Mistake Versus Conflict Theory of Against Billionaire Philanthropy

post by Zvi · 2019-08-01T13:10:01.408Z · score: 28 (23 votes) · LW · GW · 34 comments

Response To (SlateStarCodex): Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy

I agree with all the central points in Scott Alexander’s Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy. I find his statements accurate and his arguments convincing. I have quibbles with specific details and criticisms of particular actions.

He and I disagree on much regarding the right ways to be effective, whether or not it is as an altruist. None of that has any bearing on his central points.

We violently agree that it is highly praiseworthy and net good for the world to use one’s resources in attempts to improve the world. And that if we criticize rather than praise such actions, we will get less of them.

We also violently agree that one should direct those resources towards where one believes they would do the most good, to the best one of one’s ability. One should not first giving those resources to an outside organization one does not control and which mostly does not use resources wisely or aim to make the world better, in the hopes that it can be convinced to use those resources wisely and aim to make the world better.

We again violently agree that privately directed efforts of wealthy individuals often do massive amounts of obvious good, on average are much more effective, and have some of the most epic wins of history to their names. Scott cites only the altruistic wins and effectiveness here, which I’d normally object to, but which in context I’ll allow.

And so on.

Where we disagree is why anyone is opposing billionaire philanthropy. 

We disagree that Scott’s post is a useful thing to write. I agree with everything he says, but expect it to convince less than zero people to support his position.

Scott laid out our disagreement in his post Conflict vs. Mistake.

Scott is a mistake theorist. That’s not our disagreement here.

Our disagreement is that he’s failing to model that his opponents here are all pure conflict theorists.

Because, come on. Read their quotes. Consider their arguments.

Remember Scott’s test from Conflict vs. Mistake (the Jacobite piece in question is about how communists ignore problems of public choice):

What would the conflict theorist argument against the Jacobite piece look like? Take a second to actually think about this. Is it similar to what I’m writing right now – an explanation of conflict vs. mistake theory, and a defense of how conflict theory actually describes the world better than mistake theory does?

No. It’s the Baffler’s article saying that public choice theory is racist, and if you believe it you’re a white supremacist. If this wasn’t your guess, you still don’t understand that 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.

I read Scott’s recent post as having exactly this confusion. There is no disagreement about what the mistake is. There are people who are opposed to billionaires, or who support higher taxes. There are people opposed to nerds or to thinking. There are people opposed to all private actions not under ‘democratic control’.  There are people who are opposed to action of any kind. 

There are also people who enjoy mocking people, and in context don’t care about much else. All they know is that as long as they ‘punch up’ they get a free pass to mock to their heart’s content.

Then there are those who realize there is scapegoating of people that the in-group dislikes, that this is the politically wise side to be on, and so they get on the scapegoat train for self-advancement and/or self-protection.

Scott on the other hand thinks it would be a mistake to even mention or consider such concepts as motivations, for which he cites his post Caution on Bias Arguments.

Caution is one thing. Sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring most of what is going on is another.

One can be a mistake theorist, in the sense that one thinks that the best way to improve the world is to figure out and debate what is going on, and what actions, rules or virtues would cause what results, then implement the best solutions.

One cannot be an effective mistake theorist, without acknowledging that there are a lot of conflict theorists out there. The models that don’t include this fact get reality very wrong. If you use one of those models, your model doesn’t work. You get your causes and effects wrong. Your solutions therefore won’t work.

There already were approximately zero mistake theorists against billionaire philanthropy in general, even if many of them oppose particular implementations.

Thus, I expect the main response to Scott’s post to mainly be that people read it or hear about it or see a link to it, and notice that there are billionaires out there to criticize. That this is what we are doing next. That there is a developing consensus that it is politically wise and socially cool to be against billionaire philanthropy as a way of being against billionaires. They see an opportunity, and a new trend they must keep up with.

I expect a few people to notice the arguments and update in favor of billionaire philanthropy being better than they realized, but those people to be few, and that them tacking on an extra zero in the positive impact estimation column does not change their behavior much.

