in the long run is actually the kind I can relate to, because I hate conflict too – it’s so stressful, for one thing. But it’s still just another display of bias)

  64. foggen says:

    You don’t believe in shills? Trump is the truest shill, the purest child of conflict theory. He says what he says precisely because he thinks it will make him win in some way, and get richer and more famous and more praised as a result.

  65. anonick says:

    This is the first time I’m commenting on SSC, I think, and I’m glad you are looking for a way to understand the Marxist point of view about politics. The conflict vs. mistake dichotomy is not so helpful, though, and a friend who’s a regular reader suggested ‘Policy vs. System’, which I think is better. I’ll get to why presently.

    But first, the comment about dialectics has it wrong. (This connects later to policy vs. system, as I’ll explain.) In classical reasoning/rationality, one takes two opposing viewpoints, and evaluate them through a logical/rational process, and comes to a logical decision about which one is correct, or superior, or something. In dialectical reasoning, the two viewpoints, the Thesis and Antithesis, are not opposite, but contradictory aspects of the same system. The Thesis organically gave rise to the Antithesis. Dialectics is thus about looking at contradictions *within* a single system. The synthesis is *hard*! Because the thesis and antithesis are united, they are just different aspects of the same system, you cannot have one without the other. Hence you do not look at the thesis and antithesis in isolation, you look at the system which gave rise to these opposing viewpoints, and diagnose the flaw within the system.

    For a truly dialectical problem, they flaw is fundamental to the system: there is no other ‘fix’ except overhauling the system itself. Classical rationality is sort of inapplicable there – it can decide between the two opposing viewpoints for now, say more slightly more taxes on the rich, or better healthcare, but its not a very helpful decision in the long run. Because opposing forces will arise from *within* the system and swing the pendulum the other way. [The ‘overhaul’ does not refer to starting from scratch, btw – in Hegel it is explicitly a progression – but it involves rethinking the organisation of the whole system.]

    An Example I like: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Dialectic of Englightenment’ posits that Enlightenment Rationality (the Thesis) gave rise to the Othering of the Jew in Europe. For A&H, this sort of Othering is inherent within Enlightenment rationality itself. Rationality needs an Other, and simply overthrowing Fascism isn’t going to get rid of it. And they were right: if I take Dawkins, Hitchens, etc as today’s followers of Enlightenment rationality, they have Othered the Muslim. The process repeats. You cannot fix the system without a overhaul.

    Marx applied this sort of reasoning to capitalism, pointing out the fundamental flaws in capitalism whose Thesis is freedom and prosperity, which cause the Antithesis of worker unrest, social inequality, rich people taking control of politics, etc. These are aspects of the same system, and they are contradictory, but they are also unified. One organically gives rise to the other – eg. the supreme court deciding that freedom of speech applies to corporations lobbying the government, effectively creating an oligarchy, and ending any meaningful freedom of speech – a contradiction! Which means one has to overthrow Capitalism (ie, fundamentally change it – Marx identified the flaws in the system as private property, alienation, etc) in order to avoid making the same mistakes, falling into the same crises (economic crises, inequality, fascism, etc) again and again.

    That’s, to me, why the distinction is between a System-based politics and a Policy-based one. Policies, decided in isolation from one another, are tweaks to the system. They are not fundamental overhauls. There can be conflict about policies, where the winner gets to decide, or there can be a mistake-theory-inspired decision based on evidence. But fundamentally, Marxists (or, Feminists who feel that without overthrowing the Patriarchy there can be no real liberation) don’t think the issues they have with the system can be fixed without a overhaul. It’s a reasonable point of view, although it is formulated on dialectical rather than classical reasoning.

  66. MattDiamond says:

    Perhaps this all boils down to a simple question:

    If you and I shared the same priors, would we agree on the answer to a given political question?

    Yes = Mistake Theory. No = Conflict Theory.

    This might be the crux of it: mistake theorists view the source of disagreement as differences in knowledge, whereas conflict theorists view it as differences in values. And of course, as you know, the truth is likely a mix of both.

  67. XavierFaure says:

    Loved the conflict vs mistake post. I think it’s a worthwile taxonomy which brings in some clarity.

    Libertarian point of view here : both conflict theory and mistake theory are holistic and inherently statist. Both accept the premise that things could be vastly improved with the right top-down decision.

    Somehow they both have a symbiotic relation with regulations and bureaucracy.

    Mistake theory needs the increasingly complex jungle of modern societies. The minimum wage debate is a good illustration. Most if not all arguments against the link with unemployment rely on some sort of “insufficient incentive to work” compared to pre-existing welfare systems.

    Conflict theory also thrives on the regulatory state. The evil slave laborer, megacorp or billionnaire financier wouldn’t nearly have as much power if he didn’t lobby the government, central bank or administration. It’s far easier to convince the poor that their fate is the consequence of a conspiration of the rich when every detail of their life is controlled by orgs ruled by rich people.

    So we have conflictans and mistakans fighting to build layer upon layer of esoteric regulation and eventually Scott Alexander asks “why is everything so complex and costly?” http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/09/considerations-on-cost-disease/

  68. PeterDonis says:

    @Scott:
    I was thinking in terms where mistake theorists are afraid of direct democracy because any random demagogue can sabotage it, and trust more in “post-political” systems like the ones mentioned in Part I above.

    This assumes that there is a “post-political” system that can actually work in the domain in question. Earlier in this post you used school vouchers as an example where the “post-political” solution would be to accept scientific consensus instead of fighting about it. Really? You think there’s actually a way to scientifically show whether or not school vouchers are a good idea?

    Of course that could just mean another “post-political” solution might work better for that particular case. School vouchers seem like a case that would much better fit the “federalism” option (which basically amounts to admitting that nobody can actually derive the right answer in advance, so the only option left is trial and error). But there might be cases where there is no “post-political” option that can work. Are such cases an example where mistake theory just breaks down? Or are they examples where the (meta-)mistake of assuming there is always a “post-political” solution catches up with you?