In defence of conflict theory

Scott Alexander recently wrote an interesting blog post on the differences between approaches to politics based on conflict theory and mistake theory. Here's a rough summary, in his words:

"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... 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."

This comparison doesn't explain everything, but it definitely captures some important aspects of political activity. However, I disagree with Scott's judgement that conflict theory is less helpful overall. Here's my main argument against emphasising mistake theory over conflict theory: you're only able to be a mistake theorist after the conflict theorists have done most of the hard work. Even if the lens of mistake theory is more useful in dealing with most of the political issues we engage with on a daily basis, that's only the case because those issues are a) within our Overton window, so that they can be discussed, and b) considered important by either some powerful people, or many normal people, so that proposed solutions have a chance of being implemented. Ensuring that a given issue fulfills those criteria requires a conflict-theoretic mindset, because until they are met you will face opponents much more powerful than you. Mistake theorists miss those important long-term shifts.

Let's take a few examples. The main one is democracy itself. Mistake theorists wish for technocrats to have more power, so they can implement better policies. But conflict theorists have spent the last three centuries drastically curtailing the power of monarchies and dictatorships - which were close cousins of technocracy, given that hereditary rulers tended to be far more educated than the population as a whole. Compared with that seismic shift, the difference between modern conflict-theorists and mistake-theorists is a rounding error: supporting what past generations thought of as "mob rule" for the sake of that mob having power over its leaders puts us all way on the conflict theorist side of the spectrum. Of course it'd be very nice to have a voting system which selects more competent politicians, but we should keep in mind that the main benefit of democracy is to protect us from tyranny - and we should appreciate that it's doing a pretty good job.

Second example. Modern social justice movements support a lot of policies whose effects are contentious, like raising minimum wages and opposing free speech. A mistake theorist might be right in saying that what's currently most necessary for them to succeed in their goals is not more political firepower to push those policies through, but rather a better understanding of which policies will lead to the best effects (particularly in places like Scandenavia where the right wing isn't very strong). But there used to be a lot of very simple, obvious ways to improve the lives of disadvantaged minorities, like not enslaving them, or giving them the vote. It took a lot of effort from a lot of conflict theorists (and in America, a civil war) to implement those reforms. Only now that conflict theorists have shifted public opinion, and implemented the most obviously-beneficial policies, is it plausible that mistake theorists are best-placed to push for more improvements.

Third example. Taxation in many Western countries is pretty screwed up; the wealthy can easily find tax loopholes and not pay their intended legal rate. Mistake theorists would say that the fundamental flaw here is a poorly-designed tax system, and fixing that is much more important than raising the nominal top tax rate or stirring up anti-elite sentiment in general; for what it's worth, I think that's probably true. But the very fact that we have a progressive tax system at all is a triumph of conflict theorists who made strong moral arguments about the duties of the wealthy to pay back to society.

Fourth example. The welfare systems in many Western countries are needlessly bureaucratic and inefficient at helping the poor, and throwing more money at them probably wouldn't solve that. Mistake theorists therefore rightly realise that the conflict-theoretic view of poverty misses important factors. But that wasn't nearly as true back when social safety nets and labour regulations just didn't exist, working conditions were atrocious, and debtors were thrown in prison.

Now you could argue that we live in an era where most low-hanging fruit have been plucked, and so mistake theory is the best mindset to have right now. But I think that claim relies too much on the present being unusual. Actually, there are plenty of easy ways to do a great deal of good, but most people don't yet think of them as moral necessities (almost by definition, because otherwise they would have already taken the obvious steps). Here are some issues which conflict theorists haven't yet "won", and which are therefore still most usefully described as a conflict between interests of different groups, rather than something people agree on, but don't know how to solve:
  • Global warming, where the wealthy countries and people who emit massive amounts of emissions are screwing over everyone else, including future generations.
  • Factory farming, where everyone who eats meat is screwing over lots of animals.
  • International borders, which very effectively entrench the advantages of citizens of wealthy countries.

What will it look like when conflict theorists have made enough headway on these issues that they reach the point where mistake theory is more valuable?
  • There will be massive domestic public pressure to decrease emissions. Wealthy countries will be willing to subsidise reductions of emissions by developing countries. We'll just need to figure out how to reduce our emissions most effectively. (The domestic pressure already exists in some countries; not so much the international goodwill.)
  • It'll be illegal to raise animals in inhumane conditions like factory farming. But we won't be sure whether animals in humane conditions have lives worth living, and how cost-effective lab-grown meat can be.
  • Most people will agree that preventing people from accessing opportunities based on accidents of birth is immoral. Many more migrants will be allowed in to Western countries. But we won't know how to best manage the effects of mass migration or cultural clash.

