Jacobite – which is apparently still a real magazine and not a one-off gag making fun of Jacobin – summarizes their article Under-Theorizing Government as “You’ll never hear the terms ‘principal-agent problem,’ ‘rent-seeking,’ or ‘aligning incentives’ from socialists. That’s because they expect ideology to solve all practical considerations of governance.”
There have been some really weird and poorly-informed socialist critiques of public choice theory lately, and this article generalizes from those to a claim that Marxists just don’t like considering the hard technical question of how to design a good government. This would explain why their own governments so often fail. Also why, whenever existing governments are bad, Marxists immediately jump to the conclusion that they must be run by evil people who want them to be bad on purpose.
In trying to think of how a Marxist might respond to this attack, I thought of commenter no_bear_so_low’s conflict vs. mistake dichotomy (itself related to the three perspectives of sociology). To massively oversimplify:
Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.
Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.
Mistake theorists view debate as essential. We all bring different forms of expertise to the table, and once we all understand the whole situation, we can use wisdom-of-crowds to converge on the treatment plan that best fits the need of our mutual patient, the State. Who wins on any particular issue is less important creating an environment where truth can generally prevail over the long term.
Conflict theorists view debate as having a minor clarifying role at best. You can “debate” with your boss over whether or not you get a raise, but only with the shared understanding that you’re naturally on opposite sides, and the “winner” will be based less on objective moral principles than on how much power each of you has. If your boss appeals too many times to objective moral principles, he’s probably offering you a crappy deal.
Mistake theorists treat different sides as symmetrical. There’s the side that wants to increase the interest rate, and the side that wants to decrease it. Both sides have about the same number of people. Both sides include some trustworthy experts and some loudmouth trolls. Both sides are equally motivated by trying to get a good economy. The only interesting difference is which one turns out (after all the statistics have been double-checked and all the relevant points have been debated) to be right about the matter at hand.
Conflict theorists treat the asymmetry of sides as their first and most important principle. The Elites are few in number, but have lots of money and influence. The People are many but poor – yet their spirit is indomitable and their hearts are true. The Elites’ strategy will always be to sow dissent and confusion; the People’s strategy must be to remain united. Politics is won or lost by how well each side plays its respective hand.
Mistake theorists love worrying about the complicated and paradoxical effects of social engineering. Did you know that anti-drug programs in school actually increase drug use? Did you know that many studies find raising the minimum wage hurts the poor? Did you know that executing criminals actually costs more money than imprisoning them for life? This is why we can’t trust our intuitions about policy, and we need to have lots of research and debate, and eventually trust what the scientific authorities tell us.
Conflict theorists think this is more often a convenient excuse than a real problem. The Elites get giant yachts, and the People are starving to death on the streets. And as soon as somebody says that maybe we should take a little bit of the Elites’ money to feed the People, some Elite shill comes around with a glossy PowerPoint presentation explaining why actually this would cause the Yellowstone supervolcano to erupt and kill everybody. And just enough People believe this that nobody ever gets around to achieving economic justice, and the Elites buy even bigger yachts, and the People keep starving.
Mistake theorists think you can save the world by increasing intelligence. You make technocrats smart enough to determine the best policy. You make politicians smart enough to choose the right technocrats and implement their advice effectively. And you make voters smart enough to recognize the smartest politicians and sweep them into office.
Conflict theorists think you can save the world by increasing passion. The rich and powerful win because they already work together effectively; the poor and powerless will win only once they unite and stand up for themselves. You want activists tirelessly informing everybody of the important causes that they need to fight for. You want community organizers forming labor unions or youth groups. You want protesters ready on short notice whenever the enemy tries to pull a fast one. And you want voters show up every time, and who know which candidates are really fighting for the people vs. just astroturfed shills.
For a mistake theorist, passion is inadequate or even suspect. Wrong people can be just as loud as right people, sometimes louder. If two doctors are debating the right diagnosis in a difficult case, and the patient’s crazy aunt hires someone to shout “IT’S LUPUS!” really loud in front of their office all day, that’s not exactly helping matters. If a group of pro-lupus protesters block the entry to the hospital and refuse to let any of the staff in until the doctors agree to diagnose lupus, that’s a disaster. All that passion does is use pressure or even threats to introduce bias into the important work of debate and analysis.
