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.
It’s weird that you chose Soros and the Koch as opposing archetypes because there is barely any difference between them. They’re just slightly different shades of neoliberal. They’re both social liberals who want free trade and high, indiscriminate immigration. They’re both my enemies because their failings on immigration outweigh all their good work on everything else.
For some actual contrast how about Chomsky and Hoppe, or Tim Wise and Greg Johnson, or Marcuse and Molyneux.
I’ve written a fairly extensive response trying to defend conflict theory from a non-Marxist/standard liberal perspective.
Personally by nature I’m more a mistake theory person, but I have more and more become convinced that a significant group of people in our government today are simply not arguing in good faith, and that attempting to correct their mistakes is misguided because they already know the things they are saying are untrue, they just don’t care because they are just trying to consolidate power and resources for their faction
Does the ‘conflict theorist’ take strike anyone as belonging to the same vein as libertarian ‘argumentation ethics’?
Glad you are putting this in words; and very much agree with your conclusion. I dont know exactly what i thought filling in your latest survey, but when it came to questions like ‘political opponents are dumb vs political opponents are evil’ questions, I was really missing the ‘political opponents have different interests’ option, and I was thinking in retrospective language ‘jeez Scott is such a hardcore mistake theorist’.
That said, I do not really identify with the examples of conflict theorist given. For starters, I don’t identify as a marxist; but also they have a moral and fatalistic slant to them that does not resonate with me. People have different interests; or not perfectly aligned interest; but that does not mean they will be at eachothers throats in some hobbessian characteriture all the time. Its the way the world has always been, including the good things in it.
But I do think the the vast majority of political theories and debate are pure after the fact rationalisation. That said there are some interesting examples of the contrary. Im pretty sure the minimum wage is awful on average for the lower rungs of society. As I am pretty sure that ‘low human capital’ migration isn’t in the interest of the average voter.
There is an interesting spectrum here though; I suspect that people voting for open borders and buying houses in the least diverse neighbourhoods possible have some awareness of their virtue signalling ways; the marginal cost to them in voting the ‘correct’ way is negligible compared to the cost of being outed as a bad person. Yet the average voter in favor of the minimum wage truly does not oversee the consequences, I suspect. But if they did come to appreciate the mistake in the theory of their peers; would they risk challenging this gospel? Ridicule the causes that the heroes of their movement gave their lives for?
There is a spectrum of interpretations there; but regardless if people are stupid, virtue signalling, have different interests, or just want to see the world burn, I am generally skeptical of them changing their minds much through clever arguments.
Simple way to engage conflict theorists on their own terms: “If you insist on conflict theory, then I’m siding with the Elite”.
They already thought you were doing that, so you gain zero leverage. Even if they didn’t, it would be completely sensible for them to announce they don’t negotiate with blackmailers. So congratulations, your answer is neat, simple, and wrong.
I think you’ve misrepresented conflict theory a bit in this article. You’ve confused the people that conflict frameworks study with what conflict theory actually is.
The kind of leftist radical that you’ve painted a picture of precisely the type of person that conflict theory believes mediates the political event that is being analysed under the framework and even though people may use conflict theory in that biased way, it does not represent the beliefs of the theory.
The main difference between conflict theory and mistake theory is that mistake theory assumes cooperation whereas conflict theory assumes competition. They can both be mixed and used to analyze the same events and there is no reason why a person cannot talk about the same events in two different frameworks and be correct.
Personally, it would make me feel great to believe mistake theory since it is much easier to resolve conflicts and have debates but it seems to me that there is more evidence to support conflict theory based on actual political events.
When have you ever heard a politician admit that a policy was a mistake while they were in office?
When have you ever seen an elected official asking for feedback for the other side or inviting them to sit down and hash out issues and come to an agreement?
Bush started the Iraq War, found none of the things that he claimed were there and achieved no objectives but still went out on an aircraft carrier and made a speech with the words “Mission Accomplished” written in huge letters behind him for the entire media to stare at. Does that sound like someone who thinks about mistakes? Hilary Clinton completely failed to give a straight answer about her emails for months even though it literally meant nothing simply because she didn’t want to lose her base. I could go on about examples of both sides abandoning any notion of basic human fallibility and blaming every negative occurance on the other party and demonstrating that most of politics is not supposed to be about trying to solve problems through discourse.
All conflict theory suggests is that the people that we laugh at and call “extremists” actually mediate the majority of political discourse not necessarily because of their number but because of their effect. It attempts to view its subjects as people who have no interests in doing anything other than being relatively self-interested and will reject, suggest or support policies mostly upon that basis. It makes no comment about “good” or “evil” (although some coopt and use it that way), only that people interests are not aligned no matter how much they might pretend they are. No politician would board a refugee in their own house or cut their own salaries in order to reduce government spending even if they believe that other people should do the same. This leads to conflict because people first and foremost are looking out for themselves and there can only be one “number one”.
That doesn’t feel intellectually satisfying because we want to believe that human beings can eventually all come together and love each other. That doesn’t mean that it’s false and I think it’s dangerous to ignore the evidence in favor of our desire to believe that humanity is actually really great.
I don’t think a doctor’s office is a good analogy for politics. Politics is as much about status competitions as anything, and status competition is a zero-sum game. There is no way any group of technocrats, however wise they may be, will be able to resolve that to the satisfaction of all parties. Impossible. Politics is nearly always about conflict, rarely about mistakes.
Marx’s mistake was to grossly oversimplify the field of combat.
A slight modification of the doctor’s office analogy makes it better: a couple of the doctors are on an ego trip and need to prove that their diagnosis is correct. Thus the relative status of the doctors comes into play. Of course that’s to the detriment of the patient, but that’s the way the world often works.
It seems to me that you have failed the ideological Turing test here. Calling people racists is not the most sophisticated response to public choice theory that Marxists would be capable of – far from it. It’s not even obvious to me what is particularly Marxist about it (unless we’re using that term such a vague sense as to be almost meaningless). I don’t think it’s a particularly useful label for this discussion, given that there are almost no orthodox Marxists left in the world.
An essential aspect about modern leftist thought is the focus on the ideological, i.e. the link between everyday experiences and how those experiences are interpreted. A central tenet is that there is no non-ideological position. Therefore, a more sophisticated attack on public choice theory would be to point out that it is a repackaging of a number of (fairly naive) assumptions about human behavior into a set of policy prescriptions. One could trace the intellectual history of this idea and connect it to larger ideas (i.e. neoliberalism) and point out the function which these ideas serve to certain elements of society, and the effects they have had on others. Such critiques have in fact been made, e.g. in Jacobin.
Another point where I think you’re selling conflict theory short is that you seem to suggest there is no room for rational discussion within it. Note that in the above discussion, I have given away my ideological preferences, but that – if fully developed – it would contain a series of historical assertions which could be verified. Note moreover that it contains a series of conditional assertions (i.e. if you believe humans are rational actors, what consequences does that have for public policy) which can be debated irrespective of the truth value of the initial assumption.
I’m concerned that nobody’s representing anybody accurately! The articles critical of public choice theory don’t represent public choice theory accurately, nor does the Jacobite article that defends it, and the Jacobite article doesn't accurately represent those other articles that it's criticizing, nor does it represent Marxism any more accurately than Scott did. (At least Scott represented the Jacobite article accurately, as far as I can tell.)
Beautiful! You’ve just given me language to explain something I’ve been groping towards; I got so excited that I created an account here just to say so.
FWIW, I think this is another case where both approaches are useful. Having names for them will hopefully make it easier to deal with derails where someone insists on only using one of the two frames.
This is one of my favorite posts.
It’s one of those situations where you don’t have quite the right words to make a mental model, and once they slide into place, you realize how much you were missing.
I talked about this article a bit in my video: https://youtu.be/rVvP_lBunAk
The channel has grown fairly large already, and I don’t want it to be an echo-chamber among the Alt-Right, so any new viewers are greatly appreciated ^_^
> this blog is good at attracting representation from all across the political spectrum except Marxists.
This has been the best trade deal in the history of trade deals, maybe ever. 😉
Hi, I saw the flak you were getting, and I thought I’d pop in to say yes this is a useful insight. I think I was very strongly Mistake Theorist a couple of decades ago and I’m very strongly Conflict Theorist now. What changed was watching politics, and in particular how policies were making life very significantly worse for the powerless in ways it was difficult to parse as just mistakes. (A good example is UK disability benefit, which requires you to jump through increasing numbers of hoops, including travelling to other cities for assessment, which is difficult if you have mobility problems and pain and cognitive issues and they’ve stopped your income, and including putting assessments in buildings which are inaccessible by wheelchair and then penalising wheelchair users for not turning up or being late or for turning up to the meeting anyway, thereby “demonstrating” that they don’t actually depend on the wheelchair, and on and on and on. If this stuff was a Mistake you would expect it to get fixed rather than escalate over decades.)
I find this a really useful distinction to make. I don’t think the previous SSC approach is neccessarily bad, because a lot of mistake-types here probably felt like it was an eloquent form of their own frustrations experienced on a day-to-day basis – trying to explain to conflict-types on both sides that the world’s more complex than that. It’s really hard being a mistake-type when conflict thinking is in ascendancy, you basically become everybody’s enemy – and like Nornagest says its hard not to notice all the conflict-types sharpening their knives at the moment 🙁 I get particularly nervous because I used to be maybe 50% a conflict-type (as opposed to 90% mistake-type now), and because I no longer fit in with my former ‘camp’ I feel like there won’t be anyone with my back when the knives are drawn by one side or the other, but I’ll still have the label. At least SSC feels like a place where a few people are still willing to try to engage with the full complexity of reality.
I always liked the walled garden idea here, but it feels kind of incomplete when a lot of conversations are derailed by well-meaning conflict theorists on each side, who tend to be more polite than normal but still somewhat relentless. I wonder if this post is a missing piece of the puzzle – a place to politely discuss mistake-type problems without being derailed. A sort of garden of mistake-theories 🙂
Of course anyone who is 100% mistake theorist is probably very naieve, and it would be a mistake to put all mention of conflicting interests outside the garden’s Overton window. Interests don’t always align and you can’t always fix that through some clever solution. But it would be nice to have a walled garden that kept out the most extreme end of conflict derailment, long enough to at least discuss the complexity of things. Participants might reasonably be more conflict orientated outside that space.
Whether that’s invite only, time-controlled (LW style), or moderated behaviour / principle based (current SSC) I’m not sure, but it’s a garden I’d certainly like to be part of.
This isn’t a brilliant observation or anything, but right after I read this, I read an older article about the Google diversity memo controversy in NY Magazine and was surprised with a perfect example of the mindset of a “conflict theorist” in action:
“Ask just about any woman you know and she’d tell you all of this. And then she’d sigh. Because she shouldn’t have to. “Open discussion” of the memo’s ideas seems like a reasonable enough idea in the abstract until you understand what it would mean: An endless, Sisyphean task of re-explaining, over and over, to every new engineer who doesn’t get it, why diversity and equality is important to Google…
…To go through the emotional, and physical, labor of explaining the misguided memo would only be to validate it, and opens the door further for somebody else to raise the same “arguments” later. Women have more important work to do.”
The bad news about being a mistake theorist is that life is in fact one endless Sisyphean task of re-explaining, over and over, the basics of how you should approach thinking about problems.
I think this post is fundamentally wrong.
It conflates modes of operation with political beliefs and personality traits and pack them into two inevitably overgeneralized “theories”, portrayed as more or less symmetrical and fundamental ways to look at society.
The result is some kind of horseshoe theory, where “mistake theorists” are basically centrists and “conflict theorists” are left/right-wing radicals. The implication is maybe radicals are not that evil and/or stupid – just misunderstood (one could call that “mistake theory at its highest”, given the dichotomy is real).
I totally agree that there is some truth in it but this line of reasoning is overall misleading.
Let’s take the initial claims:
“Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. … Conflict theorists treat politics as war.”
Firstly, science, engineering and medicine are not, by any means, conflict-free. So it would be more precise to talk about cooperative vs. antagonistic approach to politics.
Nevertheless, “mistake theorists” (centrists, actually) look like naive and starry-eyed (or maybe hired to look this way by elites who want to keep the status quo) while “conflict theorists” (radicals, actually) look like seasoned “dog-eat-dog” types who saw shit and learned thing or two in life.
Until you look at their models of reality and propositions.
Centrists are endlessly trying to squeeze society between constraints posed by human nature, game theory, laws of economy, etc. in gradual search for local optimum.
The returns of this approach are pretty modest and somewhat uninspiring (especially when you was born in a stable prosperous society and didn’t see shit for real).
Educated centrists are perfectly aware about principal-agent problem, rent-seeking, IQ distribution, Moloch dynamics, Chesterton fence, etc. and this knowledge makes them pessimistic about the prospects of rapid social change.
Uneducated centrists just stick to the principle “if it more or less works, don’t touch it (a lot)”.
Radicals’ proposition is much, much brighter. It promise immense societal gains when (state|capitalism|patriarchy|globalism|elitism|imperialism|absolutism|authoritarianism|regulations|etc.) will be dismantled.
The details of ensuing kingdom of heaven are often pretty vague – and for the good reason.
Even now, despite thousands years of written history and 250 years of massive social experimentation we can’t really predict outcomes of radical policy/regime changes or reliably transfer even proven solutions between societies.
Moreover, we can’t even keep working mechanisms from deteriorating. Any radical social redesign, regardless of its plausibility, is doomed to remain in the fantasy realm until it succeeds.
On the other hand, societies are pretty robust, adaptive and self-healing. Millions lived (and had some fun and good memories) in Nazi Germany and Soviet Union under Stalin at the same time as other millions suffered and died in camps, famines and wars. And after that Germany gradually returned to sanity and even USSR thawed. Shock therapy in Eastern European countries after 1989 was radical and painful but pretty successful in the long rung.
So you really can just remove gross impediment and let society sort itself out afterwards, and impressive positive outcome from radical change is not that impossible.
Therefore radical proposals are not inherently dumb, unrealistic or ill-informed (although they frequently are), but they are always extremely risky and unsettling.
Also they are extremely attractive for those evangelist/entrepreneur types who favor high-risk/high-reward strategies. I think this is pretty obvious and my point is not profiling or mocking them
because almost every human being can choose high-risk/high-reward strategy in certain circumstances. Some people are just more prone to them because, you know, nature, nurture and stuff.
I want to focus on what you suppose to do if you chose to perpetrate such strategy.
First and foremost, you shut your inputs tight not letting in even tiniest bit of dissent opinion that will distract you or undermine your determination.
There are different ways to do this: brand dissent sources as liars, trolls, zealots, hidden enemies, idiots – or just dehumanize them any way you like.
You must stop treat them as peers to prevent your own mechanisms of social conformity from destroying your determination.
Second, to continuously keep yourself in agitated state you have to overestimate gains.
One way to do it is picture your future paradise – but this is a dangerous one because your allies can picture it in a conflicting ways and even yourself can stumble into discrepancies and generate pernicious doubts.
Much safer and more effective way is to picture current situation as grim and unbearable as possible.
Third, to avoid being overwhelmed, you have to concentrate on modest-sized chunk of the job. In our case its the most fun, emotionally rewarding and achievable part – the Revolution.
Overthrowing tyrannies can be tricky sometimes but it’s really, really easy compared to what comes next. But you don’t let this dreadful knowledge undermine your determination.
For the same reason you should concentrate attention on adversaries, not on possible fundamental problems with your idea: one can defeat foes but can’t defeat laws of the universe. Likewise, if your idea is rejected by publishers or investors, you still have some slim chances to fight and win, but when your product is rejected by market you are truly fucked. So if you really want to achieve something, you’d better bother yourself about the former, not the latter.
Most of the features Scott attributed to “conflict theorists” are manifestations of this exciting emotionally charged radical high-risk/high-reward mindset in political thinking.
It definitely can move masses and change the world, like it does in arts, literature, business, sexual harassment and other human endeavors.
But it is self-delusional “by design” and therefore useless for understanding what is going on, like, for real.
It’s just a set of mind tricks to take an unreasonably big risk, not some deep understanding of political conflicts or comprehensive worldview.
>The result is some kind of horseshoe theory, where “mistake theorists” are basically centrists and “conflict theorists” are left/right-wing radicals.
I don’t know about that. I know centerists who are primarily conflict theorists; they think that both Trump and far left radicals are fundamentally evil and destructive and that The People need to organize and fight and march and protest to win back power from both groups.
While reading through the comments I realized that I was mentally mapping conflict theory onto IR Realism and mistake theory onto IR Liberalism and letting those frameworks do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of interpreting conflict and mistake theory.
Briefly, Realism says that “world politics ultimately is always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing power” while Liberalism says that “With the proper institutions and diplomacy,…states can work together to maximize prosperity and minimize conflict”.
The upshot is that for people trying to understand conflict theory and its implications, there’s like a hundred years of literature on IR Realism analyzing basically every global political event of the current and last century.
These are all very good insights, and I’m not sure if I’ve heard them framed in exactly this way before, but it seems to me like you’ve mostly just reinvented concepts that you’ve already covered numerous times in this blog, such as tribalism and defecting in prisoner’s dilemmas.
Similarly, it also strikes me that “conflict theory” as you’re describing it is basically just you doing a slightly better job of steelmanning the exact same position you argued against in “In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization.” I suppose that’s a good thing as far as applying the principle of charity goes, but I also think the arguments you made in that post were pretty strong, and that trying to avoid the conflict mindset is the best policy in general. It’s absolutely true that arguments framed in a way that appeals to a conflict mindset will be more persuasive to people who tend to adopt that mindset, but I still think it’s for the best to frame arguments in a way that appeals to a mistake mindset, for all the reasons you describe there.
(Also, if you haven’t noticed, I think it’s better to describe them in terms of mindset, rather than theory; there’s nobody who knowingly and specifically subscribes to a conflict or mistake “theory,” and applies it to other subjects the way that someone who subscribes to, say, Marxist or Libertarian theory would, and thinking of them in terms of theories is exactly the sort of idea someone who tends toward a mistake mindset would think up. :op )
I don’t think there’s anyone who ONLY operates in a mistake mindset or a conflict mindset mode. For any person and any issue, there are some issues that they approach from more of a conflict mindset, and some they are able to take a step back from and look at from a mistake mindset. It’s true that framing certain things from a conflict mindset perspective can be more effective in the short term, I believe society works best the more we are able to approach things from a mistake mindset, so rather than specifically trying to frame things from a conflict mindset perspective, you should be trying to find the issues, or facets of issues, on which people on different sides of a conflict are able to approach from a mistake mindset, and focus your arguments on those.
(Also, didn’t “In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization” used to be on the Top Posts page? If your thinking on the issue has evolved to the point where you don’t think that’s a good argument anymore, I suppose this post makes more sense, but I still think it was a great essay which deserves to be up there.)
The political developments of the last few years have been surprising to me as well. I say the last few, as Brexit happened in 2016, but with so much Euroskepticism across Europe and the rise of a reactionary political camp in the United States in the couple years leading up to Trump’s election are what I’ve noticed as well since before 2016. The conflict-vs-mistake framing makes lots of sense to me. I lean toward being a mistake theorist myself, but some of my intuitions place me under some circumstances as a conflict theorist. I don’t know if most people tend towards mistake theory, but I imagine most people are averse enough to massive disruptive violence to stable social conditions they’re willing to give mistake theory the benefit of the doubt. What can cause a shift is if the worse living standards and life quality of a population stagnate or deteriorate, the less plausible it seems to them the State is making a mistake, and more likely they’re screwing over that population. If the economy is dramatically growing, especially on the backs of said population, the more unjust the population will feel their treatment under the State has been. Between this and worsening material conditions more of the population will feel justified in Revolution.
The last couple years have in my experience make it seem a higher proportion of the population in Western countries has switched from mistake theory to conflict theory than I would’ve anticipated. That may have been happening for a long time, but the virulence of mistake theory combined with other factors means a surprising proportion of the population in Western countries would favour Revolution. I’d guess they’re still a small minority, but my intuition is over time if left unchecked the equilibrium will tend towards revolutionary conflict theorists to converting more undecided citizens to their side than mistake theorists do for their own side. I’ve seen more people on social media and in general muse public events in the United States make it seem uncannily similar to politics in Germany in the lead-up to Hitler’s rise. While there are unusual similarities, like a greater frequency of riots and street fights occurring because of political ideology more much anything else, I’m not convinced the expected trajectory of the continued polarization of the United States or any other Western nation keeps looking like the rise of the Nazis. Repeated riots in only Berkeley, one city in one of the biggest and most populous countries on Earth, cannot be extrapolated to national doom. Hypothetically, we could construct a metric which would measure the rate of increasing political polarization in a polity such that two sides of a political divide increasingly held favourable attitudes towards revolution. I’m sure some pollster has statistical tools for that.
Anyway, if we had that rate of polarization occurring at present as was happening in Germany leading up to Hitler’s rise to power, it seems the alt-right or whoever the apparent deplorables are these days don’t represent expected outcomes thus far worse than the impact the Nazi party had on German politics by 1932. If what’s happened under the rise of Trump so far was as bad as a trajectory as Hitler was on in 1932, we should expect the American government to stop upholding literally every American’s civil liberties in the next year or two. I know Americans decry the erosion of their civil liberties post-9/11, but we’re taking for granted how much freedom of citizens we have in liberal democracies in 2018, or maybe how strong protections for them are, compared to 1930s Nazi Germany.
I’m not a lawyer or political historian, so I don’t know where “civil liberties” ends and “basic rights” begins, but the upholding of a civil society seems less of a priority than fundamental rights like the right to life or the right to any kind of political participation. The latter were stripped from Jewish Germans with the Nuremburg Laws, but the Nazis suspended civil liberties like freedom of the press and freedom of assembly as earlier in 1932. If that was happening in the United States today, as fake as Trump calls the news, he would already have legal recourse to shut it down, and last week’s Women’s Marches across the United States could’ve been broken up by mass militarized police action. That that’s not happening doesn’t mean the legal, political and cultural checks against a slide into authoritarianism or totalitarianism aren’t being eroded. It’s just that it’s not happening in (most?) liberal democracies where there’s more far-right representation in the last couple years at the rate as occurred in Nazi Germany. That that would happen so fast in the United States strikes me as ludicrous.
I’m not trying to comfort anyone with a ‘totalitarianism is creeping up on us slower than the worst historical incidences’ hypothesis, because that wouldn’t do much. But I don’t trust alarmists who want to activate and convert citizens of a country to revolutionary conflict theorists on false pretenses. That evidence undermining a narrative that Trump is Literally Hitler and that the U.S. is like 1930s Nazi Germany also undermines calls to revolution, relative to the plausibility of a peaceful resolution to a political crisis. That’s why pointing this out is important.
However, historical cases of a surge to tyranny or revolution in a prior seemingly stable society can become rapidly empowered in the span of several years. Studying history makes the power of the Nazis in Germany feel like a long time, especially because WWII feels like the most complicated event in history, but in total the Nazis were in power for a little over a dozen years. Hopefully statistical tools exist such that a political scientist or someone else could determine how and at what rate people are converting to something like revolutionary conflict theorists (e.g., revolutionary far-right/far-left), and what that might spell for the next few years of politics. I figure that’d be a place to start if one wanted to effectively mitigate the polarization of the United States or another Western country.
Probably to everyone who didn’t listen to Yuri Bezmenov in 1980s. Those who did are just watching the train wreck in slow motion.
A large part of this is clearly personality, ideology, intellectual habit… But I think you also have to take into account that most people take a Conflict approach where they feel sacred values are threatened or percieve the interlocutor as especially threatening and a more Mistake approach with friends.
I think the reading of who you’re talking to matters moire than their position here – though latter influences the former.
The biggest distinctions might be how wide your mistake circle is (here I suspect its big except for some sj stuff and some meta stuff about being in conflict with conflict theorists, whereas in some areas people want to purge enemies who are in indistinguishable from the outside) and also which mode you seek out/enjoy more. I hate online debates turning into slanging matches or sermons but am also aware that my ‘can we define terms and look closely at the evidence’ instincts irritate the hell out of some conflicters who want to share their common beliefs not nit-pick.
I don’t think the two are exclusive options. When I argue that the lack of public fianancing of elections leads the US congress to pass a lot of laws that aren’t in the interest of it’s citizenry I am at the same time making an argument about a mistake in the system as I’m making an argument about conflicts within factions.
Julian Assange is a prime example of a person who’s both. He started Wikileaks based on a graph-theory based argument he wrote up in LaTeX. There are many people like him in the Chaos Computer Club that are able to think very clearly about policy but who still think that political power matters a great deal.
I think that a clever conflict theorist would pretend to be a mistake theorist.
The issue is that these perspectives are absolutes, which make them mutually exclusive. That’s wrong, because SOMETIMES we can share goals but disagree on the information or methods for achieving those goals, and SOMETIMES we really have different goals which may or may not be incompatible with each other.
These are pretty similar to the different “basic” perspectives in negotiation theory: integrative vs. distributive bargaining. Integrative says you can work together to achieve more than you could by working against each other. It’s non-zero sum. Distributive says that there’s a fixed amount to go around, so different parties are in conflict over it. It’s zero-sum. Both, however, are simply different ways of thinking about dealing with people who disagree with you, there’s no reason to limit yourself to only ever using one.
So there’s nothing wrong with either way of looking at disagreement, but it’s a mistake to think you can’t use both. They’re both potentially valid, the mistake is to consider one absolutely true and one absolutely false.
Mostly it’s just untrue. Conflict theorists are perfectly happy to explain why the “mistake” worldview is incorrect, and why the world is actually a bloody struggle of A against B. What else do you think all the manifestos and pamphlets and “What’s the Matter with Kansas” book tours are for – not to mention all the elaborate theorizing about consciousness-raising (and its cousin, false consciousness)?
“Politely explaining why you’re incorrect” about the nature of your political situation is more pithily known among us conflict theorists as “organizing”. Of course, you only organize among potential allies – but given a sufficiently expansive definition of “the People,” that’s almost everyone.
I’ve more or less made it through the whole comment thread, although I confess to a good deal of skimming. Three points:
1. 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.
For the same point on the other side of the political spectrum, some people on the left have argued that capitalism creates scarcity and if only we replaced it with socialism we would have a twenty hour work week with long vacations and abundance for all. From that standpoint, practically everyone would be better off with socialism and capitalism is just a mistake. This was the Abbie Hoffman position I argued against in Machinery.
2. Most of the discussion of conflict theory blurs together two rather different versions. In one, the conflict is basically over whether benefits go to me or you. We might have, in the abstract, identical value systems–I regard your preference that benefits go to you as just as rational, just as correct, as my preference that they go to me. It’s just that I’m me not you, so act for my benefit not yours.
In the other, the conflict is over fundamentally different value systems. I’m a natural rights libertarian, you are a utilitarian, he is an egalitarian. At one level it is a conflict as to which of our values gets satisfied. But at some level each of us believes the others are making a mistake in what values they hold.
3. In the context of a blog, a book, an argument, the question is not just what is true but also what is worth arguing about. If the reason you are for what I am against is pure conflict there is not a lot of point to reasoning with you, although I still might want to reason with my allies about how best to fight you. So in lots of contexts, such as this blog, it makes sense to focus on mistake theory issues rather than conflict theory issues.
Consider immigration. I don’t see any way of persuading someone who believes that the welfare of his fellow citizens should be much more heavily weighted in our decisions than the welfare of foreigners that he is wrong. But I might be able to persuade him that freer immigration is better for his fellow citizens. And if we focus on that argument, we may be able to agree on policies that would make it better for his fellow citizens even if he believes that under current circumstances it is not.
This is connected to my support for consequentialist libertarianism–as a form of argument. Deontological rights based libertarianism might be correct–I don’t claim to have a proof of what moral position is correct. But I don’t think anyone else has such a proof either, so persuading people that the government should be abolished because taxation is theft doesn’t look like a very appealing strategy. On the other hand, I observe that people’s values have a lot in common, I believe that the sort of society I support would be better, in terms of the values almost everyone now holds, than the alternatives, and we are much closer to having proofs in economics than in moral philosophy. So it makes sense to argue consequences rather than values.
Mike Huemer in Problem of Political Authority seems to take a Mistake Theorist approach to convincing people of the appeal of something like deontological rights based libertarianism and it’s an appealing strategy to me. People seem to broadly share certain common sense ethical intuitions, what’s right and wrong in interpersonal relationships, but then provide justifications for the State that upon careful examination violate these ethical intuitions. Many people don’t do this careful examination, and so an approach that systematically reviews arguments for the State, like social contract theory or rule by majority, and showing how the arguments violate common sense ethical intuitions, seems to be a promising approach to reaching at least some subset of the population: those making ethical mistakes rather than economic mistakes.
Note 1: Huemer argues for a strong NAP presumption, not absolutist ethics, so doesn’t argue quite for deontological rights based libertarianism.
Note 2: As consequences factor into people’s common sense ethical intuitions, he has to make the types of consequentialist arguments you see as a more sensible approach, in addition to the systematic ethical argument approach.
Mike Huemer has the same moral theory I do–intuitionism. The difference is that he’s more confident that it is correct than I am.
This is my first time leaving a comment here, but it seems like a really appropriate place to mention Alon Levy’s excellent post from a couple years ago about how the “Sewer Socialist” mayors of Milwaukee (bona fide Marxists) basically turned into “sewer neo-liberals” because they were so focused on making the city function. He argues the same is true of the Social Democratic parties of Europe. This sort of socialism-turned-neo-liberal seems like a kind of ideology of governance that fits me and many of my friends pretty well.
Evolution ensures that at the lowest, most reductionist, level we’re all Conflict theorists. Because we’re life, and so in constant conflict with other life to acquire resources and spread our genes (and memes) throughout the population.
But in the process of Conflict, we form coalitions. At every level, from mitochondria in cells, to family, tribe, nation, and species. And on many dimensions – genetic, geographical, cultural, ideological, etc.
The idea that the only Conflict is between elites and masses is unspeakably naive.
Successful coalitions use Mistake theory to improve the working and success of our coalitions.
No it doesn’t.
If our ancestors (genetic and memetic) hadn’t done that (successfully), we wouldn’t be here to talk about it.
First living organism, who/what is it competing against? It needs to figure out survival, reproduction and exploitation, the organism in the tidal pool that figures out photosynthesis first, or the one that can exploit the rocks/sand/whatever around it has a far greater reach than one that just learns how to dominate the tidal pool. A cell that cooperates with another cell has a greater reach than one that eats another cell, and so as we crawl out of that pool we end up a giant pool of cells ourselves. Two guys get in a fight, well each one of them is a conglomerate of 10s of TRILLIONS of cells working together (not even all of them human, as there are numerous species living symbiotically within our bodies).
At a fundamental level we are cooperating at a massively complex level that far outstrips any conflict level, it is so deeply ingrained in us that we literally call the collective action our “self”.
I completely agree. At the base, reductionist, level, we’re in Conflict.
But at all the higher levels, cooperation, coalitions (a method of cooperation), and civilization (a way of opting-out from much of the conflict) rule.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t Conflict deep down, and that it isn’t always a factor at some level.
We live in a world of scarcity, and always will. And status games are always zero sum (at least in one dimension).
We can, and do, cooperate to use the available resources more efficiently and to get access to more. Most of what we do –
almost all – is cooperation, and Mistake theory is critical to learning how to do that better, and there’s a lot of gains there yet to be made.
But we shouldn’t fool ourselves that deep down, there’s no Conflict. Because there always is.
At the base, reductionist level we are in cooperation, not conflict, we just don’t bother discussing that level because it is so ingrained that unless you are an immunologist or something similar it just never comes up. Society works at these levels as well, we don’t pay much notice to a guy stocking shelves, or producing the packaging, or changing the light bulbs, but we raise holy hell if our favorite brand of cereal gets discontinued (or at least we notice it). We are programmed to notice conflict because it is the aberration, the car accident gets rubbernecked and no one bats an eye to the fact that tens of thousands of cars are not getting in accidents.
Marxists don’t just seem to believe that it takes no particular skill to set up good governmental institutions after the ‘right guys’ have all the power. I get the impression that their whole beef with ‘capitalists’ (or rather, more accurately, ‘entrepreneurs’) is based on the implicit belief that it takes no particular skill to set up a economic structure that transforms (less valuable) inputs into (more valuable) outputs. One big problem in the middle ages was that many people believed that merchants were crooks : because they sold things at higher prices than they bought them at, not seeing that merchants were performing valuable work (for example, seeking out locations where commodity x is in surplus and locations where commodity y is in short supply, and then transporting goods between those places; or buying in bulk/wholesale, and repackaging and selling to people who want small quantities, etc). The blindness of the Marxists to the value being added by the entrepreneur seems completely analogous.
It seems to me that setting up a company to transform the labor of x people with skill/ability of type 1 and y people with skills/ability type 2 … into high value output z; is directly equivalent to inventing a process or a machine that performs some useful work. You have the idea once, set it up, and forever afterwards, it takes much less work to accomplish that outcome. Now, who should reap the gains of all that saved work? I say the inventor/entrepreneur : at least for awhile anyway. 10 or 15 years maybe. First, to encourage the others, but, also just out of simple equity. It was his idea, his hard work, his willingness to risk his time and energy that made the whole advance possible. I would agree with Marxists that perhaps people are being exploited if the inventor/entrepreneur get to keep those gains FOREVER. But that doesn’t seem to happen in our society, even for the entrepreneur : those excess gains get competed away. But they get competed away through lower prices for the product, not higher prices for the labor inputs. I, personally, think that’s fair, since it benefits equally everyone who wants the product, but if my concern was ‘blue collar workers don’t get as big a piece of the pie as white collar workers’ that obviously wouldn’t address my concern.
I see a bunch of people standing around, can’t find any better job than minimum wage, some guy has a bright idea, hires them, makes a mint of money, and Marxists say the workers are being exploited. The only way I can see how anyone could honestly believe that would be if they think the guy who had the idea and set up the company wasn’t performing valuable work too. Or if the believe that the work he performed shouldn’t be compensated at a higher rate than manual labor.
But, then, it seems like Marxists come in two flavors : some marxists seem to believe that workers are being exploited by capitalists (or, in my alternate formulation, they believe that blue collar workers are being exploited by entrepreneurs). But, other marxists don’t seem to care about equity in the sense of ‘workers not getting the marginal product of their labor’, and instead simply advocate ‘poor people’ (regardless of whether they work or not) should have the same income as richer people (regardless of whether those people worked hard and earned their money or not).
So, I’d say, the first group of Marxists are simply mistaken : their definition of ‘work’ is too narrow; but the second group of Marxists is a completely different story : they are simply partisans ; they are engaging in the modern day equivalent of tribal politics (‘we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys! lets go raid the bad guys, and beat them up and then steal their stuff! )
Eh. My beliefs might be described as Marxist.
I think capitalism itself is exploitive. Not just of the workers, but the entrepreneurs, too.
On the one hand, it is an engine of recursive self-improvement. It might just be impossible to design something that does what it does, better.
On the other, the inputs to that engine are human beings, whose values and desires are coupled to capitalism via consumption; consumption is only a proxy for their values and desires, and a pretty lossy one at that.
Capitalism is abusive in the same way a slot machine, or many video games, are abusive. Variable rewards is part of it; another is that those variable rewards are tied to finding ways to increase other people’s consumption.
And you cannot rest, cannot stop improving; you can’t keep making flip phones when smart phones are what sells. All purposes are bent towards consumption. Anything that can be used to sell something gets used to sell something; anybody who fails to exploit every opportunity eventually gets outcompeted. There are no sacred cows, only hamburgers.
It is a horrific Molochian process which consumes everything, and turns everything into consumption.
It also happens to be very effective at meeting our needs and desires, at least where they involve consumption.
The terribleness of it isn’t that it isn’t effective. Anybody selling that is selling ideology. The terribleness of it is that it is effective.
You can keep making flip phones when smart phones are what sells, because people don’t buy Nothing But smart phones. I have a flip phone. Lots of people do.
Marxists have attacked self-exploitation by workaholic entrepreneurs and Stakhanovite workers for a long time, but the bait and switch between ‘exploitation’ as in ‘this is useful’ and ‘exploitation’ as in ‘this is Nothing But using me’ remains. ‘Nothing But’ arguments are never completely right, although they are never Nothing But Wrong. Marx himself used and abused Nothing But habitually.
Hope this was useful. Don’t mean to abuse your very proper disaproval of social evils.
This also reminds of something I was thinking about recently, namely that the strategy described in All Debates are Bravery Debates, while maybe helpful or even unavoidable to some extent, may nonetheless have more serious drawbacks than are immediately obvious.
That is, I feel like so much of political discourse in recent (?) years has the flavor of “yeah, he may have exaggerated, but his heart was in the right place,” “yeah, he may not literally have said the racist thing we claim he did, but we know what he meant,” etc. etc. That is, everyone taking the liberty of saying what they think others are most in need of hearing (is there an alternative?), even if that misrepresents things on some “autistic” Platonic level of forms (related to “Dog Whistle-ism“?).
But of course everyone thinks he is uniquely fit to make those calls while everyone else (on the other sides)’s attempts to do so seem like pure deceitful conflict theory stratagems resulting in further breakdown of trust and increased need to rely on learned epistemic helplessness.
One other thought: this may engender a vicious cycle:
Educated elites notice that Joe Sixpack doesn’t support their obviously correct policy solutions. Since the answers are obvious, the only reason they can’t convince Joe Sixpack must be that other elites are feeding him malicious propaganda designed to keep them in power. Elite group one is therefore in conflict with elite group two, which can’t be mistaken, only evil.
But how to convince Joe Sixpack of the correct position when elites group two must be playing dirty (else how could they convince of him something against his self interest)? It can only be by playing dirty themselves: “I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the type of person I’m preaching to.”
Joe Sixpack eventually notices that at least one group of elites are lying to him and reacts by developing further epistemic helplesness (I can’t articulate why they’re wrong, but common sense tells me I can’t trust them). This attitude then becomes further evidence for the elites that Joe Sixpack is either incredibly dumb and not open to convincing through rational argument and/or that he is being heavily manipulated by sinister forces, eliciting a further move toward conflict theory strategy…
Assuming objective morality, wouldn’t you say that being on the wrong side of a conflict (hoarding money as opposed to sharing it with everyone) would be a mistake? Something something veil of ignorance.
I really like the dichotomy, except that it’s not a dichotomy: you can be both! You can believe that well-intentioned people often come up with massively wrong solutions through stupidity, while simultaneously believing that self-interested people often come up with solutions intended for their own benefit then package them as being for everyone’s benefit. You can believe that free, open, informed debate is an effective way to find the best solutions, while simultaneously believing that inequalities of power and wealth make it impossible for large-scale public debates to stay free, open, and informed. If you do, then your best strategy combines elements of both: be a mistake theorist about most of the people you talk to, but a conflict theorist about the system as a whole. The big game is rigged, but you can still find honest games on the sidelines.
(Sorry if someone’s already made this point somewhere in the previous 700 comments…)
Yeah, others have made this point, but I think that you made it particularly well.