There were some anti-government arguments in the post, in the hopes that people will update their general world models and then propagate that update onto billionaire philanthropy. They may convince a few people to shift political positions, but less than if those arguments were presented in another context, because the context here is in support of billionaires. Those who do will probably still mostly fail to propagate the changes to the post’s central points.

Thus, I expect the post to backfire.

34 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2019-08-01T17:34:11.881Z · score: 108 (37 votes) · LW · GW

Rob Reich is a former board member of GiveWell and Good Ventures (i.e. Moskowitz and Tuna) and the people at OpenPhil seem to have a huge amount of respect for him. He responded to my article by tweeting "Really grateful to have my writing taken seriously by someone whose blog I've long enjoyed and learned from" and promising to write a reply soon.

Dylan Matthews, who wrote the Vox article I linked (I don’t know if he is against billionaire philanthropy, but he seems to hold some sympathy for the position), self-describes as EA, has donated a kidney, and switched from opposing work on AI risk to supporting it after reading arguments on the topic.

And here's someone on the subreddit saying that they previously had some sympathy for anti-billionaire-philanthropy arguments but are now more convinced that it's net positive.

I don’t think any of these people fit your description of “people opposed to nerds or to thinking”, “people opposed to all private actions not under ‘democratic control’”, or “people opposed to action of any kind.” They seem like basically good people who I disagree with. I am constantly surprised by how many things that seem obvious and morally obligatory to me can have basically good people disagree with them, and I have kind of given up on trying to understand it, but there we go.

Even if there are much worse people in the movement, I think getting Reich and Matthews alone to dial it down 10% would be very net positive, since they're among the most prominent opponents.

I was concerned about backlash and ran the post by a couple of people I trusted to see if they thought it was net positive, and they all said it was. If you want I'll run future posts I have those concerns about by you too.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2019-08-01T21:43:38.165Z · score: 32 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Rob Reich is a former board member of GiveWell and Good Ventures (i.e. Moskowitz and Tuna) and the people at OpenPhil seem to have a huge amount of respect for him.

Any idea what earned him such respect? His way of thinking is pretty alien to me, for example:

That’s why, independent of a tax break, what philanthropists do doesn’t deserve our automatic praise. It deserves an examination about whether it’s consistent with democratic governance as a whole, and then to be praised if it is and potentially to be rejected if it’s not.

Why is "consistent with democratic governance" the criteria here instead of say "expected to raise human welfare in the long run" (or something more cosmopolitan)? Why is "democratic governance" assumed to be automatically good, as opposed to full of problems that could potentially be ameliorated by philanthropists operating outside of it? I wonder if he wrote something in the past that impressed the people at OpenPhil (which might explain his way of thinking better to me as well).

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2019-08-02T10:42:26.590Z · score: 12 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Please note: I'm writing this not to denounce, but to try to understand a mode of thinking that I am unfamiliar with.

For once I find myself at odds with the common sentiment here. I'm one of those people who are convinced neither by Scott Alexander nor the OP.

Among other points, I fear, if we do as they said, that we'll start self-censoring our speech towards billionaires donation; over time and through halo effect, this could lead to social censoring of any criticsm of billionaires. I can already see it in the way SA uses the loaded word "attacks on billionaire philanthropy" rather than "criticism of billionaire philanthropy".

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say the difference between us is that most LW's posters probably are closer to billionaires, geographically, socially, and in their values, than I. Maybe they are not worried because they can relate to billionaires in ways that I can't.

There is no denying that through tax rebates the donators are leveraging everyone's tax money. This is "a plutocratic element in a democratic setting." as Rob Reich says. The fact that it worries no one here makes me wonder: would you have another government rather than democracy?

Again I'm not trying to corner you into breaking a taboo. I'm legitimately curious.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2019-08-02T14:02:05.138Z · score: 14 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There is no denying that through tax rebates the donators are leveraging everyone’s tax money.

It seems equally valid to say that donors are only leveraging their own tax money, because donations can only reduce your tax bill to zero (or not even that because only donations up to half of your income is tax deductable), and not to a negative number.