Perhaps you don't agree with the specifics of some examples, but the general theme should be clear: first you need enough public acceptance that you can implement the policies which promise clear benefits, by overruling the people who benefit from the status quo. This step is best described under conflict theory. Once those policies are in place, it becomes more difficult to discern which next action is most beneficial, so you need to rely on expert knowledge; this step is best described under mistake theory.

Note that I don't mean to imply that the policies which promise clear benefits are easy to implement. In fact they may be very difficult, because you need to convince or coerce elites into giving your side more power. Rather, I mean that they're the most obvious gains, which will almost certainly create good outcomes if you can just convince people to support them. Whether or not it's worth fighting that conflict, instead of finding mistakes to solve, will depend on the specific case. A salient example is the choice between funding political campaigns for animal rights vs technical research into lab-grown meat. In general, we should probably prefer to "pull the rope sideways" by avoiding already-politicised issues, which are difficult to influence, but sometimes the obvious gains are so large that it might be worth taking a stand.

I want to finish with a more charitable portrayal of conflict theory. Scott deliberately caricatured both sides, but to an audience of mistake theorists, the result may be a skewed view of what constitutes a reasonable version of conflict theory. In particular, I now think that liberalism and libertarianism are perfectly consistent with conflict theory, but I didn't immediately after reading his essay. Two particularly misleading quotes:
  • "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."
Unless they want to convince you to join their side. Which is sensible, and which almost all ideological movements do. More generally, conflict theorists think there's a conflict between some groups, but that doesn't imply they need to be belligerent towards you (assuming you're not an actively-oppressive member of the elite; and maybe even if you are). Later on, Scott says that conflict theorists think that "mistake theorists are the enemy" and "the correct response is to crush them". But conflict theorists still have the concept of people making mistakes. The Second World War is perhaps the one example where conflict theory is most justified. During it, Switzerland made a mistake in not fighting Nazi Germany, because it seems very improbable that Hitler would have left them alone after winning. But that doesn't mean that the Allies needed to view Switzerland as their enemy; it'd be a ridiculous waste of resources to even try to crush them instead of attempting to sway them to your position.
  • "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."
This may be a fair description of smart conflict theorists in the 1800s. But what about conflict theorists in 2018 who have learned from history that power corrupts, and that seizing control isn't an automatic final victory? They don't need to have fantasies of revolution in order to care about special interests corrupting representatives; that seems pretty bad regardless. In fact, in the modern context corruption of democracy may be the most important issue for conflict theorists. So I think that a more charitable interpretation is conflict theory as "constant vigilance". There is no system which does not develop cracks and flaws eventually. There are no holders of power who do not become complacent or corrupt eventually. Overthrowing those rulers and systems comes at massive cost to all involved. Sometimes it may be necessary. But we can postpone that necessity, perhaps indefinitely, by plugging up the cracks and sniffing out corruption. People protesting outside government buildings and politicians getting impeached aren't aberrations, but necessary and inevitable feedback mechanisms.

Under this view, mistake theorists who spend their time pushing for policies which improve society overall are well-intentioned but misguided. They may create better outcomes on 90% of issues they pursue, but while they do so, people with power will systematically consolidate their positions - and the question of who controls society overall is so important that it should be our main focus (although in the face of individual issues of enormous scale such as existential risk, this argument is less compelling). That's not to say that we should seize such control ourselves, because that will simply create a new elite - but we need to make sure nobody else does. More sensible mistake theorists, who recognise this imperative, would focus on improving power structures themselves, for example by improving voting systems. But we should consider suspect any small group of people with the power to change how governments work; to be legitimate, they have to represent a large group of people, who need to be convinced to care - probably by a conflict theorist. Perhaps one day someone will design a system with so many checks and balances that the process of avoiding tyranny is practically automatic. But more likely, the struggle to rally people without power to keep the powerful in check will be a Red Queen's race that we simply need to keep running for as long as we want prosperity to last.


  1. I've only recently read Scott's and your articles, and it provides some interesting perspectives on the sorts of political machinations I've seen play out over the past few years.

    And while I agree with you that a lot of the hard work is done by conflict theorists, I disagree that this somehow comes "first". Analyzing a situation to decide which change needs to be made is firmly in the mistake theorists camp. Conflict theory just doesn't seem to lend itself to the sort of nuanced analysis needed, at least in my mind.

    1. Nuanced analysis by itself isn't intrinsically mistake-theoretic. While there seems to be some correlation between being an analytic person and being a mistake theorist, it's also quite possible that your analysis leads you to conclude that the biggest barrier to change is other people whose goals oppose yours, who you'll therefore come into conflict with. So conflict theory comes first in the sense that only once enough powerful people's goals are aligned with yours does it make sense to focus on the policy proposals to achieve those goals.