I’m a little surprised and sad that your conclusion at the end of this post is that you need to make more conflict-theorist arguments. I think one of the great strengths of this blog is that you are strongly mistake-theorist. Every other blog in the world is conflict theorist, and well, I think there’s a reason that this is literally the only blog I follow or care about.
Maybe this mere observation makes me more of a conflict theorist than I’d like to think, but:
Seems to me that conflict theorists are like defectors in a prisoner’s dilemma. Their best outcome is attained by signalling hard that they are playing a mistake theory game while actually playing a conflict theory game (related to M&B). The best overall outcome is for all to play mistake theory game, but that, of course, requires a level of social capital we increasingly don’t have.
That is the impression this post left me with as well. It is framing the situation between Conflict and Mistake AS a Conflict.
When I noticed that, my response shifted from excitement over a novel way of approaching emotional versus logical argumentation to “Oh. This is just an argument that a bunch of people are defecting, and will always defect, and therefore, by implication, we should defect back.”
And if you have paid ANY attention to politics over the last ten years, that has been the running theme – “Those fuckers are defecting, it is time to defect back twice as hard!”
The results haven’t exactly been great, and at this point the arguments are just over who started defecting first, and therefore Responsible.
Fuck that shit.
Prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t explain it fully, though.
Let’s imagine an “easy conflict theorist” (from here on: ECT) and an “easy mistake theorist” (from here on: EMT) making a compromise on something. We’ll say it was something easy, though also something where they genuinely disagree – but they still come to some sort of an arrangement.
Neither is fully satisfied, of course, but they actually at first find that they are getting along better than before. However, both interpret it through their own frames. The EMT believes the compromise is still deficient, as it doesn’t match what he believes to be the objective truth, but it also shows the ECT has been willing to adjust their false worldview a bit to be closer to the truth. The ECT, meanwhile, grudgingly admits the EMT was not quite as bad as they were; they can make a compromise based on the interests of two conflicting parties, and the ECT can let their guard down a bit on this front and concentrate on other conflicts.
However, the compromise soon breaks down. The EMT believes that the “development” they believe has happened in ECT’s thinking shows the way to further development, and, far sooner the ECT would have thought possible, proposes a new compromise – between the old one and the EMT’s “objective truth”. The ECT blows a gasket – the EMT was just as evil as they first thought and even moreso, why else would they tear the compromise down just to slyly advance their own agenda? Meanwhile, the EMT is extremely disappointed – the ECT was just as dumb as they first thought and even moreso, as they’ve been given a chance to rethink their mistakes and they rejected it. The compromise breaks down and the two are even farther away from each other as at first.
This is an interesting and plausible dynamic, but I’m not sure two of Scott’s four conceivable types exist in real life.
Namely, I don’t know anyone who’s an “easy mistake theorist” or a “hard conflict theorist.” If you genuinely believe good, objectively correct answers are easy then smart people fighting tooth and nail against those solutions are likely evil rather than mistaken. If you genuinely believe correct answers are difficult to arrive at, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that people of good faith can disagree.
I am open to being disproven by real-life examples of such thinkers, however.
EMT is a liberal posting Facebook memes about Trump and the Republicans being morons. HCT is a weathered union rep with 40 years of experience in high-stakes labor market negotiations.
A genuine conflict theorist wouldn’t capitulate to the enemy.
Your conflict theorist wasn’t a conflict theorist until it became clear the opposing party wasn’t interested in an exchange of values – a compromise – but in overwriting the theorist’s values with their own bit by bit.
You can’t have a war mentality and cede land. The war mentality develops from the realization that each capitulation just results in another demand.
Which is to say – yes, there was definitely a defection there. The “mistake theorist” defected, by trying to change the terms of an agreeable deal after it was made, to benefit their own beliefs about reality.
And indeed is behaving more like a conflict theorist than a mistake theorist, in that they are treating the intellectual field as a war to be won. Sure, they are fighting with arguments, but their goal is still annilihation of their enemy, just by conversion.
As I’ve said elsewhere in these comments, it’s perfectly possible to view the world as an arena of struggles between different groups of people *and* to believe there can be compromises, as long as everyone is aware of their position and power. I would say this has, in fact, described much of the politics of the modern Western world, at least during the Cold War.
That isn’t “easy” conflict theory, however, and as others have pointed out, “hard” conflict theory is basically the same thing as mistake theory, except treating values as a type of fact about which one can be “mistaken”.
(Presuming you are correct invalidates mistake theory.)
Some hopefully optimistic thoughts:
1) If conflict theorists are mistaken about the outcomes of their actions, they may be worse off even if they gain a tactical advantage in debate. So if New York actually sinks under the sea, and and the Koch brothers don’t like that, then “winning” the conflict over global warming mediation didn’t really make them better off.* So maybe it’s in their interest to at least update their own ideas under a mistake framework, even if they use a conflict framework for debate. If so, maybe we mistake theorists can convince some of them that mistake oriented debate is more valuable than they currently think. (Or maybe we’ll learn that they’re right, which I would find pessimistic)
2) Conflict oriented debate isn’t always a winner. In US politics, the left often (but not always) loses with “the people vs the powerful.” It’s possible that voters don’t find that formulation helpful, or maybe the system just collapses, with conflict oriented voters assuming that political elites don’t have their interests at heart.
* For illustration purposes only. I have no useful information on either global warming, global warming mediation, or the Koch brothers’ ontological philosophies.
Where envy is the dominant motivation, rather than greed, conflict theory must hold true (at least in part) because there’s no way to make everybody happy. And envy is very powerful, and underappreciated in economics: http://falkenblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/why-envy-dominates-greed.html
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).
Interestingly, people who work on computers are often mistake-theorists. I wonder why the pessimistic view of computers (where they naturally see conflict) doesn’t translate all that well into politics (where they naturally see mistake).
Very good, I found the distinction between mistake and conflict oriented perspectives enlightening, and will gladly add it to my conceptual toolbox.
One thing I felt missing in the original post is a discussion about who the “agents” under discussion are supposed to be. For example (used wholly as a hypothetical, some of my best friends are oil company execs, etc) it seems entirely plausible that the average oil company executive genuinely believes that stronger regulation on carbon emissions would cause more harm from decreasing economic growth than good from its environmental impact, and that he is really acting with the best interests of humanity at heart when promoting such views. Changing his mind about this would force him to sacrifice income, status and/or his sense of self worth, so he is probably biased not to, but could potentially be convinced given sufficiently good argument presented in such a way that he would not dismiss it as “hostile”, “crazy”, or similar without considering it. Here the mistake perspective seems entirely appropriate.
This might even be true for all, or the vast majority of high-ranking people in the oil industry considered as individuals, but the industry as a whole might nonetheless better be understood as striving to maximize revenue regardless of whether the resulting damages from exacerbated climate change outweighs the economic benefit to present or future humanity, and may indeed seem to be acting as if it “knows” this to be the case (by, say, attempting to discredit climate research in a way that would suggest it values something else above and beyond disinterested truth-seeking, or merely by being willing to pay more for insurance against extreme weather and natural disasters than would be commensurate with its professed views on the subject). Here a conflict oriented perspective might therefore give a more accurate, predictive model of the system’s behaviour. Of course, we should be careful about anthropomorphizing non-human systems – it wouldn’t make sense to ask what the oil industry thought about the force projection twist in the Last Jedi, or how it would fuck/marry/kill the solar/hydro/nuclear industries, but the idea that organizations or groups thereof can be usefully modelled as having some degree of intentional capacity over and beyond some simple aggregate of the intentionalites of its human members, is, I think, a fairly uncontroversial one, although the extent and nature of such collective intentionality in any given case is more disputable. Hence Marxism’s emphasis on class struggle rather than the struggles of individual workers/capitalists/etc (although Marxism clearly takes too strong, rigid, and simplistic a position here).
(I’m short on time, so my other thoughts have to wait, but I thought the impact of which agents one is modelling on which perspective seems more appropriate was worth mentioning)
I recently observed in my country how debate what started as conflict theory turned into mistake theory and ended as conflict theory.
I live in Estonia. Couple of years ago left-wing coalition came into power and decided to implement comprehensive alcohol reform.
It started: drinking is bad, it is bad for your health, drunk driving is bad, drinking kills people and everyone who criticizes our reforms has to be evil (corporate shill) who loves killing people.
So comes comprehensive package: changes to tax law to push excise taxes up, restriction of advertising, sales bans, retail regulations, education efforts, social campaigns and many other measures.
Every corner was covered with experts and research. This expert says this, that expert says that. Here is research, there is a scientific paper, here is an opinion from a professional organization, there is a conference of health professionals, Police Chief says something(“Drunk driving is illegal!”), head of Doctors Association weighs in, expert from World Health Organization gives her opinion etc.
We are very calm and very rational, experts are discussing and scientists are researching and all in all: every expert in the world agrees with us, all the science is behind us. We have a perfect debate framed as mistake theory.
But when you start digging, you find something else. For instance, Ministry of Health is pushing new bill (let’s say, they want to ban alcohol advertising). Ministry says that they have super strong evidence of super strong effects. Okay, you look, where from Ministry of Health gets its knowledge? It turns out they are getting their info from National Health Institute (funded by Ministry of Health). So you read what National Health Institute is saying and discover that National Health Institute is talking strong effects (not super strong effects). Then you discover that National Health Institute relies upon World Health Organization papers and these WHO papers are talking about medium effects (not strong or super strong). Finally, you check what research is WHO referring, you dig it up and find that original research is done somewhere in Australia or Alabama and talks about tiny effects.
Every actor in this process may have good faith and exaggerates just a little bit, cherry picks data just a little bit, data mines just a little bit, but the result is that tiny effect turns into medium effect turns into strong effect turns into super strong effect turns into “All the science is behind us.”
Then you can discover other curiosities: you see that the Head of local WHO office is a former top bureaucrat of Ministry of Health, that National Health Institute is 100% funded by Ministry of Health, that the Head of Doctors Association is former Head of National Health Institute, that the Head of… etc. On surface level all corners are covered, all experts are lined up, but below the surface you wonder:” We are talking about the elasticity of alcohol prices here, so what is the relevance of Doctors Associations expert opinion (“Drinking is bad to your health.”) or Police Chief’s expert opinion (“Drunk driving causes accidents!”)?
At the end, if you point at these problems, the debate turns quickly back into conflict theory: you are evil who supports drunk driving and loves killing people. (And you are also stupid because all the science is behind us and you obviously hate science.)
Through the vast majority of this post, I was internally screaming “it’s not that simple!” And wanting to make the snarky reply of “Yes, but have you considered the possibility that social ills are the result of a complex interrelated network of people (both smart and stupid) whose goals are in conflict mutually making the world worse for each other, and people (both passionate and dispassionate) whose goals are universally beneficial but have chosen methods that don’t work? And, while intellect is required to find an effective method to achieve a goal, passion is necessary to determine what goals are even good in the first place?”
Then I got to the last paragraph. That said, I still found something very offensive about this post. And I think it can best be expressed as this:
While the final paragraph admits that things are probably more complicated than “conflict theorists are making a simple mistake” it doesn’t do anything to temper the fact that, through the entire rest of the post, you have implicitly painted all mistake theorists as being pro-capitalism, and all conflict theorists as being on pro-marxism.
Have you considered that the vast majority, if not 100%, of all issues under public discussion have mistake theorists and conflict theorists on both sides?
I personally consider myself to be mostly a mistake theorist, but events through my life have taught me that not all conflict comes from misunderstanding the problems.
I also consider myself mostly to be a marxist — I agree that capitalism has done a lot of good for the world (by comparison to prior systems), but it only functions well during growth conditions, and devolves more and more to rent-seeking as growth potential is consumed. I also believe that (in America) we are somewhere in the range of [approaching, well past] the point that capitalist activity has shifted to majority rent-seeking, and that the solution to this is to provide more (and more explicit) regulation to disincentivize rent-seeking behavior (e.g. making net neutrality a legal standard that ISPs must conform to), as well as analyzing to determine which regulations may incentivize rent-seeking, and removing those (e.g. removing the legal controls on pharmaceutical and recreational drugs), which, in combination, would move society more towards “freedom” on the social axis, and more towards “restriction” on the economic axis.
I also think that while market forces are a solution to finding a stable distribution of resources, that these distributions are by no means guaranteed to be optimized for delivery to highest value targets.
For instance, it would be a bad idea to replace public police forces with a market of competing security companies, because market forces incentivize a security company to ensure there is some amount of crime, so that people continue to hire them, and such a system would quickly devolve into protection rackets and gang wars.
Going off at a tangent, is Marxism trendy again nowadays or what? I’m seeing a (relative) lot of “I’m a Marxist” online, and arguments on Tumblr from Eastern Europeans reacting badly to pro-Real Communism Has Never Been Tried/I’m A Communist (generally student) posts with “I lived/my family lived under a Real Communist Regime in a Real Communist Country, stop fucking glorifying something of which you have no direct experience, it was shitty and your fantasy dreams of a workers’ paradise are nothing like the truth”.
I’m expecting the 70s all over again and the Maoists to make a re-appearance!
Sign me up for the “I’ve lived in a worker’s paradise, I sure hope it never comes again in my lifetime” club.
My apologies if these questions are insensitive, as I understand that conditions were and are terrible in those countries that had successful revolutions that claimed communist goals, but may I ask:
How much of what you saw/experienced would you say was attributable to the fact that democracy was lost, placing sole power in the hands of someone who was, charitably, ill-educated for policy making, and un-charitably, completely corrupt and power hungry?
Do you believe that retention of a democratic method of power distribution could or would be sufficient insulation to prevent a repetition of the tragedy you and your friends/family suffered?
If not, what problems did you witness that you believe are inherent to the economic system, or would at least need very, very strong protections to avoid?
Again, I apologize if these questions are distressing in any way, and completely understand if you would prefer not to answer, but I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to blame all of the historical failures of Marxism on the revolutionary movements’ failure to protect against the “charismatic strongman/manipulator” attack, and overeagerness to dismantle everything associated with the prior government/culture, rather than analyze whether or not any given aspect may have been beneficial, and I would appreciate an opportunity to temper this perspective with empirical data.
No problem, I will show you on the doll where Lenin had hurt me 🙂
To be fair, I was pretty young when I left the USSR, and the USSR of my day was pretty mild compared to the USSR of my parents and grandparents. However, comparing even this relatively mild oppressive country to a modern Western democracy is like comparing night and day.
The root problem was not that the person in charge was incompetent, or evil; but rather, that the entire socio-political system was set up in such a way that evil and/or incompetent people would rise to the top. Given the absence of a regular economy, the entire country ran on a quasi-feudal web of personal obligations and bureaucratic machinations. If you were in charge of something, even something as small as an apartment complex, you could demand favors from everyone below you. This meant that you could finagle access to basic necessities (such as bread) as well as luxuries (such as hot water), both for yourself and your family. Of course, the person above you in the hierarchy was always on the prowl for services, too, so you had to look out. Oh, and by the way, the only possible way to ascend the hierarchy was the Telvanni way: destroy someone above you and take his place. This kind of society is not super conducive to prosperity, to say the least.
Demonstrably, not on its own. You need a real economy to go with it; but more than that, you need some sort of a political will and a culture of enlightenment which is difficult (and most likely impossible) to achieve through social engineering. Without such things, people just turn around and vote for the next dictator, who promptly abolishes democracy and returns to the good old days.
I touched on this above; I just want to underscore the fact that socialism sets up really perverse incentives. Your official salary is almost worthless, and you get paid regardless of whether you do your job or not; so your job doesn’t really matter. What matters is the daily hustle: trying to wheel, deal, and steal enough supplies to keep yourself and your family alive through the winter. If you are one of the few lucky (or well-connected) souls who happen to be in charge of resource distribution, you’re pretty much golden, of course. Under this system, it is nearly impossible to build any kind of a long-term project or enterprise, because all of it will inevitably get stolen (or “officially” re-distributed) before it gets off the ground.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a problem too; but IMO the systemic corruption is the much more serious issue. You can’t even really call it corruption, because if you don’t know how to play the system, you will literally starve to death, or end up in Siberia (e.g. because some friendly neighbour decided that he wants your apartment, so he reported you for not loving Lenin sufficiently hard). The word “corruption” implies some sort of an aberrant behavior motivated by personal greed, not the daily struggle for survival.
Have you read The Road to Serfdom? Part of the argument is that the link between socialism and autocracy is not accidental.
I haven’t read the whole book, so maybe you cover this already, but still: in the USSR, autocracy was a tricky thing. True, the General Secretary had absolute power, on paper. In practice, he had to always watch his back for the Politburo, who all had to watch each others’ backs. Ordinary people could not perceive their machinations directly, but they could feel the collateral effects.
In addition, I should add that the same perverse incentives that socialism sets up can be seen in other places where competition is nonexistent, and few if any external standards of performance apply. A large monopolistic corporation is basically a mini-socialist state (minus all the repressive violence, of course).
The most prominent people on the western are now in the 20-30 year old range, and most of them postdate the fall of the soviet union. This is probably sufficient to explain the resurgence of communism (especially Stalin-apologetic communism) as a professed philosophy.
I have no tolerance for apologists of Stalin, Mao, or Castro. These men were despots who co-opted movements for equality in order to seize absolute power and create states with something approaching the least-possible level of egalitarianism.
If there is any contribution they gave to the world, it was obviating the need not to give blind trust to anyone who claims to be on your side, by showing that false allies can be far more damaging to the cause than true opponents.
I do hope so. It’s been kind of boring being anti-communist for a while (well, since before I became one). It would be good to have actual communists to mock.
What if, this time, the commies take power here, and eastern europe is Galt’s Gulch?
M. Night Shyamalan level twist!! 🙂
A while back, I did find myself looking at the strange new geopolitics of the 21st century and wondering if I could rescript some of my old NATO vs Warsaw Pact wargames with the US as part of the new Warsaw Pact and Russia on NATO’s side.
And do you think that they ought to listen to those replies?
I’m not a Marxist, but I know that there are Marxist traditions that have always held that the Bolsheviks were doing it wrong, and that even under a Bolshevik/Marxist-Leninist understanding of the term, nobody in Eastern Europe (or anywhere else) has lived in a ‘communist’ society.
So if you belong to the anti-Bolshevik democratic-socialist Marxist tradition, whose ideas, when tried, have not destroyed any country; or even better, an anti-Bolshevik but still revolutionary Marxist tradition like Left Communism, whose ideas really have never been tried in any country; or for that matter one of the non-Marxist communist traditions; are you supposed to give up just because these other assholes, who didn’t do what you are trying to do and whom your intellectual forebears always said were not doing what you are trying to do, fucked up their shit?
Do you accept the argument that democracy is no good, because look at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Even Moldbug wouldn’t put it that crudely.
I don’t mean to argue that democratic socialism is the way to go, or that the Left Communists would have known what they were doing, but that has to be argued on the object level. I’m not going to dismiss them just because of those other guys.
I sort of agree with this sentiment. It did seem to have very much a “Marxists are SSC’s Officially Designated Outgroup” subtext to it.
Why doesn’t your argument apply even more strongly to government provision of security? Prison guard unions lobby against legal changes that would reduce the number of prisoners. How can the police chief get his budget raised if there’s no crime? Isn’t it in his interest to support criminalizing victimless crimes in order to increase his status and income in the system? Civil forfeiture is only the most blatant example.
This is less true of private providers, because they are competing–to some degree customers can tell how good a job their provider is doing relative to others. The clearest case is where the security is linked to a particular customer–burglar alarms and the like. The fact that my neighbor got robbed is a reason for me to buy what my security company is selling but not a reason to buy what his security company is selling.
So, the theory goes, that government actors have different incentives than financial gain, and granting the state a monopoly on a power insulates them from market forces. And we can, in fact, see cases around the world where government actors operate contrary to profit motive, to benefit the public, in ways that are only enabled because of this insulation from market forces.
Obviously, however, there are cases where this theory breaks down, indicating that there are as-yet undetermined factors influencing the behavior we observe. Many in my camp would blame “the corrupting influence of capitalism” and while I think that the coexistence of private economy can account for some of this behavior, I think that ascribing all of this behavior to that factor is an easy mistake for a hard conflict theorist to make, and so I am suspicious of that conclusion.
These sorts of issues are why I don’t advocate for a complete, immediate, and revolutionary shift in policy, but a steady trickle of increased economic regulation so that we can reap the benefits of low hanging fruit without any given oversight becoming catastrophic.
How do you know that is what is happening? There are lots of cases where government actors claim to be doing that but aren’t–indeed, it’s the natural thing to claim if you are a government actor serving your own interest.
I am personally aware of people who factually receive life-long disability benefits. This is the result of a government program that operates directly contrary to profit motive.
Additionally, I am aware of multiple nations that maintain widespread inter-connected road and highway systems which are free to use even by non-citizens. While this is a significant force in enabling economic growth, and therefore indirectly increases tax revenue, they are not built/maintained in a way consistent with government profit being the sole, or even primary motive. Sidewalks are an even stronger evidence of this effect, because they have significantly less impact on the economy. And these projects are enabled because of the unique position government actors have with regards to determining the usage and allotment of lands.
Government military divisions, (and the US is perhaps the primary example of this), do maintain many high-cost research and development projects, and operate completely without regard to cost or income, because they have a government granted budget and monopoly that shields them from market forces. One could argue that this is grossly inefficient and an excellent argument against government control over this field, but one cannot argue that this isn’t an example of government actors operating contrary to profit motive.
In defense of the claim that:
Those outcomes are the result of actions by government actors. My question is how you know that those actions were contrary to the profit motive of those actors. A legislator who votes for laws providing long term disability may do so because he believes such laws are popular, so will get him reelected, which profits him. One who votes for a highway system might do so for similar reasons, or he might do so in exchange for bribes or campaign donations from construction companies who he helps get contracts to build highways.
If your point is merely that governments sometimes do things that would not happen on the market, I agree. But you put it in terms of how government actors operate, which is a statement about the motives of those actors, not about the consequences of their actions.
The central assumption of public choice theory is that government actors are rational in the same sense as market actors–tend to take the actions that best achieve their objectives. Are you disagreeing with that–saying that the behavior of government actors cannot be explained by the same behavioral assumptions as the behavior of market actors?
We are having a mismatch on the definition of actors. You are referring to individual persons, and I am referring to collectives of varying sizes, ranging from “an individual employee of ___ county department of health and human services” to “the DMV” to “the united states federal government.”
Similarly to how we may consider the entire corporation of Google as a single actor in the field of information technology simultaneously to considering an individual employee of Google as an actor in the field of information technology.
Therefore, whenever a government program exists that uses more tax money than it creates, it meets my definition of “a government actor acting contrary to profit motive.”
I admit that I am not yet well versed in public choice theory, and I can see many reasons why it would be useful to consider the motives of individual actors within the government, specifically, but the claim you are responding to is different from the claim I was intending to make.
Thank you. I was wondering if that was the problem.
Public choice theory doesn’t assume that the government as a whole, or some part of it, acts like a rational profit-maximizing individual. On the contrary, one implication of assuming that the individuals act that way is that the collective sometimes won’t.
Consider a simple example for the whole thing, government and voters together. Public choice theory implies that the interests of a concentrated interest group will have greater weight in political decisions than the interests of a dispersed group, so that it may be politically profitable to pass a steel tariff that benefits steel companies by ten billion dollars at a cost of twenty billion to consumers of steel and producers of export goods. Each individual, however, is a member of many interest groups, concentrated and dispersed–the steel executive flies on airplanes at a fare that is considerably higher than it would be if the airline companies were not using airline regulation to cartelize their industry (this example is now out of date due to deregulation but I’ll use it anyway). Add it up and you could have a situation where the total set of such transfers resulted in every single individual being worse off than if they were all abolished. So the whole system is not acting like a profit maximizing individual, but every single player within it is.
This general pattern is what we, or at least I, call market failure–a situation where individual rationality does not produce group rationality. One of my standard arguments against government is that, while market failure exists on both the private and the political markets, it is the exception on the former, the norm on the latter.
Isn’t market failure virtually guaranteed to occur in a completely unregulated market ? There are huge incentives for actors to ignore negative externalities, as well as set up monopolies; those actors who choose to plan for the long term will be out-competed in the short term.
Some market failure is almost certain under any set of institutions I know of. But in an unregulated free market, actors typically bear the costs of what they do, since to get inputs they have to buy them at a price which represents either the cost to someone else of producing them or the value to the marginal alternative user. When they produce outputs they can sell them for a price that represents their marginal value.
Obviously there are exceptions, such as externalities and adverse selection. Monopoly probably isn’t a major one, since unless economies of scale run up to the size of the market it’s hard to maintain a monopoly without government assistance, and in most activities economies of scale max out long before that.
On the other hand, in the political market actors, whether voters, legislators, or bureaucrats, almost never bear any significant fraction of the cost of their actions or collect any significant fraction of the benefit produced, so there is no good reason to expect that things will happen if and only if benefits are larger than costs.
Market failure occurs when an actor doesn’t bear the net cost–cost minus benefit–of his action. The farther he is from doing so, the more costly the market failure is likely to be. That’s why I argue that market failure is the exception on the private market, the norm on the political market.
It does? Because a security company has costs (fighting crime) and revenue (subscribers), your assumption is that it is automatically more profitable to spend a bunch of money ensuring that there is crime and then fighting it than it is to push the crime rate down (or let it be what it is) and drop costs.
By your logic insurance companies would go around killing people (to make more people buy life insurance), injuring people (to make more people buy health insurance) and burning down houses and causing car accidents. Actually they have a double incentive, they should be out injuring people who hold policies from other companies as that increases the demand for health insurance and also puts a strain on competing insurers resources.
Strange how that doesn’t happen.
Is it possible that that doesn’t happen because state-empowered police forces provide a chilling effect?
Or perhaps simply because different types of work attract different types of personalities — insurance work is part of the financial industry, which typically attracts and retains people who are skilled with statistics. Police work (and gang thuggery) typically attract and retain people who excel at violence. Additionally when a job involves performing violence to begin with, other acts of violence have a lower barrier to entry (no additional training required, people looking for ways to make profit are already considering solutions in the domain.)
Of course, this would still be considered a suboptimal solution — the security companies would much prefer not to have to waste resources on creating an incentive to keep them hired. But who’s going to hire them when there’s no crime?
The scenario I describe, of protection rackets and gang wars has 100% been seen in history, though usually being a side-income stream to the main revenue source which was traffic of illegal recreational substances. (See: 1920’s Chicago)
But, of course, I also chose a very poor line of argument. The much better reason that we need publicly funded police forces is that those most in need of police work are people who have been victimized by crime, and therefore much less likely to have the resources required for hiring a private security corporation to aid in their restitution. Additionally, if only victims of crime are paying for these services, the cost of their employment becomes highly concentrated on a much smaller population segment, putting an undue or untenable financial burden on them, similar to what we see in a profit-driven healthcare system where only the sick or injured pay into the costs of maintenance.
Which is one of the reasons that, in a private system, people would buy protection in advance, before they or the company knows if they will be victims of crime. The same way people buy auto insurance today.
But people only buy auto insurance in advance because there are laws with severe penalties if you’re found to be operating a vehicle without current valid insurance.
If there isn’t some manner of requirement that all people maintain active crime insurance, you will have people who feel they are at less risk of crime, or more able to recover from crime (IE: those with the most resources) gaming the system and not purchasing any insurance, concentrating the cost burden on those at the highest risk/least able to afford a loss (mostly those with the least resources.) This is the effect that has been visible in US private health insurance markets for the past several decades, rendering the US healthcare system such a horrible and predatory mess.
If there is some manner of requirement that all people maintain active crime insurance, who enforces it? The same private companies who receive the insurance contracts? Just like in a protection racket?
That’s one reason, but hardly the only reason. People buy fire insurance despite the fact that there is no similar legal requirement.
Then those people will not be protected by the private rights enforcement agency, so will not be imposing costs on other people. Is your point that a private system won’t redistribute, won’t force some people to pay for the protection of others? That’s true. Similarly, a grocery store doesn’t make rich people pay for the groceries poor people buy. Is that an argument for nationalizing the grocery industry?
Are you assuming that crime protection is a public good–that if I produce it you get it whether or not you pay for it? Why? If I haven’t paid a rights enforcement agency to protect me they won’t do so.
There are lots of things wrong with the U.S. health system, but people choosing not to be insured because they don’t think they need insurance doesn’t make insurance more expensive for others–unless you assume the alternative is to force some people to pay more for their insurance than its actuarial cost in order to subsidize other people paying less.
No — I am only assuming that the crime protection services are subject to economies of scale, such that it is less expensive per-capita to service 10000 clients than 100. And therefore, if only 100 people subscribe to crime protection services, the protection company will charge more to each of their 100 subscribers than they would charge to each of their 10000 subscribers if they had 10000 subscribers.
This is what I am referring to when I say that the costs of the crime protection service would become concentrated on those who are most in need of protection (which I expect has a strong inverse correlation to ability to pay for such services). And therefore costs can best be managed by distributing those costs among the full populace.
Assuming that insurance companies are profit-driven, their average client must pay a price greater than their average actuarial cost. This is most likely achieved by charging all clients a subscription fee somewhat greater than actuarial cost. However, at least in healthcare, client resources are somewhat inversely correlated with actuarial cost, so any reduce in subscription costs for that segment of the populace is likely to result in a gain of clientele which more than offsets it. So, yes, I am assuming a system wherein people with lower actuarial costs pseudo-subsidize people with higher actuarial costs.
However, insurance companies are also function as purchasing blocs, which can negotiate prices with providers far more effectively than uninsured individuals. (And, indeed, the effectiveness increases with the percentage of buyers the insurance company represents.)
But it is more expensive to service (say) 200,000 clients than 100,000. If that isn’t the case at some level below the size of the entire market then rights protection is a natural monopoly, which creates all sorts of problems for the sort of system we are discussing.
The normal equilibrium for a competitive market is that each firm is at the size that minimizes average cost. So if equilibrium with 200 million clients is two thousand firms with 100,000 clients each (I’m assuming that’s the optimal scale for a firm in this industry) and half the potential clients opt out, you don’t get two thousand firms with 50,000 clients each, you get a thousand firms with 100,000 clients each.
Obviously there are lots of more complicated stories, with effects going in both directions. Reducing demand may lower costs because it lowers the demand for scarce specialized resources–people who are really good at right protection, for instance. But there is no general reason why some people choosing not to buy a good makes it more expensive for others.
In this particular case, I should say, your story strikes me as backwards. People are not buying rights protection primarily as insurance, although it serves that function as well. They are buying it to get their rights protected. Ideally the sign on your door that says “Client of Sure Death Incorporated–be warned” means that burglars stay away; you don’t get robbed and Sure Death doesn’t have to pay the cost of figuring out who robbed you, finding him, and getting him punished. Deterrence as a private good.
So I would expect richer people to buy more rights protection than poorer people, not less, just as with most other goods and services.
I don’t follow this. Insurance companies, absent regulation such as Obamacare, charge different rates to different customers based on their estimate of the actuarial cost of insuring them. Pulling low cost customers off the market doesn’t raise the charge to high cost customers–they were already paying a higher price reflecting the higher actuarial cost of insuring them.
Is your point as in the earlier quote–that fewer customers raise the administrative cost per customer? If so, the same response applies.
Yes. I don’t fully understand the (pre Obamacare) health insurance market. If it’s really insurance you would expect everyone to buy low cost high deductible policies, since you only want to insure against the rare high cost event. So presumably what the companies were selling was some combination of tax avoidance (for employer provided plans), expertise, bargaining services, and insurance.
It is usually a minor mistake to model firms as seeking maximum profit; in fact, it is usually cash flow that is being maximized. First, because in the principal-agent problem, the principals get the profit and the agents get to play with the cash flow to their own advantage. Second, because anybody who really just wants profit is going to be either a passive investor or run a boring hedge fund or the like; the people who found and run interesting firms are almost always seeking some more specific goal to which some of their cash flow can diverted without it ever becoming profit. Also, status tracks with cash flow more than it does profit.
Cash flow and profit usually correlate pretty closely, so the profit-maximization model won’t steer you too far astray. But if the question is “will the firm do this thing that reduces its revenue somewhat and its expenses more so, or the other thing that increases their revenue a little and their expenses a lot”, then the latter choice is the way to bet even if it reduces profit.
I generally operate under Mistake Theory, and I separately believe that Actual Evil is extremely rare. There are a few hypothetical positions I can think of that are Actually Evil, though. I’ve noticed that when I encounter Actual Evil in the wild, rarely though this does occur, I get extremely confused. This confusion is sufficiently strong that I can’t really grapple with or respond to the Actual Evil. I can hedge it out, I can make it so I don’t have to deal with it, but I can never satisfactorily render it a non-issue the way you can choose and implement a correct solution to something that falls under the domain of mistake theory.
This almost feels like an early birthday present. FINALLY!
“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.”
Yep!!! But I am a mistake theorist who has a different theory about what the mistake is. Also, I think that the people making the mistake are the mistake theorists. The conflict theorists are not my side. I’m in favor of genuinely understanding their perspective, and of respecting what they are capable of, but ultimately, the goal is for the mistake theorists to learn to “perceive easy conflict theorists (the VAST majority of conflict theorists) as damage and route around it” (and eventually, actually repair the damage with psychological therapy that doesn’t assume one side or the other regarding conflict theory). As far as I can tell, if the mistake theorists in general knew about conflict theorists, and about smart ones, not just dumb ones, they would discover that they can make enormously more rapid progress than they have anticipated on their own.
Does Foucault make more sense to you now that you appreciate that he’s a conflict theorist? It’s really hard to have conflict theory friendly mental healthcare!
Is “conflict theorist” just another way of saying “someone who failed at rationalism”?
If conflict theorists truly believe everything is a moral conflict and disagreement is treason, is there any point to engaging with them?
I would contend in a symmetrical manner that anyone saying “I am a mistake theorist” is another way of saying “I don’t believe in the existance of shills”.
And the fact that shills objectively DO exist means that it is the avowed mistake theorist who fails at rationalism.
Well, technically, anyone who is permanently pre-committed to any specific worldview fails at rationalism.
I think everyone who isn’t a pre-pubescent child has some theory of mind for how other people behave. And having a theory of mind allows you to understand that sometimes other people may not be sincere, or they may do things for reasons other than what they say. Where mistake theorists differ is that we don’t pre-emptively decide that everyone we don’t agree with is acting in bad faith as part of some conspiracy.
The public loves conspiracy theories. They offer an easy explanation for every bad thing that happens. And when you believe in a conspiracy, you don’t have to take the blame for bad decisions that you made. For example, which is more pleasant to believe: that your country lost the war because other countries fought better and had more resources, or that your country lost because it was undermined by a Jewish conspiracy? That a famine killed millions of people in your country because Communism is terrible at allocating resources, or that an evil capitalist plot caused the famine? That your cow died because you’re not a great farmer, or that an evil witch (probably in league with the devil) cast a hex on you? The peasant mentality didn’t change when we gave them iPads.
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.
(Several other readers made comments like this above, but I wrote it before reading those and I might as well post it anyways.)
P. S. If you want to understand Marxists better I suggest reading Das Kapital, and I think reading your critique of it would be very interesting.
Lots of helpful elucidation in the comments as always. Count me among those who agree it’s important to make a distinction between descriptive theories based on observation, and normative theories based on how things “ought” to be.
I think, for example, that the “real world” largely operates on conflict theory. Mistake theory is a good way of solving problems in specific contexts (requiring preconditions of, say, reciprocal legitimacy, good faith, fair enforcement of rules and forbearance, like you would generally find in market competition between firms), but these conditions rarely apply in real world settings on political level, given the fact that politics is force i.e. “war by other means”. When you’re willing to use force to get your way, opposing interests will always seek to match or exceed that use of force as a countermeasure, if it’s available to them. There are exceptions, like non-violent resistance, that arguably employ a jiu jitsu like use of force instead of trying to match aggression.
The fact is, competing political or ideological movements are often a real threat to their opponents’ fundamental way of life. Even if moderates of opposing camps could theoretically find workable compromises, if they’re unable to contain the extremists of their side (as seems to be the case in modern western politics these days), negotiation is a non-starter – any concession to the opposing side ultimately empowers the extremists who want to crush you, trojan horse style. I think this explains the utter inflexibility of interest groups on many different issues – they rationally understand that voluntarily relinquishing power is a suckers bet in such a highly polarized environment of mutually exclusive value systems. No one is feeling particularly magnanimous.
I also think, along with most of the commentariat, that normative conflict theory is responsible for making the world a worse place wherever it becomes the dominant strategy – in the sense that extremism feeds itself by triggering counter-extremism and creates a positive feedback loop of escalation. This makes perfect sense from a game theory standpoint, yet we all know it breeds destruction and suffering, yada yada the tragedy of the human condition.
I do have a hypothesis on how mistake theory people can try to defuse conflict theory actors. You can make a much easier case for a truce between competing interests than you can for changing minds, reconsidering interests or abandoning ideologies. This was one of the strengths of the classical liberal argument – the constant zero-sum battle for the seat of power was a very suboptimal course of action for everyone IF what all sides truly cared about was living their own way of life in peace and freedom, and NOT just an overwhelming urge to conquer and convert nonconsenting 3rd parties.
This touches on Popper’s paradox of “intolerance for intolerance” – the grand compromise of Live and Let Live only works if that’s what everyone actually wants. If there are some interests for whom conquest and subjugation of other groups is a key operating principle, there is no rational response other than to eliminate them from the equation – which of course leads you back to square one.
Which is why I think the most important thing mistake theorists can do is make the case, wherever and whenever applicable, that political i.e. coercive mechanisms, which inevitably lead to an escalating cycles of conflict that everyone is rationally compelled to join, aren’t a reliable way to protect your interests in the first place. There are some antagonistic interdependencies, such as capital and labor, that are hard to disentangle in a way that would be mutually beneficial, but most issues have win/win conditions.
This only applies when there’s a relatively even balance of power, in which political conflict would probably result in costly stalemate or and endless see-saw of power changing hands for the sole purpose of undoing what the last guy did, and so on. I believe this happens to be the case in many examples of current political conflict, especially culture war issues.
Unfortunately, getting opposing sides of an issue to agree to Live and Let Live is a conditional proposition, predicated that you can make a credible case to each side that neither is powerful enough to destroy the other. If one side becomes convinced they have the power to eliminate a threat to their interests once and for all, extremists will pounce on the opportunity and everyone else will sit back and shake their head at all the unpleasantness with a quiet sense of relief and satisfaction.
All in all, the proposition of truce-making is a very underappreciated concept at the moment, the logical thread can be quite compelling, and it has the power to neutralize conflict-based orientations.
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.
A given person is not a conflict theorist ot a mistake theorist. Rather, a given discussion is a conflict diacussion or a mistake discussion, depending on whether or not the participants share a utility function.
Finely put, thank you.
This is an excellent post, Scott. I agree with you that this distinction of mistake-vs-conflict-theorists is real, and would go further and say that it roughly maps onto the neoliberal-vs-leftist dimension in the real world, although I agree that not making this explicit in your post was a good idea.