This is “a plutocratic element in a democratic setting.” as Rob Reich says. The fact that it worries no one here makes me wonder:

Worried about what? That there's some kind of slippery slope where billionaire philanthropy starts a process that eventually causes us have a non-democratic form of government, or that “a plutocratic element in a democratic setting” is bad even if there is no risk of that? I guess people aren't worried about the former because it seems far fetched, and they aren't worried about the latter because empirically it seems like the "plutocratic element" is trying and succeeding in solving a bunch of problems that our democracy is failing to solve. (Scott's post gave a number of examples of this.)

would you have another government rather than democracy?

You seem to be thinking that if one believes "“a plutocratic element in a democratic setting" to be better than a pure democracy, then one must believe a plutocracy to be better than a democracy. But nothing says that a mix of plutocracy and democracy can't be better than both of their pure forms.

Does this answer your question? Do you care to explain more what you are worried about?

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2019-08-02T16:01:41.826Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW
It seems equally valid to say that donors are only leveraging their own tax money, because donations can only reduce your tax bill to zero (or not even that because only donations up to half of your income is tax deductable), and not to a negative number.

Let's say that a bunch of people owe me money. If I give a discount to one of them, clearly, that discount is a present. It's money I give to that person.

The way I see it, when someone gives 100$ to a charity with 40% tax deduction, what actually happens is that the person gives 60$ to the charity, and the state matches that with 40$ of its own taxpayer's money. The fact that the state's gift is limited to the amount of the person's taxes is irrelevant to the nature of the transaction.

As Rob Reich concludes :

So the citizens of the United States are collectively subsidizing, through foregone tax collection, the giving preferences of the wealthy to a much greater degree than the giving preferences of the middle class or poor. And, of course, the giving preferences of the wealthy are not a mirror of the giving preferences of all people.

Worried about what? That there's some kind of slippery slope where billionaire philanthropy starts a process that eventually causes us have a non-democratic form of government, or that “a plutocratic element in a democratic setting” is bad even if there is no risk of that?

Certainly, I see that plutocratic element as an erosion of democracy. But it's not the only one. The whole electoral system is already bad enough; the leaders, elected and unlected, are unaccountable, and generally unwilling to even discuss a lot of measures that the majority of the voters ask for. Using our taxes to finance some rich guy's pet charity is just another nail in the coffin.

the "plutocratic element" is trying and succeeding in solving a bunch of problems that our democracy is failing to solve.

Democracy is certainly not the most expedient. But it has arisen because History has taught us to be wary of forms of power that are too expedient. The point of democracy is precisely to have safeguards against unilateral use of power.

Reich doesn't want to outlaw billionaire philanthropy. All he says is that it shouldn't be subsidized by the taxpayer's money, and that it should be closely scrutinized before rolling out the red carpet. I only see good practice here.

Edit : last minute idea. Billionaire philanthropists probably do a whole lot of good. But giving them credit for all of it would be comparing against a hypothetical world where billionaire philanthropy would be replaced by nothing. But we don't know. We might have a world where good charity is done another way, maybe even better. In any case, even if you think Reich's charitable credit would do worse, only the difference should be credited to our current system.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2019-08-02T17:47:47.926Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, so by "everyone's tax money" you meant "the government's tax money" whereas I interpreted it as "your and other people's tax money" (i.e., that you could leverage more tax money than you owed yourself).

Certainly, I see that plutocratic element as an erosion of democracy. But it’s not the only one. The whole electoral system is already bad enough; the leaders, elected and unlected, are unaccountable, and generally unwilling to even discuss a lot of measures that the majority of the voters ask for. Using our taxes to finance some rich guy’s pet charity is just another nail in the coffin.

In my view, leaders being unaccountable is the natural state of democracy, rather than an erosion of it. My perspective here comes from public choice theory. If you accept that "uneroded" democracy is just naturally full of flaws (again see public choice theory), then it wouldn't be so surprising that some people can consider "using our taxes to finance some rich guy’s pet charity" to actually be an improvement rather than an "erosion".

Democracy is certainly not the most expedient. But it has arisen because History has taught us to be wary of forms of power that are too expedient. The point of democracy is precisely to have safeguards against unilateral use of power.

