In Defence of Conflict Theory

Link post

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.

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.

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 high min­i­mum wages and ex­ten­sive af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. A mis­take the­o­rist might be right in say­ing that what’s cur­rently most nec­es­sary for them to suc­ceed is not more poli­ti­cal fire­power to push those poli­cies through, but rather a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of which poli­cies will lead to the best effects (at least in Europe). 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 well-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 fair share. 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; 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.

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