As someone who’s interacted with both conflict theorists and mistake theorists EXTENSIVELY in the past, I agree with you that you were largely making a mischaracterization of conflict theorists in the past, and it consequently limited the insightfulness of some of your analysis. I’m excited to see what happens next for SSC. For the record, I think is an incredibly common mistake. It was only after talking to and debating extremely smart leftists that I began to understand the quality of their predictive models.
I personally disagree with the broad leftist assumption that Upper Class=Bad, Lower Class=Good, which tints some of the more passionate leftist analysis. The true value of Marx is that if you say, “ok, imagine that all humans more or less follow their own wills and desires and don’t explicitly coordinate, BUT let’s examine this outcome through the lens of class politics and assume that the upper classes will subconsciously warp society to conform to their own values and material interests,” it’s a surprisingly useful lens with which to view the world.
I would classify Easy Conflict Theorists as the people who think that the person giving the PowerPoint presentation is consciously aware of exactly what she is doing. I would classify Hard Conflict Theorists as the people who think that the person giving the PowerPoint presentation truly believes everything they’re saying because of societal memes, ignorance, etc.
The first has an easy solution (“eat the rich.”) The second is extremely complicated and unlikely to be an easy problem to solve. I think that if your blog gave Hard Conflict Theorists a little more credit, it would be intellectually richer for it.
I disagree with the top comment about spending less time on abstract ideas, however. Abstract ideas are great! Cogent legible discussion of complicated abstract ideas are what makes SSC such a precious gem! I just want to see you broaden the scope of the abstract ideas you tackle and tease apart 🙂
Building on this – I want to say that Meditations on Moloch is one of the most powerfully leftist pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and that you’re absolutely right. Leftists would agree that capitalism fundamentally creates warped incentive structures that fail in important ways, like directing comparatively minuscule amounts of funding towards cancer and AI research in favor of directing resources towards a tenth Viagra analogue and Uber for Dogs.
The only thing leftists would add is that incentive structure is inevitably going to be warped so that the elites face incentives that mysteriously always end up with them maintaining a disproportionate amount of power. The poor, obviously, will inevitably end up facing different incentives, at which point the elites always seem to have a bunch of justifications for why that $9/hour worker is definitely necessary to prevent the whole thing from grinding to a halt.
That said, I agree with the thrust of your exchange with Nathan Robinson where you argued that huge governments will inevitably lead to bad warped incentives structures too. I can only offer my personal experience with hardcore leftists, of which I know a ton (at least 40 well enough to know their detailed views), and nearly all of them more or less agree and acknowledge that markets are valuable. In my experience, they mostly advocate a more communitarian-based approach somewhat similar to your ideas about archipelagos.
So “markets inevitably create incentives that go against the well-being of the populace, therefore we need to ensure the will of the people can exert stronger control over the direction of government (which is itself necessary to reign in capitalism’s excesses)” is a good argument. It’s frustrating that leftists make that particular version of the argument so infrequently. I suspect the reasons have to do with the reasons you mentioned in toxoplasma of rage about how modern discourse selects for the most controversial possible argument.
(It’s actually a meme among the left that when you’re surrounded by other leftists, you’re a harsh critic of every mistake past left-wing governments have made and demand extremely high standards for your reforms. But when you’re surrounded by non-leftists, you suddenly turn into a full-on Stalin apologist; surely you liberals all know that the USSR’s speed at industrializing some territories seems equivalently effective to Western efforts at colonization at the same time?)
But back to reality. We don’t live in the hypothetical world where we get to make our little archipelagos and form happy stable communities where we work together on solving humanity’s important problems. We live in the real world, where ridiculous amounts of money get diverted upwards so rich people can spend it on status games. And yes, leftists appreciate all of PowerPoint guy’s arguments about how actually those status games result in the money eventually trickling down anyway, so isn’t everyone better off? But they look at the guy getting paid $9/hour to work in blazing hot fields and they suspect that possibly the economy could be better optimized. Yes, Donatello Versace creates jobs. But what if we decide to make our hospital system by far the best in the world, and instead use some of the money we spend on ridiculous imperialist defense programs every year to build incredible hospitals? Those people working at Donatello Versace could just as easily be one of the, what, 80% of jobs at a hospital that isn’t actually being a doctor?
Mr. or Mrs. PowerPoint has excellent arguments about how, no, actually the market is an extremely finely tuned machine that responds perfectly to human desires and we definitely can’t direct any resources towards things that would benefit everyone equally, because Economics Reasons. If we mess with the same economy that produces Uber for Dogs, then surely everything will come crashing down. But fundamentally, leftists aren’t buying it. And I agree with them that, spelled out in those terms, it doesn’t seem especially convincing.
Those people working at Donatello Versace could just as easily be one of the, what, 80% of jobs at a hospital that isn’t actually being a doctor?
Trouble is, while the people working sewing the Versace garments probably don’t make huge wages, if they went to work as nurses, aides, cooks, porters, radiologists, etc. in hospitals, there would be the inevitable “You want how much an hour?” arguments over paying wages/salaries.
The public would probably agree that sure, the x-ray technician has A Qualification and should be paid a professional wage. But a nurse? For emptying bedpans they expect big money? And isn’t it a vocation anyway, they should be doing the job out of passion not for money! And if they give in grudgingly on nurses, they certainly don’t think the porters and cleaners should be paid high rates – it’s the perennial argument you see over the cost of child care – heck, we even had it on here: “so you got an official qualification as a childcare worker, big whoop, anyone can mind a kid, parents aren’t qualified, my mother minds her grandkids, why is it so expensive to pay a creche for professional childcare, the adults working there should be getting the same rates as a teenager working as a babysitter for pocket money”. (Nobody seems to have examined the apparent underlying attitude that childminding is not a Real Job, and so should not be paid accordingly; Real Jobs are when women put their kids in childcare so they can work outside the home in an office or other non-care work environment. Otherwise, the women could just stay at home taking care of their kids, and we certainly don’t regard stay-at-home moms as doing Real Work).
That’s where the mistake theory solution hits the conflict theory reality on the ground when you put it into practice.
Actually, a nurse also has A Qualification, at least in the United States. Actually, someone who cleans bedpans, if not a volunteer, probably isn't a real nurse, just a CNA (a nursing assistant). And yet, even they need certifications (which is what the ‘C’ stands for). As for the nurses themselves, well …
When I was involved in labour activism in the State of California a few years back, it didn't take long for me to notice that the California Nurses Association was one of the most powerful unions in the State. With several large and influential organizations dependent on their members' labour, a bottomless supply of public goodwill, and the protection from scabs that can comes from a severe shortage of qualified workers … you did not want to get on their bad side.
I basically agree with your comment; you just shouldn't have mentioned nurses like that. :–)
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.
What I really see missing in this dual view of the understandings political ideology, is the, by and large, largest political outlook held by the (non)-voting public. To go along with the conflict and mistake theories, is the shit just happens theory.
This is the theory held by voters who think the whole of governance is riding the bucking bronco of chaos, and no amount of analytical (dare I say rational) thought can tie it down – shit just happens. Believers are usually overheard late night in pubs saying “They’re all the same anyway” about the seemingly ideologically diverse election, or “Last time I voted Cat party, I think I’ll give Dog a turn”. Believers of this theory also share a mistrust of institutions like conflict, but not due to the morally evil twisting facts, but because they’re probably all wrong anyway.
Its very easy to dismiss this sort of view as small minded, or ignorant, but shit just happens all over history and politics: most famously the WWI inciting action involving a botched assassination attempt missing a bomb, then a failed suicide by one assassin jumping into a hilariously 13cm deep river, and another assassin practically bumping into the target at a coffee shop. 5 years later 37 million people were dead, shit truly does happen.
Or, in the collapse of Lehman Brothers, known as the watershed moment of the entire financial crisis, which can be picked apart by conflict adherents as the moral failings of the executive Richard Fuld who was payed $40 million overall salary as it went under, or by mistake worshipers as the complex interplay of federal reserve policy, politics and law not allowing a bailout in time, or maybe Warren Buffet forgot to check his voicemail.
This is a good post, and I’ve not thought about it in a named way before. I think it’s a good basis for building more complex models of situational conflict vs mistake dynamics with.
I’d put myself down as someone who is mostly mistake theorist when it comes to policy debates within people who argue about what is for the greater good of everyone in the world- counting surmountable bias as a kind of mistake. For example, I think the people who are against tax increases for increased redistribution because they think it is for the worse of everyone *are not* on the opposite side of a conflict to me; I think they’re mistaken.
But I think conflict theory has the better model when it comes to the gap between “us globalists” and deontologists who care most that the right people are rewarded or punished, or people who are interested in the good of a particular nation or particular ethnicity or of themselves selfishly, or Catholic integralists, or so on. For example, I think the people who are e.g. against tax increases for increased redistribution because redistribution is a deontologically evil theft *are* on the opposite side of a conflict to me.
And there are way, way more of these people than we give credit for, I think. A lot of people when pushed to clarify their ethical intuitions break utopian globalist in ultimate preferences, but a lot of them don’t.
I’m not sure that this is not just a mistake at the metaethical level, and I am pro continuing polite discourse on that metaethical level in hopes of that proving to be the case (the person who repeatedly talked people into quitting the KKK is a positive argument for “mistake theory is the ultimate truth”), but for the foreseeable future, people who disagree with me on what the goals of politics *are* are going to keep existing, and I think conflict theory accurately models the interactions between those groups for now.
This does not necessarily mean all problems are correctly resolved by all out war; I disagree with the position that anyone you compromise with/or make deals with is necessarily someone you view as differing from you only by a mistake. In fact, I’d argue the opposite; if they’re making a mistake, you can debate it and identify the correct answer instead of compromising, given time. Compromise as a means to mutually agree to minimise costs determined by relative power is a conflict management solution that occasionally gets broken out when mistake theory is too slow so you treat the situation as a conflict instead, I think.
But it does mean I think democracy for the foreseeable future is well-modeled as a room of 20 occasional elective cannibals debating what to have for lunch, and we need political norms that expect that some of them will be selfish enough to want to build a political coalition around eating a less politically connected person at the table, and will not be politely talked out of wanting to do so. Meaning I think there’s a need for normative structures that prevent that from happening.
Whereas a pure mistake theorist perspective doesn’t seem to see this as a concern; if it’s not ethically correct then we’ll talk them out of it before anyone gets eaten, it says. I think this gets at some of my disagreement with the more pure mistake theorists on political norms.
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.
Not to go all “just so” on you, but this is certainly how *I personally* act.
EDIT: I think the comments other people have made about different interest groups having different utility functions is sort of isomorphic to this argument. In the sense that the “shills walking amongst us” can be either paid-up Clever Arguers dissimulating for the perspective of their paymasters, or people committed to other utility functions who know that (since no-one is making a mistake, the alternate prescriptions are a consequence of different Final Objectives) truth-seeking debate is futile and the possible merits of debate come only from rhetorical victories.
This question is much harder to answer than you think. On the one hand, some (if not most) shills don’t even know they’re shills; this is the “false consciousness” or “internalized whatever” claim. On the other hand, a really clever shill would have the ability to blend in perfectly with his environment, exerting subtle influence as opposed to direct propaganda; this is the “conspiracy theory” claim.
That said, I believe that this statement is mostly correct:
Truth-seeking debates do have value in certain settings, e.g. scientific research or software debugging, but the size of that space is pretty close to epsilon.
On the topic of “really clever chamaeleon-like” shills: we’re perhaps getting into Chinese Room territory. Just because a shill doesn’t believe the arguments / counterevidence he is presenting, doesn’t make those arguments / counterevidence invalid. High-level bad-faith conflict-mode shilling asymptotically approaches high-level good-faith mistake-mode debate, because the shill has to look like he’s presenting good arguments, and the ever-more-rigorous scrutiny filters that the shill has to pass through in order to do so require his arguments to become ever-more coherent and evidence-backed.
Another space where it seems to have value is this blog, about which I am very happy!
Late to the party as ever. The wrong-side-of-the-world penalty I pay…
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.
That’s a pretty good dream. I disagree with some of the object-level issues, but as you say that ought to be negotiable.
Say you could, with the wave of a button, reduce the income of whatever your definition of the rich is substantially, but without improving the quality of life of anyone else. The rich would just get somewhat less rich. Do you push the button? And if so, do you see how others might view that as nothing but wishing misfortune upon the rich?
No I don’t. I find it unlikely that doing so would have more benefit on the ‘society-being-more-horizontally-equal-has-value-for-risk-and-ethical-reasons’ side than the destruction of value that’s part of the premise.
I concede that there could exist some conditions in which I say yes to this question, were I sufficiently convinced that the values gained were more than the values lost. I would take some convincing. (perhaps poor people having more claim to the collective labour power results in higher investment in, I dunno, let’s say medicine, more lives are saved? I’m just wildly conjecturing here, I have no reason to think that example should be true)
I don’t understand the risk part. In the hypothesis, people are no more likely to get poor after you push the button than before, just less likely to get rich. Decreasing risk by reducing the probability of good outcomes isn’t a benefit.
By risk, I’m talking about the chance of disruption to society in the form of industrial action, riots, civil war, revolution etc. In general, a loss of willingness-to-cooperate as a society
Okay, I’ll bite: I would be very tempted to push the button.
Why? Because excessive accumulation of wealth grants disproportionate power to the wealthy. Consider the recent tax bill. Economists were ambivalent about it. It was unpopular with the public. The only group who unambiguously supported it were rich Republican donors. Republican politicians were clear about this during the process. (“My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.'”) Charles Koch and his wife gave nearly $500K to Paul Ryan’s fundraising committee, two weeks after the bill passed. (This analysis estimates that the Koch brothers could be saving upwards of $1B/year under the new tax regime.)
And, hey, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad law. Being good for the Kochs doesn’t mean it’s bad for the country. But it also doesn’t guarantee that it is good for the country. Even if you think this bill is a net good, it seems very likely to me that it could have been better if the Republicans had been less constrained by the need to keep a relative handful of rich donors happy.
Democracy is the best system of government because it does the best job of aligning the interests of the government with the interests of the governed. When individual citizens have enough money to single-handedly sway the decisions of the government, that alignment is broken. Obviously the alignment was only approximate in the first place: this is hardly the only place where the theoretical promise of democracy breaks down. But if we can fix one problem, at relatively little cost, then that strikes me as a good thing.
Past a certain level of fuck-you money — which this delightful article estimates between $100M and $200M — you can buy anything that is realistically for sale, and extra money is mostly a status game. If we cap wealth at, say, $500M, what exactly do we lose, in exchange for a political system that does a better job of representing the interests of sub-millionaires?
In the real world, this would be an unenforceable nightmare of loopholes and evasion. But hey, you offered a magic waving button, and by god I am going to make the most of it.
You lose whatever benefits the wealth over that amount would have produced. Remember, the premise is that you don’t get to re-distribute this money, you just get to make the rich poorer. You are literally making the world a poorer, but more equal, place.
Also, I don’t think there’s any guarantee that your system gets better at representing sub-millionaires. I don’t see a lot of class solidarity at play among the modern american rich. For every Koch, you have Steyer, they seem to me to largely mirror the concerns of the upper middle class America.
This is an assumption you can only make if you’re assuming that what the rich donors want is bad. And frankly, on tax policy, I think the rich probably have opinions much closer to the academic consensus of optimum tax policy than everyone else, even if largely for selfish reasons.
Democracy, at best, aligns the interests of the government with the perceptions of the interests of the governed, which is not the same thing as their actual interests. And no, I am not arguing that the billionaires are wise stewards of the public good. I don’t think there are any wise stewards of the public good, and that there’s a lot of random noise at all levels.
And frankly, on tax policy, I think the rich probably have opinions much closer to the academic consensus of optimum tax policy than everyone else, even if largely for selfish reasons.
Well, a conflict theorist would cite Academic Choice Theory at you. Academics economists are shills and their consensus reflects an effort to curry favour with the rich.
Who would you prefer have disproportionate power? It’s got to be someone, or you get approximately no progress and insufficient ability to fix things as they break.
And that analysis is either dishonest or incompetent, since it implicitly assumes that cutting corporate taxes leaves corporate pre-tax income unchanged. I find it hard to imagine any plausible economic model for which that is true. It’s like calculating the effect of increased agricultural yield on farm profits over the past century on the assumption that output prices stayed the same, cost per acre stayed the same, while yield per acre went up several fold.
That’s not, by the way, to disagree with your basic point–that the wealth of the rich might harm other people through its effect on politics. It might. It might also help other people–with regard to any issue where the interest of the rich and the poor is the same but getting the right outcome is costly the rich function as a privileged minority, paying for a public good everyone gets because their share is enough to make doing so profitable.
I would gladly push the button, because in order for the button to do anything, I would need to disconnect it from whatever surface it is attached to and wave it around. :op
A legitimate point, and one that goes back to Marshall, who was a utilitarian and so saw the problem with differing marginal utilities of income. His response was that most issues don’t involve rich vs poor, they involve one mixed population (the inhabitants of Manchester vs the inhabitants of London–a better modern example would be steel companies plus employees vs consumers of goods that contain steel) of rich and poor, so generally the policy that maximized value measured in dollars would be about the same one that maximized value measured in utiles.
The obvious response is that some issues don’t have that characteristic–most obviously the individual level issue of who will get some consumer good or service. It’s tempting to respond, as I think you do, that the solution is to use the market to allocate while equalizing incomes. But it is hard to see how you can successfully do both, since the existence of mechanisms for political wealth transfer itself creates incentives and motivates action (my effort to receive transfers instead of giving them) which not only doesn’t equally weight everyone’s utility, it weights everyone else’s utility at zero.
That’s a very brief sketch of a possible rebuttal to what I take your policy to be.
Yeah, it’s a head scratcher all right. I don’t have a good answer for this currently.
I never thought about this consciously and I think I’ve just been misunderstanding other people as behaving inexplicably badly my whole life.
I have become more Conflict-Aware lately. In the last few years I’ve become wary of any class of people which can advocate purely for its own interests without raising societal alarm bells–including teachers, soldiers, firefighters..
I’m a scientist, which means I can argue “Society needs to give scientists more authority and money. My authority for saying this is that I am a scientist.” This bothers me. On the one hand I genuinely do believe that supporting basic research is one of the better/more efficient uses of government spending. On the other hand I want the government to give me money for all of my research projects. I think my research will probably end up helping society more than it wastes money, and I’m trying to steer it in a more society-helping direction… But then I would think that, wouldn’t I?
It’s a dilemma, because some problems actually require professional-level expertise. There’s no way to develop that level of expertise without both becoming enculturated in the status quo and developing an economic interest in the policy outcome.
This model definitely has explanatory power, but the question is: when someone vehemently disagrees with you, how do you know whether he’s a Mistake Theorist or a Conflict Theorist ? Sure, if he flat out proclaims, “long-haired people are all spawn of Satan, you have long hair, therefore I will never listen to anything you say”, then we can be pretty sure he’s employing Conflict Theory. But few people are really that blatant about their beliefs. So, when someone says, “OMG, how can you possibly support policy X, don’t you know it’s evil ?!”, what do you do ?
That said, if the model is correct, then you have a problem:
You will never be able to convince Conflict Theorists of anything, because every single word you say just sounds like “SURRENDER NOW” to them. Your model implies that some social conflicts cannot ever be resolved, or even dampened, other than through violence. This is a pretty grim view, but I’m starting to believe it might be the correct one.
I think “how tell if someone is a Conflict or Mistake Theorist” is easier than you claim. “OMG, how can you support X??!” Is a naive Mistake Theorist. The conflict equivalent is “die, you scum, for supporting X.” As I understand it.
Well yes, but as I said in my post, I think the “die scum” response is a bit of an outlier. Some fraction of Conflict Theorists exhibit this behaviour, but not all of them do.
Well… I think that Hard Conflicts might also be important.
It might be that Policy A can help alleviate Problem B … but some people think it conflicts with Fundamental Right C. Sometimes the people opposed to Policy A recognize that that might look obstructive so they back a symbolic useless action that does nothing but at least violates no rights. (The proponents of Policy A then react to that with ridicule.)
I can think of two issues with the above template on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
I suspect the term “political correctness” encodes a mistake-theorist’s critique of conflict theory. Unpacked, it would go something like “those who insist on drawing battle lines against every heresy are making it very difficult to have a productive conversation”.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the term is associated with universities, where large numbers of young idealists (conflict theorists) inhabit institutions designed for dialogue (i.e. designed by and for mistake theorists).
I notice I’ve been moving more and more into a conflict-related mindset as I get older, if only because the mistake-mindset people seem super condescending. It may seem like calling people “evil” is a good way to dead-end a conversation, but so is saying “you are obviously too stupid to ever understand the nuanced argument I’m trying to make,” and at least being evil is a sort of “power,” you know?
Its interesting to see you invoke philosophy as obviously trending towards a mistake-oriented mindset, when the only thing I learned from my philosophy undergrad degree is you can’t get an “is” from an “ought,” and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Seriously, you’re new friend https://samzdat.com/ has been writing a War and Peace-level tome for months now and it all seems to be circling back to this point (along with the point that people’s “seemingly irrational axiomatic stances yield more stable results that we could initially predict from the outside”).
One of the most illuminating conversations I had with a Libretarian went along the lines of “the free market is BS because look at the outcomes it trends towards,” to which he responded “we get those outcomes becomes those our are incentives, its not the market’s fault if we incentivize things in ways you find bad.” And if that’s not a statement with a whole host of conflict-oriented propositions hidden underneath it, I don’t know what is.
That being said, there’s probably a way to account for all conflict-oriented people in a mistake-oriented system, whereas I’m not sure it goes the other way. Isn’t this the liberal machine you so often praise? We built it recognize that one of the fundamental problems to solve was the incommensurability of different folk’s belief systems. I guess the hope is we can throw enough data at the problem that we will all suddenly see that our different moral systems are respective sides of the same coin but well…hopefully your imagined super-intelligent AI work that way (or else we are doomed), but I don’t think humans ever can.
I think “conflict theory” in this article just means Marxists, and not other groups that see politics as having a meaningful moral dimension.
When I look at hard libertarians like the Mises Institute guys, or even at other moralisitic groups like US Christian conservatives, I don’t see much “Your points are invalid because you’re on Team Evil” and I do see a lot of “You’re wrong because of X Y and Z” (i.e. substantive argument supplemented by moral suasion)
Jordan Peterson, for example, is clearly very willing to engage in prolonged and careful debate, but he also often has strong moralisitic claims.
Practically, this whole mistake vs conflict thing seems like a convenient way to bar non-utilitarian moral claims without good grounding for doing so, and to partially rehabilitate radical Marxists (in addition to simply being a false categorization of the world)
I agree, but are you then saying that when you look at Marxists, you do see ‘Team Evil’ and don’t see ‘wrong because’?
a) This explains why the American Congress is set up so weird (with representatives for states/districts and nothing for the popular vote): It was set up on the basis of conflict theory, assuming states and local communities were natural enemies. A system with zero weight to the popular vote makes no sense from a mistake theory perspective, but makes sense from a conflict theory one (that also assume congressional districts/states are the natural way people break down into communities). People who like districting over popular vote based systems will usually justify it with “but a popular vote could allow the majority to oppress us”.
b) This also shows up in some libertarian arguments, like being pro gay marriage or pro choice because “it’s not hurting you [opposers], what do you care”. This is assuming the opposers are based on conflict theory, while opposers often think in terms of mistake theory (loss of social cohesion/baby’s lives).
One reason I support the Senate/electoral college system is that I personally trust my state government (more or less), and I feel that my state represents a reasonably distinct and meaningful community. A popular vote of the United States (or the world) might be a better way of enacting the shared goals my State-community has with the rest of the United States (or the world)… but we have un-shared goals as well.
I am a mistake theorist, yet many of your descriptions of what mistake theorists believe don’t fit me at all–support for technocracy, for example. The implication of public choice theory, after all, is that the reason governments do the wrong thing is not that either the politicians or the voters are stupid. The voters are rationally ignorant. The politicians correctly believe that supporting a steel tariff will be politically profitable. The problem is that they are all acting rationally within a game where each person making the correct decisions for himself does not lead to the correct outcome for all–which is my definition of market failure.
One could argue that I really believe what you claim, just one level up. The people are stupidly supporting a game–allocating stuff via the political marketplace–that produces worse outcomes than a different game they could support–allocating stuff via the private marketplace. But that still isn’t stupid, because rational ignorance applies at that level as well.
I took Scott to be describing not what mistake theorists necessarily think but rather examples of how they might approach an issue. He assumes a generally leftist perspective throughout.
It might be interesting for a rightist or libertarian commenter to give some examples of how the taxonomy works on that side of the aisle. I’m pretty sure it still does — your writing strikes me as mistake-theoretic, for example, while Ayn Rand’s strikes me as conflict-theoretic.
“there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men”
At least from the little Objectivist corner in right libertarianism… it doesn’t really seem to work. There is no one evil, who is not also incorrect. There’s not really a parallel to the evil genius capitalist who fully understands the class conflict, which is what enables them to craft false consciousness so excellently in their workers. Not in the nonfiction writings anyway. In the fiction, there’s Ellsworth Toohey, Floyd Ferris, and Pavel Syerov, but these are each unique in their universes and I can’t recall reading anything she’s written about real people that suggested they were both evil and fully understood the issues. (Reportedly, she verbally said that about Nathaniel Branden, and expressed hope that this would result in his impotence for 50 years, but let’s not mix a lover’s quarrel with politics).
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of moral judgment in her work. It’s just that all the evil people are ALSO making mistakes, and the evil people would be pretty harmless if not for the mistakes made by large numbers of not-really-evil people. The conflicts and the mistakes are bound up with each other in the same theory.
I’ll admit that most of what I know about Objectivism comes from her fiction.
The term “merchants of doubt” sums up what Conflict People think of Mistake People.
One optics problem Mistake People have is that when they become sufficiently passionate about their cause – cognitive rather than moral error – they can appear to be indistinguishable from ideologues for the “other” side. You’re hectoring people for not seeing things your way, after all.
Henry George took the mistake theorist route.
Karl Marx took the conflict theorist route.
Marxism won over Georgism and the world lost.
Marx made at least a decent attempt at placing mistake theory-style arguments into his larger conflict theory argument with his notion of complex vs. simple labor in Das Kapital. It was a way of determining compensation in the new communist state. It’s based on a wrongheaded notion of the labor theory value – wherein a doctor is “objectively” 100 times more skilled than a brick layer (based on a mathematical formula, even) – but hey, it was something.
“Right now I think conflict theory is probably a less helpful way of viewing the world in general than mistake theory…”
At the very least Mistake Theorists are in conflict with Conflict Theorists. This is a problem.
I actually don’t know where I would put myself on the mistake-conflict axis. On the one hand, I think people are prone to think in categories of good and evil when it really doesn’t apply. On the other hand, I think everyone who believes people aren’t willing to hurt others for their own advantage are hopelessly naive.
Required reading: “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You”, by Cosma Shalizi
I enjoyed this link, thankyou.
This reminds me of the first comment I made here last year. It was on the Civil War, and with this perspective, I can say that I was approaching that question from the Mistake Theory and not the Conflict Theory, while I see most approaches (either side) being Conflict Theory out in the real world. It also reminds me of a comment sub-thread from last year on an interaction I had with a woman with tattoos (which, BTW, I did follow up on.. and yeah, I am about the same level as a hairy bug in her mind.) This is an interesting point of view/reality filter.. I think I’ll have to do some studying on it.
Out of curiosity, has anyone sought out or found any correlation between mistake vs conflict and and personal ethics? I’d be curious to see if deontologists tend to be more mistake oriented or consequentialists being more conflict oriented.
BTW – as I read the examples you gave, I found I was about 70% mistake and 30% conflict, but internally would identify with the mistake theorist side.
I’d call it “explicably badly”. Your posting is the explanation. Mistake theorists are concerned with what is true and how to know it. Conflict theorists have burned out that part of their brains. Mistake theorists can think about conflicts, but conflict theorists cannot think about mistakes.
I think this is probably wrong.
It is a seductive way of thinking, as well, which makes it wrong in a dangerous kind of way. It frames everything in a Conflict-oriented way, written in a Mistake space; it is us Mistakes against those Conflicters. Which sort of suggests the flaw underpinning it
There is a “rightness” to it, in that some people lose all faith and trust in their opposition, such that no argument from their opposition can truly be heard. But we can frame that as a mistake about reality.
Likewise, postmodernism could be framed as a conflict-prone ideology, as conflict, as it is described here, is central to its approach to empiricism; the facts you see are themselves part of a narrative. But postmodernism, done right, corrects for mistakes, rather than adding to them. Conflict thinking is necessary to identify and deal with an entire class of mistakes – mistakes of misapplied faith.
The central article is wrong for two reasons; first, it treats people as possessing these qualities, where it could more accurately be said that people having varying faiths in varying institutions; a person might be conflict oriented in one matter and mistake oriented in another. And second, because it treats conflict as a distinct mode of thought from mistake.
They are the same, they just start with different priors on the reliability of information and arguments from specific sources.
This looks like terminology that will pollute rationalist debates without adding much informational content, honestly. I can certainly happily declare that all my opponents are just Conflict-prone fools who can’t listen to reason.
More likely, however, my arguments just aren’t as persuasive as I think they are. And it isn’t like I strive for perfect logic, I prefer an emotional hammer on occasion as well.
I just wanted to say that you managed to capture many of my concerns far better than I did in my comment – thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Yeah. This post is such a parody of the principle of charity I half expect Scott to make another post later today going “Gotcha! You all fell for an elaborate trap making you think in Conflict terms while feeling superior to those irrational Conflict people, and you should stop feeling so superior, it is just an aspect of human nature and not an innate quality of people”
Yeah, this seems about right to me. I think it is a big mistake to frame this as two separate types of people, instead of two semi-overlapping methods of engagement.
Are the people on the other side arguing and acting in good faith? That almost certainly depends on what issue we’re talking about, and who the people are on the other side. While it’s certainly plausible that some people or ideologies are more prone to one assumption over the other, it feels wrong to talk about “conflict theorists” and “mistake theorists” without specifying who we are theorizing about.
People will tend to assume “mistake” with their in-group, and “conflict” with their outgroup. As a result, the more you are in somebody’s outgroup, the more likely it is that they will look like a conflict theorist to you. That’s not an indelible aspect of their character: it’s just a reflection of the relation between the two of you.
Moreover, the whole idea of being on Team Mistake or Team Conflict is silly. Surely it depends on the situation. Conflict with who? To mangle a popular phrase in these parts: “If this person with whom I disagree can be bargained with in good faith, I desire to believe so. If this person with whom I disagree cannot be bargained with in good faith, I desire to believe so.”
I am open to the idea that there is value in talking about mistake-driven vs conflict-driven styles of interaction, but I fear that talking about Conflict Theorists and Mistake Theorists will shed more heat than light.
A much more specific and apt way of putting it, I think. Shifting focus to a style of argument, rather than a type of person, does resolve most of my issues with the post.
Nicely written, and a good concern, but I disagree.
I think the principle of charity and the recognition that adherence to said principle is unequally distributed are not incompatible ideas, but rather are conjoined twins. If reminding myself and others of the principle of charity is important, it’s also important to keep track of who has made the principle of charity such a habit it’s part of their character, and who has done rather the opposite.
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 spiterighteously 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.
How would we decide whether this is true of most real conflicts? Because I can see a fair number of real-world political and social conflicts that seem very hard to resolve with more information or better analysis–either they come down to values/morality, or they come down to genuine conflicts of interest.
Examples: Abortion policy, reparations for slavery, hate speech laws
But the first two of those examples have been stalemated long enough that anyone ought to be able to resolve them without difficulty. Regardless of your values, morality, or interests, abortion is going to be legal through at least the first trimester in the US and Western Europe, lots of people would prefer to add “but only in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s health”, but nobody is going to want to seriously enforce those. The descendants of slaves are not going to be getting reparations beyond some affirmative action, and we’re not going to keep even that up forever. We know the balance of power on those issues, it doesn’t allow decisive victories for Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, or Pro-Nehisi, and it is an Easy Mistake to make a big fuss over any of these no matter how strongly you feel about the underlying moral issue.
Except, cynically, as a means of building tribal loyalty that can be transferred to other battles (like hate speech laws, where there is some doubt and so might be worth fighting over).
ETA: Fighting a battle you cannot win means that the fight, not the victory, is the true objective. That is I think the essence of Conflict Theory.
I am not convinced by your ideas about what issues are so hopelessly stalemated that everyone should just assume that’s how we’ll do things. Lots of values issues are stalemated for a long time, and then something changes and they’re not. Slavery is an obvious one–someone discussing this same issue in 1840 might have used slavery as an example of a stalemated issue where it’s hard to find much common ground between the sides. Or someone in 1950 might have seen communism/capitalism as an irreconcilable disagreement (either because of different values or because the other side is evidence-proof). And yet, both of those are pretty-much settled issues, now.
Consider the situation w.r.t. gay rights in 1990–it would have seemed plausible that this was an issue that was kind-of stalemated–there would continue to be laws on the books forbidding homosexuality that were basically never enforced, gays would be permitted to live their lives pretty normally as long as they kept it kinda quiet and didn’t expect benefits for being married or expect to adopt kids or anything, etc. That looked pretty stable, it was based on some values-differences as well as some mistake-theory kinds of arguments, but it turned out that the then-current stalemate wasn’t actually permanent.
Things change, but they rarely change in unpredictable and incomprehensible ways. Regardless of one’s belief in the morality of slavery, one can perfectly well study the economy of slavery – and it’s not a coincidence that so much of the propaganda of the antebellum slaveholders reads like the glorification of a valiant rear guard against the inevitable.
A mistake theorist can look at cotton production ca. 1860, US vs India vs Egypt, and say “yep, the slavery that was unassailable twenty years ago is going away sometime in the next twenty”, and start negotiating compensated emancipation. A conflict theorist, on either side, says “this means War!”. Or the mistake theorists might actually make a mistake, but that would look different than what we got.
And nothing about gay rights in 1990 looked like a stalemate. The timeline and the details were negotiable, not the basic outcome.
See, that’s an unfair comparison of the Easy Conflict Theory to Hard Mistake Theory.
Easy Mistake Theory is not amenable to compromises, at all. After all, that’s where you believe that you’ve got the objective truth and your opponent is dumb or crazy or – worst of all – an amoral populist exploiting the two other categories. (That’s how Western liberals currently view Putin.) Why would you compromise with a dumb crazy person? Do you want your solution based on half truth and half fantasies? Wouldn’t it be easier to exasperatedly explain them why they’re wrong *one more time*? Even if the easy mistake theorist ended up compromising, his dissatisfaction would immediately lead them to start undermining the compromise to get his objective fact-based worldview through, pissing off the other side.
Hard Conflict Theory is actually *more* amenable to compromises than Hard Mistake Theory, when the conditions are right – and they often have been. After all, Hard Mistake Theorists still have to go through an elaborate process of finding out why they have their disagreements and how to solve them objectively. Hard Conflict Theories simply note that the side A wants this and has this much power, side B wants this and has this much power, now let’s compromise (maybe both sides get some things they want, maybe they meet halfway on everything – unimportant here) and be done with it. Of course, they also know the compromise won’t last forever, but in the long run, we are all dead.
I’ll take option 2, please.
In fact, I was reading this thinking “god, these conflict theorists are annoying and stupid” and then worrying about what that says about me.
I’m currently somewhat on my way out so I haven’t yet read all top-level comments, and apologise if they’ve addressed this, but: If you were to show people this article, would there be any self-identified conflict theorists? If not, aren’t we running risk of making ‘mistake theorist’ an applause light here that doesn’t actually mean anything, and/or ‘conflict theorist’ as a sophisticated sounding label for grey tribe outgroup(s)? (The way you described ‘mistake theorist’ makes it sound like a description of grey tribe ideals with a bit of an effort to make it sound at least occasionally misguided.)
I’m highly sceptical of this dichotomy you’ve presented – and I admit I was at least initially a little alarmed that several of the comments I’ve skimmed seem to be embracing it as ‘obvious’. (This emotion hasn’t changed yet, but I assume it will – given there’s no particular reason for me to think this article in particular made anyone strongly less likely to be charitable, there’s no reason for me to be this concerned.)
For what it’s worth, I don’t identify with either camp as it’s been framed, and I (wrongly, apparently) would have guessed that others would peg themselves as somewhere on the sliding scale as well. To clarify a bit on my position: I don’t mistrust people, but I do mistrust systems, and I believe that the existing hierarchic system of democratic government doesn’t offer good incentives. I could try playing doctor with the system, but I’d rather see a different system designed from scratch (and tried in parallel). Refactor it, if you will.
There are certainly people that one does not need to be charitable towards, but you already captured this with “Both sides have about the same number of people. Both sides include some trustworthy experts and some loudmouth trolls.” Toxic people exist, yes, but this is is not unique to any ideology and no ideology that I know of is immune to this. Also, I believe we both have made the observation before that the more permissive your ideology is, the more likely it is to have toxic people in it, so there’s no particular reason to assume ideologies that often contain toxic people (e.g. libertarianism is occasionally accused of this, although of course not often by libertarians) is in itself conflict-oriented.
To me, that seems like a poor way to handle the topic.
I presume that ‘conflict theorists’ are ‘mistake theorists’ that were really badly burnt about a particular matter and have a visceral reaction to matters relating to the burning. I’ll take myself as an example (even though I fight against the behaviours and so probably don’t qualify as conflict theorist to you):
I struggle to be charitable toward the social justice movement because self-identified members of the social justice movement have once ganged up on me, and it takes some effort for me to view them as “the toxic people in the movement” as opposed to “the movement as a whole”. (I do manage decently, but it doesn’t change that I can tell I’m burnt.) I would almost certainly kneejerk-agree to ‘the social justice movement is the enemy’ before stopping myself by reminding myself of the points where I agree with them.
Similarly, the company I’ve worked for the past five years had its reputation gutted through local journalism for no objective reason, and I react strongly to topics centred around journalism as a result. Again, I would kneejerk-agree to something like ‘journalism is broken and evil’ before stopping myself by reminding myself of the benefits of journalism.
I could call the people involved in each of these messes ‘conflict theorists’ because they definitely weren’t interested in actual evidence either way, but in doing so, what would I gain? I’m really not sure. I already know that I don’t trust the individual people that did this. Do I think this is because they fundamentally view the world differently than I do, though? Not on the mistake/conflict axis, no. Possibly not at all, though I don’t feel qualified to make that far reaching a statement.
Especially on the internet, where we usually debate in some public manner, charity seems like the obvious way to handle things. I realise you’re not saying you want to get rid of charity – you’re interested in being charitable by acknowledging a different worldview. I don’t want to discourage that (the principle is nice), but it’s worth noting I think it’s more than ‘excusable’ that you discuss evidence and objective effects of ideas even in purported ‘conflict theory’ space.
(I might have missed the point of your article and muddied it with some of the comments – I apologise if this is what happened here.)
I’m an example of someone who will own up to being more or less on the conflict side. There are mistakes being made, sure, but a bigger problem is all the demons running around. To some extent it’s a matter of framing – is it the Blight that’s the problem or the mistake of the people who released it? But it makes predictions on questions like “will people intentionally hurt you just because they see that you can be hurt” and “will people understand if you just explain to them”, and I think it makes those predictions well.