It seems to me that if one could leverage more than one's own share of taxes, then that would constitute a unilateral use of power, because the state is using force to collect taxes, and directing other people's tax money essentially means you're forcing them to spend their money in a way that you want. But if you're only leveraging your own share of taxes, then it just means that the state is not forcing you to spend money the way that it wants.

But maybe by "use of power" you mean something besides "use of force"? If so, what? (The only other thing I can think of is "use of money or other resources" but that seems to cover way too much.)

Reich doesn’t want to outlaw billionaire philanthropy. All he says is that it shouldn’t be subsidized by the taxpayer’s money, and that it should be closely scrutinized before rolling out the red carpet.

Note that I wasn't objecting to the scrutiny, but to basing it on “consistent with democratic governance” instead of something like "expected to raise human welfare in the long run". Also he said "independent of a tax break [...] potentially to be rejected if it’s not." Do you know what he meant by "rejected" here? Just "criticized", or something stronger like "banned"?

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2019-08-03T08:58:05.642Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, I'm getting a feel of how you come to your conclusions.

My perspective here comes from public choice theory.

Any good reads to learn the basics?

It seems to me that if one could leverage more than one's own share of taxes, then that would constitute a unilateral use of power, because the state is using force to collect taxes, and directing other people's tax money essentially means you're forcing them to spend their money in a way that you want. But if you're only leveraging your own share of taxes, then it just means that the state is not forcing you to spend money the way that it wants.

That's just another way to describe the same facts. I call it everyone's tax money because in my mind, taxes are pooled. When the state refunds someone, it scoops money from that pool without regard from whom it comes from. You see it as a bank vault with separate boxes for each taxpayer. In your view, it's true that the billionaire only leverages their own tax money; but by doing so they escape taxes, and the critical point is that they do so more that the layman. Different perspective, same result.

But maybe by "use of power" you mean something besides "use of force"? If so, what? (The only other thing I can think of is "use of money or other resources" but that seems to cover way too much.)

I did mean the latter, as RR did when he said : Philanthropy can be an exercise of power, and even if it’s unsubsidized philanthropic power, we still are required to scrutinize its deployment.

Also he said "independent of a tax break [...] potentially to be rejected if it’s not." Do you know what he meant by "rejected" here? Just "criticized", or something stronger like "banned"?

I think the latter. Considering his example just above, it interpret it to the effect that the rule forbidding citizens to send money to the police or the army should be extended to philanthropy in some cases, especially when those cases should be or used to be the duty of the state (like the example he gives about schools).


comment by Kenny · 2019-08-20T17:36:35.406Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think there's a crucial test that could be performed, relative to your ideas (in this thread) anyways – how much of the 'against billionaire philanthropy' do you think is due to the tax rebate/refund? I think it's close to zero.

(And I don't have a problem with criticizing any philanthropy but I don't have a problem with billionaires giving large amounts generally.)

comment by Vanilla_cabs · 2019-08-31T14:39:05.680Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I can only reply for myself: around 60%.

Now you could contact RR and ask him the same question.

In any case, how do you interpret the answer?

comment by Kenny · 2019-09-08T18:13:41.387Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's a good question. Or, rather, of the several ways I can interpret it (ha), each seems interesting.

I interpret your answer as being honest and in good faith. I'd default to the same were Reich to answer, if he were to answer like you did. I'd expect most other prominent public critics to deflect in some way.

More generally, I'd interpret similar answers from others writing 'against billionaire philanthropy' as weak-moderate evidence of the same.

As to how to more precisely test that, I admit that it's probably very tricky and thus I downgrade how "crucial" a test it really is. Here's one idea:

Some billionaire, one of those previously criticized in the manner under discussion, announces that, for every philanthropic donation they make, they'll make 'matching' donations to the relevant federal, state, and municipal treasuries to 'offset' the tax rebate/refund effect of the donations.

I'd expect that, mostly, this would result in heavier criticism and increasing suspicion. I'd expect you, if asked, to moderate your own criticism or praise the offsetting directly.