For a conflict theorist, intelligence is inadequate or even suspect. It doesn’t take a supergenius to know that poor farm laborers working twelve hour days in the scorching heat deserve more than a $9/hour minimum wage when the CEO makes $9 million. The supergenius is the guy with the PowerPoint presentation saying this will make the Yellowstone supervolcano erupt.
Mistake theorists think that free speech and open debate are vital, the most important things. Imagine if your doctor said you needed a medication from Pfizer – but later you learned that Pfizer owned the hospital, and fired doctors who prescribed other companies’ drugs, and that the local medical school refused to teach anything about non-Pfizer medications, and studies claiming Pfizer medications had side effects were ruthlessly suppressed. It would be a total farce, and you’d get out of that hospital as soon as possible into one that allowed all viewpoints.
Conflict theorists think of free speech and open debate about the same way a 1950s Bircher would treat avowed Soviet agents coming into neighborhoods and trying to convince people of the merits of Communism. Or the way the average infantryman would think of enemy planes dropping pamphlets saying “YOU CANNOT WIN, SURRENDER NOW”. Anybody who says it’s good to let the enemy walk in and promote enemy ideas is probably an enemy agent.
Mistake theorists think it’s silly to complain about George Soros, or the Koch brothers. The important thing is to evaluate the arguments; it doesn’t matter who developed them.
Conflict theorists think that stopping George Soros / the Koch brothers is the most important thing in the world. Also, they’re going to send me angry messages saying I’m totally unfair to equate righteous crusaders for the People like George Soros / the Koch brothers with evil selfish arch-Elites like the Koch brothers / George Soros.
Mistake theorists think racism is a cognitive bias. White racists have mistakenly inferred that black people are dumber or more criminal. Mistake theorists find narratives about racism useful because they’re a sort of ur-mistake that helps explain how people could make otherwise inexplicable mistakes, like electing Donald Trump or opposing [preferred policy].
Conflict theorists think racism is a conflict between races. White racists aren’t suffering from a cognitive bias, and they’re not mistaken about anything: they’re correct that white supremacy puts them on top, and hoping to stay there. Conflict theorists find narratives about racism useful because they help explain otherwise inexplicable alliances, like why working-class white people have allied with rich white capitalists.
When mistake theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it gives too much power to the average person – who isn’t very smart, and who tends to do things like vote against carbon taxes because they don’t believe in global warming. They fantasize about a technocracy in which informed experts can pursue policy insulated from the vagaries of the electorate.
When conflict theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it doesn’t give enough power to the average person – special interests can buy elections, or convince representatives to betray campaign promises in exchange for cash. They fantasize about a Revolution in which their side rises up, destroys the power of the other side, and wins once and for all.
Mistake theorists think a Revolution is stupid. After the proletariat (or the True Patriotic Americans, or whoever) have seized power, they’re still faced with the same set of policy problems we have today, and no additional options. Communism is intellectually bankrupt since it has no good policy prescriptions for a communist state. If it did have good policy prescriptions for a communist state, we could test and implement those policies now, without a revolution. Karl Marx could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by being Bernie Sanders instead.
Conflict theorists think a technocracy is stupid. Whatever the right policy package is, the powerful will never let anyone implement it. Either they’ll bribe the technocrats to parrot their own preferences, or they’ll prevent their recommendations from carrying any force. The only way around this is to organize the powerless to defeat the powerful by force – after which a technocracy will be unnecessary. Bernie Sanders could have saved himself a lot of trouble by realizing everything was rigged against him from the start and becoming Karl Marx.
Mistake theorists naturally think conflict theorists are making a mistake. On the object level, they’re not smart enough to realize that new trade deals are for the good of all, or that smashing the state would actually lead to mass famine and disaster. But on the more fundamental level, the conflict theorists don’t understand the Principle of Charity, or Hanlon’s Razor of “never attribute to malice what can be better explained by stupidity”. They’re stuck at some kind of troglodyte first-square-of-the-glowing-brain-meme level where they think forming mobs and smashing things can solve incredibly complicated social engineering problems. The correct response is to teach them Philosophy 101.