Why don’t you mistrust people as well? It’s people that make the systems in the first place. They frequently make rather shitty systems within systems, like bullying people or being selfish.
Who actually has agency in your model?
As many people have pointed out, I think the boundary between mistake- and conflict-theory is hazy at best. Facts (at least, our internal weighing and representation of facts) and values have an interconnected and self-reinforcing relationship. On the level of an individual, I think the distinction between mistake- and conflict-theory matters a lot less than whether one is an ‘easy’ or a ‘hard’ theorist of either discipline. But I do think on a sociopolitical level, it is interesting to consider whether conflict- or mistake-theories have more power as diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic tools.
I will note three things.
1) I think the correct position is a blend of the two. There are issues on which there is honest disagreement and honest mistakes are made.
2) I think this post is highly uncharitable to conflict theory.
3) I think the reason it is uncharitable toward the conflict theory is that you are mistaken about the fact set and that the mistake likely arises from ignorance. If you were more knowledgeable about the mechanisms by which politics and public dialogue are funded and produced, you would probably have a different view. If you had studied the histories of various movements, how they changed overtime, how they were organized over time, and how the organizers responded to financial incentives over time, you would have a different option.
If you have avoided encountering the facts which cause people to find the conflict view more plausible, you don’t then get to chide that view. Your bias towards the mistake view is, I’ll charitably assume, an honest mistake.
Second-order meta-level reasoning aside, can you articulate a more charitable view of Conflict Theory ? Just like Scott, I’m largely ignorant of “the mechanisms by which politics and public dialogue are funded and produced”, so I am unable to do this myself.
I think Scott is insufficiently charitable to the concept of steelmanning conflict theory (!!!) I think it’s useful, and here’s my steelman from conflict theory to mistake theory.
(1) Mistake theorists are correct in their premises, as far as they go. But there are some things that are so obvious (for example P) that:
(1.1) There is not point in me trying to engage with your arguments, except as anthropology. Phrase it as analogous to rational ignorance if it makes you feel better but (a) it’s a waste of my otherwise worthwhile time to spend it parsing your arguments or checking your sources for -P and (b) if you haven’t been convinced by all the other arguments you’ve heard for P, then you’re either evil, stupid, or subject to some kind of cognitive impairment, so what’s the point in me trying to convince you.
(1.2) Related to 1.1.b above, given that I’m sufficiently confident that I’m right and argument hasn’t convinced you so far, and given that the social cost of people believing -P is very likely to be high, it’s both more efficient and morally preferable that I take steps other than or in addition to arguing with you. Shaming you, isolating you, suppressing information that you can twist to increase support for -P are all observably more effective in some circumstances than debate, and this is one of those circumstances.
(1.3) Related to 1.1.(a) above, since P is fairly obvious, most arguments for -P are much more likely to be trickery, mendacity, or out and out mistakes than to be valuable updates to my knowledge. Particularly if I find at least some evidence for trickery or mendacity relating to a piece of evidence, such as being funded by the Koch Brothers, or having some grad student or autodidact someplace write a plausible criticism on the internet, I’m better off ignoring it.
Viewed this way, our hypothetical conflict theory person has a different prior – that either in this specific case or in most cases, the right answer is pretty obvious, and that that clarity justifies more action and less debate. If so, we would predict that eventually, conflict theory oriented people might adjust their priors and either switch to a conflict oriented belief in -P, withdraw from the question, or move towards mistake orientation. We’d predict that each successive failure of Marxism would cause some marginal number of Marxists to adjust their opinions to something else. I think that’s reasonably accurate.
I also don’t think it’s disrespectful. If it turns out that conflict-oriented thinkers are correct that it’s socially better to stigmatize people opposed to, e.g., interracial dating, than to debate them, then I think that’s something that mistake-oriented thinkers should address.
I think that whether people orient towards P (“this issue is fundamentally a conflict”) and -P (“there is no fundamental conflict here”) depends heavily on evidence, yes…
But the adjustment of priors doesn’t always point the same way.
For example, socialism started out as a fairly utopian thing, and became significantly more conflict-oriented as the 19th century dragged on. Was it all Marx’s fault? Um… I’m guessing no. Because that wasn’t the only thing happening. In 1848 Marx published the Communist Manifesto, but 1848 was also the year that a wave of mostly unsuccessful “Liberal Revolutions” swept across Europe, fighting for greater democracy and political equality in a society where the lower classes were still pretty far under an aristocratic bootheel. An aristocracy that the nouveau riche were already marrying into.
If you were a politically aware person in the 19th century who thought income equality and universal franchise were good things, you would tend to become increasingly aware that most of the power was, objectively, in the hands of people who did not agree with you on those issues. You would probably revise your priors on the issue of “achieving greater equality will/won’t require a revolution.” Even if you didn’t yourself wind up thinking revolution was necessary, you might be less certain that revolution was unnecessary.
Aaaand that’s the story of how the Enlightenment-era “generically pro-democracy” political philosophy of the late 18th and very early 19th centuries gradually split and shuffled around and a lot of them turned into Marxists and anarchists and so on.
They revised their priors in favor of conflict theory. Not because they just got zapped with a mind control ray or something, or because they were sitting around with no priors and randomly invented bad ones. But because in the context of their time and place, you could make a damn good argument for conflict theory accurately modeling the situation.
Insofar as the situation later changed, well, that’s another story.
This a thousand times. By 1848, absolute monarchy and aristocratic privilege had been intellectually discredited. No self-respecting person (outside of Russia, perhaps) could offer a rational defense of inherited privileges. Their only defense against giving up their privileges by then was, “But I don’ wanna! And I have the guns!”
I think Marx prematurely extrapolated this onto capitalism. The mounting popularity of French radicalism and German Social-Democracy, the fact that each socialist revolution crested at ever-higher achievements (socialist occupation of Paris for 3 days during the June Days of 1848 vs. several months during the Paris Commune) convinced Marx that the battle of ideas had already been won, and that the remaining opposition to socialist revolution was just being as obstinate as the feudal ancien regime was being.
It definitely wasn’t entirely marx’s fault, but marx did spend his entire life arguing for violent revolution and against any sort of peaceful transition to socialism, and trying to purge the socialist movement of the people who wanted political democracy.
To be fair, he also found some time to sponge off Engels and knock up a maid.
Thanks – this was very helpful. (I don’t have anything to contribute, except that I enjoyed reading it and think that you made me smarter, which I appreciate.)
I think this approach to settling social arguments makes sense, both logically and tactically. However, it has one flaw: it’s an epistemological black hole. Once I’ve decided that P is obviously true, and that everyone who believes !P is either irrevocably stupid or evil, I can no longer update my beliefs about P based on evidence. Any evidence I receive will ultimately originate from some person or group of people, and since I already know such people are stupid or evil, I can simply discard this evidence as insignificant.
Of course, it is still possible to update my beliefs based on evidence that I’ve collected personally, since I know that I personally am neither stupid nor evil. Unfortunately, nature places some extremely heavy limits on what one man can conceivably accomplish. If I wanted to test the acceleration of gravity, I could drop some cannonballs off of a leaning tower; but if I wanted to test global warming or universal basic income or whatever, I’d need to collect terabytes of data from the entire planet. Humans don’t live long enough to run those kinds of experiments solo.
Thanks. I tend to model the conflict oriented thinkers in my story as updating their beliefs more slowly on average than the mistake oriented thinkers, but not generally updating at a rate of 0, so I’m not quite as pessimistic.
If we model conflict oriented thinkers as having different priors about the value of evidence presented by the “other side” and/or the value of trying to convince the other side through reasoned evidence, then presumably the best ways to approach might be some kind of non-confrontational:
(a) appeals to personal experience, as you point out, and
(b) appeals to opinions of people they trust. I have a buddy who recently advanced a wok-ish theory in a chat, but updated when the women and POC on the list pushed back. Alternately, you can get some mileage with “Why do you think Ralph Nader is against abortion, Milton Friedman supported a guaranteed income,” etc.
Of course, your mileage even there might be limited, and you want to be as non-confrontational as possible so you don’t seem particularly evil/stupid, but I’m not such a pessimist as to say a “black hole.” Can we compromise on “substantial gravity well?” 🙂
Never ! I will never surrender ! Black hole, here I come ! 🙂
Most conflict theorists are making an Easy Mistake, usually in framing their conflict as zero-sum when it is not. Trying to solve this problem by explaining the mistake to them is a Hard Mistake, because it usually isn’t in anybody’s interest to admit they have ever made a mistake and there’s lots of effective tools for self-denial. You and I have been habitually making that mistake for a good long time. Thank you for so eloquently presenting all of this, and keep trying to fix the Hard Mistakes as best you can.
As others have pointed out, mistake theory is applicable if the object of dispute is zero-sum, such as social status. It may be the case that some people are more or less motivated by desire for social status (or some other zero-sum good), but it would be a mistake not to recognize that those more motivated are correctly relying on conflict-theory in their struggle for it.
On the other hand, I think even outside of the realm of status conflicts, there can be genuine incompatibilities between goals; that is, that even consciously agreeing on all facts, there can be genuinely incompatible values.
(As Schopenhauer said: “Others … are in the habit of teaching that religion and philosophy are really the same thing. Such a statement, however, appears to be true only in the sense in which Francis I is supposed to have said in a very conciliatory tone with reference to Charles V: ‘what my brother Charles wants is also what I want’, namely Milan.”)
One clear example is myself reading this blog – I enjoy reading and agree on the object level with almost everything written here, but I consider my values fundamentally incompatible with those expressed here. On the broadest level, I fundamentally ‘disagree’ with the ethic of utilitarianism, or that the minimization of suffering/maximization of utility/human flourishing of all people is desirable. I’ve found that I care about and want what’s best for, in decreasing order, 1) my family & friends 2) those who produce or have the potential to produce work I admire 3) those with whom I might profitably trade – and not at all about anyone else. Further, I have no higher preference by which I might want to care about everyone’s wellbeing equally/at all. Therefore, I wouldn’t support any attempt to help people who aren’t included in those three groups, even if I thought it would be very effective, since I would consider it simply a waste of effort and resources that could be better used elsewhere. So, such abstract conflicts of goals are at least possible, even if they don’t account for the majority of conflict-theory-inspired conflicts.
>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.
That’s complete bullshit. No Marxist, including myself has ever said anything of that sort. You just made that up there. I challenge you to find a Marxist who has said this or apologise for fabrication.
Someone should tell Scott about historical materialism. It’s strange that he, and the Jacobite article, would accuse Marxists of under theorizing, of all things.
Marxist: Your diagnosis of incentives is incomplete, and your solutions are counterproductive.
Jacobite: Hmm, you seem to have abandoned all theory and attempts at rationality. Time to write an essay explaining why logic is good.
Scott: *after reading article* Marxists appear to have abandoned rationality, should we try to engage with them anyway??? (and why don’t they like my blog?)
There’s also this
>Marxists just don’t like considering the hard technical question of how to design a good government.
Just ignore the rigorous debate among Leninists, Trotskyists, Left Coms, Syndicalists etc on how a socialist government would look while you are at it
Moderates know nothing about our theory or simply conveniantly ignore it.
How a government looks isn’t a hard technical question, how do you stop Stalinists from taking over while the Leninists and Trotskyists are arguing about the appropriate amount of violence that ensures the continuation of the state is the tough question, and the basic answer that Western cultures found is in the self limiting state.
>Stalinists from taking over while the Leninists and Trotskyists
Stalinists are Leninists. “Hard technical question” is open to interpretation, as it is both relative and vague.
Leninists would dispute that, though they might end up with a knife in their back before they finished their sentence. Stalinists would agree, pointing to the giant statue of the Leninist that hey erected as evidence, and lamenting the disappearance of their good friend the Trotskyist shortly after.
As a Leninist myself I assure you , no Leninist disputes that.
Nothing Stalin said contradicts Leninist theory.
The dispute is the things that Stalin did.
What Stalin did does not contradict the teachings of Leninism.
Socialist/communist theory (specifically Lenin/Trotysky/Stalin ‘teachings’) includes how to get into and maintain power for the purposes of perpetuating the revolution. The demonstration of the superiority of Stalin’s tactics create a gulf between the two verbal ideologies. If you are on here proclaiming to be a Leninist and saying there is no difference between the two you are directly advocating genocide.
I don’t think you actually know what Leninism is. Here is an overview of it. Stalin didnt disagree with all this. Also Stalin didnt do genocide.
Stalin only didn’t do genocide because the genocide convention was carefully written to include what hitler did, but not what stalin did.
So, how does Marxism solve principal-agent problems and rent-seeking?
The principal-agent problem wouldn’t really be a problem in socialist countries. Why would it be? Individual profit is irrelevant in socialist countries
I used to think the trope about socialism being impractical because it denies human nature was naive and kinda condescending, but you are doing a really good job of convincing me otherwise.
Why? Can you explain how?
Principal-agent problem is not limited to financial profit. The part of human nature that puts selfishness above communal interest is not limited to financial profit. It also includes “My department is authorized twenty headcount, yours is only five and none of them are hot secretaries”, and “The Boss puts you on hold to take my phone calls”, and “I have enough pull to get all of my nephews exempted from the draft, you can barely get your son transferred out of the infantry”, and a thousand other things. Including “My ideas for a Better World are implemented instead of yours, and they are implemented because they are Mine, not because they are Better”.
All of which adds up what people with lots of money use that money for, so you’ve gained approximately nothing by taking money and “profit” out of the equation. Almost nobody cares about money except as a means to an end, and agents in socialist countries can achieve virtually all of those ends without money.
Yes, exactly. Rent-seeking isn’t about “money” per se–it’s about things-people-want-ness.
@apollocarmb — I have a feeling this won’t lead anywhere good, but what the hell.
The principal-agent problem isn’t about money, it’s about value. It’s conventionally expressed in money because money is a convenient proxy for value in a system like ours, but it can show up in almost any context where one person acts on behalf of another, as long as the first can benefit themselves in some way as a result of that leverage. This happens constantly, from friends trying to set each other up romantically all the way up to politicians deciding where to site public works, and money does not need to change hands at any point for it to be a problem.
With this in mind, there are two ways I can make sense of your “individual profit is irrelevant” line: either you’re under the impression that every conflict of interests between individuals can be reduced to monetary profit, or you’re under the impression that in the True Socialist Future we’ll eliminate any form of subjective personal benefit. The former is naive, the latter is nightmarish, but both can fairly be described as ignorant of human nature.
I agree with you, broadly speaking, but I think I can soften the blow a bit. It is actually possible to build societies where every member works for the common good regardless of subjective personal benefit. Open Source projects are one example of this; small startups are another. True, in both cases the participants get something out of it (fame, or money); but their goal is to maximize the benefit for everyone involved, as opposed to enriching themselves (in terms of money, status, or whatever) at the expense of their fellow participants.
The problem is that such socialist/communist mini-societies can exist only as long as they are small. Communication complexity grows as O(N^2) with the number of participants; this means that, as the organization grows in size, it has to either develop some sort of hierarchical structure, or die by stagnation. Even if you somehow managed to avoid the hierarchy, at some point no individual member will be smart enough to understand the full status of the entire organization; this means that resource allocation becomes contested. And where you have contests, you get markets…
@Bugmaster I think you have created a pretty good description of why the principle-agent problem is a problem. When a society gets too big, principles have to delegate to agents. A socialist society without “profit” would still have this problem.
Right, that’s why I said I’d only “soften the blow” a little, not eliminate it completely.
Google “Ben Noordhuis” or “Rod Vagg”.
I said it “wouldn’t really be a problem”not “wouldn’t be a problem”
Right, because that “really” totally invalidates my take. I have brought shame to my ideology. Crawling off to commit intellectual seppuku now.
The principal-agent problem wouldn’t really be a problem in socialist countries.
Isn’t it fortunate then that we have the example of actual socialist countries to take a look at and see if “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” ever applied?
Nobody with influence in The Party ever got a better apartment, access to imported goods, preferential treatment? There were no black markets, barter, “I’ll trade you this under-the-counter favour for you doing that off-the-books work for me”? Never, ever any “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” going on?
Though I suppose the argument there would be “Ah but those were not real socialist countries, Real Socialism is different!” I’ve had the same arguments over Real Capitalism, so I’m not trying to bash socialism, I’m just saying human nature wants stuff and status and the eternal conflict of ideals with ‘yeah but I don’t want to make sacrifices’ goes on – even within the Soul of Man Under Socialism.:
Those are not big problems at all. I did say “wouldn’t really be a problem” not “wouldn’t be a problem”
There's no private ownership of the means of production, but there's still private ownership of personal possessions. You still keep your toothbrush, and all that.
The actual response to your question, Anon, is:
1. Multiple *marxist* parties allowed. (Your party’s program has to adhere to the fundamentals of socialist society. No fascist or bourgeois parties allowed. But within these points, all parties and party factions should be tolerated). If one marxist party or solitary official is rent-seeking, they are immediately voted out by:
2. Instant recallability of all elected officials.
3. Multiple independent media outlets to expose such corruption. In other words, not state-run. But not run for profit either, of course, which would be just as bad. Instead, run by the various marxist parties or other workers’ organizations.
Note that it was not a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union would turn into a one-party state. The RSFSR included a sizable proportion of Left-SRs until they launched an attempted coup in mid-1918 against the Bolsheviks over disagreements about Brest-Litovsk (The Left-SRs wanted to continue the fight against Germany and accused the Bolsheviks (unfairly) of being lackeys of German imperialism and abandoning the Ukraine to the tender mercies of the Germans in 1918…rather than just yielding to reality).
And contrary to what bourgeois historians would tell you, re-admittance of the Mensheviks and Right-SRs was not inconceivable if those forces had not actively sided with foreign and White Armies during the Civil War. Heck, the New Economic Policy is what they wanted all along! State control of the commanding heights + individual ownership and free trade for peasants and small businesses until capitalism matured further.
Plus, a socialist America would look very different from a socialist Russia, China, Vietnam, or other traditionalist, leader-worshipping, hampered-by-feudalism, poor society.
Funny how none of the actual marxist societies set up implemented those rules.
The fact that every other marxist state ended up that way seems to indicate that it was, if not foreordained, at least very likely.
Russia was richer in 1913 than france and germany were when marx was writing capital. It only looks backward in hindsight because capitalism has done so well since then.
Russia in 1913 had about 1/3 the per capita GDP of Germany(France was about 6/7 Germany in that stat). It had a larger total GDP but that’s not how anyone would measure “backwardness.”
Russia in 1913 had about 1/4 the GDP per capita of germany and half that of france in 1913. But it had the same GDP per capita that france had in 1870 and 3/4s that of germany in 1870, a few years after marx published capital and several after he started writing it. I stand by my original statement, if germany of 1870 was advanced enough for marx, so was russia of 1913.
I genuinely appreciate an attempt to answer this question.
However: if only Marxist political parties and media outlets are allowed, then someone has to decide what counts as a sufficiently Marxist political party or press outlet… And also which parties are “unfairly” accused by the other party of being lackeys to foreign imperialists, and which other parties actually *are* lackies of foreign imperialists and so must be crushed.
1.Who gets to decide what “the fundamentals of socialist society” are? Who decides that this guy, who claims to be a socialist, is fascist or bourgeious? What if they don’t put convenient markers like “democratic” or “national” before the socialist? Does it depend whether they call the killings they advocate “kulaks” or “Jews?”
2. Do not be ridiculous, comrades, the rumors that I have been validly “recalled” are lies and slander from an illegal fascist party.
3. If parties run media, the media is not independent of whoever is deciding which parties may legally exist. If worker’s organizations run the media, the media is not independent of anyone who decides which workers’ organizations are allowed to exist. (What makes it a worker’s organization? Having two people who do work? What kind of work counts? What if somebody says the workers are fascists?)
Who gets to decide in Germany in the present day if a party is too Nazi to be legally allowed? Who decides the fundamentals of American law? The Supreme Court. There would need to be a similar institution under socialism, backed by popular belief in the rule of law to make sure that it remains actually independent of whatever party happens to be in power at any moment.
And just because there are no hard-and-fast rules between “bourgeois party trying to undo the fundamentals of socialist society” and “socialist party that acknowledges the fundamentals of socialist society but wants it done slightly differently,” that doesn’t mean judges can’t make a judgment call and draw the line somewhere. Just like they do with deciding whether a party is sufficiently “Nazi” in modern Germany to be banned.
This faces the exact same problems in a Marxist society that it does in ours. Individual votes are worthless so people have no incentive to be knowledgeable, and concentrated benefits/diffuse costs tilt the table heavily in favor of the rent-seekers.
Late to the party, but:
The principal-agent problem does not go away when you replace the authority of the “state” with the authority of the “owner”. The principal-agent problem is unsolvable. No ideology gets around having an authority, even anarchists admit to allowing democratic rule.
It’s not something you *solve* it’s something you *improve.* An owner notices when his agent gets too deviant from his interests and has means to address it. Voters do not.
Why would that be the case? It seems that when the scope of your possible influence scales upward (e.g., voting on whether a country will go to war or not, vs. whether to paint a barn), your interest in participation rises with it.
I follow national politics much more closely than some random pointless committee I sit on.
Also, I forgot to point out the strong advantage democracy has, in being able to gauge more than a single person’s interests. Vesting all power in a single person exacerbates the principal-agent problem, by removing control other people have over what happens.
At least in a democracy, there are limits on how many people can be screwed.
@Guy in TN
That assumes that people’s interests are effectively transmuted into votes and pass into policy. In reality, we know that what people often vote for policies that don’t serve their interests in the long run.
Only if you believe your participation affects things.
If I decide to fire my agent–my attorney, say–it happens. If I decide to vote for one presidential candidate instead of another, the chance my preferred candidate wins goes up by something like one ten millionth.
@Guy in TN:
That’s too bad. You have much more influence on that committee than on national politics. Depending on the committee (I know that you said that it was pointless, but maybe you were exaggerating), it may well have more influence on your life than national politics does. Putting those differences together, it would have to be an extraordinarily pointless committee (or you would have to be an extremely influential person) for your participation in the committee to have less effect on your life than your participation in national politics.
My point is that there are two gradients, running in opposite directions here.
On one gradient, the one David Friedman mentioned, is that interest in participation decreases when your chances of influence diminish. In a decision that requires no vote you have maximum influence; a vote among ten other people less so; a vote among a million other people far less influence, and therefore should have minimal participation.
But, there is a counter-gradient to this. And interestingly, this counter gradient actually shows up in voter participation data. In elections that are deemed as having high importance, such as presidential elections and other national elections, people are more likely to take an interest than in local elections. This is despite having your vote diminished by the millions of others.
If David Friedman’s incentive problem was the only thing going on here, we would expect to see, say, local city council elections having greater voter engagement than national elections. But we don’t.
The obvious puzzle with my argument is why people bother to vote at all.
My answer starts with a different question: Why are sports teams linked to cities and universities? My answer is that part of what they are selling is the pleasure of partisanship–not just watching a game, but cheering for your side.
Every four years a game is played out across the country with the fate of the world at stake. You not only get to cheer for your team, you get to play on it, even if in a very minor role. Who could resist?
Unfortunately, the decision of which party to cheer for has little to do with which party will actually do a better job, so there is little incentive to do the hard work of getting a reliable answer to that question. Easier to just believe what your fellow partisans say.
Given high enough stakes, it’s not irrational for someone to spend ten minutes to exercise a 1/1,000,000 influence on major affairs. I like being able to do this, at least compared to any alternatives to democracy, in which I suspect my influence would be even less. To reiterate an earlier comment: as incomplete as democracy is at gauging everyone’s preferences before making a decision, at least its an attempt to do so, unlike in non-democratic decision making.
As a minor note, there’s also a feedback effect going on here. The thinking that “I have essentially no influence over the outcome of an election, therefore I should not vote”- If that position becomes adopted by a vast majority of the voters, it would no longer be true. Because then the handful of people who DID show up to vote, really would have a massive influence.
Your “conflict/mistake” dichotomy misses the target here, primarily for being too broad. Is it about worldview, or attitude, posturing, and rationality?
To steelman your position, perhaps “conflict/mistake” is useful as a spectrum of the significance that a person gives “conflict” in their worldview. But since the level of social conflict fluctuates throughout history, that puts the optimal conflict/mistake level as dependent on the current context. For example, in democratic-socialist countries, Leftists tend to be more mistake theorists, supporting small tweaks to the status quo. While in military dictatorships and feudal systems, Leftists tend to form revolutionary armies. But would you say they are “irrational” to do so? Self-interest manifests in strange ways, in desperate times.
Another problem with your dichotomy: When Marxists say “there is class conflict”, they are essentially saying “people are acting in their self interest, in a never-ending power struggle between self-interested groups”. Which sounds a lot like…Public Choice Theory.
The charge that Marxists are “unaware of incentives” is an extremely unusual one to lob at a group whose whole shtick is raising “class consciousness”, i.e., telling workers that their boss has an inherent incentive to screw them over, and they should rise up to take what they want.
This seems more-or-less correct, although misses the point that Marx does have a story about motivation other than “the people are Good and Pure” and “the elites are Bad Cackling Degenerates”. I think it could be summed up in the first sentence of the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The core Marxist idea is that people respond to incentives, but that the subtle interesting kind of incentives are basically negligible, and that vastly more important are the large overarching incentives of the group you belong to. And as capitalism dissolves everything into the market, eventually the only important social groupings become people who live off returns on invested capital — the bourgeoisie — and people who sell their labor — the proletariat. (this is just a paraphrase of chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto.) Conflicts within these groups due to different incentives exist but aren’t important.
Lenin really believed this, and massively underestimated the degree to which gain-seeking behavior by, say, workers self-governing individual factories would cause problems. Also all the Russian Marxists also acknowledged that the peasantry, while still being poor and oppressed, certainly did not have the same class interests as the proletariat, and then just sort of didn’t worry about it until suddenly it was a huge problem.
Trotsky was pretty clear-headed about much of this stuff and made correct predictions about it years in advance. His solution was basically just to impose a top-down military structure on everything, and discipline workers the same way the army disciplines soldiers. He gets a good reputation because he opposed Stalin, but arguably he laid the groundwork for totalitarianism.
Lenin’s solution was a “retreat” into more of a market economy, then he died. There were disputes between different factions, and by 1930 Stalin had won out, and took the tack that a lot of policy problems involving balancing competing incentives can be “solved” by slave labor and mass murder.
I think a lot of commenters are being far too charitable to Conflict Theory.
Mistake Theory doesn’t pretend that there are no conflicts or value disagreements – rather, it’s a way of understanding and solving them. Suppose we grant the Conflict Theorist his central point, but retain a mild curiosity. “OK, your opponents are evil mutants, but still, how do I know your ideas will actually work?” And we’re straight back in Mistake Theory territory!
To all the people claiming Conflict Theory is good in zero-sum games – what evidence do you have for that proposition? And how do you know any conflict is zero-sum, until you’ve properly explored the conflict space? How do you even know what your real interests are to be Conflicting about – couldn’t you be mistaken about that? It’s Mistake Theory all the way down! Press a Conflict Theorists and they quickly end up talking about false consciousness (a Mistake Theory if ever there was one).
Meanwhile, Public Choice theory and regulatory capture aren’t Conflict Theories, they are Mistake Theories. The problem is not that certain groups are arguing for their own self-interest – that’s absolutely fine. The problem is that concentrated interests get their way over diffuse ones more often than they should, because they can better co-ordinate to bamboozle regulators/politicians/the public, who find it too costly to evaluate their plausible-sounding but false claims. That’s classic Mistake Theory. Bootleggers and Baptists isn’t a story about how the Baptists are evil mutants who secretly want Al Capone to run Chicago, it’s about how concentrated interests can only be successful if they find ways to attract broad, well-intentioned support. Mistake Theory.
I think your point is purely one of word definition. For you, mistake theory is being rational and conflict theory is being something else, therefore mistake theory is correct by definition. If c/t is correct about its central thesis, then m/t would acknowledge this but argue about it rationally, hence being correct again.
If, on the other hand, you define being a c/t or m/t by where you think the biggest problems come from, well there you go. If you believe that private interests are the bottleneck for doing good rather than figuring out problems, there is your reason to prefer c/t.
If you believe that “private interests” are the bottleneck for doing good, you’re certainly a Conflict Theorist, but this is a Mistake. Fulfilling private interests is (approximately) what doing good is. The problem is not that your opponents have Interests, the problem is that sometimes the decision-making procedure favours some interests over others.
Real-life Conflict Theory looks like Cato the Elder saying “Carthago Delenda Est.” You will note that he did not say “Salting the earth in the Punic lands will be good for the environment and make Carthage great again.” And the latter, not the former, is the standard form of political argument in the Western world. So why, if it’s really a conflict, do your enemies make appeals to shared values and universal arguments? To take the example given above, Comcast don’t say “We should repeal net neutrality because it’s good for Comcast.” They say “We should repeal net neutrality because it’s good for America and the world.”
The reason should be immediately obvious – decision-making in Western countries is far too open for an appeal purely to Comcast’s (or Netflix’s) self-interest to work. Netflix vs Comcast is won by whoever can persuade the people with no obvious ox to be gored, and more direct leverage like lobbying only works if neither side wins that battle cleanly. So in terms of explaining and resolving real-world political disputes in Western countries, the question is not “Why can’t I persuade Comcast that net neutrality is actually good?” If it was just Comcast, there’d be no dispute! The overwhelming majority of net neutrality opponents have no vested interest in it, they have just fallen for the propaganda. Instead, the question is “How have Comcast managed to persuade so many people that net neutrality is bad, and how can I show them the light?” In other words, Mistake Theory.
(And of course in reality Comcast is correct that ending net neutrality is good for the world, and Netflix are the ones trying to subvert the public interest, which just re-emphasises why Mistake Theory is the right lens.)
(maybe this is a dupe of someone else’s comment, sorry)
“Steelman all ideas, except for Marxism, which is obviously bad” has an obviously bad failure mode.
I mean, I think Marxism is incredibly and obviously bad, and it might turn out that we really do need to put it into the “don’t steelman this” box, but once we put one thing in the box, we’ll want to put more things into the box, because it’s easier than steelmanning. So we should do our homework and be really sure about why this one particularly bad idea doesn’t deserve steelmanning.
But don’t lots of people steelman Marxism? Like Marxists? And isn’t it still incredibly easy to argue against?
The steelman of Marxism is Stalin, he represented the ultimate in class distinction and power, and how awfully things can go in such a state.
When your steelman is an ice pick to the brain, I feel like steelmanning isn’t as helpful as I had thought. (I’m not disagreeing in this comment – I love the idea of Stalin as steelman and the joke of a literally steel steelman argument).
I will do my own steelman below.
For those who don’t speak Russian: “Stalin” literally means “steelman”.
(This is not a coincidence, because in Soviet Russia coincidence always is you.)
It’s not that marxism has a failure mode, it’s that marxism has been tried dozens of times and doesn’t appear to have a success mode. It’s turned into stalinism, or at least leninism, every single time, without exception.
What do you mean by saying that Marxism has turned into Leninism every time? Democratic Socialist parties founded by Marxists have run countries without turning into Leninism, but one might argue but they’re not Marxist anymore. On the other hand, revolutionary Marxist parties, as far as I can tell, were always Leninist before they took over a country. Some of the Latin American revolutions have been less explicitly ideological, but I haven’t found any that were Marxist before they were Leninist.
To address some of your points:
Is medicine not a conflict waged against pathogens? Is science not a war against ignorance? Do mistake theorists never assert that their ideas should dominate policy direction, because their claims are true (empirically or otherwise) and their opponent’s claims are false?
Conversely, are engineering and science not applied to war?
It’s not clear to me based on your examples how reason is distinct from conflict. You seem to be suggesting that conflict theorists seek to eliminate opposing viewpoints, whereas mistake theorists value the existence of opposition (perhaps to foster competitive innovation), but the distinction falls apart when it comes time to actually select and implement policy. Opposing viewpoints can and do coexist in politics, but eventually a decision has to be made either way. Even if that decision were to abdicate civic responsibility and let private enterprise come up with a solution, at some point a supervisor will have to make the call. All but one choice must be eliminated in the end, and deciding not to act is still a choice.
You’ve just portrayed conflict theorists as attributing racism to the self-serving bias, specifically the need to distort reality to preserve one’s self-esteem. There’s nothing inherently contradictory in the position that racism is rooted in cognitive biases and manifested in structures of oppression.
You make the distinction between “intelligence” and “passion” here but your examples outline a distinction between styles of organization, where the mistake theorists organize across vertical hierarchies yet conflict theorists prefer horizontal collective action. Are you implying that conflict theorists, by eschewing trust in experts, don’t elect leaders, commission studies, or run education subcommittees?
Also, why do you portray intelligence and passion as mutually exclusive? In reality, political organizing usually involves working groups dedicated to specific policy areas. Experts use data-driven and experiential knowledge to form policy statements, ascertain the current field of candidates, and endorse candidates who support those policies. It’s passionate members who, not necessarily understanding the details, take to the streets to advocate these candidates to their communities. This is exactly how the DSA functions.
Passion can be a powerful force multiplier for intelligent policy. Why are you setting them in opposition to each other here?
If your enemy, due to their own cognitive biases (such as the bias blind spot), refuses to consider your position and not only undertakes measures to expand on their mistakes but consolidates their power to prevent anyone from stopping them, how should you respond? That is, if your blind grandpa is driving towards a cliff and locks the car doors, at what point do you become his enemy?
Count me in at “this is obvious” camp.
One thing that’s wrong here, though, is the conflation of “conflict theorists” with revolutionaries. There absolutely have been a plenty of people who have 1. viewed politics as a struggle and 2. believed that while it’s important for them to personally to choose their own side, it’s also possible, at least for time being, to reach compromises with the other side. However, this still requires knowing what the sides are.
I would argue that the history of social democracy has been exactly this. There have been a plenty of people who have been hardcore supporters of their party and union, who wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise, who see the bosses and the bourgeois parties as an enemy that’s bound to conflict with them… and who then, time and time again, come to the bargaining table with the other side and strike out a compromise. Even the Communist parties would generally operate like this, at least in the Western countries. This is also the fundamental difference between social democracy and left-liberalism – though these days what passes for social democracy’s mostly just left-liberalism with a few historical trappings, anyhow.
I’m not quite sure where Scott Alexander gets the idea that Marxists consider the descriptive problems of governance to be trivial. There is a vast literature and debate, historically and ongoing, about “What is to be done?” when Marxists take power. And though Marxists may not use the language of “principal-agent problems” or “incentives,” they are very much aware that these are issues.
I would also say that the typical Marxist attitudes towards most non-political workers is that they are simply mistaken. This charity will occasionally even be applied to outright Nazis. (August Bebel once called anti-Semitism “The Socialism of Fools,” which is to say, their heart is in the right place, but they have gravely misdiagnosed the root problem). It’s only the most educated and informed members of the ruling class and their lackeys that Marxists take a disparaging, conflictual attitude towards.
Marx did not simply label anyone who disagreed with him a purposeful enemy. For example, he had slight disagreements with Sismondi, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others of the classical economics school, but Marx did not label them “vulgar economists” since it appeared to Marx that they were approaching their questions without pre-conceived apologies for capitalism or other political agendas that they were looking for. Smith, Ricardo, etc. were mostly on the right track, but just mistaken about a couple of things. Whereas economists like Malthus appeared to Marx to be blatantly apologizing for the privileges of the landed aristocracy, and were intelligent enough that they ought to have consciously known how they were misleading people.
Thinking Marxist debates about what’s to be done show that Marxists take governance seriously is a hilarious example of not taking governance seriously. These debates are entirely scriptural, moral, or grand-strategic, not nuts-and-bolts.
I think the world view insight on the Mistake/Conflict axis is great! It clarifies a lot of discussions. Like a lot of things, it is easier to describe the Mistake/Conflict differences by pointing to people who are very strongly one side or the other of the divide. But it seems to me that lots of people are mixed in the approach they prefer (though I would tend to guess that more people are more conflict oriented). A good mistake analyst would want to know when ‘conflict’ is an important consideration, then act to reduce the conflict, which then lets them act well in the ‘mistake’ domain. A bad mistake analyst wants to function in the ‘mistake domain’ where they are comfortable, so will go out of their way to pretend that the ‘conflict’ stuff isn’t important.
I’m definitely on the ‘mistake’ analysis side, but now that I’m looking I’m pretty sure I’ve been a bad mistake analyst far more often than a good one.
The problem is understanding which domain is most important in which problem. I’m very ‘Mistake’ oriented, but I’m well aware of the fact that there are areas where ‘Conflict’ thinking more directly gets to the reality of the situation. If you’re a young black man growing up poor in the South and you can’t at least sometimes operate with the frame “I had better be careful around the police because SOME OF THEM WILL BE OUT TO GET ME NO MATTER WHAT I DO” then you are going to get seriously fucked over.
My problem with Marxists is that (to my mind) they dramatically overplay WHICH times the question of the ‘rich being out to get you’ is one of the more important parts of the equation. They think the answer to that is ‘every time’. They also dramatically underplay what kinds of people can be the villain in their ‘conflict’. They repeatedly act as if the person who thwarts the power of the rich can’t still fuck over the poor.
The reason Marxists have so much trouble is that in the ‘Mistake/Conflict’ axis, they are so far on the conflict side that they can’t function well where the ‘mistake’ axis comes to the fore. So their whole project is to reduce the power of their enemies. But they don’t know what to do when they’ve resolved into a time where ‘mistake’ is the important domain, so they are always making new enemies rather than deal with the design flaws that they don’t even see.
Mistake Theorists become Conflict Theorists in extremis: when their (personal or group) survival is threatened. (I don’t mean “when their philosophical viewpoint is threatened”.)
“There are no atheists in a foxhole”, or something like that.
In times of plenty, it’s easy to be a Mistake Theorist, and you also get to feel superior. Persecuted groups tend to be Conflict Theorists, and during hard times everyone feels persecuted.
This is a good distinction, but we should be careful not to conflate mistake vs conflict with status-quo vs radicalism, because there are plenty of Mistake Radicals (I’m one). It’s also worth distinguishing between the “my enemies’ interests are mutually exclusive with mine” and “my enemies are evil” types of conflict theory, though arguably the latter isn’t necessarily conflict – evil could just be another mistake.
At a meta-level, you could look at this as a conflict-theory explanation (two theories clash!) of a mistake-theory worldview (how do we incorporate both ideas this into rational solutions?). But it’s all so black-and-white that it only reflects how a very small number of people think – and not all of the people you accuse, either.
Take public choice theorists, for example. You accuse them of being mistake theorists who ignore conflict theory entirely. Really? Here’s a perspective that starts out by saying, “many individuals and groups have their own self-interests or motivations; they will pursue those interests regardless of the publicly stated aim, or of the general public good; so we have to take that into account when we implement any government action”. Can you really accuse them of being ignorant of conflict theory?
I’m not saying public choice theory is a combination conflict/mistake mindset. I’m saying you spent an entire article contrasting two black and white worldviews, accused black of ignoring white, then made a brief nod to “I suppose there may be some slightly gray shades here”. Perhaps a more nuanced addendum is in order.
