Con­flict the­ory vs. mis­take theory

TagLast edit: 7 May 2021 13:16 UTC by Pablo

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 (Alexander 2018a), though Alexander credits an earlier blog post for the distinction (no_bear_so_low 2017), which itself relates to the contrast in academic sociology between conflict theory and structural functionalism (Marshall 1998: 108-109).


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 (Alexander 2019), 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 (Mowshowitz 2019).

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 (Ngo 2019). 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.)


Alexander, Scott (2018a) Conflict vs. mistake, Slate Star Codex, January 24.

Alexander, Scott (2018b) Highlights from the comments on conflict vs. mistake, Slate Star Codex, January 29.

Alexander, Scott (2019) Against against billionaire philanthropy, Slate Star Codex, July 29.

Marshall, Gordon (ed.) (1998) A Dictionary of Sociology, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mowshowitz, Zvi (2019) Mistake versus conflict theory of against billionaire philanthropy, LessWrong, August 1.

Ngo, Richard (2018) In defence of conflict theory, Thinking Complete, February 16.

no_bear_so_low (2017) Socialism, communism and Marxism pt: 1, on trust and trust surveys, Reddit, October 7.

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