  2. I think one issue I see with this discussion is that if you have a mistake theorist and a conflict theorist both working towards some goal, conflict theorists will look at the situation and claim credit. "This is what we were fighting for. We got it. So we got it because we were fighting for it." Conflict theory consistently ignores the possiblity that this chain of logic might have failed at any point or that anyone else might have been working on the project.

    The element of Scott's essay that most forced me to update my views was categorizing Public Choice theory as 'mistake theory' rather than 'conflict theory.' Previously, I would have described Public Choice theory as a more enlightened form of conflict theory (though I wouldn't have used that precise term at the time.) After Scott's essay I'm more likely to view Public Choice theory as the means by which Mistake Theory addresses things like conflict of interest.

    "It took a lot of effort from a lot of conflict theorists"

    If cross cultural comparisons mean anything, the industrial revolution was more predictive of the elimination of slavery than any particular form of political advocacy.

    You seem to be assuming that all major progress comes from conflict theorists. The biggest problem with those who rely exclusively on conflict theory is that they tend to have fewer mechanisms to question their own beliefs. For Mistake theorists, self-questioning and falsifiable theory seems to be their bread and butter. The result is that mistake theory produces falsifiable theories and refines itself and conflict theory is far slower to do so. The Green Party was able to claim that global warming was an issue while still opposing Nuclear power. Without nuclear power or some other form of baseload generation or futuristic power storage or futuristic power transmittance it's generally not possible to go above about +25% wind power + solar power.

    If the Greens had been more reflective and willing to question their own beliefs they might have helped us to take serious action against climate change 30 years ago. Instead of being a stepping stone they were a stubling block on the most critical issue for that time period.



  3. "Taxation in many Western countries is pretty screwed up..."

    This paragraph confuses me. You start with the apparent understanding that a high top marginal rate isn't, in itself, a victory. A system which claims to reduce wealth inequality but which highly taxes the upper middle class while allowing tax breaks to the super wealthy is empty virtue signaling. It fails to accomplish its stated goal. Yet "it fails to accomplish its goal" doesn't seem sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a given methodology is problematic.

    "who made strong moral arguments about the duties of the wealthy to pay back to society."

    Such arguments existed centuries ago. Nobless oblige.

    "But that wasn't nearly as true back when social safety nets and labour regulations just didn't exist, working conditions were atrocious, and debtors were thrown in prison."

    Throwing debtors in prison sounds a lot like something that would be targeted by mistake theory. You can't pay off your debts in prison, after all. And again, I think you give too much unproven credit to conflict theorists. Did improved economic activity improve working conditions?
    Arguably it did, quite a bit. By automatically giving all credit to conflict theorists it becomes impossible to consider that anyone else may have been making progress on the problem.

    "Global warming, where the wealthy countries and people who emit massive amounts of emissions are screwing over everyone else, including future generations."

    Those wealthy countries are also contributing a good share of technological advancements which will pave the way away from a reliance on fossil fuels. I don't see how demonizing 'wealthy countries' tangibly moves us forward. I can understand how removing onerous restrictions on nuclear power moves us forward.

    "Factory farming, where everyone who eats meat is screwing over lots of animals."

    I can see that view, certainly. But does it help more to demonize meat eaters or develop tasty meat alternatives? Why believe that mistake theorists aren't working on this problem at least as dilligently as conflict theorists.

    "But conflict theorists still have the concept of people making mistakes."

    Other people primarily, though. Can we agree that Conflict theorists are less likely to question their own beliefs than Mistake theorists?

    "They don't need to have fantasies of revolution in order to care about special interests corrupting representatives"

    Certainly. The question is whether 'caring' is a solution. If it's not, then the question is what is the most effective path forward, especially given that all major political players are influenced by special interests to a strong extent. Most commonly, the Conflict Theory approach to special interests is to favor some special interests and demonize others, to justify some elites and undermine others. I suspect a mistake theory approach is to ask; how can we design systems which are less subject to corruption.

    "There are no holders of power who do not become complacent or corrupt eventually. Overthrowing those rulers and systems comes at massive cost to all involved."

    I suspect you'll get very broad agreement on this point, even from two groups both involved in direct conflict with one another.

    "That's not to say that we should seize such control ourselves, because that will simply create a new elite - but we need to make sure nobody else does."

    The notion of balance of power as promoting a fertile playing field for mistake theorists does seem worth considering.

  4. To clarify a bit; there are non-conflict, perhaps non-mistake theory actors who generally contribute significantly to the solution to a problem. And their gains are often claimed by conflict theorists, bolstering the confidence of conflict theorists in their methods beyond what might be warranted.

    In "the fight against global warming" Intel and other chip manufacturers have contributed significantly by making processors which perform a calculation using less and less energy. But they're ignored since they weren't waving a flag while making these gains.


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