'Ideally', we'd ask The Simulators of the Universe, to re-run the universe simulation and 'magically' have some kind of tax law passed that removes the refund/rebate at some point before some portion of billionaire philanthropic donations and we could measure the number and 'sentiment' of criticisms.

Realistically, we could probably much much more crudely approximate something similar, but any comparisons would inevitably be confounded by all kinds of other things.

comment by Zvi · 2019-08-01T18:42:50.436Z · score: 29 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Good data. All right. Fair enough. We'll see if it actually convinces either of them to dial it down, but at least you're live, and that's pretty good, although there's the risk that this still mostly just gives the whole thing more attention. If it works on the particular people you're addressing by name in the article, and they therefore dial it down, and this is the dominant effect, then that's a win. One can hope.

From looking briefly specifically at Reich in more detail, it appears to me that he's both making a nuanced case that the current tax and organizational structures we set aside for charitable works are bad designs, and using simple anti-billionaire and anti-action rhetoric - raising the alarm that someone might use their resources to (literally) do something that you couldn't (literally) vote against, or that someone might "seek to influence public policy," or your quote of “ask everyone involved to bend over in gratitude for her benevolence and genius in sprinkling around some social benefits.”

Here's the thing. You can be a conflict theorist and a basically good person. And when I look at what Reich is actually doing, that seems to be what's going on, to me - he's modeling this as a conflict between democracy and private interests, and not much caring about the things you care about because they don't impact the relevant conflicts. I don't know the politics or history of the whole thing, so I could be completely off base.

(The reddit comment seems like it's from someone who was basically in agreement before but nervous about things one is right to be nervous about, and happy to have that nervousness put into perspective. I do agree there's non-zero value in preaching to the choir on occasion. )

As for posts with concerns in the future, I'd be happy to join the group that reads such posts and offers thoughts. One thing I like about that is it feels (to me, and to those I share edits with) much easier to push back against things one disagrees with, when something isn't finalized. You're welcome to join my group too, if you'd like.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2019-08-02T05:53:28.207Z · score: 16 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a little confused, and I think it might be because you're using "conflict theorist" different from how I do.

For me, a conflict theorist is someone who thinks the main driver of disagreement is self-interest rather than honest mistakes. There can be mistake theorists and conflict theorists on both sides of the "is billionaire philanthropy good?" question, and on the "are individual actions acceptable even though they're nondemocratic?" question.

It sounds like you're using it differently, so I want to make sure I know exactly what you mean before replying.

You say you've given up understanding the number of basically people who disagree with things you think are obvious and morally obligatory. I suspect there's a big confusion about what 'basically good' means here, I'm making a note of it for future posting, but moving past that for now: When you examine specific cases of such disagreements happening, what do you find how often? (I keep writing possible things, but on reflection avoiding anchoring you is better)

I think I usually find we're working off different paradigms, in the really strong Kuhnian sense of paradigm.

comment by Benquo · 2019-08-04T17:03:11.469Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For me, a conflict theorist is someone who thinks the main driver of disagreement is self-interest rather than honest mistakes.

I don't see how to reconcile this with:

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.

comment by Kenny · 2019-08-20T17:43:48.960Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's pretty hard to tell what you find hard to reconcile in the two quotes.

'Politics as war' is the same as 'different sides fight for their own self-interest', e.g. "whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People".

The 'honest mistakes' perspective would be that any particular policy might be good or bad, or whatever mix thereof, and disagreements about that would be due to different beliefs and NOT due to simply supporting one's side.

comment by Zvi · 2019-08-01T18:55:59.070Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW · GW

In particular, I am not convinced Reich isn't in the class “people opposed to all private actions not under ‘democratic control" for actually impactful values of private action. Sure, he thinks it's fine to have tiny private actions that effectively add up to democratic control, but he is concerned that we can't vote a foundation's president out of office if we don't like what the foundation is doing, he talks a lot about the democratic vs. anti-democratic frame, and so on. I don't know him, but from the quotes I have to work with here...

comment by Fj_ · 2019-08-01T20:36:01.724Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

According to the links from the Scott's post, Rob Reich's position is that we should tax charitable donations at the exact same rates as all other spending, with an exception for under $1000/year donors getting 25% back. No more, no less.