(This is the Jacobite article above. It accuses Marxists of just not understanding the relevant theories. It’s saying that there’s all this great academic work about how to design a government, and Marxists are too stupid to look into it. It’s so easy to picture one doctor savaging another: “Did you even bother to study Ingerstein’s latest paper on neuroimmunology before you inflicted your idiotic opinions about this case on us?”)
Conflict theorists naturally think mistake theorists are the enemy in their conflict. On the object level, maybe they’re directly working for the Koch Brothers or the American Enterprise Institute or whoever. But on the more fundamental level, they’ve become part of a class that’s more interested in protecting its own privileges than in helping the poor or working for the good of all. The best that can be said about the best of them is that they’re trying to protect their own neutrality, unaware that in the struggle between the powerful and the powerless neutrality always favors the powerful. The correct response is to crush them.
What would the conflict theorist argument against the Jacobite piece look like? Take a second to actually think about this. Is it similar to what I’m writing right now – an explanation of conflict vs. mistake theory, and a defense of how conflict theory actually describes the world better than mistake theory does?
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. They’re not going to respond to your criticism by politely explaining why you’re incorrect.
Is this uncharitable? I’m not sure. There’s a meta-level problem in trying to understand the position “don’t try to understand other positions and engage with them on their own terms” and engage with it on its own terms. If you succeed, you’ve failed, and if you fail, you’ve succeeded. I am pretty sure it would be wrong to “steelman” conflict theory into a nice cooperative explanation of how we all need to join together, realize that conflict theory is objectively the correct way to think, and then use this insight to help cure our mutual patient, the State.
So if this model has any explanatory power, what do we do with it?
Consider a further distinction between easy and hard mistake theorists. Easy mistake theorists think that all our problems come from very stupid people making very simple mistakes; dumb people deny the evidence about global warming; smart people don’t. Hard mistake theorists think that the questions involved are really complicated and require more evidence than we’ve been able to collect so far – the weird morass of conflicting minimum wage studies is a good example here. Obviously some questions are easier than others, but the disposition to view questions as hard or easy in general seems to separate into different people and schools of thought.
(Maybe there’s a further distinction between easy and hard conflict theorists. Easy conflict theorists think that all our problems come from cartoon-villain caricatures wanting very evil things; bad people want to kill brown people and steal their oil, good people want world peace and tolerance. Hard conflict theorists think that our problems come from clashes between differing but comprehensible worldviews – for example, people who want to lift people out of poverty through spreading modern efficient egalitarian industrial civilization, versus people who want to preserve traditional cultures with all their thorns and prickles. Obviously some moral conflicts are more black-and-white than others, but again, some people seem more inclined than others to use one of these models.)
This blog has formerly been Hard Mistake Theory Central, except that I think I previously treated conflict theorists as making an Easy Mistake. I think I was really doing the “I guess you don’t understand Philosophy 101 and realize everyone has to be charitable to each other” thing. This was wrong of me. I don’t know how excusable it was and I’m interested in seeing how many comments here are “This is super obvious” vs. “I never thought about this consciously and I think I’ve just been misunderstanding other people as behaving inexplicably badly my whole life”. But people have previously noticed that this blog is good at attracting representation from all across the political spectrum except Marxists. Maybe that’s related to treating every position except theirs with respect, and appreciating conflict theory better would fix that. I don’t know. It could be worth a shot.
Right now I think conflict theory is probably a less helpful way of viewing the world in general than mistake theory. But obviously both can be true in parts and reality can be way more complicated than either. Maybe some future posts on this, which would have to explore issues like normative vs. descriptive, where tribalism fits in here, and “the myth of the rational voter”. But overall I’m less sure of myself than before and think this deserves more treatment as a hard case that needs to be argued in more specific situations. Certainly “everyone in government is already a good person, and just has to be convinced of the right facts” is looking less plausible these days. At the very least, if I want to convince other people to my position here, I actually have to convince them – instead of using the classic Easy Mistake Theorist tactic of “smh that people still believe this stuff in the Year Of Our Lord 2018” repeated over and over again.