In Defence of Conflict Theory

by Richard_Ngo9 min read17th Feb 201810 comments

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Conflict vs Mistake
Personal Blog

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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I think there are many interesting things to say about politics. (I've got a few sitting in my draft folder too.) But it's a bit of a slippery slope. In the SSC subreddit, the politics thread gets more content than all the rest combined, by far. If they had a "recent comments" feed, it would be pretty much useless for anything except politics. We probably don't want that to happen on LW2.0, so I'd like to see a specific plan from mods that will prevent that from happening. For example, a blanket rule of "no politics ever" could be a good idea. Or it could be less heavy-handed than that. But we need a plan! Otherwise political arguments will drown out the rest.

Current plan is that we will move anything political off the frontpage, and hide the comments on it from the frontpage (the second part is not yet technically implemented). Stuff in the personal blog section does get significantly less engagement, and if we ever notice that the core site experience gets clogged up with low quality stuff from the personal blogs, we would probably continue to decrease the visibility of personal blog content until it’s no longer a problem. This might not yet be enough, but it seems good enough that I think waiting until we see more problems pop up is the correct call.

I'd like a clearer definition of what counts as politics. Some examples are easy to classify, but this post doesn't feel that way to me.

There was a recent post about the ethics of eating meat, and earlier posts on EA. Presumably these didn't count as "politics". But those two subjects are some of the examples given in the current post, and some of the others are uncontroversial (e.g. boo slavery).

ETA: ChristianKI's comment does seem clearly more politicised than the OP. But I wouldn't have predicted the discussion would go there just from reading the OP. And the thread I'm commenting on is older than that comment.

Dan, great to see you on LW2.0!

I don't know what definition of politics the mods will use, but recently I came up with an interesting definition for my own use, and this margin is just wide enough to share it :-)

Basically I think the predicate "is it political?" doesn't apply to beliefs. All beliefs are value-neutral, even the most controversial ones. Only arguments for or against beliefs can be political or not. Political arguments are based on who benefits and who loses from a belief. As opposed to rational arguments, which are based on evidence about the belief's truth or falsity.

Examples:

"Views like yours have been historically used to justify horrible things, so I'd like to civilly ask you to consider the connotations" - political argument, makes life worse for everyone

"You're a fucking moron, google this study by Joe Scientist that says your braindead opinion is incompatible with basic facts" - rational argument, makes life better for everyone

This is slightly exaggerated, but close to what I actually believe. Or at least I can breathe easily in a group of people talking like #2, while remarks like #1 feel like a poisonous fog to me even coming from my side.

Though I'm not sure I'd adopt this as a norm for moderation. Some beliefs seem to attract political arguments so strongly that it's easier to just stop people from discussing them here.

Thanks! I'm trying to return to a more active commenting lifestyle.

Yours is a reasonable definition of "is it political?" but I think it's a very different sense from that which was forbidden on LW 1.0, as I understood it. The idea there was to avoid discussing any subject that was a live political debate (implicitly: in the US), because those are the debates that seemed most likely to become mindkilling.

So it was fine to say slavery and Nazism are bad, because (in the US) these are politically settled subjects, even though they're very political in themselves. And it was also fine to argue for very far-outside-the-mainstream ideas like UBI or cryonics, because they are so fringe that there's no politically or culturally active movement attacking them. But it probably wouldn't be fine to argue about abortion rights or open borders.

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.

Upvoted for bring up this argument, which is new to me.

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.

This doesn't make much sense in two of your examples: factory farming and concern for future generations. In those cases it seems that you instead have to convince the "powerful" that they are wrong.

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?

Do you have any group or movement in mind that fits into this category?

I think besides "power corrupts", my main problem with "conflict theorists" is that optimizing for gaining power often requires "political correctness", i.e., implicitly or explicitly ignoring certain facts that are inconvenient for building a social movement or gaining power. And then this political correctness gets embedded into the power structure as unquestionable "truths" once the social movement actually gains power, and subsequently causes massive policy distortions. (Whereas "power corrupts" has more to do with being corrupted after obtaining power.) Do you have a response or thoughts on this?

ETA: Perhaps "ideology" is a better word to use here, because "politically correct" has specific connotations that I don't mean to invoke.

This doesn't make much sense in two of your examples: factory farming and concern for future generations. In those cases it seems that you instead have to convince the "powerful" that they are wrong.

I think it's quite a mistake-theoretic view to think that factory farming persists because powerful people are wrong about it. Instead, the (conflict-theoretic) view which I'd defend here is something like "It doesn't matter what politicians think about the morality of factory farming, very few politicians are moral enough to take the career hit of standing up for what's right when it's unpopular, and many are being bought off by the evil meat/farming lobbies. So we need to muster enough mass popular support that politicians see which way the wind is blowing and switch sides en masse (like they did with gay marriage)."