I personally think that this is a blindingly stupid idea because it assumes that everyone who donates more than that will donate even more to compensate for the government taking a lion's share of their donations, because he sort of got himself into a frame of mind where he sees donations as more of a privilege to change the world according to one's wishes given to the donors, not as a lifeline for the recipients.

But nothing in the two articles about his position I read suggests anything more sinister than that misguided plan, which even makes sense on his own terms.


comment by Dagon · 2019-08-01T20:46:26.198Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

How you think about the idea depends a lot on the framing. As I understand, "we should tax donations" is actually "we should stop refunding/deducting donations". "We should tax churches and charities just like other endeavors" is more direct. Honestly, I'm in favor of private (even billionaire) philanthropy, but we should tax all activity equally without carve-outs that distort decision-making, especially since the government is so bad at distinguishing useful from useless.

To the extent that the government subsidizes it (by allowing it as a tax deduction, and by failing to tax the economic activity), the government has a say in it's use. Which I would prefer not be the case.


comment by sludgepuddle · 2019-08-01T18:03:00.707Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

So many times I've been reading your blog and I'm thinking to myself, "finally something I can post to leftist spaces to get them to trust Scott more", and then I run into one or two sentences that nix that idea. It seems to me like you've mostly given up on reaching the conflict theory left, for reasons that are obvious. I really wish you would keep trying though, they (we?) aren't as awful and dogmatic as they appear to be on the internet, nor is their philosophy as incompatible. For me, it's less a matter of actually adopting the conflict perspective, and more just taking it more seriously and making fun of it less.

comment by Kenny · 2019-08-20T17:50:12.253Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure it's really possible to reach any conflict theorists if you think their theorized conflict is a mistake.

It seems like part of the problem in doing so is that the theorized conflicts are (at least) implicitly zero-sum. I'd think it's pretty obvious, that at least 'in theory', billionaire philanthropy could be net-positive for 'The People', but it's hard to even imagine how one would go about convincing someone of that if they're already convinced that (almost) everyone's actions are attacks against the opposing side(s), e.g. philanthropy is 'really just' a way for billionaires to secure some other kind of (indirect) benefit to themselves and their class.

comment by Zvi · 2019-08-01T18:53:28.451Z · score: 2 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You say you've given up understanding the number of basically people who disagree with things you think are obvious and morally obligatory.

I suspect there's a big confusion about what 'basically good' means here, I'm making a note of it for future posting, but moving past that for now:

When you examine specific cases of such disagreements happening, what do you find how often? (I keep writing possible things, but on reflection avoiding anchoring you is better)

comment by Zvi · 2019-08-01T20:22:43.727Z · score: 16 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Further engagement with the comments here seems likely to just be demon thread bait slash be a much bigger distraction and time sink than I would like, without accomplishing much, so I'm going to withdraw from further engagement on this post. Those who do wish to discuss things are free to contact me privately, or comment on the original blog post.

Posting this here both as a public commit to myself to not comment further, and so no one expects further responses.

comment by Pattern · 2019-08-02T17:34:52.423Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for posting this post, and this last comment*. Both you and Scott made good points; I appreciated seeing this nuanced and interesting presentation of this other side of the issue. I really enjoy your blog.

*The heads up was appreciated:

and so no one expects further responses.
comment by Raemon · 2019-08-01T19:09:20.490Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I'm somewhat surprised for this to be your (Zvi's) perspective, not because I disagree about the basic conflict/mistake thing (certainly that's a lot of what's going on in at least some people's minds), but, past posts of yours have suggested you think it's sometimes important to just speak up loudly in favor of a good thing.

If billionaires are looking around and they *only* see people yelling at them, it seems nice see a high profile post from a popular blog that's speaking out more explicitly in favor of them.

(I also, separately, think there's probably a bunch of people who are sort of in the middle, who are actually confused mistake theorists who might get drawn into conflict heavy frames if there isn't a strong counterframe)

comment by Zvi · 2019-08-01T20:15:41.692Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that it is often right to speak up loudly in favor of a good thing. "Yay Billionaire Philanthropy" is very different than the double negative "Against Against".