I’m not convinced that people are either Conflict theorists OR Mistake theorists. I think that each of these are tactics that most people employ depending on the situation. What you describe as conflict theory seems like an effective attack against your motte-and-bailey doctrine.
I have a habit of arguing with people that I agree with, it helps to spot any weak points. I’ve used both Mistake and Conflict in the same conversation. “We need to fund solar energy”…….”Solar panels have been around since 1876, they still can’t compete.”…….. “97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is real”……”Of course they do, 97% of UFO researchers agree that UFOs are real”.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to argue the policy, other times it’s appropriate to argue the motive, and God grant me the wisdom to know the difference.
I think that if you accept this dichotomy (and I do) you create the space for people who accept mistake theory to go back to being worried about Koch Brothers/George Soros/[insert wellspring of all bad public policy research/arguments here]. They provide the capacity for malicious actors to create a false-consensus around a topic, dropping what should be a hard-mistake idea down being regarded as an easy mistake.
If there are two social problems, one that is publically regarded as easy (from your referenced example: global warming, 99% of experts agree) and one where there appears to be honest disagreement in the research (again from you above, minimum wage) the one most mistake-oriented people are going to critically engage with is the complex one. Therefore the implicit goal of biased research is both to present whatever outcome you’ve been paid to advocate for and to do so in such a convincing manner that you “prove” your topic should be considered an easy-mistake subject.
When viewed from this lens I don’t think it’s dumb to worry about the source of an argument or research. I’m not worried about one glossy shill coming around with his Yellowstone PowerPoint, I’m worried about the 99 of them coming every year eventually morphing us into a culture where the Yellowstone Argument is taken as an Accepted Fact, one that any digression from is proof that you’re a very stupid person making a very simple mistake.
I’ll admit, this probably isn’t a stable system, and eventually enough free thinkers and trusted independents would be able to overcome the false orthodoxy, but in the meantime we’ve wasted everyone’s time attacking this false position instead of trying to solve real problems.
What’s funny about that paragraph is that from my point of view, your examples are both cases where the biased research has succeeded in doing exactly what you describe. The global warming debate has been pushed into “are global temperatures rising and is human action a large part of the cause,” where a very large majority of the experts agree, while avoiding the real question, which is “is a warmer globe much worse for humans,” where the arguments are much less clear. The minimum wage debate, on the other hand, is pushed away from the simple question “do demand curves for inputs slope down,” on which almost all economists agree, onto questions such as “does the unemployment rate go up when the minimum wage increases,” which is almost entirely irrelevant since minimum wage workers are only a tiny fraction of the labor force.
But I realize that my view of these subjects is not universally shared.
Yes, and my apologies for not using better examples. I sorta predicted it might be an issue and was originally was going to think up a few completely uncontroversial topics, but in the end wanted to stick with what the examples that Scott used in the parent post.
I think there is a major weakness in the general discussion whereby politics is treated as either the whole of or as a defined subset of society. The steelman of conflict theories is that first you define the power structure, and then you work on the mistake theory portion of governing, but that ‘governing’ has wildly divergent meanings under different power structures. Libertarian/an-cap and communist theories are conflict theories, they view the current power structure as sub optimal, and they envision a different power structure. The major difference is that libertarians view the governance issue as a self governance issue, where individuals mostly govern themselves and that there is a modest to minimal portion of interactions that need to be governed by an organized state, whereas Communism/Marxism views the state as a tool to create the right kind of citizen that can then be self governing. The ‘intermediate’ step of the extreme left requires (or has resulted in for all attempts) massive state ‘governance’
which is what separates the two at a basic level.
The Jacobite article uses the phrase “public choice-espousing libertarians” as if libertarians are mistake level theorists, but this is only a reasonable description if you view the approach as “mistake analysis at the conflict level”.
For Marxists, the state is the executive committee of the ruling class. It is a tool for advancing the interests of the dominant social class, nothing more.
It is in every ruling class’s interest to mold its citizens in some way. Sometimes the ruling class can accomplish this on its own; sometimes it needs the state’s help.
For example, early capitalism needed wage workers—workers who NEEDED to sell their labor-power to survive. But in the Britain’s colonies all around the world, and in Britain itself for a time, capitalists ran into the problem that there were not enough of these desperate workers. Too many people worked for themselves, whether as yeomen farmers or self-employed artisans. They would never work for a wage, unless they got paid more than their resulting product was worth, in which case they would be exploiting the capitalist rather than vice-versa. So, what do you do? Acts of Enclosure, indentured servitude, slavery, head taxes. Nowadays the capitalist class does not need so much of the state’s help on this matter because the frontier is closed and the land is already owned by existing owners. Now it appears that circumstance itself forces workers into the wage relation.
Likewise, manufacturers in mid-1800s America needed American workers who were punctual and could follow directions and do mechanical tasks. Not people who were accustomed to being their own boss and following their own schedule. So the state mandated compulsory schooling.
If you think that the capitalist class, with the help of its state, does not mold people in its interests in the present, then you are quite naive.
As for the working class, of course it will also mold people according to its own interests when it is the ruling class. For example, an economy aiming to transition to superabundance (i.e. stateless, fully-automated gay space luxury communism) and free use cannot function if people purposefully destroy useful wealth. A socialist society would, of course, need to instill negative attitudes to such wanton waste. Likewise, I anticipate that a socialist society would want to mold its citizens to ignore zero-sum status games and to feel that this is the natural state of affairs, for if such an endless drive to conspicuously consume remains, then it would be very difficult to attain an objective level of superabundance. Superabundance can be achieved as soon as people are physically incapable of having enough time in the day to consume society’s wealth, which may very well be possible if that wealth consists of decent food, simple-ish tools, reasonable housing accommodations, electronic media, etc. But if everyone insists on flying around in a helicopter that is bigger than his neighbor’s, then superabundance would indeed be a pipedream. So, yes, socialist society will seek to dissuade us from obsessing over zero-sum status games, just as capitalist society tries to mold us into thinking and feeling that the opposite is the case and that the opposite is the natural, eternal prime obsession of all humankind.
Of course, superabundant gay space luxury communism will not have a ruling class or a state. So, if you are a libertarian who just chafes under any kind of social influence on your being, then there is hope for you yet!
Its always a bait and switch with Marx. Capitalism rose to power doing X, Y and Z, but to rise to power they needed P, Q and R, so they co opted the state to get more P, Q and R so they could do more X, Y and Z.
Somehow you can build a sewing factory, filled with newfangled machines, but can’t find any employees to sit still at them for long enough so then you co-opt the state with your ‘profits’ from these underutilized machines to make schools compulsory to make good workers.
Land owning farmers and artisans were functionally the middle class in these societies, they weren’t the masses that funneled into factories, and ‘capitalists’ didn’t need them. They had masses of willing labor moving in from rural areas.
Factory work produced more goods per hour of effort than an individual could on their own. Arguing that Marx was just following Smith and then making basic economic mistakes like this means you either don’t understand Marx, or that Marx didn’t understand economics.
I have no idea how you could describe libertarianism (not sort-of-libertarianishness) on this scale. I literally go around all the time saying “politics is violence” and that people are making mistakes when advocating new legislation about whether they really value a reduction in the target behavior more than they value not going around committing violence against each other. It’s like Iraq– mistaken AND a war.
I care not if you
think them evil or stupid
I know they are both.
In my other comment, I framed consequentialist libertarianism as a bridge from mistake theory to conflict theory. Related to this, I think the two major libertarian schools of thought, consequentialist and deontological, map to mistake and conflict theory fairly well if we extend mistake theory a little bit.
If you believe in deontological libertarianism (you can substitute Objectivism or Non-aggression here and what I’m about to say still applies), you by definition believe that coercion is wrong. By that definition, anyone in the government who coerces you is wrong no matter how many policy papers they’ve written showing that their policy will produce positive utility. This distinction between coercers and freedom-loving people is similar to the distinction between the People and the Elites, except for the fact that this version of the People are vehemently opposed to the thing it would take to overthrow the Elites, the use of force. While I wouldn’t rule out the existence of revolutionary deontological libertarians entirely, this inherent contradiction may contribute to the popularity of exit schemes (Free State project, Seasteading Institute) in the die-hard libertarian community. This caveat aside, deontological libertarianism satisfies the “two groups, one of which is more right than the other” aspect of conflict theory well.
Consequentialist libertarians (David Friedman, really a consequentialist anarchist, is the one I’m most familiar with) argue society with proper incentives and competitive organizations will be stable and benefit people more on the whole than our current one. In that world, they hope and expect that people will make economically rational decisions to not go around coercing other people. This seems like a cousin of mistake theory of the “trust in systems” that Scott doesn’t explicitly mention but is worth highlighting. A stereotypical mistake theory solution to the “problem of governments” is to get enough smart people on both sides debating and they’ll converge towards an optimal solution. This modified mistake theory instead says, set up the right systems (markets) and people will naturally do things that result in optimal outcomes. Robin Hanson’s Futarchy also fits with this modified form of mistake theory.
As I see many others saying, I’m a mistake theorist who never really considered the dichotomy, and thought conflict theory was either an easy mistake or badly-phrased mistake theory. (That’s my poll answer, rest of comment not directly related)
This post doesn’t engage conflict theory on its own terms. Scott has, however, written before about conflict-theoretical epistemology from the inside:
> 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.
Nice mixing of units of measurements there. When you quote the CEO’s wage there, is it supposed to be measured per year, per month, or per week? Does the farm laborer get payed for 8 hours a day and 222 workdays per year? Or more like 240 workdays? I’ve no idea how this really works in America.
A quick estimation suggests it comes out to about $20k/yr. However, this suggests the median CEO pay isn’t as big as Scott says–only $700k/yr, which converts to about $350/hr$. (If Scott wants to keep his 9 theme, reducing it to $900K instead of $9M would be close enough.) So we can conclude that the ratio of CEO pay to farm worker pay is in generally in the double digits, but probably not triple digits.
> A quick estimation suggests it comes out to about $20k/yr.
Wait what? That would mean more than 40 hours per week and no holidays. Do farm laborers still work that much today?
They’re stipulated to be working 12 hour days, so unless they’re working 3 days a week…
Oh, it says twelve hour days in the quote. I’m dumb.
My guess, is almost all farm workers work significantly more than 40 hours a week. Farm work is brutal. Early factory hours probably didn’t appear as horrible at the time because what the fuck is leisure time when you need to wake up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows and then the hard manual labor continues until sunset at which point you have no light so you go to bed. Modern farm work might not be quite as terrible but it still sucks for most people.
From what I remember of the medieval studies classes I took way back when – presumably, medieval European subsistence farming has a lot in common with subsistence farming anywhere at any time – the peasant lifestyle is heavily restricted by natural processes, and alternates periods where everyone is working really hard with periods where there’s not much to do. By some calculations, medieval peasants had a lot of free time, at some times of the year at least.
On the units of measurement: the default unit of time in finance is a year. So income, GDP, interest rates— all of these are commonly stated with units that require an implicit ‘per year’.
Conflict theorists are right about certain things, such as “politics is war”. But they are completely wrong about who the Enemy is. THEY are the enemy. In their desperate struggle to empower the People against the Elites, they are waging political warfare to institute policies which will entrench the Elites and subjugate the People.
Mistake theorists are wrong in thinking that if they can just figure out what the right policies are, everything will be fine. They don’t understand that the Elites will not listen to their well-reasoned arguments, because those arguments don’t end with “… and so following these carefully-thought-out policies will ensure the Elites will continue their lives of wealth and power.”
Mistake theorists don’t recognize that warfare is needed. Conflict theorists don’t recognize which side in the war is which. Mistake theorists could explain to the conflict theorists which side they should be fighting for, but conflict theorists won’t listen to them.
Conflict theorists have their hearts in the right place. Mistake theorists have their heads in the right place. Both of them are pretty dumb, and humanity is doomed.
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.
All leftists really dream of is for “people who work for a living rather than own things for a living” to recognize themselves as an interest group that includes a huge majority of the population and act accordingly. Or you might say “the working class needs to gain class consciousness.” This doesn’t mean some abandonment of reasoned debate or anything, just a conscious effort by the majority to organize society to function in their / our favor.
I think a lot of liberals (myself included) think the opposite: that we understand that both self-interest and uncertainty about the right answers are problems, and leftists think the right answers are always obvious to everyone and it’s just that some people push selfish bad answers instead.
I guess there’s some kind of illusion where both sides see a more sophisticated picture of themselves and a caricature of the other?
Also, you are free to choose representatives from both sides in a way that fits your preferred stereotype.
For example, you can imagine a calm professor trying to explain some statistical phenomenon, opposed by a screaming SJW mob that seems like they have just escaped from a psychiatric ward.
Or you can imagine a drunk redneck wearing a MAGA hat, yelling some sexual abuse at… uhm… a disabled black female professor of… whatever is considered the most high-status university topic these days among the left. (Obviously I am worse at finding a good analogy for opposing side.)
Anyway, the point is that you can make the sophisticated picture of themselves and a caricature of the other, and then go out there and actually find someone who fits the description.
It seems like you’re still not quite engaging with the leftist point though: it’s not them some people selfishly push bad answers and others virtuously push good answers, it’s that everyone tends to push answers that align with their interests. What’s usually pretty clear is who wins and loses from a policy. The “right” answer is only obvious if it’s clear which group’s interests are more important. This can apply to a wide variety of disputes between different social groups. What leftists like to focus on is that one of those social conflicts is between people who work for a living and people who own things for a living, and that those who work for a living are so much more numerous that it does seem pretty obviously “right” to support their interests over those of the owners.
There’s a kind of built in reason for this. People for whom the current system is working out pretty well tend to be:
a. In a position to have their voice heard (they have some influence, they’re articulate, they’re likely to have a platform from which they can be heard)
b. Pretty comfortable with the current system, since it’s working out for them. Even when they see significant problems with the current system, most of what they will see is stuff that works out for them.
It’s often the case that things that are big problems for people at the bottom are all but invisible to most of the society, and especially to the people with the most influence.
That’s where we disagree. For most policies, it is unclear–but people think it is clear.
Some current examples. People think it is clear that cutting corporate tax rates helps the rich, hurts the poor. That shows up in rhetoric about giving money to big (hence presumably rich) corporations–even from at least one economist who should know better. But corporations are not people, there is no reason to think a big corporation’s stockholders are richer than a small corporation’s stockholders, cutting taxes (on corporations or anyone else) changes the equilibrium determining prices and wages so that the actual effects are unclear, and it is at least arguable that the effect is to increase the capital stock, driving down the return on capital and up the return on labor, which would be exactly the opposite of what millions of people think the clear effect is.
On minimum wage, a large part of the argument is over whether it helps the poor or hurts them.
On global warming, on foreign policy, on trade policy, on immigration, it isn’t that everyone agrees “policy X hurts group A and helps group B.” On each of those, there are arguments that policy X helps most people and arguments that it hurts most people.
If you are sure your beliefs are right it’s easy to persuade yourself that the only reason anyone disagrees with your policy is that he wants the result you consider bad, hence he must consider it good.
I think you’re making a mistake seeing only the Left as subscribing to the conflict theory. When you say “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,” that’s not an analogy, the 1950s Birchers were conflict theorists about politics, just with Communists instead of kulaks. Similarly with Nazis and the degenerates, or Infowars and the globalists, or Christians and the Devil, or that-word-that-it-seriously-annoys-me-I-can’t-say and the Cathedral. Or even SSCians and Moloch?
Anyway yeah, when Alex Jones said “there’s a war on for your mind”, that’s what he was talking about.
He specifically mentions that People who like the Koch brothers would be offended that the left would symmetrical to them, so I don”t think he’s making that mistake. He does, however, use marxism as his primary example of conflict theory, which I think is fair. But it’s true that if you compare democrats and republicans, republicans are much more on the conflict side.
(Funny anecdote: A marxist I talked to said he wished the democrats were more like Republicans, as Republicans are ‘much more successful’ in passing policies which will destroy America)
That’s the opposite of the perspective embodied in the claim that the left sees the right as evil, the right sees the left as stupid.
And also, the observation that Republican candidates promise to work for you, whereas the Democrat candidates promise to fight for you.
I think the “stupid party, evil party” routine has been applied in all possible ways.
I’ve only seen “stupid party” applied to the right, evil to the left, and I associate it mostly with the U.K., but the version I gave I’ve seen only the other way around and in the U.S. context.
Great, thoughtful, post. I haven’t commented in awhile and this motivated me to do it.
While I certainly fall more on the mistake theorist side, I do think conflict theorists get something fundamentally right about power relations. The part about “debating” your boss for a raise is instructive here. You can’t really debate your boss for a raise. You can try, but if he doesn’t want to (or if he is hamstrung by his more powerful corporate overlords giving him a paltry budget) no amount of logical argument can sway him.
One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how the employer-employee relationship is the single most unequal relationship that most of us will enter into as an adult. And most peoples’ direct contact with The Powers That Be is mainly through their employers. So, who are the elites, really, other than your boss’ boss’ boss? Thus, the appeal of conflict theory. Substitute “corporations” for “elites” and you’ve got a lefty version of this; substitute “liberal establishment” for “elites” and you’ve got a righty version (or take your pick of various “elite” groups that both sides like to target in a conflict-theory way).
This is a simplistic way of looking at the world, to be sure. But it gets at a fundamental truth: your boss’ boss’ boss (and so on) really is far more powerful than you. S/he could ruin your life, and they probably wouldn’t even know it.
This is mostly just half-formed rambling, but I do wonder if a some synthesis or engagement here could be rooted in an acknowledgement of these power dynamics.
Interesting. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that lots of us seem to be on the mistake side, and also work in tech or engineering where employees are relatively well treated (and not because the union won concessions in zero-sum negotiations with management).
Yeah, I don’t work in tech or engineering, which I know is not the norm around here. I am pretty well-treated at my job, but I think I am more aware of the precariousness of these arrangements than the average SSC reader because my ability to quickly find another position where I am treated comparably well is highly uncertain.
(I’m using an inclusive definition of “employee treatment” here, so pay, benefits, working conditions, etc., all count.)
The relationship between the State and citizen is most unequal relationship any adult will have. Two words can exit your relationship with your boss, “I quit”. Even in a seemingly very unequal relationship between a submissive and a dominatrix, the relationship ends with the utterance of a safe word. The relationship between citizen and State is the hardest to exit, making the power wielded by the former over the latter the most unequal relationship on a dimension I think most important, the ability to say “No thanks, I think I’ll end this relationship”.
Sorry, not quite sure what you’re trying to say here.
I’m agreeing with you, if you think the employer/employee relationship is the most skewed power relationship then try for self employment.
In theory, you are correct about quitting your job. In practice, for most folks, you are not.
I think orangecat’s comment gets at this: there is a bit of a bias here towards thinking that leaving a job is a relatively trivial matter, because this blog’s readership is disproportionately drawn from a segment of the population for whom this is more-or-less true. It is not true for most people.
Here is some further reading on the matter that makes this case far better than I could, and in a more detailed way than simply referencing orangecat’s comment:
(Yes, Stumbling and Mumbling and Crooked Timber are both leftist blogs. I happen to think this is something that leftists get mostly correct.)
I’ll use going to the bathroom as an example. It is not uncommon for workers in industry or retail to face restrictions on how frequently they can go to the bathroom, and for how much time. Imagine, for a moment, such a restriction trying to rear its’ head in a more egalitarian context. Let’s say you want to move in with a friend: the friend says sure, sounds great, but only if you agree to go to the bathroom no more than twice per 8 hours, and for no longer than five minutes at a time. Would you agree to that? Would anyone?
Yet, millions of people surrender control over their bodily functions literally every single day. Industries where such regulation is common have not collapsed; they do not face any shortages of workers, as far as I know. Surely, nearly all of these people would react with horror if their spouses or roommates or friends told them when and how to use the bathroom.
The key thing that you are overlooking is what happens after you say “I quit.” I’ve never tried to find a dominatrix, but I’d imagine it’s not so different from shopping for other services (if it a bit more raunchy). The labor market is not like that, for the most part. If you don’t believe me, there is a hell of a lot of economic literature on this very point.
Yes, saying “I quit” can extricate you from your job. But it does not extricate you from the need to have a job, unless you are independently wealthy (and even then, maybe not, because of social pressure). Equally important, it does not increase the number and/or quality of the jobs available to you. There are significant barriers to entry to finding a new job; there are even more significant barriers to entry to changing careers. These things are not insurmountable, but they are highly meaningful and relevant in peoples’ day-to-day lives. If they were not, people facing strict bathroom-use rules would just say “nope, I’ll use the bathroom whenever I’d like, thankyouverymuch,” and move on to the next place. This plainly does not happen en masse.
The reality is that the people for whom saying “no thanks, I think I’ll end this relationship” to their employer is a consistent, viable and frictionless enough option for it to be a meaningful marker of equality are a relatively privileged minority. For the rest of us, doing this entails a very high degree of risk at best, and impoverishment at worst. There is something coercive in this.
Note that I am not saying that there are not good reasons why it is thus. I’m just saying that a large power differential exists here, and conflict theorists have a point about that.
To your point about the state: again, theoretically, you’re right. You can’t really get away from the state. But functionally, I would argue that the employer relationship matters more, at least for people in modern, developed countries.
Theoretically? Just one fun example, the state can take your house and sell it to someone else to build a new house because you’re too poor and the new tenants will be richer and that’s economic growth baby! And then the new people who got the land where your house was can just leave it as an empty lot because “nevermind, not enough money in it for us”.
I think Neon’s point is that the Kelo situation is relatively rare, affects only a few people, but what he is describing is common and affects a lot of people, perhaps a majority of employed people.
It depends on whether there was a good reason. If you imagine either an emergency situation or a much poorer world with a lot of people sharing one bathroom, limiting how much time each person was entitled to use it might be something you were willing to accept. And if the deal was “I cook breakfast, you shovel the snow when it needs doing,” and the last three times it needed doing you just happened to be spending fifteen minutes in the bathroom when the snow had to be shoveled so I could get out to go to work and I had to shovel it myself, I would have a legitimate gripe.
I have never had a job with that restriction, but my guess is that it reflects either scarcity of bathroom availability or an employer who is buying time and wants to get what he is paying for.
The typical example people have in mind for a limited-bathroom-break job is assembly-line type factory work. Assembling electronics, processing chickens, anything along those lines. A problem with the usual analysis is that the people who bring up the issue have never done assembly-line work or thought carefully about how it works. So…
The productivity of an assembly line depends on the fact that everyone on the line is doing a different specialized task at the same time. There is no substitute for this – it is the essence of what the job is. If assembly-line workers could freely leave the line for a bathroom break whenever they want and take as long as they want with no consequences, whatever they are producing would be vastly more expensive to produce causing the company to lose business to other, less flexible firms, which in turn would likely cause the employer to go broke and fire all the workers.
I could explain why that is the case but as it’s tedious to do so, let me instead provide an easier-to-understand and more-amusing example of the exact same dynamic. My counterexample is:
A symphony orchestra.
A full symphony orchestra is a hundred specialized musicians on a stage. To perform a symphony they all have to be working at the same time, each doing their part to keep their collective effort going, for the entirety of a particular, say, 2-hour shift.
The lead violin can’t just get up and leave mid-concert to take a dump, because (a) nobody else can do their job quite as well as they can, (b) for them to be absent is detrimental to the work, (c) for them to leave and come back is disruptive to the other musicians – it could force other people to move, block line-of-sight to the conductor, cause people to lose their place on the page, and so on.
The only reasonable option here is for everybody to agree to poop *before* the show or hold it until *after* the show or plan other breaks *in advance* so as to not disrupt. This isn’t because employers are unreasonably demanding, it’s simply a fact of the universe that some tasks are done best by a group all working together, and a group can’t all work together while various parts of it are off in the bathroom.
(You could try to add understudies but the guy who understudies on timpani isn’t a great piccolo player so you’d need a hundred understudies, none of whom are quite as great and well-practiced as the people being replaced…and what if the understudies need to poop too? Do they get understudies as well? If you need to crowd an extra hundred musicians on the stage as spares the concert costs twice as much in salaries and extra chairs and they probably don’t all fit…I don’t really see a solution here. In practice, the solution is that some kinds of jobs are only for people who are capable of timing their bathroom breaks. People like that do exist; if you’re not one of them you should probably do something else for a living.)
Also – this is admittedly a bit nitpicky – I’d argue that you enter into your relationship with the state from the moment you are born, or at least when you start school. So, not in adulthood.
I hadn’t thought of this before, but I think this likely cleaves reality along the joints. Good post, thanks for writing.
And this is what puts me, even reluctantly*, on the side of the Conflict Theorists. What’s a “reasonable” policy? It could be one where, in order to sort out the economic woes of the state and get us back to a firm footing so progress can finally be made on intractable social problems, one-quarter of the population need to be euthanised.
The problem with technocrats is drawing up lovely shiny ideal solutions that will be imposed from the top down, and if you’re a good hard-working and lucky technocrat, you get to mingle with your fellows at Davos (going on right now) and never have to meet any of the grubby ordinary people who will be on the sharp end of those solutions, though possibly you may catch a glimpse of them through the window of your chauffeured car whisking you through the cordoned-off streets to the meetings and bunfights.
*I should be all for a magazine called Jacobite! I want free speech and cool, reasoned debate and looking at problems not from a “who gets the power” angle but “how can we fix what’s broken” angle! The problem is, the Jacobite Tradition in Ireland and Scotland is one of romantic glorious doomed failure, all that yucky emotionalism, that inadequate and suspect passion.
I’d argue that Technocrats who decide to go with euthanizing large fractions of the population are a similar failure mode to Conflict Theorists who decide the best solution to the Problem of the Other Side is to hand out guns and machetes and kill them all.
After all: Technocrat vs Conflict Theorist isn’t a good vs evil comparison.
If the person who ends up in charge is a Technocrat or Conflict Theorist, if they want to murder you either is bad news. Personally the idea that the technocrat is more likely to actually listen to arguments as to why genocide might not be a good idea pushes me the other way to yourself.
This seems like almost exactly the same mapping as naifs and cynics. I feel like your terminology is less loaded, which is nice, but I did want to mention that there’s a different terminology that’s used already in political science. One of the problems of our community is that we often use new and mutually incomprehensible terminology for concepts that already have names.
See also a more in depth look at how naifs/mistake theorists and cynics/conflict theorists approach elections.
I actually half-wrote an article about this for Less Wrong, so I can reasonably claim to be part of the “yep I knew this” group. Although, in my article I separated the five groups based on the Magic the Gathering colours and their distinct worldviews (it makes sense if you know MTG). What’s missing from this post is the idea that these are fundamentally different people: i.e. conflict theorists tend to be more aggressive, while mistake theorists tend to be quiet mild-mannered guys. So I think it’s a mistake to refer to it as “conflict theorists”, since it’s really not a matter of theory.
I have to admit to being rather surprised that you end by saying that you lend so much more credit to mistake theorists, since it seems to me that the conflict theorists have such a strong and obvious point: It’s very clearly true that it doesn’t matter what ideal solutions smart people come up with if they can’t get politicians to listen to them. Additionally, this ties into your post on the second world war and how some people (the Hermione Grangers of this world, as HPMOR put it) refuse to do evil even if everyone around them demands it of them.
In fact I regard this to be the paradox of democracy, which you have also written plenty about: “the key to good government is to convince the good guys to fight the bad guys who hate free speech and put the good guys in charge so they can fight for the rights of the bad guys who are acrively trying to destroy those rights.” I think it’s totally true that when it comes to fighting actual Nazis who actually want to destroy democracy, it actually is justified to use actual violence.
(Gandhi was wrong to advocate pacifism vs Hitler, which was also a Less Wrong post)
And also, as a final point, even though conflict theorists are prone to be more aggressive, I do think that it’s possible to teach people to be more thoughtful and reflective, and that this can help people to be less prone to seeing violence as the only answer. And so in that sense, I think the mistake theorists have a point.
tl;dr: The mistake theorists are right that the conflict theorists don’t think enough, and the conflict theorists are right that the mistake theorists don’t fight enough.
Anyway, thanks for writing this post Scott. It covers a lot of very important ground that clearly needed to be covered.
Note that a bridge from mistake theory to conflict theory as they relate to policy can be found in David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. Friedman (who I hope will comment to correct me if I’m totally wrong here) specifically uses economics rather than morality to argue that government doesn’t and will never, in aggregate, help the poor due to the incentives which drive government decisions:
He then goes on to argue that Social Security’s payout structure illustrates this.
This matches Scott’s description of conflict theory:
Friedman and the average Marxist conflict theorist disagree on almost everything at the object level, but they do agree on a fundamental problem: that current systemic issues won’t be solved via technocratic solutions from within the system because of an overriding factor (incentive structure for Friedman, moral deficiencies for the conflict theorist) that makes stated policy goals and likely outcomes suspect. Friedman’s perspective is a bridge or perhaps a sight-seeing station for mistake theorists to look at conflict theory because it uses mistake-theory-dominated economics to make a conflict theory friendly argument.
Friedman’s solution to this problem is in some ways a meta-level mistake theorist one because it calls for changing governing bodies’ incentive structures (by removing any special rights they’re currently given and introducing competition) while assuming no change in governing official utility functions. The extreme conflict theorist instead assumes that there’s some group of people (evil people, plutocrats, Illuminati, etc.) who have utility functions with outputs monotonically increasing in relation to the evil-ness of the inputs and some other group (good people, the proletariat, etc.) with functions that vary inversely to that.
I have to play mistake theorist on this one though…
In the USA, lifetime incidence of adult poverty in the USA is over 50% of the population. (It’s worse for children.) The majority of USA citizens have a direct financial interest in the resources made available to the poor.
(Much like “the sick” if we are talking about healthcare. It’s a minority, and yet it’s everyone.)
This post shows some major intellectual growth, and I’m glad to see that you’re finally coming to understand where a lot of the people from outside neoliberal technocracy world are coming from.
I think that I actually hold both the “conflict theory” and “mistake theory” positions. Effective governance actually is a hard problem, but most politicians and economic elites only have a limited interest in solving it, and often actively work to suppress solutions which might decrease their wealth and power. To achieve broadly favorable outcomes, you need to both win a war and then solve a major intellectual problem. Winning the war is also actually difficult; victory requires strategy as well as enthusiasm.
Sure, plenty of revolutions shoot their way into power but then continue to shoot all the details people for being downers and obviously anti-revolutionary because they’re saying things that sound like what the anti-revolutionaries say (like “your economic plan doesn’t seem like it will actually work”). And a few years later the country has “peoples republic of” in it’s name and lots of people are dead.
Or mistake theory types briefly get into power, try to implement changes but swiftly have their faces murdered off by a coup at which point we get the first scenario.
Because power struggles are a reality but winning a power struggle doesn’t guarantee competence at practical matters beyond skill at winning power struggles.
Well, the United States was also created by a revolution started over rather irreconcilable differences about taxation and voting rights, but somehow it managed not to turn into a “People’s Republic of”.
Sure, it isn’t universal. Sometimes they restrain themselves and things work out.
re: American revolution I’d also argue that that was largely an already existing power structure with an already existing mix of people separating itself from the tiers above it.
For what it’s worth, I agree with you about the risks and failure modes that revolutions can bring with them. I’m the sort of socialist whose main short-term goal is achieving social democracy and increasing acceptance of the idea that property should be held in common so that we’ll be able to enact the policies that might help us to escape automation/AI-driven dystopia in the future. I would prefer to achieve that goal through the ballot box and nonviolent social movements. I get the sense that the modal Bernie Sanders supporter/DSA member probably holds a position that’s not too different from mine.
What is with these internet magazines naming themselves after historically regressive political movements? Should I found Bolshevik or Fuedalist magazine?
I am honestly wondering whether Jacobite supports absolute monarchy and the Catholic church.
I am honestly wondering whether Jacobite supports absolute monarchy and the Catholic church.
Do they yearn for the return of the Blackbird? This will let us know their position on the matter! 😀
Verse of an Irish Jacobite poem turned into a song:
Marcach uasal uaibhreach óg,
Gas gan gruaim is suairce snódh,
Glac is luaimneach, luath i ngleo
Ag teascadh an tslua ‘s ag tuargain treon.
Noble, proud young horseman
Warrior unsaddened, of most pleasant countenance
A swift-moving hand, quick in a fight,
Slaying the enemy and smiting the strong.
I guess so, more or less, if they mean to call themselves Jacobites in the same sense that Mencius Moldbug called himself one. But the historical Jacobites gave that up long ago, holding on instead to the romantic notions of a lost cause that stir Deiseach's heart.
Actually, Jacobites never had to be Catholic. In Scotland, where the established church was (and is) Presbyterian, most of the Jacobites were Episcopalians, that is Anglicans! (The Episcopalian church in the USA also has Jacobite origins.) And while you pretty much had to believe that the Glorious Revolution was illegitimate to be a Jacobite, you didn't necessarily have to believe in absolute monarchy to come to that conclusion. (But there were probably never much in the way of Jacobite republicans.)
You could always name yourself after a genocidal political movement if you think that’s not edgy enough.
Why not “The National Socialists”? Just make sure you have some Hannah Kohen as your token Jewish co-host and you’re good.
I thought that you might have been joking about Hannah Cohen, but there she is.
Yep, she is even a descendant of refugees from the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the historical Young Turks.
Yeah, I always wondered about those guys.
Jacobite takes a generally word-we-can’t-say editorial line, so I think in this case the connection is intended.
Here’s my model of an appropriate hard mistake theory conceptualizing conflict theory people: Dunbar’s number.
The human brain has a hard limit to just how much it can conceptualize. More intelligent people have a higher limit than lower intelligence people, but they still have a limit that is radically smaller than the amount of people in this country, much less the world. Mistake Theory and Conflict Theory people aren’t really organizing over philosophical beliefs, they’re organizing over tribal mechanisms. These mechanisms are there to help handle the reality of Dunbar’s number. Understanding that many people and that many problems is just too much, so we shrink the world to whatever philosophy helps us identify our tribe. It’s almost irrelevant which philosophy is more right than the other because they are both so inadequate to deal with the hugeness of the issue.
I’m defaulting to the Mega-Hard Mistake theory: our brains weren’t made for this.
I see a problem with this theory. Does anyone actually identify as a conflict theorist? Or does everyone think that they’re a mistake theorist and those other jerks are conflict theorists?
“Conflict theory” doesn’t necessarily imply “I see the world as good people vs evil people and evil people need to be destroyed by whatever means necessary”. It sets forth that society consists of groups with fundamentally opposite interests, and a lot of the world today is the result of clashes between them: Class struggle. Morals don’t even enter into it.
Does anyone actually identify as a conflict theorist? Or does everyone think that they’re a mistake theorist and those other jerks are conflict theorists?
If we’re putting it as “technocrats versus you guys”, count me in with “you guys”, since the mistake theorists always seem to be imagining/hoping/acting from the starting position that they’re the ones coming up with the policies, so it’s always you doing stuff (in the name of Progress and A Better World) to me, but never me doing things to you. Hence the power struggle bit.
But I think there’s few people who are purely A and purely B, most will be a mix of “I think that’s a good principle but that other argument is also a good point and I don’t trust the Fat Cats/Welfare Spongers and…” in their views, just tilting slightly more to one side or the other if they have to make a decision (like in the polling booth).
Oh yes, I’ve spoken to people like this, who will privately admit to using end-justifies-the-means logic and call their own side’s footsoldiers ‘useful idiots’. Of course they don’t admit to this in public, but that’s because that wouldn’t be advantageous for their side.
I find this characterization somewhat curious. I think of a lot of people on my side that way, but I really think of myself more as a mistakist. I see the mistakists as at least as prone to ends justify the means logic as the conflictists, though they sell it as steely pragmatism not moral crusade. Not saying you’re wrong, I’m just intrigued by the discrepancy.
I would say yes? When SJWs shout down conservative speakers with “racist, sexist, anti-gay!” they’re not assuming their opponents are mistaken, but evil, and they’re in conflict with them. When the Daily Stormer publishes screeds about the “zionist occupied government” they’re not seeing a difference of opinion about how to make society better for both gentiles and Jews, they’re seeing a zero-sum conflict. Now, I think such people are a loud minority, but they exist.
Edited: It seems conflict orientation goes hand in hand with feelings of oppression, persecution, or unfairness. When I think of conflicted-oriented groups the examples I keep coming up with are powerless groups (or groups that feel powerless) railing against powerful (or perceived powerful) groups.
I think it’s a mistake (ha!) to identify mistake theory and conflict theory as merely two competing worldviews. Rather I think mistake theorists are working in a situation closer to the baseline, where there is little or no conflict, while conflict theorists are working under conditions of escalation.
So Doctors Alice and Bob decide, through a rational and objective approach, that the best course of action is to cut the liver out of Dr. Charlie and put it in the patient. Guess who’s about to become irrational?
Is he being irrational, or is he being rational and just has a different value function?
He’s certainly going to be hostile.
Part of what I see missing in Scott’s post is that conflict theorists believe that other people are like them, and mistake theorists do the same thing. So conflict theorists believe they are rationally pushing back against conflict theorists on the other side in what’s essentially a tug of war, meaning that the more visible conflict theorists are the more it empowers the ones on the other side.
That said, there are also bullies who simply enjoy punching people who don’t fight back, and those also tend to gravitate towards the conflict theorist groups.
That goes back to normative vs descriptive. Few people will identify themselves as normative c/ts, but if you ask “do you believe that the bottleneck isn’t understanding problems, it’s interests working against the greater good”, then you’ll get a lot of people saying yes.
I’m a conflict theorist. To be more exact I think conflict theory is more *sophisticated* than mistake theory; it deals with a wider class of disagreements. Mistake theory suffices in some contexts; I don’t think mistake theorists are jerks.
This seems related to the SSC survey question about whether political disagreements are primarily caused by factual disagreements or values conflicts, and I am having the same problem, where I can’t answer because both are obviously true! They’re just true in different situations.
My instinct is to be more of a “mistake theorist”, and I often get annoyed at people for just not entertaining the hypothesis that there might be an honest factual disagreement in a given conflict. And in the circles I tend to find myself in, factual disagreement does seem to be doing most of the work.
But if I really think about whether *most people* who disagree with me politically have a factual disagreement or a values disagreement with me, especially if I think globally, I think there’s actually a *lot* of values disagreement? I guess it gets murky because like “gay people go to hell” is sort of a factual claim but usually people who make such a claim also attach moral value to it so I’m comfortable calling this largely a values disagreement.
It also is often the case that if you probe a disagreement that seems factual, you eventually arrive at a real moral difference that can’t be reconciled by fact-checking. (I guess the opposite thing can happen too.)
After writing this I’m also realizing that “conflict theory” as described here isn’t necessarily about values difference but rather about self-interest pointing in different directions for different people. But I think values are a large part of it too, so.
