Very brief post here following up on my Quillette article on contrarianism. My goal is to show how contrarianism can be a strategy appropriate for a cooperative rather than a competitive context; the assumption is often the opposite, I think. In a way this is rather personal since I believe cooperative contrarianism is pretty much an accurate description of my intellectual and scholarly approach.

Say you have a one-on-one competition with lots of players. My inspirations are tennis and chess, with which I’m most familiar, but I’ll actually specify a competition I’ll call gamething. In gamething, there are various “techniques”, and the player who has mastered the most techniques wins; if both players have mastered the same number, the result is random. So in a population where every player has mastered techniques a, b, and c, everyone performs equally over a sufficiently long run. So imagine player P who has instead invented techniques x and y in the time it would have taken them to master ab, and c. P will always lose to every other player.

Posit that on top of gamething there is a gradually accruing repository of knowledge called gamethingology, and that part of gamethingology involves the study of these various techniques. If you value gamethingology, the situation with the hypothetical player P will make you very sad. P would be massively more important than any other player of the game. They could revolutionize your understanding of gamething techniques. But every pressure on P in training and in tournaments will be to give up their development of x and y and instead learn ab, and c.

Once I started to think about this dynamic I saw it everywhere – probably in more places than it really was – in academic and political discourse. Take Freddie deBoer’s discussion of the Iron Law of Institutions and the left, or the more general phenomenon of leftist fractiousness and internal competition. This has always confused me, since left ideology is so deeply committed to cooperation and solidarity and so forth. But once you start to see anti-contrarianism and this specific kind of competitiveness as being mutually reinforcing, this ceases to be such a surprise. In particular, I think this model explains a lot about over-the-top virtue signaling: It’s what happens when you can win not by saying something new, but only by saying the same thing as everyone else and hoping you did it a bit better.

Anyway, like I said, short post – just wanted to explain that idea and hear if anyone has encountered anything similar, especially in economic literature with which I wouldn’t be familiar.

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