But I also have a strong policy against speaking up about someone or something I want to get less attention rather than more being Wrong On The Internet. To the extent that I worry/worried my response post here violated that rule. It might well have done so and therefore been a mistake.

Also the thing where we keep on insisting on pretending there's good faith and good intentions everywhere and taking the arguments at face value and being cautious about bias arguments and not calling people liars or frauds and etc etc? I kind of figured "people who oppose it when those with surplus they don't need use it to help with things that need help" would be a good place to point out such behaviors and see what happens. Get some valuable data.


comment by Raemon · 2019-08-01T20:37:34.689Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

heh, I did consider whether to add an extra parenthetical that was "I'm not sure either the original post or this one were actually a good use of time, but it seemed like they probably came out of free energy that Scott and Zvi were just motivated to spend, so, shrug?", and then I ended up not writing that partly because I noticed that I didn't fully endorse weighing in myself in the first place and felt awkward something something cognitive dissonance.

comment by Dagon · 2019-08-02T16:21:01.071Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW
Also the thing where we keep on insisting on pretending there's good faith and good intentions everywhere and taking the arguments at face value and being cautious about bias arguments and not calling people liars or frauds and etc etc?

IMO, this a mix of two things: First, typical mind fallacy (and wishful thinking) that it's just unlikely that many people are so different from me that they really don't care at all about things that are pretty foundational in my moral calculus (honesty and truth-seeking). But also, there's a bit of strategy in ignoring (or at least not directly addressing) that case - even if it's true that they see only conflict, I can reduce their status by ignoring that element and focusing on things which reinforce my side's beliefs by making it seem more objectively true and less about the conflict.

In a sense, it's a sort of meta-conflict-theory: I prefer calm rational discourse, and by engaging in it even when I know it's not effective for changing some minds or resolving conflicts, I make it a little more respected and useful. I don't have to change their minds if I can show that they're neanderthal-level thinkers whose minds aren't relevant. There's far more subtlety here than in these few paragraphs, but sometimes ignoring someone's motives, especially someones unlikely to ever directly converse with or read my thoughts, is more effective than addressing them.

comment by ricraz · 2019-08-01T18:33:02.956Z · score: 12 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Downvoted for being very hyperbolic ("less than zero", "his opponents here are all pure conflict theorists"), uncharitable/making personal attacks ("There are people opposed to nerds or to thinking", "There are people who are opposed to action of any kind"), and not substantiating these extreme views ("Because, come on. Read their quotes. Consider their arguments.")

As a more object-level comment, suppose I accept the hypothetical that all attacks on billionaire philanthropy are entirely aimed at reducing the power of billionaires. Yet if we build a societal consensus that this particular attack is very misguided and causes undesirable collateral damage, then even people who are just as anti-billionaire as before will be less likely to use it. E.g. it's much harder to criticise billionaires who only spend their money on helping kids with cancer.

comment by u8k · 2019-08-01T15:04:52.698Z · score: 11 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I give Scott credit as being smart enough to know and have considered all of this. I think much of SCC could be categorized as him giving his opponents the benefit of the doubt of being well intentioned and arguing with them in good faith and not dismissing them as trolls. Maybe this is naive of him and a waste of time. But I think the approach has produced a ton of great posts over years and I think it's just fundamentally who Scott is and it's long been clear that earnest arguments in good faith with people who might in fact not be in good faith is what SCC is all about and is the hill Scott is willing to die on.

I think it's commendable.

comment by Pattern · 2019-08-01T18:12:58.882Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · LW · GW
We disagree that Scott’s post is a useful thing to write. I agree with everything he says, but expect it to convince less than zero people to support his position.

I found it useful, as someone who wasn't aware of the issue (having gotten this bad). I might also find further value in the discussion the post has led to. For example, this post I'm commenting on, has shed some light on (how people use the words) "conflict theorist" and "mistake theorist".

I also found it's focus on the benefits of diverse approaches to problem solving useful - it's nice to read something where people take principles seriously instead of using "virtue labels" when they like things and "vice labels" when they don't.

Thus, I expect the post to backfire.