I don’t know, man. I haven’t read the comments yet and so apologize for any redundancy. But I think this juxtaposition really misses the boat insofar as what I think of as the opposite of what you call a “conflict” approach has nothing to do with any assumption of mistake. I just think the distinction is between those who view the issue as an intellectual question and those who think in terms of coalitions or personalities. Whether people who get it wrong do so because they are mistaken or because they are evil isn’t really even relevant to the question I’m interested in, which is simply what the correct answer is. Insights into that question are what I find valuable about this web site and I hope the site won’t be straying into the world of “conflict” analysis, which the way you describe it does not seem interested in offering contributions to that analysis and is primarily interested in what to do about an issue whose answer is assumed to be already known to the “good guys.” Fortunately I can’t imagine that will really happen much in practice. I certainly hope not, because it would diminish the value of the site for me.
One quibble: Mistake theorists can absolutely account for conflict theories. However, they usually must do this as a second- or nth-order effect. In fact, mistake theorists do, and they have. Of all things, Public Choice is exactly such a theory.
We’re all familiar with the rent-seeking, regulatory capture ideas of Public Choice, but often only at the base level. Over time, these activities result in accumulated benefits to those who have captured rents and/or state power. The people who are capturing these rents are hardly mustachioed villains (my bias as a Hard Hard Mistake Theorist, a la Hayek or Smith/Hume is showing), but they are remarkably skilled at rationalizing why they deserve and have earned such rents. (“I work really hard!” or “I worked hard to get here!” are common sentiments.) Over time, these accumulated rents result in an emergent Conflict Theory scenario.
Mancur Olson attributed the rapid post-War economic growth in Japan and Germany to their institutions being almost totally destroyed by World War II (and then subsequently rebuilt by mistake theorists). The prior institutions were swept away, the old elites were out of power, reduced in statute or in some cases imprisoned and the new institutional framework was created de novo without benefitting any particular group over another. Compare this with, say, the postbellum American South and the fact that elites were not effectively removed from power. They lost their slaves and suffered significant damage to their wealth, but the old elite structure stayed intact. They even formed roving bands of armed thugs such as the KKK who continued to impose their reign of terror. The South would not really grow for another 100 years, when the elites were forced to reform their institutions (although obviously debate rages on to this day about how effective those reforms were).
(If I were to make a hypothesis today, I’d say that the generally well-meaning but rent-capturing elites are centered around the legal profession itself.)
This discussion also strongly reminded me of Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions.” He presents two dichotomous “visions” of the world: the “unconstrained” and the “constrained.” The “unconstrained” vision posits that for the entire history of civilization (i.e. since the Agricultural Revolution), bad institutions have enslaved certain groups for the benefit of others. As a consequence, only significant shocks to those institutions will allow human beings to be truly free as they were born to be. The unconstrained vision can be summarized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” If only we could wipe out those bad institutions that are keeping some of us enslaved, we would unlock a natural state of abundance and happiness for everyone.
The constrained vision, however, sees limitations everywhere. Everyone lives in a time and under institutions that have been cobbled together over long periods, attempting to navigate the trade-offs that are required by such constraints. To the constrained vision, drastic change is not only likely to make mistakes, but potentially catastrophic. The constrained vision sees the natural state of the human condition not as one of abundance, but one of extremely painful scarcity and suffering. If any one thought could summarize the constrained vision, it might be James Madison: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
I’m not sure that mistake theorist:constrained vision::conflict theorist:unconstrained vision, but there seems to be significant overlap.
I think that you are strawmanning Conflict theory and painting it as the mirror opposite of Mistake theory, when in fact they aren’t necessarily incompatible.
First, conflict is not necessarily just between the Elites and the People. Conflict in politics exists between, say, urban vs rural (e.g. water rights), natives vs foreigners, young vs old (e.g. pensions, public debt), men vs women (e.g. child custody, parental surrender vs child support), established businesses vs disruptive tech companies (e.g. taxi drivers vs Uber and Lyft, brick-and-mortar shops vs Amazon), coal vs solar, and so on.
Every political issue, almost by definition, has sides with fundamentally different interests who stand to gain or to lose depending on which policy is enacted. Of course this does not mean that politics is a zero-sum game: mistakes that make everybody worse off can be made, and in fact since the system is very complex is unlikely that we are anywhere near a Pareto-optimal equilibrium, or even a Nash equilibrium, there is probably lots of room for improvement that could be tapped into if we were more intelligent, more knowledgeable, more rational. But at the same time we should not delude ourselves in thinking that intelligence, knowledge and rationality can make all conflict go away. At best, we could hope that they could make conflict more “civil”: debating and then voting instead of shooting each other in the streets, but civility itself is not a neutral value: if conflict reaches a certain level, it might be in your interest to take up arms.
Second, one can support or oppose a position on both Mistake theory and Conflict theory: for instance, I oppose the Social Justice ideology.
I can criticize it in good faith on many different Mistake theory angles: I believe that the SJWs make the epistemic mistake of ignoring average biological differences between groups as plausible explanations for the statistical differences in outcomes that they observe, I believe that running a society on meritocratic principles (or striving to it, as much as it is possible) yields a more efficient allocation of resources than applying various SJ policies such as affirmative action, “reverse” discrimination or reparations, I believe that free speech allows the best ideas to become widespread and the worst ideas to be criticized and be abandoned, I believe that due process prevents arbitrary abuses of power and increases the social capital by allowing people to trust each other as long as they play by well-defined rules.
But I’m also a straight white male who refuses to submit to a life as a second-class citizen, therefore the SJWs are my enemy and I’m theirs. I do not believe that hard-core SJWs could be convinced to accept my position by rational argument and evidence, and I can’t imagine me being convinced by SJ arguments. In fact, trying to argue with the SJWs without the cloak of anonymity could expose me to retaliation, therefore, as long as they seem to have the upper hand, it is strategically better for me to go “guerrilla”: smile and nod to their faces and then sabotage them when they can’t see me (mostly in the voting booth, as I’m not keen on “fighting fire with fire” methods, although I might become if their hostility further escalates).
Am I a Mistake theorist or a Conflict theorist?
From what you’ve said you are clearly approaching this issue from the standpoint of conflict theory. You’ve said you “can” criticize SJ ideology but that you don’t think there’s any point in doing so since neither you nor they are open to being convinced by the other side. Since I’m procrastinating from doing some unpleasant work I’m going to try and convince you that you’re wrong about SJ ideology. If after reading those you are less certain than before that you are locked in a zero-sum struggle with SJWs then perhaps you are a mistake theorist after all.
This is not an epistemic mistake; it is a tactical decision. Suppose there are statistical differences in outcomes that are partially determined by biological differences and partially determined by social systems and structures. Of the two causes, which one can we change more easily (given current technology)? Therefore SJWs rationally focus on the social causes until we’re sure they’ve been eliminated.
Example: dozens of studies over the last few decades have found evidence of hiring discrimination against blacks and Latinos in the US. Several studies specifically found that otherwise identical resumes which were “whitened” received more callbacks than resumes with black names (like Jamal or Leticia or whatever). Therefore many companies that care about social justice have adopted a policy of requiring anonymous resumes to be used to determine who gets an initial interview. This is a positive change that moves society towards a more meritocratic state! You should be for it. SJWs made it happen.
See above re: meritocracy. But look – anonymizing resumes can’t do all the work of eliminating bias and discrimination from the hiring process. Again, dozens of studies find racial bias throughout the hiring process. How can we correct for this bias other than by trying to use legal or social incentives to push in the other direction? Affirmative action is a blunt instrument but it’s better than just letting racists exclude qualified black and minority candidates from the job market. Plus stereotypes form a self-reinforcing cycle – if you don’t see a lot of black programmers you might assume blacks are bad at programming and this may impact decisions about admitting black candidates to computer science courses or programming interviews. Once there’s some relative parity in black-white representation in CS you can ease up on the affirmative action and see if the disparity reasserts itself or if it was an artifact of historical inequality of wealth and education.
Some SJWs are overzealous on this issue, but in general SJWs are not opposed to freedom of speech; they are instead committed to creating social norms that promote inclusiveness and encourage people who have historically been excluded from the discourse to share their ideas.
Forget social justice for a minute. Would you agree that Scott moderates this comment section not to stifle discussion, but to enable it? Don’t you think that the use of racial slurs or personal attacks derails discussions and takes the focus *away* from the merit of various ideas?
For the most part SJWs are interested in pointing out how certain language takes the discourse away from an open discussion of ideas and makes it about bullying the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society.
I don’t know of any SJWs who are opposed to due process. I’ve never heard them suggest that the world would be better if we could put people in jail without a trial. Maybe you could clarify or provide an example of this?
One test of whether your interpretation is correct is to see whether SJW’s are interested in evidence of whether the beliefs that motivate their polices are true. Consider affirmative action in college admissions. If what is going on is that admissions offices are biased against blacks and affirmative action reduces the effect of this bias, then the blacks admitted under affirmative action should do as well as the whites–better if the bias has only been partly compensated for.
I don’t think it’s a secret that what actually happens is the opposite. In the context of law schools, it’s an open secret that there is a tradeoff between “diversity,” meaning admission biased towards (mostly) blacks, and bar passage rate. I have less experience of undergraduate education, but my impression is that the same pattern holds–that black students admitted to a college who would not have been admitted if they were white do considerably less well in that college.
If I am right, and if your theory of SJW’s is right, SJW’s in law schools should be pushing for less affirmative action, not more. That’s not the pattern I observe.
For an example in the other direction … . When my sister went to Bolt (Berkeley Law School) about fifty years ago, the class was about ten percent women. One year, of the six top students (two in each of the three years), five were women. That’s evidence that either the application or the admissions process was biased against women, with the result that the women who applied and were accepted were, on average, better than the men. Currently, I believe, law school classes average more than half women. I don’t think the men do on average better than the women although I don’t actually know, so my guess is that women are, on average, a little better at learning law than men.
Tom Sowell has a rather depressing book which starts by running through cases where liberals proposed a policy on the claim it would do X, conservatives argued against it, the policy was enacted, and what happened was the opposite of X. His point was not mainly that it’s evidence liberal policies are mistaken–some such cases might be accidents. It was that liberals did not care, did not consider changing their beliefs on the basis of evidence, from which he reached a negative conclusion about the motives of liberals.
Liberals and SJW’s are not the same group, but the point is relevant to both. Do they act like people who care whether the beliefs their policies are based on are true and make an honest effort to look at the evidence, or do they act as though they want to hold those beliefs and are happy to ignore or talk away any evidence against them.
For a specific case, you write ” Several studies specifically found that otherwise identical resumes which were “whitened” received more callbacks than resumes with black names (like Jamal or Leticia or whatever). ”
I haven’t followed the literature but its been discussed here in the past, and my impression is that there have been serious critiques of that claim. “Several studies specifically found” is very weak evidence unless you also know how many studies failed to find. In a case like this, where at least some people doing studies know what result they want, the fact that some of them can get that result tells you very little. Do you know enough about that literature to have an opinion on its net implications–for instance whether it is picking up a bias by race or by class, since some names signal both–or do you only know that people you trust say it gives the result they want to believe?
It occurs to me that the reason I found the Sowell book depressing, sufficient so that I didn’t finish it, was that I am a mistake theorist and he was offering evidence that the people I was trying to persuade were conflict theorists, hence that I was wasting my time.
Are you sure that a person or group ignoring evidence that contradicts their beliefs is evidence for conflict theory? I don’t think mistake theory assumes or requires that everyone has perfect epistemology. If a mistake is caused by cognitive dissonance it’s still a mistake – it doesn’t place the person in eternal struggle with non-mistaken people.
If SJWs said “we don’t care about merit – all we care about is maximizing the number of African-Americans in law school”, then those who favor meritocracy would be in conflict with them. But instead SJWs are saying “we want college admissions to be fair” and then there’s a debate over a)what fairness means and b) whether a particular policy would produce fairness – and that debate takes place both within social justice circles and between SJWs and non-SJWs.
I do believe that there are some conflict-theorist SJWs who believe that whites and minorities simply have different interests and one group’s loss is another’s gain. I don’t believe they’re in the majority, however.
An alternative explanation for the apparent intransigence of SJWs on the issue of racial discrimination is that they quite rationally have very strong priors about racial discrimination given the history of racial discrimination in the US. In many cases they’ve been studying the issue for years from multiple perspectives and angles, and there’s no reason for a single piece of new data to cause them to reverse their general policy recommendations. Suppose law school affirmative action really does result in a lower pass rate for the bar exam – does that generalize to other fields? Is it a consistent effect over time? Does class matter? Does it vary by state? Does it vary by ancestry? Does it have any impact on the job market?
And while intellectual curiosity might prompt someone to ask these questions, unless you are talking to an actual social scientist a rational response would be “that’s nice, get back to me when you have peer-reviewed data showing that this is a significant effect that is widespread, non-domain-specific, and persistent over time”. Or to put it simply, “yeah, I’m not convinced.” Which might count as ‘ignoring evidence’, but hardly implies that the person in question is a conflict theorist.
I think I do, but I could be wrong.
I can’t speak to publication bias but this meta-analysis claims to have assessed “every available” study on hiring bias and found that the effects have been persistent over time since 1989 (although declining slightly for Latinos).
Personally, I think that there is still some bias against African Americans in hiring and I’m not sure if there is bias in college admissions. I also think that there are structural social and economic factors that disproportionately disadvantage African Americans. But I also think that rather than try to fix this through messing around with downstream effects like university admissions and job interviews, it would be better to just redistribute resources – for example, though a Universal Basic Income – so that a) you’re directly addressing the core socio-economic factors that disadvantage African Americans, and b) you’re lowering the stakes so that survival doesn’t depend on that job interview. But I think I’m veering off topic now…
It’s not evidence that conflict theory is true. It’s evidence that that person or group believes in conflict theory–sees the issue not as finding out what is true but as winning a fight.
Except that this “debate” takes the form of the SJWs rioting and trying to twist your neck for inviting a social scientist who engages in wrongthink.
This, and numerous other incidents like this, is the reason why I believe that hard-core SJWs can’t be reasoned with, and therefore it is strategically better to consider them as enemies to be crushed, as they do consider me.
Law schools were mentioned. A law school professor offered arguments that affirmative action in California resulted in fewer black lawyers, not more, because blacks who would have done fine at a mid level law school were accepted at a top level law school where all the other students were smarter than they were, learned little, and didn’t make it through the bar.
He wanted to get the Bar Test people to provide him data with which to further test his claim. His critics opposed his attempts to get the data.
That, at least, is the account I heard–I haven’t looked into it closely enough to be certain it is true, but I have not seen any serious rebuttal. I asked a (left wing) colleague to point me at a good article refuting the argument, she gave me a reference, I read it, and it consisted almost entirely of variants of “he is a racist.”
That is at least some evidence that some of those supporting affirmative action in law schools did not have their claimed motives–did not want to know, or at least did not want others to know, whether the policies they supported had good or bad effects.
But isn’t that the pattern with most political or ideological groups? Religions typically have a small group of fundamentalists who are not open to reason or changing their minds, surrounded by a much larger group of people who adhere to the religion generally but can be persuaded that their religion is sometimes wrong on particulars, and even people who could potentially be converted or become apostates.
“SJW” is kind of a pejorative for hardcore fundamentalist type liberal activists, but a lot of people who get called SJWs aren’t ideologues and wouldn’t even self-identify as an “SJW”. Absent empirical evidence that something is special about the distribution of fundamentalists vs. followers in social justice activist circles, I would think that applying mistake theory would have the potential to convince at least some people, whereas applying conflict theory would be more likely to radicalize more people towards hard-core status. Strategically I think mistake theory is better in this case.
Is it? Suppose we take their claims at face value – they really believe that “he is a racist” is a valid argument against providing this researcher with data on the racial breakdown of Bar results. What would it take for this claim to be true, or at least reasonable?
We know that researchers sometimes find results through statistical methods that are less than rigorous, and that it is often possible for a motivated researcher to find some effect somewhere in their data to support something like the claim they are trying to prove. We know that the media
sometimestypically reports these results as though they were the gospel truth, often not waiting for peer review, and never waiting for replication. We know that media retractions for bad science reporting are virtually non-existent and if they do come out they rarely generate as much coverage as the initial claims. We know that the public is full of people who lack the appropriate cognitive tools to properly evaluate media claims (and see the Gell-Mann amnesia effect someone mentioned upthread). We know that public opinion may impact public policy on affirmative action.
So isn’t “we don’t want to provide a scientist with evidence to debunk our claims” very different from “we don’t want to provide a racist with ammunition to conduct a spurious public relations campaign against a good policy that is in a precarious political position”?
I think there are probably some people – on nearly any issue of real controversy – who really would prefer to actively suppress efforts to find the truth because they are locked in conflict theory mode. But I think that for most people, on most issues, if it looks like someone is acting in bad faith – like a racist professor – they will go to conflict theory mode, and if it looks like someone is acting in good faith, they will go to mistake theory mode. I think that fact has more explanatory power than “liberals don’t care about truth.”
Social Justice tends to turn its followers into fanatics. If you don’t accept the complete closure of the belief system, where every argument against it merely demonstrates its truth (and the evil of the arguer), it cannot hold up.
I don’t find your interpretation convincing. People can make bad arguments without data. Producing more real data makes it harder to make convincing bad arguments, easier to make convincing good arguments.
And the “he is a racist” article wasn’t about whether he should get the data, it was about whether the argument he made about the effect of affirmative action was true. If the only response is “he’s a racist,” that means that at least that author has no actual arguments to offer in response to his. It’s possible that someone else does, but this was what I was pointed at by someone on the same side as the author.
At a considerable digression, some of my reaction to things like this comes from a first hand experience about fifty years ago, where professional academics I was briefly working with refused to include in what was supposed to be a fact book on an important set of issues a fact that they agreed was true and agreed was important–because it was evidence against the conclusion they wanted readers to get. I sometimes describe that as my loss of innocence–the discovery that intelligent people I liked were willing to be deliberately dishonest in their professional work for political reasons.
Which is why I am not willing to give people the benefit of the doubt when it requires as big a stretch as I think your argument does.
I provided more details in an old blog post.
Yes, but fundamentalist Christians, Buddhists, Libertarians, Conservatives, etc. in general don’t try to get you fired or physically assault you if you say something they don’t like.
The only modern ideology whose adherents have behaviors comparable, and in fact worse than SJWs is Islamic Salafi jihadism. Not all Muslims are jihadists, of course, just like not all liberals are SJWs, but these fanatical movements cause lots of problems by aggressively antagonizing both outsiders and also moderates within their own broad ideological group for not being fanatical enough.
How do we deal with Salafi jihadists? Do we try to talk them into behaving like civilized people or do we bomb the hell out of them? The SJWs aren’t as bad as the jihadists, for now, so bombing them would be excessive, but they are still much more dangerous and uncivilized than any other political group in the West, hence they should be dealt accordingly.
I think that there is still value in arguing against the SJ ideology from a Mistake theory perspective, as this may persuade the fence-sitters and the uninformed, but I think that hard-core SJWs can’t be convinced by these kind of arguments.
I think that they are mostly composed of people who will take any extremist position that they perceive as conductive of them achieving social dominance. In another context they would have been fundamentalist Christians or Islamic terrorists. They don’t listen to reason, they only understand strength. Therefore, the appropriate response is to become stronger than them and make impossible to achieve social dominance by being a SJW (or in general by engaging in anti-social political activity no matter the ideology).
No, the SJWs assume that all the observed differences in outcomes are due to social causes, and they demand corrective social action until their favoured groups become as successful as their disfavored group (straight white males + possibly straight Asian males). The SJWs never try to accurately assess the extend of biological vs social causes and measure the corrective action accordingly. And they never try to correct outcome disparity when their preferred groups are on top. Remember that time when the SJWs demanded for more white men in the NBA and more women in construction sites? Yeah, me neither.
The problem is that names like Jamal or Latisha (I think this was the spelling used in these studies) correlate with ghetto/gangsta culture much more than they correlate with race. Most African Americans have common Anglo-Saxon names.
I guess that Latinos are more likely to have Spanish names, so you could argue that they might be possibly discriminated because of their names, but then Nigerian immigrants usually have identifiably African names, and they still manage to do as well as White Americans.
No, you’re being revisionist. SJWs explicitly oppose color-blind policies, “If you don’t see race then you don’t see me” is one of their slogans.
I’m all for anonymous resumes when it is feasible to ask them, unfortunately for many high-level positions (e.g. manager, academic, senior engineer, etc.) the employer wants to consider the candidate’s past accomplishments which might not be really anonymizable, but this is not what they SJWs push for. The SJWs push for employers to take into account the candidate race and gender and give Blacks/Latinos/women/otherkin a bonus in order to correct an assumed discrimination that they never proved.
The same racists who don’t exclude Nigerian immigrants?
You may correctly infer that on average blacks are bad at programming, this does not stop you from hiring a black candidate with a good resume, since you understand that averages are statistical properties and you may assume that a good resume mostly screens off the population prior.
However, if affirmative action is common then you are surrounded by sub-par black programmers who are hired because of diversity, and you may assume that even a black candidate with a good resume is not as good as a white or Asian candidate with the same resume, because the black candidate probably already benefited from affirmative action.
Therefore, affirmative action actually makes racism rational.
The problem is that the disparity is ultimately caused by market forces reacting to largely fixed differences (biological factors or unknown environmental factors not amenable to intervention), therefore affirmative action is always being pushed back by the invisible hand trying to self-correct the market. For instance, if you use affirmative action to artificially increase the number of blacks enrolled in colleges, then they’ll drop out at an increased rate. If you artificially increase the number of women hired as programmers, then they’ll leave the industry at an increased rate. These self-corrections towards meritocracy however aren’t costless and there is still a loss of efficiency compared to using meritocratic policies in the first place.
Oh, that’s why they assault people with bike locks at free speech rallies, or or punch the “Nazi” and then brag about it for months, or demand software engineers who criticize diversity policies to be fired, or go to the UN to call for Internet censorship.
Because nothing “promotes inclusiveness and encourages people who have historically been excluded from the discourse to share their ideas” like physically attacking them.
SJWs reject the “innocent until proven guilty” standard of evidence and instead support a “guilty until proven innocent” standard (which they deceptively call “preponderance of evidence”) on anything related to sexual misconduct, which they apply in the #metoo movement and the college Kangaroo courts that they control. So far they haven’t been able to push it on the actual courts of law, but certainly not for lack of trying.
Here’s some analysis on how and why those results failed a replication. The upshot is that names don’t only suggest race, they also strongly suggest other attributes such as age and socioeconomic status. To verify the claim that black names are discriminated against you’d need to make some effort to ensure that the “black” names have similar non-race connotations as the “white” names. Thus far, to the degree that this has been done, the results haven’t panned out.
The old study which claimed to find anti-black bias had names like Jamal and Lakisha; the newer study which did not find anti-black bias had names like Darius, Malik, and Andre.
Thinking about this more, it seems like we need to distinguish between conflict/mistake theory as a way of understanding the world and making predictions (where I think conflict theory is actually better at giving you correct predictions about a lot of real-world stuff), and conflict/mistake theory as a strategy for resolving differences (where conflict theory tends to lead to a war of all against all/endless purges, and mistake theory allows for actual dialog and learning to take place).
I’m not sure there’s a strong distinction between mistake and conflict theory. The tools of mistake theory mentioned in the first paragraph like principal-agent problems and aligning incentives all assume that actors in the system are primarily motivated by self-interest and not by rationally debating to figure out what the greater good is. Even though I generally agree with the prescriptions of what you describe as mistake theory (such as technocracy and approaching problems with a scientific mindset), the idea that everyone is just trying to achieve the greater good seems very naive (even in the doctor example, the doctors are all trying to cure the patient because it is their job and they are paid to do a good job).
I think it’s clear that people are rationally ignorant (i.e. ignorant because it’s not worthy to find out the facts) but I think it’s also clear that people are self-servingly ignorant. It’s hard to convince somebody of facts when they’re against their interest. So in essence, both theories can be simultaneously correct.
But even conflict theorists have the straightjacket of facts. They need to understand whether what they’re actually doing works. For instance, revolutions usually result in elites grabbing even more power and societies ending up even more authoritarian.
The Virgin Radical vs The Chad Centrist
I really liked this post, these are some really interesting observations. I used to be a daily reader of your blog, but stopped for reasons I’ll explain below. I wouldn’t call myself a Marxist or a socialist but I’m certainly further left than most of your audience, I think. Hard Mistake Theorist probably describes me best, although I’d hesitate to label myself that way. I do agree with a lot of what you write here generally, and find your opinions and observations insightful.
The reason I stopped following you regularly, however, probably puts me into the conflict theory camp. To put it bluntly, I observed that your comments section includes quite a good many racists, misogynists, and other “deplorables”, and you seem to have absolutely no problem with this. This was back before the 2016 election, and the events since then have only strengthened by skepticism toward the mistake theory model. My biggest problem with this model is that aside from the fact that our knowledge of the world is always going to be unreliable and incomplete (and this goes especially so for knowledge of any contemporary sociopolitical situation), but, and I thank you for giving me the terminology to describe this, it disregards conflict as something essential to all human interaction.
Even the “easy conflict theory” brings up some points that seem pretty indisputable. The holocaust happened because evil people were allowed a seat at the table, not because somebody made a mistake. History is full of people who, had their contemporaries seen them for what they were, would and should have been crushed under foot at the earliest convenience. The most simple and compelling argument for conflict theory is that if you think you know who these people are, you should waste no time in destroying them through whatever means is appropriate.
But even beyond the idea of good vs evil, I think there’s something to be said for conflict theorists having a better picture of how the world actually works. Unless you are going to have an undemocratic state where one group makes all the decisions (which is an absolute guarantee of eventual conflict), you are going to have people with different interests wanting different things and presenting what is in many cases compelling evidence for why their interest represents what is best for everything. You can talk about doing your best to methodologically evaluate each option, but you can’t eliminate conflict. It is real and ever present, and I think most mistake theorists will agree with this. On the other hand, the central sticking point for conflict theorists toward mistake theory boils down to the idea that the greater good can be objectively evaluated and reasoned about. This is an idea that many would argue does not reflect reality, and/or is not relevant in many sociopolitical matters.
The modern era was shaped through conflict. If you look at the past 400 years, you’ll see that the rise of democracy and civil liberty, the decline of monarchy and the nobility, the rise of capitalist industry and the resulting (and continuing) shift toward labor rights, the establishment of nations and national borders, the establishment of currencies, the development of global trade, the rise and establishment of limits on militarism, the decline and/or rise of religious institutions, plus our systems of laws, economies, and public institutions, were all shaped and/or resolved through conflict. Even the history of modern science and technology is rife with conflict that was based more on competing personal, tribal, or national interests than on objective and reasoned decision-making. The world of today is most certainly a better place than it was 400 years ago, and conflict is what got us there. (As an aside, I’d point out that many of the “deplorables” I mentioned above are people who would disagree that the world is a better place than it was 400 years ago.)
So conflict theorists have a view of the world that is backed by something tangible, while the mistake theorist’s model is largely theoretical. People who see that the world got to be the way it is through conflict and struggle are going to be leery of anyone who says “If we can put our subjective views of the world aside and thoroughly evaluate the facts, we will come up with the optimal solution to our problems,” because that is a pretty big if. So while I find myself agreeing with a lot of what the mistake theorists have to say, the conflict theorists are pretty difficult for me to dismiss.
Without trying to speak for our host, I think a key piece of the zeitgeist here is a suspicion of empowering anyone to crush people underfoot. History also provides plenty of examples of those empowered to crush the evildoers running out of evildoers and, instead of wrapping up their crushing operation, miraculously find new classes of evildoers, including the original proponents of crushing people! I cautiously agree that conflict is ever-present, but hewing too hard towards either crushing OR accommodating other factions can lead to terrible results… which starts to look like a mistake-theory frame, yes?
(I also think you’re badly failing the ideological Turing Test if you believe that the “deplorables” believe the world today is worse than in 1618, and would welcome anyone who can provide some data on this. I mean, as strong as nostalgia is among some segments of the right, the farthest back you hear any fond reminiscences of regularly is the 1950s. Plenty of right/libertarian types might say the New Deal is when it all went wrong, but even then I think most would take living in the 50s over the 20s or earlier.)
It did get me to look up the year in Wikipedia. As of this fall, it will have been 400 years since the start of the Thirty Years War.
Sorry, the use of the term “deplorables” conflated the alt-right with the people who think the world should be divided into for-profit kingdoms, and that was not my intent. I was thinking less alt-right and more the contemporary equivalent of Metternich, who would have been all too happy to drag the world back to the glory days of the 17th century. (Metternich was an interesting guy and relevant to our discussion because he hated democracy, republicanism, and socialism, but thought very carefully about the best way to wield political power and was more than happy to accommodate multiple points of view. He ended up being ousted from power by people who wanted to destroy the monarchy.)
As to your main point, I agree that there’s a careful distinction to be made in where to crush vs accommodate. But, I disagree that this points to a mistake theory frame, because I think the act of choosing sides always involves subjective judgements that cannot be rationally defended.
Nice coincidence with the Thirty Years War! 400 years was just a round number I made up. I originally started with 300, but wanted to be sure to include the Thirty Years War and English Civil War.
I’m curious as to why you think he should have a problem with it–and more, why you do. Whether from a conflict or a mistake standpoint, isn’t it valuable to understand your opponents? If other people have different values than you do, understanding those values should make it easier for you to fight them–to know where they are likely to give in easily, where to make a stand, what arguments and rhetoric they will use to rally their troops and attract allies and how best to counter it. From the mistake point of view the argument is even easier. Either you or they are making a mistake and you are more likely to figure out which by talking with them than by ignoring them.
Short answer: platforms are sources of power. Bully pulpits can be used to bully. If I create a platform, I can be judged by the use to which I put it.
From a mistake standpoint, many people who are racist, misogynist, or otherwise “deplorable” are worth talking to. We can just reason with people who have the (mistaken) belief that (for a hopefully nonthreatening example) short people are stupider than everyone else, and we should reduce the number of short people allowed to immigrate. Reasoning could allow us to understand their thinking and potentially cure the mistake, or at least grow our understanding of the world by learning how people even come to be so weirdly mistaken. Nice.
But, if we put on our Conflict-lenses for a minute, we can detect a kind of people that we couldn’t see when we were wearing Mistake-lenses. This set of people–let’s call them C-types–they also like talking about how short people are stupid, and proposing policies based on that idea. However, C-type people who aren’t interested in whether or not short people are actually stupid. C-types are interested in operating with impunity to belittle, harass, or even persecute short people and thereby enjoy a) the immediate rush of feeling they’ve attacked someone successfully; b) the perks of the status that comes with displays of the power to harass/persecute with impunity; c) the benefit of having fewer people at their relative “rung” on the status tree, since the persecuted themselves will lose status; and d) the direct fruits of that persecution, such as all the stuff the tall people could take from the short people if the short people were put in camps. To C-type people, whether or not short people are less smart isn’t the point. It’s whether they’re weak enough that we can bully them for fun and profit.
There is no point trying to reason with C people when they are being bullies, and the line for being a bully is one that, unless we are vigilant, the bully and the bullied are more sensitive to than everyone else until after the bully has become one of the most popular kids in class by building status via bullying. Part of why “Against Dog Whistles” was so brilliant is that it’s really unwise to coach people to feel bullied too easily–that makes bully’s game easier. Instead, coach people who *aren’t* targeted by bullies to be better at noticing, but help people who are likely targets to to develop a thick skin, so the bully can’t bully them under-the-radar, but instead must resort to something everyone notices as an attempt at bullying.
It’s a pedantic point and you might already be aware of it, but the “bully” in that phrase is obsolete slang — it means “great”, “excellent”, or even “awesome”, not “perpetrator of hazing or abuse”.
Ah. I knew FDR used to say “Bully” to more or less mean “Righto” or “yeehaw.” I didn’t really intend to link bully pulpits to bullies through the words. I’m interested in real-world deployment of power to harm or benefit… mostly.
I do enjoy puns and factoids. Thanks for the tidbit.
“Bully pulpit” was Theodore Roosevelt, not FDR.
One reason to be careful about bashing people with deplorable beliefs is because they might actually know something you don’t, or be raising a valid or worthy-of-consideration point. As long as you start with the assumption that they must be wrong by definition, you can justify seeing them in pure conflict terms, but you have also immunized yourself from ever learning anything from them. That’s fine as long as you’re 100% certain you are right about everything, but otherwise….
If you are engaging your reasoned argument muscle to interact with someone who is trying to bully you, you are doing it wrong.
I’m pretty sure the same holds for some journalist/politician interactions and probably lots of other places too. Likewise with federal prosecutors and people they have asked to come in for an opportunity to “explain” something (Read: help us convict you).
So to sum up: There exist relationships where efforts to present the relationship as cooperative are themselves honey on the trap. Discerning these situations, and approaching them appropriately, is important.
Scott, if you are reading or care about my opinion, I like the comment policy here very much.
I just found Jacobite a couple days ago. Related is Alice Maz whose article you mentioned in links, which brought up the Splain it to Me article. It deals with a similar thing. Fact based information sharing with merit is the communication style of one group – in this case the mistake theorists. Social value, signaling, social status gaming, and communication of emotion states is the communication style of another group – the conflict theorists. To them, sharing information is often viewed as either trying put down the conflict theorist (playing the conflict by putting down their knowledge) or not respecting their perspective. This model fits. Communication is a tricky thing. It requires the listener to play the same game as the communicator otherwise it’s a misunderstanding. I hope this adds to this discussion. Here’s the link:
(Count me as someone who is deeply impressed with this non obvious theory)
One concern I have with your conclusion is the idea that the two theories are incompatible. But a mistake theorist can easily appreciate the fundamental premise made by the conflict theorist. Good arguments are only correlated with the truth. For that end, if you have 5,000 smart people working for Koch/Soros to produce Good Arguments for Evil Purpose, it will be mistaken to attempt to evaluate the arguments on their own merits without realizing that much less intensity of effort went to producing Good Arguments for Good Purpose. True, if you were infinitely confident in your ability to judge the merits of an argument, that shouldn’t matter; but most of us are not, and so contextual information on the investment in Good Arguments is helpful.
I don’t think the dichotomy of mistake vs conflict theories fits me well at all. After contemplation, it seems that I’m a system theorist. The world isn’t primarily the way it is because some people dominating others or because of large amount of false beliefs that people have. Most people spend most of their time on autopilot. Their beliefs and their place in society is at best of secondary importance. What drives society are the systems that have been put in place that require enormous effort to alter or reverse.
Or perhaps the systems arise out of humans acting mostly on autopilot.
Just an aside: I think the claim that ‘public-choice’ is something only for the right comes from a Guardianista/European left-wing view that views government/welfare state as left and any criticisms of it as right. The association of economics with “rational choice” views of the world didn’t help and the whole Nancy Maclean debacle makes it more depressing.
There was (and is?) a well respected line of philosophers and theorists who basically were left-wing public choicers like the analytical marxists Jon Elster, John Roemer, G. A. Cohen and Adam Przeworski. Even the idea of a military-industrial complex, which is a pretty big left-wing meme, is a public choice argument.
Yeah I came here to say this. Egalitarian Perspectives is a good place to start that has been used in classes I’ve TAed for (https://books.google.com/books/about/Egalitarian_Perspectives.html?id=FH-iGlHzr6AC). There’s a gulf between The Baffler and certain strains of Marxism in academia.
It sounds really weird to call that an “European” view, since it sounds… well, mostly just an American right-wing caricature of *any* leftist views. There were a plenty of European leftists who were and are critical of the welfare state from a variety of perspectives.
I think it’s analytic/continental strains more generally. Analytic Marxists are often engaged with Rawls.
I dislike how this essay excludes other views. I do think world’s governments need better policy, but I don’t see it as having anything to do with intelligence. To me, the shortage that’s preventing better policy is a shortage of wisdom/experience/knowledge. The level of intelligence is irrelevant. Policy that’s too clever would necessarily be fragile due to excess complexity.
I’d argue that that’s hollywood stereotype “intelligence” rather than practical intelligence aka smartness aka the heightened ability to simply make good choices, learn and understand things.
Simplicity and durability in design can be a hallmark of exceptionally capable and smart engineers and programmers. Anyone can build something where they just keep adding complexity until it’s too complex and fragile to maintain.
However I would agree with you somewhat: some problems aren’t solved by everyone involved being just being smarter. Lots of problems are down to interactions between networks of people and if you add 50 IQ points to every participant it just makes it even harder for anyone to untangle the mess of perverse incentives that the group will build around themselves.
To use this framework, it seems that this can be taken one level higher. Conflict theory works really well if you see something as win/lose while mistake theory works well if you have a win/win model. For example, if you view wealth as a zero-sum game, you will naturally approach it from a conflict theory perspective. But if you view it as something which can be grown, then mistake theory makes sense.
With the exception of economic policy (and possibly some immigration policy), almost everything is zero-sum. Abortion, gun rights, free speech, etc., are all win/lose. We can’t both live under a common set of rules where you are allowed to swear in public and in which I can be assured of no profanity in my presence.
At the same time, any particular issue is going to lead to a challenge in identifying whether something is zero-sum or win-win. That argument is one which follows the mistake model. But people who are mistaken about this will view it as zero-sum and require conflict model approaches and view the mistake model people as trying to be sneaky by getting them to drop their weapons.
Once again: It’s hard only directing advice to people who need it. Rationalists, or at least Internet rationalists, are heavily into mistake theory, and while it may be a good idea for some people to ease up on their use of conflict theory, some people have eased up on it too much.Something to remember when criticizing people who haven’t eased up on it enough.
It would be fun to A-B test how adding this affects the number of angry messages you receive. If you got statistically significant results, it would also be a service to the entire internet. Though you’d probably need to get a lot of angry messages to achieve significance.
I guess I’ve come around to the Hard Conflict Theory position. I used to be a condescendingly smug Mistake Theorist like many liberals who thought the conservatives were just too stupid to understand how the policies they supported would lead to bad outcomes.
I’ve grown to realize that many of my political opponents just don’t value the same things I value and I think this is a far more charitable view. Unfortunately, our political language doesn’t really allow us to talk about the fact that we have different values. All Americans are supposed to want the same things. We’re supposed to want to take risks and pursue the American dream. We’re supposed to be opposed to fixed hierarchies and want equality of opportunity. Our fundamental rights are supposed to trump any other consideration. There is one set of public values which it’s assumed we all agree on and we just differ in our assessment of the world and maybe priorities among the values.
In reality the things all sides value frequently are unspeakable in our political discourse, so instead we have to believe fantastical things about the world so our different values and the single set of public values are compatible. So all sides end up thinking the other sides are some combination of stupid and evil, when really we just value very different things which are likely incompatible in the world as it is. If we accept we value different things and get to negotiating based on relative power a tolerable solution to make our diverse nation work, we’d be better off.
Are any of your values unspeakable, or is it only the other side’s values? Does it seem likely that your opponents would agree, in their heart of hearts?
To be clear, by unspeakable I mean that it would be impossible for a mainstream politician to express them without being rapidly attacked and condemned by the media and not that no one expresses them ever.
There are views that I hold that I don’t think a politician could express.
