Mistake Versus Conflict Theory of Against Billionaire Philanthropy

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Response To (SlateStarCodex): Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy

I agree with all the central points in Scott Alexander’s Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy. I find his statements accurate and his arguments convincing. I have quibbles with specific details and criticisms of particular actions.

He and I disagree on much regarding the right ways to be effective, whether or not it is as an altruist. None of that has any bearing on his central points.

We violently agree that it is highly praiseworthy and net good for the world to use one’s resources in attempts to improve the world. And that if we criticize rather than praise such actions, we will get less of them.

We also violently agree that one should direct those resources towards where one believes they would do the most good, to the best one of one’s ability. One should not first giving those resources to an outside organization one does not control and which mostly does not use resources wisely or aim to make the world better, in the hopes that it can be convinced to use those resources wisely and aim to make the world better.

We again violently agree that privately directed efforts of wealthy individuals often do massive amounts of obvious good, on average are much more effective, and have some of the most epic wins of history to their names. Scott cites only the altruistic wins and effectiveness here, which I’d normally object to, but which in context I’ll allow.

And so on.

Where we disagree is why anyone is opposing billionaire philanthropy. 

We disagree that Scott’s post is a useful thing to write. I agree with everything he says, but expect it to convince less than zero people to support his position.

Scott laid out our disagreement in his post Conflict vs. Mistake.

Scott is a mistake theorist. That’s not our disagreement here.

Our disagreement is that he’s failing to model that his opponents here are all pure conflict theorists.

Because, come on. Read their quotes. Consider their arguments.

Remember Scott’s test from Conflict vs. Mistake (the Jacobite piece in question is about how communists ignore problems of public choice):

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.

I read Scott’s recent post as having exactly this confusion. There is no disagreement about what the mistake is. There are people who are opposed to billionaires, or who support higher taxes. There are people opposed to nerds or to thinking. There are people opposed to all private actions not under ‘democratic control’.  There are people who are opposed to action of any kind. 

There are also people who enjoy mocking people, and in context don’t care about much else. All they know is that as long as they ‘punch up’ they get a free pass to mock to their heart’s content.

Then there are those who realize there is scapegoating of people that the in-group dislikes, that this is the politically wise side to be on, and so they get on the scapegoat train for self-advancement and/or self-protection.

Scott on the other hand thinks it would be a mistake to even mention or consider such concepts as motivations, for which he cites his post Caution on Bias Arguments.

Caution is one thing. Sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring most of what is going on is another.

One can be a mistake theorist, in the sense that one thinks that the best way to improve the world is to figure out and debate what is going on, and what actions, rules or virtues would cause what results, then implement the best solutions.

One cannot be an effective mistake theorist, without acknowledging that there are a lot of conflict theorists out there. The models that don’t include this fact get reality very wrong. If you use one of those models, your model doesn’t work. You get your causes and effects wrong. Your solutions therefore won’t work.

There already were approximately zero mistake theorists against billionaire philanthropy in general, even if many of them oppose particular implementations.

Thus, I expect the main response to Scott’s post to mainly be that people read it or hear about it or see a link to it, and notice that there are billionaires out there to criticize. That this is what we are doing next. That there is a developing consensus that it is politically wise and socially cool to be against billionaire philanthropy as a way of being against billionaires. They see an opportunity, and a new trend they must keep up with.

I expect a few people to notice the arguments and update in favor of billionaire philanthropy being better than they realized, but those people to be few, and that them tacking on an extra zero in the positive impact estimation column does not change their behavior much.

There were some anti-government arguments in the post, in the hopes that people will update their general world models and then propagate that update onto billionaire philanthropy. They may convince a few people to shift political positions, but less than if those arguments were presented in another context, because the context here is in support of billionaires. Those who do will probably still mostly fail to propagate the changes to the post’s central points.

Thus, I expect the post to backfire.

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