Backfire how? Your arguments suggest a possible waste of time, not negative causal effects.

comment by Zvi · 2019-08-01T18:59:51.139Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Backfire specifically in the sense that, like you, others also gain the belief that there is more and broader support for the anti-philanthropy position than they thought, and that the cool in-group people are taking the argument seriously. And the question of whether to be against the thing gets more publicity. Thus, resulting in more anti-philanthropic actions and momentum. Claiming there's a serious debate about whether to take group action to scapegoat disliked group is not likely, all things being equal, to cause less trouble. Thought this was pretty explicit?

I agree there was useful content there, and certainly would have suggested making those points another way if this was going to not get posted.

comment by digital_carver · 2019-08-20T07:10:26.613Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree with the post (for reasons that have mostly already been spelt out in other comments), but I've upvoted it because this is exactly the kind of reasonable dissent we need in the community.

comment by Dagon · 2019-08-01T14:05:10.759Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't change my opinions based on the post. I took it as a bit of surprising evidence that someone is actually anti-private-philanthropy in a way that Scott took seriously enough to write about, and thought maybe it'd be a convenient thing I could link to if I did come across a rational-ish friend or acquaintance who was toying with or including altruism in their hatred of billionaires. It could save a bit of time in my own marshaling of arguments in such a case.

That case hasn't occurred, so it may have been a low-value post on that front. I haven't seen any backfire either, so I'm currently of the opinion that it's a blog post, and it's OK if it doesn't change the world.

I also think you're using "mistake-theory vs conflict-theory" in a confusing way. These are two ways that one might model someone who holds an opposing viewpoint, not descriptions of those who hold opposing viewpoint. I think you're making the argument that conflict theory is a better fit for this disagreement than mistake theory. That's an argument about how you and Scott and I should approach the topic, and the choice of theory applies to us. The anti-billionaire crowd is lumping in billionaire altruism as part of their worldview of bad billionaire things, and approaching it as a necessary conflict. The theory we should apply is conflict-theory. The theory they are applying is "none" - they're not engaging in a theory of mind for their opponents.

(note: I don't personally like the conflict-vs-mistake framing, as every significant disagreement has elements of both).

comment by Kenny · 2019-08-20T18:04:01.202Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've come around to the "conflict-vs-mistake framing" in particular because "every significant disagreement has elements of both".

It must be the case, in some sense anyways, that every 'conflict theory' begins its (epistemic) existence as a 'mistake theory' and is thus, hopefully, at least somewhat amenable to being considered 'mistaken' later given sufficient contrary evidence.

In general too, conflict theories seem to have a 'memetic' advantage in being 'epistemically totalitarian', i.e. subsuming all subsequent evidence (until the existence of the conflict is itself later considered mistaken).

It's also true that something like philanthropy could be both net-positive for everyone and net-negative for a particular political coalition.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-08-01T18:47:07.696Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

As a general point, I consider it worth writing things that tackle an object level issue and show how mistake theory reasoning concludes something different than conflict theory reasoning and how that is different. I say that because I think most people are at least a little bit conflict theorists. Maybe not about everything, but at least sometimes for many people there will be times they think in terms of conflict, of us vs. them, of in-group against out-group. And having someone provide a well-reasoned, thoughtful, and generous-to-opponents essay nudging folks towards mistake theory by showing how it really works on the margin turns folks into being more strongly mistake theorists or using mistake theory more often.

My strong claim would be that humans start out conflict theorists—it's our "natural" state—and it's only through people showing us another way is it possible that we can come to another position. Yes, any writing like this piece by Scott can be used as fuel for reinforcing a conflict theory perspective in some people, but these are also the people who are likely so strongly conflict theorists that all evidence reinforces their position and there's no marginal difference from producing something like Scott's piece or something less charitable, while it does a lot to move people towards a mistake theory perspective, even if just on the object level issue addressed, and repeated exposure to such people can turn them into net mistake theorists.

Could some ideal person have done more to convert more conflict theorists to mistake theory on at least this issue in an essay than Scott did in his? Maybe. But I'm sure Scott did the best he could, and I think it's on net better that he wrote this than not.