I think many of my opponents would in their heart of hearts would admit that they value stability and preserving the existing social order in a way that isn’t acceptable to voice in mainstream political discourse. I think this was a major driver of support for Trump as a significant chunk of the base of the Republican party found in him someone who would express that and created a space for them to express it.
By your definition, I think there are a fair number of sentiments that are at least somewhere close to unspeakable which make for great gaffes when some politician says one of them and gets quoted. Perhaps Hillary’s “deplorables” comment would be an example. Trump doesn’t really seem to have anything he considers unspeakable, though a good example from recent headlines is referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and much of sub-Saharan Africa as shitholes–it’s the sort of thing that’s both impolite and offensive to a notable subset of voters, and is also a commonplace belief among many people in your coalition.
But what if we disagree on what our fundamental rights are? Some believe they have a right to free speech, even if it’s offensive. Others believe they have a right to not be offended (or perhaps they would phrase it as “living free from hate, and that hate speech is not free speech”). Some believe in open borders, that one should be able to enter any nation they want and participate in its community, and others believe their community has a right to decide who is and is not allowed to join it, and under what circumstances.
These issues can be resolved through mistake theory. We can debate which rights exist and to what extent, and even make compromises between them. Or we can just fight about them.
Of course we disagree on our fundamental rights, that’s what I’m saying. It’s just in the mainstream political discourse we won’t admit that. So instead we come up with rationalizations why restricting hate speech promotes free speech or helping some groups in the name of equality ends up hurting them.
Unless, I just missed the press release on the discovery of absolutely correct theory of morality, mistake theory can’t help you. If I value A and you value not A, neither of us is making a mistake when we disagree on a policy that promotes A. Maybe you can show that I made a mistake in deciding to value A from some more basic set of principles, but in general that’s not the case. Hopefully, we can agree on a political system which can handle the conflict and produce an overall acceptable outcome when considered across many issues and cost of violence.
Or we can acknowledge that you value A and I value not A, and I value B and you value not B, and we can make a deal where you get some A and I get some B. But that’s not what happens. What happens is screaming fights about how A/not B is [good|evil] and B/not A is [evil|good]. The recognition that people have different legitimate interests and value functions is rapidly vanishing from American politics.
True, but those screaming matches aren’t dramatically improved if they’re about A/not B is [smart|stupid] and B/not A is [stupid|smart]. The conflict is real and pretending it’s just a matter of people making some honest mistakes doesn’t help in any way I can see. I think people find smug know-it-alls who think they’re stupid even worse than someone calling them evil.
My interpretation on Scott’s take on Mistake theory is that it tends not to recognize (or at least downplay) different legitimate interests. When there is a disagreement the default attitude of Mistake theory is that at least one of the positions must be objectively false, and finding out the true position is akin to investigating a scientific question.
Your recognition that different people may have fundamentally different but nevertheless legitimate interests is what Scott calls Hard Conflict theory, but he’s skeptical that it even exists.
Just to make sure I understand,
Easy Conflict Theory: one side is good and one side is evil.
Hard Conflict Theory: each side is legitimately self-interested and whether solutions to the problem are good or evil is up for debate.
I don’t see why anyone would doubt the existence of HCT. Consider tribe A on the east bank of the lake and tribe B on the west bank of the lake. Both subsist on fish. The lake can only provide enough fish to feed one tribe. Tribe A wants the fish from the lake, and tribe B wants fish from the lake.
Which tribe is good and which tribe is evil? Well, it looks like each tribe is self-interested and neither particularly good nor evil. There are solutions to the problem, like one tribe killing the other, that are probably evil, or one can try to work out a mutually beneficial solution to the problem, like sharing the fish in the lake while diversifying into alternative food supplies like hunting or farming.
HCT certainly exists. I’d say the real challenge is when you have several groups viewing the same problem as HCT, ECT, HMT, and EMT. Look at the immigration debate.
ECT: “Diversity is our strength” vs “White genocide!”
HCT: “Open borders and free travel are human rights” vs “people have a right to control who is and is not welcomed into their community.”
EMT: “Think of all the great new restaurants!” vs “they’re bringing crime, they’re bringing drugs, their rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
HMT: “Immigrants are a net economic benefit to our economy” vs “merit-based immigration, and you have to come LEGALLY.”
And anyone on any side of the issue can sort themselves into different categories, at different times, against similarly flexible opponents.
I think that Hard Conflict Theory is: both sides are looking out for their own interests, but not the interests of others, so we need to balance out the power.
How can you possibly accomplish this? It’s not like rights exist in the same sense that physical objects exist, they only exist as social conventions. Unless you are a moral realist, of course, but then you are not going to persuade someone who does not share your world view.
In order to make compromises you have to agree that the other party has a legitimate claim. If you believe that the other party is just mistaken, then making a compromise is going to be difficult, at least you are going to approach them from a position of perceived superiority, and probably you will be unwilling to compromise a lot because you’ll believe that the truth is on your side. You may be tempted to believe that the other party is just too stupid and therefore, paradoxically, violence is indeed the only solution.
On the other hand, recognizing that irreconcilable conflict exists is the first step in entering the mindset of negotiation. Sometimes negotiation fails and fighting ensues, but this does not imply that adopting a conflict mindset necessarily means behaving like thugs.
Okay, change “exist” to “are valid” or “should be respected.” You said yourself they’re social conventions. Social conventions are decided…socially. Which means they’re up for debate.
But this debate is more akin to a bargain rather than a discussion over, say, the value of the speed of light.
Yes, and I agree with that. What’s the point of contention?
See my other reply.
Indeed. Note for instance how the so called “hate speech” is demonized, or even criminalized in some countries.
Even if “hate speech” was indeed an expression of hate, it’s peculiar that expressing hate in public is considered taboo.
Fascinating post about the difference between the mistake and conflict theorists. This is one of those things that is perfectly obvious once pointed out, but until then is really easy to miss. I just have two small quibbles- first, the post appears to view conflict theorists primarily from the Marxist POV, and that slightly undermines the horseshoe point made at the start. That is, the alt-right don’t really view it as Elites vs the People, or at least not without significant qualifications as to who belongs to the people. Their outgroup is likely quite different from the class-based outgroup of the Marxists, and is more focused on national/racial/cultural conflicts. Another way of putting this might be that Marxists view politics as a conflict for power between the powerful (rich) and the powerless (the People), while the far-right view politics as a conflict for power between national/racial/cultural/other groups.
The other more important point is that I tried to think which group I fell into as someone with libertarian leanings, and realised I didn’t think either was a correct or appropriate way to approach politics (though I feel a complicated version of the conflict theory was probably a more accurate description of politics as it exists). Both accept utilitarianism as their starting point- mistake theorists think that the end goal should be to benefit society at large, while conflict theorists think the end goal should be to crush the enemy.
Libertarians (or “rights-theorists” to use analogous terminology) on the other hand generally consider that the end goal of politics (and possibly the only legitimate goal of the government) should be to protect individual (almost always negative) rights. Within a perfectly libertarian framework, all debates will be mistake-debates, because by definition, negative rights do not overlap. The only disagreement will be to what properly counts as a right, and how to best protect and enforce it.
But within actual society, obviously the debate is deeper. Both mistake theorists and conflict theorists start with a mistaken premise (from a libertarian perspective), and at least a significant portion of them are incentivised to do by their own wellbeing and thus probably have irreconcilable differences of interests from rights theorists. Rights theorists recognise the danger of politics being fought as a war between multiple competing interest groups such that the most powerful tyrannizes the rest, but also reject the idea that there is a fundamentally good result for everyone that can justify treating individual rights and people as means and sacrificing them at the altar of the public welfare. This is an important alternative perspective that is lacking in this “mistake-conflict” dichotomy
When I examine this essay from my Full-Rothbard-sprinkled-with-Essense-of-Nozick, minimum-state viewpoint, a third position appears. Mistake theorists seem to be arguing with each other about who will get to consume the choicest cuts of my flesh when I’m carved up by the state. When they argue about whether to raise or lower interest rates, I ask why they think they should be interfering with interest rates in the first place. Should I complain about Soros or the Koch brothers? How about neither? If there’s no state apparatus of compulsion for them to co-opt, then you don’t need to pick a side.
Does this make me a Conflict Theorist who wants to burn the forking state to the ground, or am I just another doctor “arguing over the best diagnosis and cure”? I’m ambivalent on this question.
Public policy is hard. The state will always make the wrong choice for _some_ of its subjects (citizens? members?). If you find yourself arguing about “who wins on any particular issue”, then you have already decided that you get to pick winners and losers.
I can imagine a gaggle of Marxists Mistake Theorists sitting around their samovars discussing dialectical materialism while their agents provocateurs rouse the proletarian rabble (Conflict Theorists). But in the end they’re all just a bunch of Commies.
“Socialists don’t complain about rent-seeking” is so stupid you could have stopped reading there, Scott.
Points I’ll make:
1. Real Marxism is an empirical, fact-based, rationalist philosophy. It is the science of history.
2. Marxism is an anti-statist philosophy and communism a program for dismantling the state, among other things.
3. Marxism does not assume the immorality of individual actors; it presumes that the morality of individual actors is irrelevant in the face of structural forces.
Those points are absolutely essential to our conception of a post-capitalist state.
With regard to 1 and 3, I think it’s useful to make a distinction between (to use Scott’s medical metaphor) diagnosis and treatment. I think Marxism diagnoses problems, as you say, in a very measured, scientific tone that doesn’t concern itself much with individual morality. But I think that tone naturally completely shifts when you’re talking about Marxism’s actual prescriptions, which are by necessity romantic and grand and conflict-based, owing to the scale of the ambitions involved.
I think maybe it would be fairer to characterise Marxist theory as mistake-based on the diagnostic level, and conflict-based on the prescriptive level.
Real Marxism has never been tried!
Real Marxism would be an empirical, fact-based, rationalist philosophy.
There we go.
It is the science of history.
And the ghost of Eric Hobsbawm arises from his grave (I think he was a good historian despite, not because of, being a Marxist).
The only “science” of history is “Dumb things humans have done, to themselves and each other, and insist on keeping on doing”. Lots of political philosophies have considered themselves the True Science of History, we’re still arguing over the Whig interpretation for one!
Real Marxism reads a bit like a True Scotsman. Or like being a Real Christian. Every self-styled Marxist is sure he can shed other self-styled Marxists as being not true Marxists when they say something objectionable. They accomplish this by arbitrarily choosing which Marx successors to disown and which of Marx’s writings to consider “central”.
Pay attention to context! It’s not “other self-styled Marxists” whose idea of Marxism is being rejected — instead it’s opponents of Marxism who write for an apparently far-right-wing magazine named “Jacobite.”
This is pretty standard. Marxists aren’t generally arguing among themselves about who is the “true Marxist” or about “which of Marx’s writings are central.” (Where are you even seeing that?) It’s always Marxists arguing with conservatives, neo-liberals, etc., who ostensibly haven’t actually read any single text by Marx (would never cite one, etc.).
At any rate that’s what it is here.
It sure seems like the disagreements between supporters of 20th Century “actually existing socialism” and the libertarian or left Marxists can be described this way.
@Forward Synthesis, that kind of disagreement has nothing to do with “shed[ding] other self-styled Marxists as being not true Marxists when they say something objectionable.”
When something is identified as “the real” it means as opposed to some fake purported version. In the context of this conversation it’s real Marxism”as opposed to a purported Marxism created by the critics of Marxism. Not a purported version created by some opposing faction of self-proclaimed Marxists.
This is just a matter of reading comprehension here: whose purported version of Marxism is being disclaimed?
I’ve been undergoing a similar transition in thought, likely triggered by the same events. I’m struggling to reconcile the competing lenses.
In our current political reality, anything that is not desirable to Republican elites will be argued against as if it were simply a technical “Mistake.” No matter how many times they’re out-argued, they continue arguing on a technical basis. “Tax cuts to the rich increase jobs and wealth for everyone” and “Climate change isn’t being caused by human action” are probably the two most glaring examples of trash arguments that should sink under the weight of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but they may never go away. And it seems that more and more political arguments are increasingly in this camp, emboldened by the persistence of these incorrect assertions.
Politicians/elites are blatantly arguing in bad faith at least some of the time. They won’t be convinced by any argument or evidence, no matter how damning. They are getting away with this because outside of hard science, nothing can be “proven” and they will surface any doubt in an argument and simply magnify it. At some level, it’s a social hardship that owes to epistemology and the limits of our knowing.
Of course there are still difficult technical questions of governance as well. Policy making is not easy. But at this point, it’s extremely difficult to distinguish between arguing against “mistakes” and arguing against something that is simply inconvenient to the arguer. On the surface they generally look the same – like a person in a suit making a technical argument. The trash arguments are poisoning the well, making it impossible to share a space for discussing the truly difficult questions with those who disagree.
We live in an era of noise, and we are in desperate need of better filters. How do we detect an argument made in bad faith? How do we respond once we know an argument can’t be won? I don’t think we have good answers to either question.
Since you asked… the first one. Not to knock the post though, it’s an interesting treatment.
Throughout this post you’re apparently conflating the “theorist” dichotomy with the political dichotomy. That is a mistake. (Probably you won’t understand why, since it serves your political interests to make precisely that mistake. Just kidding.)
Neither a political position, nor an individual person, can be a “mistake theorist” or “conflict theorist” in any pure way. There might be a bias in favor of one theorism or the other, but you will always find both theorisms on both sides, and within the same person.
Self-Serving Bias comes to mind. Why the licensing requirements on hairdressers? The right/libertarian position, when opposing such regulation, is not typically that these are just honest mistakes. Instead, entrenched interests are being served, against the interests of competitors.
On the other hand, the general public (as opposed to those entrenched interests) is supposed to be making the mistake of not “seeing the angles.” That’s what a conflict theory is always saying (possibly substituting another group for “the general public”). Conflict theory always inherently embeds that much of a mistake theory. (In Marxist writing you have “false consciousness.”)
(By the way, Marx wrote an entire book to refute Proudhon’s ideas — after Proudhon did the same to Marx’s. I didn’t read the whole thing but I looked at parts of it. These guys definitely saw each other as on the same side, but mistaken.)
Mistake-vs.-conflict explanations of disagreement are not limited to political disagreements.
Religious disagreements: are [redacted]ists accidentally worshipping a false god, or are they evil devil-worshippers deliberately bent on corrupting youth, or are they running a scam to collect money from the gullible? Two out of three of these are conflict theories. Many people hold to a conflict theory about certain religious leaders, prophets, saints, miracle-workers, etc., while holding to a mistake theory about their followers. (Arguably the idea that people protect their ego and/or social status by staying in the religion is another conflict theory.)
Disagreements in the context of sales: is this guy honestly mistaken about the beans being magic?
That last one is crude, but insert your own example of a salesman who has truly made himself believe in the incredible value to you of the product he just happens to be selling.
You may also come to believe that your opponents are mistaken about optimal policy, but also are unconvincable or so dangerous that the only reasonable approach to dealing with them is to hammer them, deny them platforms, get them fired, ship them to camps in Siberia, etc.
Where in this taxonomy do we fit the position that the solutions to our problems lie outside of the political process? At what point in life were each of you convinced to use primarily political means to get the things you want?
I am with those who see this post as very useful, and thank you for it.
Regarding the future direction of the blog, and whether it is appropriate to give more weight to complex Conflict theories…
1) Scott, honey, you weren’t all *that* mistake oriented. Highly mistake oriented, yes, but you have some tribal blind spots that one could drive a truck through.
2) I question the utility of attempting to incorporate conflict narratives (procedures? algorithms?) into mistake systems, given the high unlikelihood that conflict-oriented people will try to utilize mistake problem solving practices.
3) Agree about 100% with everyone who thinks this is a spectrum, not an either or. In particular, and speaking only for people that I myself have met in real life stressful situations – people who are tired, wet and hungry are strongly pre-disposed to Conflict mindsets. Getting people rested and relaxed is key to optimally engaging both charity and rationality. I do think that many people in (or disposed to) Conflict mindsets use poverty and stress as justification for using that pathway, and in many cases, esp in the West, this is figleaf bs for doing the demonizing and agitation that they were planning on doing anyway. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be made easier to use mistake mindsets by changing the environment.
A number of comments have pointed towards what I think is an important distinction between descriptive and prescriptive theories. I’m partly just re-wording what some of them have said, but…
I think that the genius of the American founding fathers (among many others) was to recognize that the primary problem they had to solve was conflict. That is, there are different groups with different amounts of power, and their primary motivation is always going to be to use this power to their advantage, and thus a descriptive conflict theory is simply _correct_. The problem of politics, essentially, is dealing with this fact about the world. Thus mistake theorists who are interested in actually making the world a better place (like the founding fathers) need to directly tackle conflict theory. And even if you’re a mistake theorist on a meta level, you’re going to end up being a kind of conflict theorist on many practical levels.
A further wrinkle to this, is that it is possible (indeed extremely common) for different groups to have diametrically-opposed goals that are morally/factually/whateverly justified. This is the fundamental insight of tragedy: not all goods are commensurable. Group A wants X for good reasons that any neutral observer would judge as valid. Group B wants Y for equally good reasons. X and Y are completely incompatible, neither A nor B is more obviously wrong/evil/whatever. I suppose this is simply to say that some problems don’t have a right answer, but this is a huge problem for the mistake theorist, because _what the hell do you do?_ From the perspective of the (prescriptive) conflict theorist, the answer is easy: you support whichever side you’re on.
I don’t think any of this invalidates the post or other comments. The world is complicated.
I definitely think there’s room for both theories to be descriptive pictures of the political world, much as there’s room for quantum mechanics and gravity to both be descriptive pictures.
Someone about a hundred comments ago remarked that there’s an axis on the N-dimensional “Real Political Compass” for social trust. And that conflict theorists tend to have about zero social trust, while mistake theorists tend to have about all the social trust. I think they were onto something. In particular, I think that whether a given political situation is *most accurately described* by high or low social trust governs whether conflict theory or mistake theory is most likely to resolve the issue.
Social trust is actually pretty high when it comes to babies. Almost everyone agrees that taking care of babies is pretty important, and is willing to devote resources to babies. Some are more willing than others, but the position “deliberately hurt babies” is terribly unpopular.
And consequently, mistake theory is a much more accurate description of the politics of abortion than conflict theory. (Almost) nobody wants to kill babies, but there are strongly divided opinions on whether a fetus qualifies as a baby. (Almost) nobody *literally* wants to subjugate sexually active women by forcing them to have more babies, but there are strongly divided opinions on the relationship between sexuality and personal responsibility and the ethics of bringing life into the world and so on.
So the conflict theorists shouting “baby-killer!” and “woman-hater!” at each other are basically wasting everyone’s time.
At least in the US, social trust is low when it comes to welfare and programs of the general pattern of “give free stuff to the poor.” There are two antithetical viewpoints on this that are *both* widely held. People on one side are mostly convinced the rich are just hoarding everything out of spite, while people on the other side are mostly convinced that the poor would just waste anything given to them and that it’s not worth the sacrifices required to give it out in the first place.
And consequently, conflict theory is a much more effective way to explain what we see happening to the American welfare system. People who would directly benefit from welfare themselves are voting against it because they ascribe to the anti-welfare side, and view the pro-welfare side as the enemy.
Leaping into the room and saying “HANG ON! I’VE CALCULATED THE OPTIMAL DISTRIBUTION OF WELFARE!” is laudable but kind of pointless right now, because the lack of social trust has firmly locked the debate into conflict-theoretic terms.
There was a time, a time of higher social trust, when our welfare system *was* largely designed based on mistake-theory lines. Namely, the Johnson administration. Ever since the Reagan era, it’s been conflict theory all the way, because the social trust that says “poor people are decent but unlucky, and rich people want what’s best for everyone” got sucked out of the room.
What makes this extraordinarily complicated is the intersectional aspects. What happens when a high social trust issue like “take care of babies” runs into a low social trust issue like “give free stuff to the poor?” Well, a lot of people get very confused when that happens, and you see weird results. Chaos, in the common and possibly the mathematical sense.
Have you got mistake theory and conflict theory mixed up? In the abortion example, people disagree on values questions related to the nature of personhood, bodily autonomy, etc.; there are fundamental values in conflict. In the welfare example, the pro-welfarists believe that the anti-welfarists are mistaken that welfare costs too much and doesn’t really make poor people’s lives better.
I think my argument is more that on issues where social trust is low, there really are objectively existent conflicts of interest. And that these conflicts of interest mean that conflict theory actually is an objectively better model for what is going on, relative to areas in which social trust is high and conflicts of interest are low.
The part about conflicts of interest is actually a LOT more important, now that I think about it. My earlier post was muddled at best on this point, so as noted, I’d like to correct/retract/adapt my position on that a bit. Something like…
Where conflicts of interest objectively exist, conflict theory is likely to be objectively more effective at modeling outcomes, as opposed to its performance where there are no such conflicts of interest.
Note that a conflict of philosophy is not the same as a conflict of interest. Conflicts of philosophy are much better handled with mistake-theoretic tools, but conflicts of interest cannot be resolved in that way.
When dealing with an issue where there is no real conflict of interest, conflict theory is a way of wasting everyone’s time.
When dealing with an issue where there IS a conflict of interest, where there really are two sides and both of them have reasons to want the other taken down a notch or ground down a bit harder or something in between… Well, mistake theory may prescribe an optimal solution to the problem, but it won’t predict what actually happens when you try to implement it. Namely, that one or both sides will immediately start subverting the hell out of your elegant solution.
This happens predictably, precisely because they still have a vested interest in tilting the playing field their way, and “can’t we all just get along” isn’t actually the optimal solution in the eyes of one or more of the factions involved.
One of the most unfortunate things about party politics is that ALL issues, or nearly all, become proxies for a fundamental conflict of interest: namely, whether the Donkey Party or Elephant Party gets to rule the roost. Which is precisely why mistake theorists spend so much time banging their/our heads against walls, because even issues that really, really should be low-conflict… aren’t, because the parties start using them for ammo.
I thought that it was a great illustration precisely because it at first seems backward.
Can “In Favor of Niceness Community and Civilization” be renamed to “Against Conflict Theory” or am I missing the point?
The more I read the comments the more I feel there’s an interaction between the ideas in this post and that one but I’m not sure what it is. Is “In Favor…” a prime example of treating conflict theorists as making an Easy Mistake?
These posts are certainly related, and quite in the way you suggest, but I think that different people have joined the “conflict” side for different reasons.
For some of them, it’s the only side they know. The usual way to convert someone into your Conflict Team is to convince them that the enemy is also a Conflict Team, and joining your team is their only chance to survive. “Peace is not an option, and whenever you hear someone from the enemy side offering peace, it’s just them trying to trick you; do not listen to their evil lies, and keep shooting, soldier!”
For such people, meeting someone with a genuinely Mistake Mindset could be a profoundly enlightening experience. As long as they would allow themselves to consider the option that the other person may actually be honestly describing how they see the world, instead of cleverly manipulating them. It is not dissimilar to the experience of leaving a cult, when you realize that the people out there are actually not the worshipers of Satan your leaders taught you about, but some of them are genuinely nice people, and either way for most of them trying to destroy you or your former group is actually not on their list of priorities.
Then they are also people who have an aesthetical preference for conflict, and their reaction to reading Scott is probably something like: “LOL, this nerd is bringing a nonviolent communication textbook to the gun fight; this is going to be so much fun!”
It looks like you beat me to this observation, but yeah, I said very much the same thing in my comment down below.
Great post. I recently heard a podcast where I thought Brian Leiter came close to explaining a Marxist perspective in language that mistake-theorists could understand. The conflict-theorist steelman is that it’s clear that all of these rational theories haven’t made things better, and in fact might be making them worse. To take the hospital metaphor, it’s like you’re in a sinister, bleak hospital in some tin-pot dictatorship, with a case of the flu. Every day the doctors show up, argue, and inject you with some different kind of glowing liquid (without changing the needle). When you argue with them, they just smile condescendingly and say, “Haven’t you read Ingerstein’s latest theory on miasmic ether?” You’ll get nowhere by debating them; all you need is to get out.
The hospital metaphor is not very reassuring if you’ve had bad experiences with hospitals and doctors and consultants. I think nearly everyone has a story about “the doctors wouldn’t listen and this happened”.
It’s never lupus – until it is.
To be clear, mistake theory is CERTAINLY “a better way of understanding the world.” But it NOT necessarily a more effective political force.
This dichotomy is becoming much more relevant as cultural Marxism spread on campuses, and as the nationalist right wing begins to adopt the conflict filter as well to fight it.
I like the “mistake theory” vs “conflict theory” distinction, it elegantly differentiates between two different kinds of ways of thinking about political issues. However, your description of the “conflict theory” part is a bit of a caricature: I think I get what conflict theorists are pointing to, and your descriptions of it make it seem like you don’t.
It is as if you believed that someone’s personal interests have no role in how they interpret the world around them. For example, internet companies nowadays say that ending net neutrality will not hamper innovation; the matter of whether that statement is true or false may well be a difficult matter, and a “mistake theorist” might say that this statement by internet companies is (or is not) a mistake. But it would be immediately clear to any conflict theorist that the reason internet companies say so is not because they are merely “trying to get it right”; it is not that they “looked at empirical data and realized that it was likely to be so”; the real reason why internet companies take this position is because it is in their own economical interest. Now it might happen that their position is actually correct, or it might happen that it is not, but that is besides the point — which point? — the point that a conflict theorist is trying to make in this situation. The conflict theorist is trying to point out that the internet company has an interest at stake, and that this is likely to bias its view of what’s true and false.
Hence internet companies say net neutrality is unnecessary and tobacco companies said tobacco is healthy.
Or for the same mechanism in psychology, people are usually able to interpret their own actions and intentions in a way that preserves the belief that they “are good people at heart”, powerful people have some self-narrative justifying why they deserve their power, likewise for rich people why they deserve their money.
Confict theory, at its core, is pointing out this: “self-interest leads to inescapable bias.” This bias is not a “mistake”, because it is not the result of trying to find the truth and failing, but rather it is the result of trying to interpret the world in a certain, self-serving way.
Whether the world really is or is not that way is besides the point which conflict theory is trying to make. That is not to say that’s not important, it really is of course we want to understand what’s a mistake and what is not a mistake. But if KFC is promoting a study saying that “chicken have no emotions”, then maybe the important thing is *not* to evaluate the arguments; how do we measure if a chicken is sad? what studies have been carried out measuring chicken-sadness under various conditions? etc; no, focusing on whether KFC is making a mistake or not, in this case, is a complete waste of time; what *really* matters, what really gives you the most accurate information about that statement, is who said it.
And mistake theory as you described it, for all its merits which of course it has, seems to completely ignore this fundamental thing.
Bruno Loff‘s description of conflict theory is definitely part of my own understanding of the idea.
The mistake/conflict axis has popped up in public discussions fairly regularly, e.g. in the trope “X: evil or misguided?”, where X can be any entity ranging from The Fed to a comic book supervillain. My impression is that most people feel comfortable to attributing some positions to malice or extreme self-interest (Apocalypse/tobacco), and others to poor goal alignment or bad data (Magneto/The Fed), and responding accordingly (call in Magneto and the Phoenix force/encourage the Fed to re-evaluate the Phillips curve). Pure conflict or mistake theorists seem rare on the ground.
Maybe you can expand Mistake Theory to include the idea that not everyone will be moved by Good Arguments, and that there are people who are acting in bad faith, or at least in closed self interest, and who won’t be moved.
I also think that you need to be way too naive to think that you can convince racists to leave racism behind with a Good Argument.
I just realized that in your last links post you had an article from Jacobite, not Jacobin. Now I feel stupid.
This seems to relate to a couple of questions on the recent survey- about whether your opponents are mistaken versus evil, and so on. Has anyone looked at how the results correlate with political views?
Aaaaand I’m already buried between dozens of “I’m a [conflict / mistake] theorist and everyone who isn’t sucks because…” posts. Damn. (just kidding, guys, I love you all)
Re: “How useful is this?”, I think these kind of articles are very useful to me even if they describe ideas I’m already aware of, because they help me index things. Not only do I know X, I know that X is important and how to judge things based on X, if that makes sense.
Also, if I ever write Star Wars fanfiction, it will feature Conflict Theory vs Mistake Theory, like, super super super heavily.
Star wars is pretty much already like that. The two “theories” map onto the light side and dark side pretty cleanly in the way the jedi are supposed to keep their cool at all times and not have personal attachments or interests while the sith ethos is more “let the hate flow through you… *use* your anger [to become more powerful and achieve your goal of beating your enemies]”.
No, that’s not what I meant. There are a ton of things you can map onto Star War’s Light Side / Dark Side, but I think that if anything the “conflict theory” is closer to Imperial ideology (everything’s not so great right now, but they would get better if we could get rid of the criminals / traitors / rebels / incompetent); even then it’s stretching it a little.
I meant more in the context of the original trilogy. The show The Clone Wars had a few episodes about people trying to sue for peace from both sides, but they were rather weak and most episodes showed the Separatists as a faceless, rampaging, enslaving evil army.
So if I understand correctly, you’re saying that reason we don’t have Marxists here is because Marxists are the ur-Conflict-Theorists, and around here is Mistake Theory Central?
It seems to me more like pretty much everyone, or at least everyone who argues on Facebook and Twitter, is pretty far into the territory of viewing their opponents as not just mistaken but evil.
I think that was a valiant attempt, but I don’t think that it’s going to charm too many Marxists. There is still a heavy undertone of “they are hatefilled fanatics who refuse to acknowledge that my brain is much bigger than theirs.” :p I do have to assign bonus points for the “expert comes running with PowerPoint presentation about how the Yellowstone supervolcano is going to explode if we don’t kick some more puppies” visual, though, because, yeah, whether it’s true or not that is in fact what it feels like a lot of the time.
For the record, I think I subscribe to an even-more-cynical version of conflict theory. I don’t believe that people deceitfully profess to believe whatever serves their self-interest. I don’t even believe that people genuinely convince themselves of whatever serves their self-interest. I believe that people genuinely convince themselves of whatever seems the most cool to them.
There is a self-serving bias in that, because a lot of people do think it’d be really cool if they were the best sort of people in the world, but almost as many people seem to go in the opposite direction and decide that it would be really cool if there were some other group of people who were better, smarter and more moral than themselves that they could heroically martyr themselves to support. People are diverse in their estimations of coolness.
Let me offer an unifying theory:
There are two different process going on. One from policies to consequences and another one from consequences to a measure of “goodness” — how much those consequences fit preferences.
Mistake theorist care deeply about the first process. They want to correctly predict how the policies map to the consequences. They are trying to create an accurate predictive model of reality. So they welcome different points of view, they seek the expertise and intelligence. They (correctly) think that having an accurate policy model is hugely important for any given preference.
Conflict theorist (correctly) point out that the process from policies to consequences is not that important and that preferences are the driving force behind policy. They point out that the intentions behind laws are often different from what lawmakers publicly claim. They point out that the preferences driving policy should be a reflection of the People’s, but than more often than not they mirror the Elite’s. They point out that individual preferences are not really subject to debate. They point out that debating policy details cedes the point of what the preferences should be. They want to stop others from speaking because the preferences of different groups are naturally in opposition.
Conflict and mistake theorist are debating the same thing, the path from policies to “goodness”, but they are having two different conversations. The thing is that they are both right. A simple analogy would be to say that mistake theorist are trying to design the best bus, while conflict theorist are saying that it doesn’t matter how good the bus is; if the driver wants to go to Florida we are going to Florida, better to just change the driver.
Tribalism comes in the theory because most people care very little about most outcomes. Most people are just not that invested on whether gays can marry or not, for example. But most people care very much about belonging, so their preferences are a reflection of what they believe are the preferences of other people in their communities (sports, religion, neighborhood, etc). A few people care very deeply about some outcomes and they are very loud about, so it seems to others like this is the preferred outcome of the whole community and other people adopt it.
…isn’t public choice a form of conflict theory though? I’m not sure you’re cleaving at the joints here…
I also don’t know how well Marxists fit into this. Keep in mind actual Marxists are hardcore materialists. Marx’s explanations of the relation between capital and governance for example would be “mistake theory” under this classification. They have absolutely no interest in cultural or moralistic nonsense.
It seems like the way to engage conflict theory is to declare that conflict theorists are horrible people who are trying to make things worse. Saying they are wrong rather than evil is just taking a mistake theorist perspective.
Scott mostly talks in terms of leftist conflict theorists, with an occasional nod to the existence of libertarians, when clearly the problem is that conflict theorists are right wing shills. The American right has a long tradition of arguing against experts, professors, “elites,” climate scientists, etc. Even if you are making a conflict argument from the left, you are supporting the frame of the people who are saying that reasoned argument is just something effete elites use to help the gays undermine right-thinking society. Conflict theory is a tool of the oppressors.
Am I doing it right?
Conflict theory rang pretty true for me here, right up until it didn’t, when the way to save the world was increasing passion. From then on, mistake theory sounded better. I think a large number of Yellowstone supervolcano presentations are actually just convenient obfuscations, rather than pure exertions of intelligence aimed at hard problems. An intelligent People might see through some of those presentations and organize like the majority they are, but without ‘forming mobs and smashing things’.
I feel uncomfortable with the examples given for conflict-thoery vs. mistake-theory, it givevs the impression the first is marxist & blue tribe whereas the second is red & grey tribe.
The post may have started off from trying to explain a hypothetical marxist’s point of view but it bears keeping in mind that for any non-marxist conflict need not be restricted to class. Lifting this restriction it makes things a bit less forced and allows as to apply conflict theory to traditional difference of opinion like religious-atheist or plain old cultural them-us.
I subscribe to the view that democracy is a non-violent method to manage power struggles (I think this has a name, but I forgot it).
If a person really wants more x they can go to the voting booth and hope to effect the election results or become and activist to effect policy, if someone with money and power wants more y they can pay for an ad campaign, donate to a candidate expecting some payoff or straight-out bribe officials without resorting to private armies, sessions or coups.
This sounds much more like conflict-theory but the thing with power struggles is that they usually aren’t a battle-royale, there are groups united around a common goal and alliances of groups with overlapping values and within each group and alliance some policy-deciding mechanism needs to be found, and in any such mechanism mistake-theory will dominate.
According to my view conflict theory and mistake theory are not so much competing models to explain the same situation but different strategies that are used according to the goal. where most political groups have both types and even the same people exhibiting multiple behaviors. Imagine a group composed of only conflict-theorists, how would they approach internal conflicts? by splintering into hundreds of subgroups or a dictatorship forcing the one-true-variant down on all.
Imagine a group capable only of mistake-theory, I don’t see a quick way in which they self-destruct. But any real difference of values between members would result in endless “debate” which can never be settled because their model doesn’t include this possibility. Perhaps less absurdly, I would expect them to lose ground often because they treat opponents(people with different values and goals) and foolish allies when they are neither one or the other.
>I feel uncomfortable with the examples given for conflict-thoery vs. mistake-theory, it givevs the impression the first is marxist & blue tribe whereas the second is red & grey tribe.
Vox Day makes a great example of a right-wing conflict theorist.
First : thank you for this post, it makes me see lot of conflicting views way more clearily.
I think you make a mistake in seeing mistake vs conflict as rational vs emotional though ; to me is it more technocrat vs politics, or global optimum vs Pareto front.
When you are a mistake theorist you believe there is The Best Solution somewhere ; even if this solution is hard to find, if it materialized by magic, everyone would recognize it as The Best because there is a universal, unequivocal way to measure and compare solutions.
When you are a conflict theorist you believe that it is very rare to find a solution that is better than another one in every single aspect. That depending on the measure you use (i.e., the values that matter to you), the order can change. That to improve in an area means to have it worst in another. That you have to make trade-offs.
This is a questions of approach to a specific debate or discussion as opposed to an innate property of an individual.
If you think someone on the other side is a conflict theorist then that simply means you have no effective grounds for communication on this topic.
It generally takes someone who believes almost the same as you for you to have a mistake based discussion, otherwise you will quickly fall to conflict based discussion as you don’t have enough common perspective.. so are at conflict. This seems like a natural behaviour to stop us wasting our time and mental effort.. not to mention it protects against insanity becoming contagious.
It is a tale of the degeneration of debate as opposed to a particular group of peoples debating style.
IMHO.. if you find yourself frustrated by conflict based people “on the other side” then you need to find friends of your own that disagree with you on this topic and discuss it with them instead, those are the only people you have any hope of influencing (those you can have mistake based discussion with).
Maybe one thing we could do better is analysing who is having conflict based discussion and who is having mistake based discussion – this graph would represent a scale of opinion on a given topic. while that would be cool and interesting enough you could also see breaks in the chain and reason on that.. e.g. (warning over simplification of red hot topic coming) *maybe* the people having mistake based discussion on the climate change denial side of the debate have no link the mistake based discussion on the climate change believer side.. and maybe you can find a personal motive for all on the denial side (within the mistake based bubble on that side).. but not on the believing side.. therefore you can reason that you are going to ignore the deniers as they have ulterior motive that cannot find common ground with anyone who doesn’t have something to loose/gain personally.
(note this is written from the perspective of me knowing what i am talking about for brevity.. in reality i have no idea)
I really appreciate this post.
I wrote my masters thesis a while back about different kinds of writing “from persecution”, i.e. writing about the conflict between you and The Man or whatever. The two archetypal modes I discussed I called “complaint” and “refusal”. Complaint would stress common ground, i.e. “We have a disagreement but we can potentially solve it if I lay out my perspective and you respond.” Meanwhile refusal would stress difference rather than commonality, i.e. “We are never going to see eye-to-eye on this, and my act of writing is more about self-expression than any submissive attempt to convince you.” I think these concepts map pretty reasonably onto mistake theory and conflict theory respectively.
I bring it up because I find the “hard mistake” position compelling too, but am also conflicted. Because in my thesis, I was writing about these very personal perspectives which, while politically charged, were not exactly political utterances. And what I found was that in that context, speaking the language of your (perceived) persecutor makes it feel like they have automatically won. Breaking away from that, doing something deliberately less comprehensible to them, is self-affirming on some level.
So on a meta-level, I understand trying to be generous to others, recognise that they’re probably mistaken rather than malicious, etc. But I think a way to see the conflict perspective on things is to look at it from a more individual point of view. Of course I view the government/racists/communists/my dad as The Enemy; they did x! I think part of the deciding issue here is whether or not you tend to view politics as part of your personal identity.
My psychotherapist-like instinct in all these cases is to bring the implicit difference/conflict to the surface and make it explicit. Like “I don’t talk to you in your terms because I don’t find your ideology that gives meaning to those terms legitimate”. That’s at least something that can be addressed. By going up meta-levels until we find common ground, or at least mutual understanding, we could potentially defuse many conflicts and start working on solutions/compromises.
However, as a general rule, addressing your interlocutor as a human being with whom you actually want to talk is not negotiable.
Btw: can I see your thesis?
Yeah, I struggle to separate what I find permissible or admirable on a personal level from what I would think about the same behaviour on a political level. Like even just with trivial stuff; aesthetic militancy and strong, uncharitable opinions on e.g. art and media can draw me in on a personal level, but on the level of theory and politics, this kind of thinking is poison. Odd to think about.
