Pluralism, Power, Mistakes, and Conflict.

The political theory of pluralism holds that power in liberal democracies is distributed among many different groups, whose interests conflict or align in ways that shift over time. It’s partially a descriptive theory, meant to explain how liberal democracies actually work, but also a prescriptive theory, in that most people who believe that pluralism is how things work also believe that pluralism is a good way for things to work.

Pluralists are often accused of ignoring the fact that some groups are consistently more powerful than others – in particular, Marxists believe that Capital is significantly more powerful than all other groups, and that Labor is the only other group powerful enough to challenge it. While not all Leftists are Marxists, most nevertheless believe in some similar “bipolar” model of power (in some specific cases called a “Power Elite” model): Corporations versus the People, the Kyriarchy versus the Oppressed, and so on. Far-right theorists don’t participate much in mainstream political science, but if they did, they would probably criticize pluralism using similar models – Secular Humanism versus Christianity, Jews versus Aryans, the Cathedral versus whoever neoreactionaries think the good guys are, the West versus the Caliphate, the Caliphate versus the West, and so on.

I think that Scott Alexander’s posts earlier this year about “Conflict vs. Mistake Theory” – which he said he hopes are “groping at something useful” – point to divisions that are essentially not about conflicts and mistakes, but about pluralist versus elite/bipolar theories of power.  Scott’s posts imply that Marxism is an archetypal example of “Conflict Theory”, and that Public Choice is an archetypal example of “Mistake Theory.”

When I say that Public Choice is not essentially about mistakes and Marxism is not essentially about conflicts, what I mean is that both ways of looking at the world involve mistakes and conflicts:

  1. Marxists believe that, via false consciousness, the vast majority of people are mistaken about their interests.  In fact, Power Elite theorists pretty much have to believe in something like false consciousness: The People are the good guys, but most of them aren’t Power Elite theorists, and are either okay with the power structure or at least not ready to rise up against it.  So the theory requires an explanation for why the only people who believe in it are a revolutionary vanguard.
  2. Public Choice theorists believe that interest groups within the government are constantly in conflict with the public and with each other.  And they typically believe that interest groups are not mistaken about their own interests, but that the public is often mistaken about the consequences of policy changes.

So it’s hard to say that “mistake” versus “conflict” really captures the central features of these philosophies.  Nevertheless, I think Scott is observing something real – taken as a whole, a Public Choice theorist is likely to see more disagreements in terms of mistake-not-conflict than a Marxist is.

Why?  I think it’s probably just a fox versus hedgehog thing, in Tetlock’s sense of the metaphor.  Pluralists are foxes, almost by definition – they thing that political power consists of many things, whereas hedgehogs believe that political power consists of only one thing – the Elite.  Tetlock’s foxes are temperamentally predisposed to seeing conflicts as more complex and ambiguous than hedgehogs are, and thus to ascribing disagreement more to mistake than to conflict.

My sympathies are broadly with the pluralists, but I don’t want to present either model as entirely correct. There really are major, persistent asymmetries in power, and a pluralist theory that can’t reckon with those in inadequate. And I think a certain kind of naive pluralism – i.e. complete unawareness of power altogether – is pretty much the default condition of political ignorance.  But too deep an investment in a bipolar model can also lead to head-slapping mistakes. I think it’s safe to say that center-left columnist Jonathan Chait counts as either a “Mistake Theorist” or a “Pluralist”, according to our dichotomies, and that Jacobin writer Seth Ackerman is a “Conflict Theorist” or a “Power Elite” theorist, as indicated by the helpfully bipolar title, “Which Side Are They On?”

Ackerman argues that Republicans aren’t actually against subsidizing care for the poor, but that they rather care exclusively about increasing the profits of insurance companies. This is consistent with bipolar model in which there are only two meaningful interest groups: Corporations and The People, with party politics merely an epiphenomenon. It’s not, as Chait points out, consistent with what Republicans actually say or do.  Interestingly, neither Chait nor Ackerman thinks the GOP has made a “mistake” here – they each think that Republicans have different values than liberals or leftists, but they disagree as to what exactly those values are.

Does viewing this dichotomy in terms of pluralist versus elite models of power, rather than mistake versus conflict theories, change any of the implications of the model?  The free speech issue is cast in a slightly different light. It’s not that pluralists think that free and open debate will necessarily correct mistaken beliefs; rather:

  1. Free and open debate allows all groups to articulate their interests and demands.
  2. Any system for restricting debate will itself be the subject of conflict among interest groups, who will use it to advance their own narrow interests.

A purely bipolar theorist scoffs at these arguments; if there are only two interest groups, and one is good and the other is evil, then there is no reason to allow the bad guys to articulate their interests, and using the system of censorship to advance the interests of the good guys is exactly what we want.

Scott’s “Mistake versus Conflict” model has a curious property in that it gets really weird when it turns its own lens on itself.  As Scott says:

There’s a meta-level problem in trying to understand the position “don’t try to understand other positions and engage with them on their own terms” and engage with it on its own terms.

But I think that makes things more complicated than they need to be.  Maybe Tetlock could sit the two of them down, test them and find that Chait is a fox and Ackerman is a hedgehog.  This doesn’t imply any asymmetry in how they view each other, or other political actors; I suspect that Jonathan Chait thinks Donald Trump is a sociopath and Seth Ackerman is a fool and a blowhard, and that Seth Ackerman likewise thinks Donald Trump is a sociopath and Jonathan Chait is a fool and a blowhard.


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