So usually I find Scott Alexander’s posts pretty illuminating but, while his recent post on Conflict vs. Mistake Theories raises lots of interesting questions I think it fundamentally makes a mistake in trying to fit the type of extreme Marxist thinking he is describing into a framework of beliefs about the world and actions taken to advance those beliefs. While I think Scott appreciates this difficulty and attempts to wrestle with it, e.g., where he suggests the conflict theory take on is best exemplified by the “Baffler’s article saying that public choice theory is racist” ultimately his devotion to applying norms of charity to the other side leads him astray.
It’s not that there aren’t people like the conflict theorist Scott posits. I know there are a number of radical university professors who think to themselves, “Given the oppressive political structure and the power held by the elite the most effective way to bring about change isn’t to engage in rational argument but bring political or even physical force to bear.” However, for the most part the people Scott is trying to describe aren’t just like mistake theorists except they believe its intentional action by elites which makes the world bad rather than the difficulty of governing. No, such a theory would predict conflict theorists would retire back to their coffeehouses and perform cost-benefit calculations about the benefits of holding a particular protest or adopting a particular style of advocacy.
In other words conflict theorists aren’t mistake theorists who hide their true colors so as not to give the elites free ammunition but engage in the same kind of considerations as mistake theorists behind the scenes. No, fundamentally, most of the behavior Scott is seeking to describe is about emotional responses not a considered judgement that such emotional displays will best accomplish their ends.