And sure you can. It’s a literature thesis and somewhat pomo, be forewarned.
Same about the art and media thing. I’ll have a look at the thesis, it sounds interesting and I’m up to at least medium pomo-tolerance by now.
I didn’t read through this yet but just to respond to this:
Also his organization: https://peoplespolicyproject.org/
I’ve always thought of this as the judging vs. perceiving difference in the Myers-Briggs types.
But honestly, neither one is complete. There’s not much point in publishing the perfect solution to all our problems in Journal of Policies That Will Never Be Implemented. On the other hand, there have been plenty of situations where the revolutionaries won and then millions starved (Mao’s Cultural Revolution comes to mind) because running a civilization is actually kind of complex.
To nitpick, no one (or very few people) starved during the Cultural Revolution, and millions of people didn’t die (or at least not of non-natural causes), it was more on the order of tens of thousands. You’re thinking of the Great Leap Forward.
This clicks for me, I grew up seeing something similar but I always thought in terms of different labels.
I’m very much on the mistake side when it comes to automatic ways of thinking, so much so that people scold me for assuming that those around me are simply mistaken when they’re genuinely malicious.
Some of the comments are going “well, if you slit the world up into groups then that’s just conflict-view” but I’d argue against that. I wouldn’t have labeled it conflict vs mistake, rather science-type vs religious-type.
Growing up there were quite obviously a lot of people who were quite fundamentally disinterested in what’s actually true/false and in whether numbers add up or whether there’s evidence certain events actually physically happened. There’s, quite verifiably, a large fraction of the population who quite literally believe that the world is locked in a literal struggle between good and evil with a literal glowing ball of goodness on one side and a literal glowing ball of evil and badness on the other. Because they’ll outright tell you this to your face. You’d have to be pretty hard headed to ignore what they’re saying very straightforwardly and assume they actually see the world the same way you do.
And of course there’s lots of different groups who all disagree about what things are on the glowing good balls side and which are on the blood red evil glowing balls side.
Then you come across people who’ve rejected the idea of the gods and daemons but are now absolutely certain that the world is locked in a struggle between a ephemeral glowing ball of goodness [their ideology] and some insidious, malicious ephemeral glowing ball of evil.[anyone who opposes them]
I don’t see these groups as evil or bad. They’re pretty much orthogonal. But I have to remember that they fundamentally don’t care about numbers, physical reality and true vs false. They’ve mostly already decided and if it turns out that something they’ve consigned to the malicious red glowing orbs side of the field is likely physically/factually true and I’m foolish enough to be the messenger telling them this then they’ll decide I’m on the side of the Malicious Glowing Ball of Evil. (MGBoE) Pretty much like I have to remember that if I get between a cow and her calf or a mother bear and her cubs she might freak out and murder me. That doesn’t make the cow evil.
They follow the same patterns, typically involving holistic views where anything bad or which goes against their morality code strengthens/empowers/etc the MGBoE while following their morality codes will strengthen/empower the Glowing Ball of Goodness (GBoG). Because literally everything is viewed as part of the same conflict heretics doing the wrong things with their genitals are viewed as part of the reason for hurricanes and manspreadding in LA is part of why girls get sold into sex slavery in Thailand.
I strongly suspect that I’m gradually putting myself into more and more of a bubble of mistake theory worldview people. It manifests in the type of fiction I like. Mistake theory authors tend to write stories where, once the solution to The Problem is found it becomes a matter of implementing it.
Idiocracy is a very mistake-theory worldview story. The nightmare world is one where everyone has literally lost the ability to solve their problems but there’s no shadowy evil cabal or force causing the problem. Most people are idiots but they’re mostly extremely nice idiots who mean well. Once the solution is identified it just becomes a matter of convincing people who then unite to solve it, even the president steps down when he realises there’s someone better able to do his job.
it also manifests in the way problems are solved in fiction: Mistake-worldview, someone has to figure it out and work hard to solve it. Conflict: once the hero Believes Hard Enough with their friends united behind them and any judus is rooted out the villain will be defeated.
Also – part-time Marxist here. Marx was definitely not just a conflict theorist and Marxism includes a large current of mistake theory. Marx did a ton of work on economic theory which was aimed at rationally arguing that a better understanding of economic processes would reveal the injustice in the exploitation of labor by capitalists. Marx’s “Capital” is not exactly a polemic designed to arouse the passions. Marx clearly thought that an enhanced understanding of capitalism and of the material conditions that it produced would induce social change, even if the process of that change would inevitably take the form of class struggle.
Later Marxists further developed the mistake-theory side of Marxism especially in response to the failure of communism to result in a workers’ utopia. For example, Marxism accounts for the fact that the working classes do not unite, rise up, and seize the means of production once and for all by noting that ideology and false consciousness – i.e. two mistakes – prevent proletarian solidarity.
I would like to quote Thomas Hobbes here, demonstrating a hardcore Conflict perspective.
“For I doubt not but, if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, ‘that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square,’ that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.”
—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Also to add that anyone who thinks that the Left doesn’t use the phrase “rent-seeking” hasn’t been around UK politics for the last 20 years.
Why not both?
We are making lots of mistakes in policy because both political and economic elites benefit from these ‘mistakes’. In addition the problems are themselves hard so collective action on pushing for the best policy is difficult.
Take marijuana legislation in the UK. Our government threw out their own experts recommendations.
Why? Because the politicians are ideologically opposed to recreational drugs (mistake), because alcohol companies donate to their party (conflict) or because their voting base will be outraged if they seem to be ‘soft on crime’ and the alcohol companies buy adverts in the newspapers that inform this outrage (mistake & conflict).
But politicians can be motivated by all of the above. So both mistake and conflict theory can be correct.
I think most people are not really one or the other, but apply them in different situations; and the most common way to do so is to be a Mistake Theorist when it comes to your erstwhile allies, while being a Conflict Theorist when it comes to your enemies. For example, this is how a normal progressive (at least, normal by the standards of my own experience in progressive circles) usually views a Communist, as opposed to a Trumpist.
Only stupid people aren’t conflict theorists because it would be a really stupid mistake to be otherwise. There are really few people who are not conflict theorists. They just disagree about who is being the most dishonest and the correct strategic response to it. The shouty-dick-people happen to be the people with my least favourite strategic response (currently at least). However, their strategy is in large part because a) they know deep down that they can’t win the intellectual argument; and b) their claimed goals are not their real goals. I have a conflict theory for them, I bet most people reading this article do too.
I really think this article weak mans the left and socialism by effectively equating it with the shouty-dick-people. It opens up with examples of conflict theory as the things that conflict theorists ignore:
“You’ll never hear the terms ‘principal-agent problem,’ ‘rent-seeking,’ or ‘aligning incentives’ from socialists.”
Yet the conflict theorists are conflict theorists for exactly these reasons. They are distrustful of politicians in a capitalist society because they believe there is a principle agent problem. They see academics as seeking rents, getting paid for their consent to the status quo. They absolutely think that the incentives of capitalists are not well aligned with the incentives of the workers. They are explicit about this.
Conflict theorists believe are mistake theorists about changing society. They believe it is hard and that it is a mistake to think that we can rely on capitalist funded institutions to provide the answers to how we ought to improve the workers’ lot. They think it is a ludicrous mistake to believe research is not laced with the propaganda and interests of those funding it. And if you talk with any of the many many socialists I know, this is exactly the answer they will give you. They won’t tell you to shut up and stop being a racist. They will tell you that you are making a mistake. They will try to explain your mistake to you.
I mean come on, we are talking about people like Chris Dillow, Ken Macleod, Charlie Stross, John Roemer, Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Ursula Le Guin (RIP), Jerry Cohen, and so on. These are not people who shy away from engaging intellectually with the arguments of those supporting capitalism. In no way are these people comparable to the shouty-dick-people.
Yet these people are definitely conflict theorists 1) they believe that we have to be suspect of the motives behind the information that people provide; 2) they believe we have to be suspect of people deceiving themselves in their own interest; 3) They believe that we need to struggle if you want the narrative that serves our interests to be heard over the narrative of others; 4) they seriously underestimate (IMHO) the difficulty of making society work even moderately well.
Now of course, you might just say that they are not real conflict theorists because they are not shouty-dick-people. However, if that’s the case I don’t know why we want to introduce a new term like conflict theorists when we already have the perfectly good descriptor of shouty-dick-people.
What you're missing is that in modern discourse (so not always on this blog, but too often even here), ‘socialist’ means ‹person who advocates a state intervention that I disagree with›, ‘Marxist’ means ‹out-of-touch academic postmodern theorist›, and ‘leftist’ means ‹person who posted something stupid on social media›. None of the people that you mention qualifies.
On a more serious note:
:–( I missed that news.
How do people with that viewpoint explain the observation that the universities, especially the elite universities, are the most solidly left-wing part of the society, at least in the U.S.?
They consent to the liberal status quo, which is different from the left-wing thought.
This has reminded me of something I began to realise around Terry Pratchett’s death, which is that most of my philosophical instincts (rather than learned specifics) seem to come from Pterry’s work. And a significant portion of that work is spend examining, very gently and without ramming it down the (assumed child or adolescent) reader’s throat, exactly this idea; that there are people who see the world as being in permanent conflict between “Good” and “Bad”, and people who see it as a mass of arguments over object and meta level issues, and that to a limited degree both are correct but that the truth is that the world is a mass of arguments shot through with good people and total shits and everything in-between.
So reading this wasn’t a particularly big surprise. I think if I have to point to the source of a lot of my own confusion about Conflict Theory vs Mistake Theory, it’s that the basis of the Conflict is capable of changing with astonishing rapidity and that my own understanding (and that of others) of what the Conflict end of the debate are doing can get left behind extremely fast. Looked at from that angle, the perceived insanity of the culture wars can be read as a sustained mistake (of course) about what exactly the self-identified “enemy” were engaging in a conflict about. SJWs and Alt-Righters make a whole lot more sense when seen through the same lens as the grand conflicts of previous generations. Turns out “arguments are soldiers” has even more potency when half or more of your society thinks it’s at war.
An example of a quintessential Terry Pratchett “conflict” and “mistake” characters, take Rincewind and Twoflower, from The Color of Magic (his first discworld book) and The Light Fantastic (his second?).
To begin with, they completely talk past each other, and have no respect for each other’s ideas. “Twoflower was a tourist, the first ever seen on the discworld. Tourist, Rincewind had decided, meant ‘idiot’.”
Eventually, forced into close proximity for long enough, Rincewind develops an appreciation for how Twoflower’s general sense that anything bad or even out of place can be solved if we all just talk about this like adults–that general sense generates a kind of positive force field for Twoflower, where people just seem to get along when he’s around. Twoflower also develops a sort of appreciation for Rincewind’s much better ability to sniff out and avoid situations of dangerous conflict (and frankly, Rincewind is always afraid of something), to the point where Twoflower knows that a situation that genuinely *doesn’t* scare Rincewind is probably the safest place to be, even if he doesn’t know why.
This if definitely an important point. Thoughts:
* Neither side is 100% right here. Both mistake and conflict theorists are right and reality is a combination. I know it sounds bland.
* Trumpism / alt-right is is very conflict theory, just like Marxism. You touched on this, but it’s worth emphasizing. This is not a left-vs-right issue. Mainstream economists, centrist Democrats and libertarians (excluding some extremes) are mistake theorists.
* Scott says this blog has been pure mistake theory. That may be sort of true for Scotts posts, but the comment section has lots of conflict theory. As a random example, some time ago a commenter said he wanted to run for a local elected office, hoping to use rationalist thinking to run things well. The replies basically scolded him for thinking someone like him has any right to represent average Americans.
I would agree that alt-right is conflict theory based, but you’re wrong about Trumpism.
Trump is always dealing, he’s never working a zero sum game. But he often hides this dealmaking with a front of conflict. The conflict front is to put the adversaries he needs to make deals with off balance to increase his chances of a better deal.
The media is failing to understand this, and you can see their confusion in their response to Trump.
This doesn’t seem right to me. I think there is some descriptive validity to the idea that Trump’s personality creates conflict, disruption, and uncertainty. Sometimes this uncertainty can yield results. But that is different than saying he acts with intention in pursuit of a long-term strategic goal (at least in this phase of his life, where he has transitioned from being a businessman to being a professional celebrity with some business interests). His interest now is purely image and ego-management, hence his addiction to the cable news cycle and spin wars. Unless his strategic thinking is so deep that he is method-acting as an unstable narcissist in his private life.
How do you reconcile this with his tremendous success in business (the Trump empire), media (The Apprentice), and politics (The Presidency itself)? If he wasn’t engaged with reality at its basest level, but rather lurching around in a random narcissistic-walk, it seems unfathomable that he could defeat so many absolutely-formidable opponents in so many arenas. There are lots of narcissists out there, I don’t think someone’s level of narcissism has much to do with their grasp on reality, mistake-theory, and conflict-theory.
Following on whateverfor‘s observations, I think “conflict theory” is often upstream of “mistake theory” . Conflict theory is treated very skeptically here, but viewing political disagreements through this lens does not seem to lead to less accurate predictions about the world.
I think a stronger version of conflict theory recognizes that antagonistic interests exist, and that uncompromising and irrational players often have an advantage in negotiations. Conflict theorists also appear to expect most people to leverage power asymmetries in their favor as a first step, and rationalize afterward. Rational players might be expected to adopt an uncompromising (“irrational”, “emotional”) stance at certain points in the space describing their relative power vs. relative interest in an issue (I would replace “evil” with “interested” to describe the opposition of the focal group – I don’t think assigning particular character traits to the outgroup is a necessary part of conflict theory).
I am influenced by the book The Dictator’s Handbook, where the authors demonstrate that some seemingly wicked problems can be ameliorated by changing the power distributions within society, moving the problem from the conflict to the mistake space (to adapt the book’s ideas to the framework we are discussing here).
I’d expect that you would find a lot of “conflict” types among the politically naive, but also among those interested in political or social meta-structures.
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.
The Jacobite article was written partially in response to the Baffler and Jacobin articles; the Jacobin article was a review of The Captured Economy. Because of this chronology, I’m not sure imagining the Baffler article as a response rather than a precedent is a good representative of conflict theory thinking. Both the Jacobite and Baffler pieces are shot through with hard and degenerate conflict theory thinking, although I agree with Jacobite article and the thesis of The Captured Economy on the underlying issue. The thesis argued by The Captured Economy – the originator of this chain of pieces – fits well with hard conflict theory.
I think the danger of misunderstanding or weak-manning conflict theory is that it leads to an equilibrium where normative-degenerate conflict theory is the dominant strategy for everyone. This is a real “A Man for All Seasons”-style dilemma.
Count me in the “this is obvious” camp – although I wouldn’t phrase it so dismissively, this is probably the best description of it I’ve ever seen. I find it such a great source of frustration because it, by itself, is more responsible for the sad state of public debate than anything else.
It’s uniquely hard to deal with because not only do the parties misunderstand each other’s communications, they disagree fundamentally about the reasons they’re even talking.
Disclosure: On an emotional level, I hate “conflict theorists”. My id thinks the dichotomy described isn’t so much any old way to categorize people as the very difference between Good and Evil.
But that doesn’t mean they are wrong. As in, not totally wrong on a factual level.
Mistake theory vs. conflict theory seems a textbook case of two complementary (but believed to be substitutes) partial narratives, two different stories you can tell about the same phenomenon by focusing on different aspects and connecting the dots differently (like drawing two different and partially overlapping constellations in the night sky).
It’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that examples of both exist: there are certainly zero-sum conflicts, but also plenty of problems that are failures of rationality and system design.
The question is which one of the two narratives you prefer, because even if you on some level understand that both of them have valid points it’s still incredibly hard to keep both in mind at the same time. They sort of interfere with each other. It feels like a contradiction even if it isn’t one, strictly speaking. Therefore you’ll resolve the cognitive dissonance by having one of them represent the “fundamental truth” and the other as a “corrective” to account for the noise that doesn’t quite fit*.
While some subscribe to only one narrative, most admit that correctives exist when not in the heat of battle. The important difference is which one you’ll put first, as that will determine how you act most of the time, whenever nuance and charity is less than maximal.
That in turn depends on where in time, space and context you’re situated (and what your personal characteristics are). In other words, depending on what parts of reality you come on contact with and how you interpret them, you’ll put one or the other first**.
What I’m saying is that it’s not necessarily degree of truth or validity that makes mistake theory better than conflict theory (because I do think it is). Truth and validity for something this vague is going to be heavily dependent on local conditions and personal interpretations.
No, what makes mistake theory “better” is consequences. When we act as though mistake theory is true, things tend to get better. When we don’t consider naked power plays acceptable it becomes more difficult to pull them off. When we expect civil servants not to be corrupt it becomes easier to shame them when they are (and the corrupt are less drawn to civil service). When we expect people to be charitable and rational in debate it raises the costs of not being so. The price is eternal vigilance etc. etc.
Ideologies do kind of reshape the world in their image – to the extent that it’s possible – which is why the “best” ideologies are practical but not cynical, optimistic but not utopian. Historically, when conflict theory gets to define the way politics is done, things turn to shit (or Mountains of Skulls).
To be plain: cooperation is better than defection, and going around saying “hey there is lots of defecting going on, therefore I’m going to defect and so should everyone else on my side” is antisocial behavior that amounts to a deliberate destruction of social capital (the good response is to try to change things so defecting gets comparatively harder and less profitable).
But I have to admit that it is a rational course of action if you believe that your enemy is already defecting all the time and won’t ever change. There really is no reasoning with someone who believes that. Sometimes that’s even right, and it often was in premodern times. But it’s rarely the case in modern democracies, and if you truly believe that there is no positive-sum processes to nurture and develop, they you are probably under the spell of a destructive ideology.
*I wrote this model down first in a comment here about a year ago and fleshed it out in an article last month and I’ve been sort of stuck on applying it to everything since then.
**I might be way off here, but I wonder if not academics and politicians could be more prone to conflict theory than businesspeople because their everyday experience is less characterzed by positive-sum exchanges. Idk.
Very well said!
Reading through the other comments made me think that there really are two separate dichotomies here, not just one, and that I was a little confused about which one the original post was talking about. If “mistake theory” means to believe that policy questions have a correct answer then I’m not one of those, not emotionally and not rationally. It’s obvious that that isn’t the case. We also can’t and shouldn’t act as if that was true.
The other dichotomy (where my id really does hate the other side, ironically) is between two kinds of preferred conflict resolution. “Mistake theorists” are right that some conflicts can be resolved by making everybody better informed, but this is far from all cases. Often people do have different values and then the relevant issue becomes how to resolve these conflicts. One of them is to treat a conflict as a war where the other side should be defeated, the other is to treat it as a business negotiation and compromise. The second, however, requires that you see the other side as basically legitimate. And this, I think, has something to do with “mistake theory”. Not like thinking that the other side is mistaken and not evil. Neither of the two, because both of them presupposes that there is a right/good side and that you’re on it. Instead it requires recognizing that they have a different viewpoint and set of values that you might not even understand because it isn’t expressible in familiar terms. You need to have a similarly open, charitable and inquisitive attitude to values as a mistake theorist does about facts to be able to empathize with an alien other party in a conflict-theoretical situation. This in order to achieve an amicable solution that builds long term social capital.
Basically, there is a certain moral humility that accepts the conflict theory as broadly true but approaches it with a mistake theorist’s rationality and openness. What truly bad is to refuse to engage with a viewpoint before you can understand it well enough to empathize with why it makes sense to the person that holds it. Then of course you can disagree, and forcefully. Even fight.
+1, and ‘practical but not cynical, optimistic but not utopian’ is where I thought Scott was going in Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons, which I was reading as an argument for mistake over conflict for as long as you can manage it:
(As in, I think I was reading that bit specifically as a reply to someone like Mike Travers at Omniorthogonal, who is always pointing out that rationalists ignore the conflict side, saying no, really, I’m going with mistake for a reason. But maybe that was all in my head.)
Hanson’s “Elephant in the Brain” touches on this ambiguity. We make a lot of mistakes, but many of those “mistakes” happen to help our coalition in whatever conflict we’re in.
This was a very interesting post. I find it especially interesting as somebody whose roots are very much in conflict theory but who has been sympathising more and more with mistake theory with time (partly as a result of reading this blog).
I need to mull this over more, but initial thoughts: I think we need to find the Mistakes and fix them. The way to do this is to use all the tools in the Mistake theorists’ toolbox. But there is a Conflict, which we need to be aware of. There are some people who are fighting for their own material interests, not trying to solve the great Puzzle.
To make this explicit: I think the Question is how to make life better for people. It seems to be more important to help people who are struggling than to help people who are already doing fine. Given the shape of the wealth curve, this is a motivation for redistribution. But some redistribution measures will be mistakes and others will not (EDIT: or perhaps they’re all mistakes). That is, some will actually make things worse for everybody and some will make things better for everybody. This question needs to be answered using the tools of Mistake theorists. We need studies. We need debate. We need new ideas that might achieve the same aims as the old ideas but with fewer drawbacks.
But there *is* a conflict going on. There are some people who are acting in their material interests and not in the aforementioned goal of “making life better for people”. So some poor people will favour redistribution measures that do more harm to society than good because they help “me” and some rich people will oppose redistribution measures that do more good than harm to society because they hurt “me”. And then it gets complicated further because you will have some people making mistakes, so you will get some poor people who favour a redistribution measure that even makes “me” less well-off, but it sounds like it’ll make “me” better off. The libertarians would probably say this is most redistribution measures.
I think the way society has evolved has been through conflict, but the conflict isn’t between “us”, the good and virtuous and “them”, the evil and dangerous. Or at least, not always. The conflicts that drive society are just between “me and people who share my interests” and “them with interests that are opposed to mine”. Maybe it *feels* like you’re fighting evil, but what it really is is a political struggle.
I think this is the important distinction. If you ask “what’s the best way to shape society?” then the answer is all the tools of Mistake theory, but if you ask “why is society the way it is?” then I think Conflict theory does most of the work. We didn’t get to be where we are by loads of powerful philosophers trying to figure out how best to do things and doing it; we got here by a political struggle arising out of the conflicts of interest between different classes.
Wouldn’t it be cool if “people who are acting in their material interests ” actually “made life better for people”.
Capitalism says Hi!!!!
To really hammer the point home.
Capitalism: Pulled 2 billion people out of poverty in the last century…
Marxism: Killed 100 million people in the last century…
I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not. Marx was one of the most vocal believers in the power of capitalism to increase productivity and prosperity.
And attributing deaths to economic systems and political philosophies is kind of dumb. Like, how many people has “capitalism” killed? What does that question even mean?
(If you were being sarcastic and I just massively missed the point then I apologise!)
It’s very hard to attribute deaths to ideologies or systems – and usually degenerates into cherry picking so you can say “the other guy’s system has killed 200 million people!” or whatever. Usually the math is very dubious, a lot of context is missing (is the decline in starvation worldwide due to capitalism, to communism, to general technological improvement? Is an uptick in starvation somewhere due to capitalism, to communism, to bad luck?)
However, you can far more reasonably attribute deaths to individual leaders or groups of leaders. Take Snyder – he puts Hitler at around 12 million, Stalin at about 10 million. (I’ve seen anti-communists accuse Snyder of counting very low, and communists say that Snyder can’t be trusted because if he was trustworthy, ie a communist, he would just ignore anything Ukrainians have ever said about anything).
The supposed death toll of communism presented by some anti-communists is unbelievably high (ends up looking closer to 40 million than 100), but communists who come up with claims that capitalism has killed such-and-such a number of people depend on claiming that every potentially-preventable death from disease and famine outside of communist territory is capitalism’s fault (as though those things didn’t happen before capitalism came into the world). I remember there was one commenter here who claimed that the Soviet famine in the early 30s was because of capitalism, which seems a wee bit odd.
However, a system the leaders of which more commonly cause mass deaths, is maybe worth looking a bit askance at, and communism has that problem more than capitalism.
When you say 100 million is ‘unbelievably high’ do you mean the evidence makes such a claim look ridiculous or that it is unbelievable that 100 million people could have died under communism?
That the evidence is a bit dubious for 100m and that the people who come up with numbers that high were as much or more propagandists during the Cold War as they were impartial academics.
Getting to 100m involves a high count for Stalin, very high counts for starvation under Mao, counting famine and disease during the 1918-21 civil war (bad shit was going to happen in Russia no matter what following a disastrous war and the collapse of the government) the same as the basically manmade famine in the early 30s (which was due to collectivization and attempts to root out an imaginary Ukrainian conspiracy), etc.
This is as true as the statement that the people who came up with the 12 million deaths in the holocaust were as much anti-fascist propagandists as they were impartial academics. It’s not false, and they were trying to castigate an ideological system that they found abhorrent, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong. Their figures for the USSR have been largely confirmed by post-USSR research, and god only knows knows how many people starved to death under Mao. 100 million is a nice round figure that, if not precisely correct, is not far off.
But the 12m number for Hitler is a low count (it elides the issue of how to divide blame for war deaths) and it isn’t based on post-war inflated commie numbers. It’s not the highest # you could lay at Hitler’s door.
If you take a higher count for Mao, meanwhile (modern Maoists, in my experience, will if you poke them hard enough admit to about 15 million dead; a lot of the more credible estimates sit in the ~30m range) you get to 50m, maybe 60m, but both are closer to 40m than 100m.
WW2 starts when Nazis and Communists invade Poland so if we’re going to start assign blame for war deaths, the communist toll is going to rise.
Neither is 10-20 million for the USSR. the holocaust figures are quite reliable because german was militarily occupied after the war, and so we could use their documents to measure what they did. The communist scholars in the cold war did not have that benefit, they had to estimate, and the reputable among them were not far off.
If you assume mao got 30 instead of 60, you’re looking more at ~70 million deaths instead of 100, still far more than any other idea in history, still and unspeakably horrific. And the higher numbers for Mao are not implausible.
However, western scholars didn’t have access to the places where the vast, vast majority of the Nazi deaths took place. After the USSR fell, estimates tended to fall a bit too, due to better archival access. Also, the Soviets blamed some stuff they did (like Katyn) on the Germans, although these tended to be pretty small numbers (Katyn was 22k, for example) compared to the German mass killings.
With regard to Mao, I just think that he’s more debatable than Stalin, and the death toll that can be laid at his door involves less intentionality. It’s also easier to make the argument that, despite the human cost, in the end the net effect was positive: he took China from a subsistence economy that had just gone through a brutal occupation, and turned it into a feared world power. In comparison, Stalin’s actions played a role in the USSR almost losing the war in 1941.
In any case, regardless of my numbers, my point is that there’s a difference between “this idea killed people” and “this idea enabled awful people to get into power” – personally, I think that the problem is not communism, but revolutionary communism. The vanguard party is a dreadful concept, because the vanguard never hands over power, and the concept of a revolution led by a small cadre leads to dictatorships, and that’s how you get Stalin or Pol Pot or whoever. It should be noted also that the death toll that can be laid at capitalism’s door also involves dictators, in the form of western governments working to overthrow any democratically-elected governments they thought were too left-wing, and replacing them with right-wing dictators.
Shouldn’t WW2 be counted as starting either when Japan invades China (starting the first of the continental wars of the era), or when Germany declares war on the US (linking the two continental wars into a true World War)?
But acknowledging that China was a party to WW2 makes the accounting rather tricky here, because you’ve got a three-way conflict with megadeaths that need to be apportioned to the Communists, the Nationalists, and the Japanese.
It’s rather difficult even to define a starting point for the Chinese theater of WWII. 1937, when the Japanese invaded China proper? 1931, when they invaded Manchuria? 1928, when the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (previously allies) kicked off the main phase of the Chinese Civil War? 1912, when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown? There was fighting throughout.
There was I believe an official armistice in Manchuria in 1932, making 1937 the start of something new. And there’s always some group of hotheads waving guns around somewhere in the world, so either there’s World War Always (4004 BC – Armageddon), or local insurgencies don’t count as part of a World War.
This went a little above the level of local insurgencies. The amount of shooting varied, but between 1912 and 1928 there was essentially no central authority over most of China, and after that the KMT and the CCP were busy tearing each other to shreds. It’s probably most comparable to the Second Congo War in terms of other 20th century conflicts.
1937 is as good a starting point as any, though.
Unfortunately we’ve reached the recursion limit and I’m a little late to the party – but this comment is responding to your first one.
I think this is a very reasonable take on it. There have definitely been disproportionately many preventable deaths (including murders, mass-murders and some but not all famines) under self-described communist leaders than under non-communist ones in the 20th century. I agree that this should cause alarm bells and one should be very careful indeed of supporting communism or Marxism or whatever unless one can say in what ways one differs from those that have gone before and done terrible things.
I think it’s possible to do this. I think the terrible things done by self-described communists and Marxists are not a direct result of their believing in communism/Marxism. (Although I acknowledge my biases in this…)
No, but they had access to the guys that sent those people to poland to die, and they didn’t come back,
When you take peasants seed grain, and they starve, you are murdering them every bit as much as if you ordered them shot. When you increase grain exports in the face of famine in order to post impressive export figures for propaganda purposes, you’re murdering people.
No he didn’t. China was still a subsistence economy when mao died. It had nukes, but it was still poorer than sub-saharan africa.
There is no other kind. And frankly, an idea that only attracts awful people to it is just as bad as an inherently awful idea.
the toll of such deaths that can be laid at capitalism’s door is multiple orders of magnitude smaller. the worst white terror was the indonesian, which killed a few hundred thousand people, more than every other white terror put together.
What you are saying is about as plausible as saying that the holocaust wasn’t a result of naziism. The marxists said they were going to liquidate their class enemies, and they did, or tried to. There is a direct, clear line from words to action.
-I think you’re missing something from your first bit.
-how do you value an attempt at accelerated industrialization vs the lives of peasants? Would a leader be justified in saying “well, lots of peasants will die if we do this, but we need to build up a military base ASAP; lots of peasants died when the Japanese were around here too”?
-“having nukes” goes more hand in hand with “feared power” than “high standard of living”.
-I didn’t say communism only attracted awful people. The vanguard party idea, which is horribly flawed, leads to dictators who never hand power over to the proletariat. Dictators are far more likely to do awful shit (in their home countries, at least).
-I think you’re missing something from your first bit.
It doesn’t matter how I value it, because Mao didn’t achieve a meaningful amount of accelerated industrialization.
The results of communist regimes were universally terrible, with no exceptions. And Communism did not just produce run of the mill dictators, it produced several people who might claim the title of the worst dictators in all of history, in pretty very narrow span of years. There are only two possibilities, either there is something awful about the ideology, or the ideology only attracts awful people. You’ve denied the former, which leaves only the latter. Frankly, I don’t care which is more accurate, I suspect it’s both, but either way, the results are awful and no one espousing the ideology should be allowed to be to dog catcher, much less trusted with another country to ruin.
In the case of Mao, the largest number of his victims were almost certainly the peasants who died in the famine during the Great Leap Forward. Peasants were not his class enemies. Unlike the Ukraine famine, which was arguably deliberate, that was an unintentional result of a different bad policy.
I don’t think we will ever know for certain whether Mao realized that millions of people were starving and decided to keep exporting food anyway or whether he was fooled by the false information that the incentive structure he had set up generated and really believed that agricultural output was high enough to permit exports without creating famine.
it wasn’t just a famine, it was a famine combined with requisitions and export of grains. And while peasants were not mao’s class enemies, “rich peasants” definitely were, and that was always who he insisted he was going after.
Frank Dikötter presents compelling evidence that he did know. he might not have known the sheer scale, but he knew that huge numbers were dying.
The majority of deaths in the Ukraine famine were peasants and not the ‘undesirable’ classes, but the famine was caused at least in large part by class warfare against the more productive peasants. We don’t know if Mao intentionally created the famine, but it doesn’t particularly matter, engaging in class warfare caused it. He couldn’t end the famine without repudiating (in action at least) Communism.
Wasn’t China recognized as a world power immediately at the end of the war? The ROC was one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
He kept the world’s most populous country dirt poor when other countries were getting rich.
One striking statistic: From Mao’s death to 2010, the per capita real GNP of China went up twenty fold.
Certainly. There has been an enormous increase in the Chinese standard of living due to capitalist-ish reforms. Deng Xiaopeng can be credited with initiating some huge increases in real standard of living. But that’s not the same thing as the change of role on the international stage that happened under Mao.
EDIT: And, what countries comparable to China were getting rich at the same time, by adopting free-market reforms?
China’s change in role happened because its civil war ended, but since mao was responsible for one side of that civil war, you can’t exactly give him credit for ending it. he could have just surrendered decades earlier. Had chiang won, china would have undergone a similar shift in geo-political importance.
Depends what you mean by comparable to. The only country with a comparable population was India, and it was running with five year plans and exchange controls and the permit raj.
Countries that were poorer than China in terms of natural resources, most easily measured in population density, would include Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and, except that it wasn’t a country, Hong Kong. All of which did spectacularly better than China with, compared to China, relatively free market policies.
You’re assuming that there’s one, clear, obvious description of “the best”, and that this is knowable equally by everyone. But it isn’t true, and the more fundamental differences there are between the members of the populace (i.e. how “diverse” it is, in ways that matter) the more points of conflict there will be over things that matter. You’re assuming that all right-thinking people are, deep down, just like you and merely need to have the facts explained to them patiently.
One group thinks “the best” schools teach evolution as undisputed fact; another group thinks it “best” if the theory is not brought up at all, or brought up as a controversial opinion perhaps. There’s no “mistake theory” answer to the “best” way to shape the schools in this situation, because the two groups don’t share the same desire for outcomes. The US solution was originally to minimize what the government tried to do– you can’t have a governance conflict over the schools if the government isn’t setting the curriculum– but we can’t seem to agree to go back to that modus vivendi. The European nationalist solution was to break the polities down to reasonably homogenous ethnic groups– everyone spoke the same language, worshiped the same way, sang the same songs to their kids, had the same view of history, etc., and so didn’t likely have a lot of fundamental conflicts– which required either the borders to move to the people, or the people to move to the borders, of course. Temporarily very cruel to Greeks in Turkey and vice versa, et cetera, but it did result in a low-violence end state… and is kind of coming apart at the seams now as migration leads these tacit understandings coming apart. I don’t know of a third answer.
Isn’t that disagreement based on a disagreement about facts for which mistake theory is relevant? If evolution is false, as presumably many opponent believe, then almost everyone should be against teaching it. If it is true, almost everyone for.
Of course, there might be people who believe that even if evolution is false, teaching it is a good way of undermining religion. And there might be people who believe that even if it is true, teaching it is bad because it undermines religion. But even there, the disagreement hinges in part on beliefs about religion–whether it is true and whether believing in it, true or false, has good or bad consequences.
Not exactly, although I see I wasn’t clear about the problem in my comment. Let me try to explain.
Evolution in schools is a specific example of a larger problem. I’m pretty sure everybody wants “the truth” taught in schools. But if it was as simple as just, lay the facts out on the table, this would have been over 100 years ago (if not longer). The problem is, we don’t agree on the ultimate goal of our lives (and our society), nor on the relative weights to give to various sources of authority, nor on how to balance benefits and drawbacks– just to name a few!
So, for evolution. My experience is, the vast majority of the populace doesn’t actually understand the details of evolution. I doubt I’ll get much argument in this crowd about anti-evolutionists not understanding; but I’m always struck by how confused pro-evolutionists can be. For example, they claim that evolution “says” such and such (exactly as creationists say the Bible “says” something). Or they make a moral claim based on evolution, although evolution has no more moral content than F=ma. Or they demand it as unquestionable truth in every living organism– except humans, where it has no role whatsoever, especially with respect to sexual dimorphism. Or they insert a ritual obeisance to evolution in the middle of some totally unrelated conversation (although I’ve noticed that this role has been replaced by the ritual obeisance to AGW, in recent years).
So… something is going on under the surface here. I identify several causes:
1) The vast majority of the populace actually don’t have a grasp of the mathematics and biology behind evolution. They’re “outsourcing” their judgment to authorities they trust– as, in fact, we all have to do for much of our lives. (I can’t independently verify any but a tiny handful of the important things in my life– the efficacy and safety of medical care, my employer’s accounting and tax status, political events I don’t personally witness, etc.) It’s hard-to-impossible to come to a unified agreement on who are the most reliable authorities– and part of the problem is that everybody agreeing to trust the same authorities can enable some truly horrific problems.
2) But that’s not all! A fact is literally a “factum”, something that is constructed in the mind of the thinker, and that process depends on our internal metaphysics and philosophy. We don’t agree on those either. The evangelical finds his experience of the working of the Spirit in his heart and soul to be the single most important “fact” about the universe; but the materialist doesn’t accept this as reality at all!
3) We’re still not done! There’s the question of overall goals, and how to balance competing goods against each other, or how to resolve asymmetric rewards (good for me, bad for you). In schools, this might show up as things like: how much deference should the school show to the parents’ authority over their children? How much “general” education, versus vocational education, should be targeted? Should the schools teach ethics at all (and is that even practically possible)? Or maybe a “minimum set” of ethics, such as “sportsmanship”, “academic ethics/honor code”, “citizenship”, etc. (and what would those be)? Is academic tracking a good thing, because it allows smart kids to achieve more, or is it a bad thing, because it short-sheets kids who are already facing a challenging situation? And on, and on.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that we end up with a chronic jam when we try to “reason” with each other over these hot topics, if we don’t already start out at a high level of agreement on our worldview, goals, values, etc. and a general agreement on the trustworthiness of various authorities or data sources. The “melting pot” or “assimilation” concept is, effectively, imposing a minimum set of philosophy, metaphysics, and shared facts on the populace sufficient to support the level of government intrusion into their lives. Less intrusion = less need for imposition, and I’m in favor of it. But it’s not going to “just happen”… even if you talk real slow to those morons over there about Daaaarrrrrwiiiiinnnnnn….
I agree with your general point, and have made the same argument in the past with regard to both evolution and AGW. Almost everyone is working on second hand information, so it depends what sources you trust.
Incidentally, not only does almost nobody on either side understand evolution, almost nobody on either side of the AGW dispute understands the greenhouse effect. For some evidence … .
No I’m not. Finding “the best” is in two parts: choosing a question and finding the answer to that question. My question is an essentially utilitarian one: “how do we make life better for people?” For people who disagree with my question, we’re never going to agree on the answer.
The more interesting case is where people broadly agree that the question is the right one but disagree on the answer. But there’s no surprises that we disagree on the answer, because it’s an incredibly hard question! We need to debate and experiment and hopefully limp towards some kind of common answer. It’s not clear nor obvious.
Don’t we all wish… but no. I’m an engineer. Defining what “the best” means, what measurements to take and how to cope with noise and error, and in fact whether we should be even aiming for “the best” at all (vs. the “good enough, and iterate as needed”)– is the single most important part of the project, even if it’s a $5 widget. Not getting everyone on the same page at the beginning for these types of questions is the #1 cause of failure in R&D. And object design is very simple compared to the “big” societal questions we’re talking about.
I recently had a friend of mine very vigorously argue US immigration policy from the perspective of “What Would Jesus Do?” But to an atheist, WWJD isn’t even a thing, let alone the most important benchmark of the rightness (or right