Then the relevance to "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" is simply that there's no long-term way to change politicians from being weak-willed and immoral - you just need to keep fighting through all these individual issues as they come up.

I think besides "power corrupts", my main problem with "conflict theorists" is that optimizing for gaining power often requires [ideology], i.e., implicitly or explicitly ignoring certain facts that are inconvenient for building a social movement or gaining power. And then this [ideology] gets embedded into the power structure as unquestionable "truths" once the social movement actually gains power, and subsequently causes massive policy distortions.

(Warning: super simplified, off the cuff thoughts here, from a perspective I only partially endorse): I guess my inner conflict theorist believes that it's okay for there to be significant distortions in policy as long as there are mechanisms by which new ideologies can arise to address them, and that it's worthwhile to have this in exchange for dynamism and less political stagnation.

Like, you know what was one of the biggest policy distortions of all time? World War 2. And yet it had a revitalising effect on the American economy, decreased inequality, and led to a boom period.

Whereas if you don't have new ideologies rising and gaining power, then you can go around fixing individual problems all day, but the core allocation of power in society will become so entrenched that the policy distortions are disastrous.

(Edited to add: this feels relevant.)

Yeah, Vitalik's "On Collusion" definitely seems relevant (I was going to mention that myself before I saw you add it). And I also had a thought that this ties into Paul's "strategy-stealing assumption" which basically is an assumption of "end of history", i.e., that allocation of power will be entrenched.

My takeaway from all this so far is that "history" consists of powerless people gaining power by better coordinating amongst themselves, which often involved ideology (non-epistemic beliefs). My guess is that with the advent of AGI, "history" might look very different, with "better coordinating" looking more like technological advances (e.g., better approximation to utility maximizers who can merge) instead of politics and ideology.

At least one difference from today is that the powerless today at least control their own bodies and labor, and the powerful do not actually have much physical power and instead have to depend on social structures to enforce their power and achieve their goals. So with enough coordination the powerless can simply ignore/overthrow the existing power structures. With AI though (even if intent-aligned), humans who are "powerless" today could become literally powerless.

So we need to muster enough mass popular support that politicians see which way the wind is blowing and switch sides en masse (like they did with gay marriage).”

Sorry, illusion of transparency strikes again here. What I meant by "powerful" in that sentence was "humans" not "politicians". I'm interested in having a chat about this topic where maybe we can talk more efficiently. Please PM or email me if you're also interested.

Whereas if you don’t have new ideologies rising and gaining power, then you can go around fixing individual problems all day, but the core allocation of power in society will become so entrenched that the policy distortions are disastrous.

ETA: I would be interested in understanding your perspective here better. Why do you think entrenchment of allocation of power will lead to disaster?

I hadn't read this post when it came out, apparently (or forgot about it). Thanks for bumping it to my attention

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.

Obama claimed for himself the powers of a tyrant of being able to kill citizens of his country without due process.

If you prefer to look beyond right to impacts on average personal freedom maybe incaration rates are a better metric. While incaration rates did fall a bit under Obama's reign in 2017 the US was still the country with the second highest incaration rates overall.

US police takes more money in legalized robbery than burglars do in the US.

When James Clapper can commit the felony of lying to congress about not surveilling Americans without prosecuted, it's also pretty clear that the rule of law currently doesn't fully apply to all members of the US elite.

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.

In think there's a lot wrong with the sentiment in that paragraph. There's no golden past where politics was completely uncorrupted and was as idealistic as they tell you in school. The internment of the Japanese during WWII would be a very graphic example of how democracy can't prevent tyrany that's a bit older.

Constant viligence gets you to fight for a repeal of Citizens United, when what's actually needed is public financing of elections because money is an universial currency that always finds a way to be used. If you can't buy ads in a newspaper you can buy the newspaper or give the politicans kids high paying jobs.

On the other hand, public financing of elections would make more candidates viable who don't want to bend to corporate donors. All the evidence that we have also points in the direction of huge spending for political campaigns having an effect that's much smaller than commonly believed.

There's a lot of harm done by presenting political advertising as more effective than it actually is. Because of the belief in the effectivness of political advertising candidates who can't get much money get discouraged from running and politicians feel pressured to spent so much time with fundraising.

Political consultants make a lot of money by pretending that political advertising has a larger effect than it has. Reformers who want to fight "money in politics" but who are bad at mistake theory don't understand that they might make the problem worse by increasing polticians belief that the amount of money they raise matters so much.

The systems of political power are opague enough that it not easy to challenge them without understanding them.