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Conflict theory vs. mistake theory

Conflict theory and mistake theory are two contrasting frameworks for analyzing political disagreements. Roughly, mistake theorists treat politics as a problem to be solved, whereas conflict theories treat politics as a war to be won. These two frameworks were articulated by Scott Alexander in a 2018 blog post,[1] though Alexander credits an earlier blog post for the distinction,[2] which itself relates to the contrast in academic sociology between conflict theory and structural functionalism.[3]


The conflict vs. mistake distinction has been applied to explain recent criticisms of billionaire philanthropy. While some mistake theorists have offered a number of plausible reasons why such criticisms are mistaken,[4] other mistake theorists note that the criticisms are made by conflict theorists, and that failure to acknowledge this fact will cause those criticisms to be misunderstood and to offer ineffective responses to them.[5]

Some argue that, while at the current margin a mistake theory mindset is probably most conducive to political progress than a conflict theory mindset, for most human history the reverse was in fact the case.[6] For example, the "tax the rich" approach favored by conflict theorists may be currently inferior to the "let's design a more rational tax code" approach favored by mistake theorists, yet it is arguably the reason why progressive taxation exists at all (which both conflict and mistake theorists generally regard as desirable). Overall, the most obvious gains in any given area may come from overruling those who benefit from the status quo, and conflict theory is arguably much better positioned than mistake theory to accomplish this goal. (Mistake theorists might object that whether one should try to fight entrenched interests or instead adopt a less conflict-oriented solution is itself a question that conflict theory is ill-equipped to answer.)


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Posts tagged Conflict theory vs. mistake theory