I credit Murray Rothbard with identifying two types of conspiracies, viz. “capitalist ploys” or conspiracies designed to promote someone’s narrow self-interest at the expense of the general public; and “communist plots” which he further subdivides into conspiracies set up with the goal of promoting an ideology and the goal of acquiring political power. These seem to cover all the relevant cases. Indeed, the most successful conspiracies are those that attack on all three fronts; witness, for example, the combined forces of idealistic but naive anti-private-gun-ownership do-gooders, government regulators, and trial lawyers who want to loot gun manufacturers.
The first type of conspiracy is so ubiquitous, varied, and natural in a semi-free society that we will not be discussing it here. It is enough to note that politically connected companies seek freedom from consumer sovereignty through favorable regulations, anti-trust laws, exemptions from liability, and so forth. Their competitors, realizing that they have to play the game if they want to survive, defend themselves with greater or lesser success. The artificial obstacles also deter some entrepreneurs who would otherwise have challenged the vested interests from even trying. The result is that huge amounts of money are wasted financing projects that are not in the best interests of the consumers. Then there are the resources spent on lobbying (i.e. loot or privilege seeking) which, too, could be employed productively. We are all poorer because of it. Because there is no ideological pressure on the part of the elites to stop this kind of thing, the political landscape becomes a battlefield where only the ruthless survive. Indeed, some economists have expressed astonishment that so little money is spent on lobbying given that the federal government has almost three trillion dollars in stolen money and possesses vast discretionary powers. What a contrast to the harmony of interests in the market!
Ideological “conspiracies” are normal in any society and can be either good or bad depending on the ideology and the means used to promote it, viz. truthful persuasion vs. deception or violence.
Here I would like to focus on government plots. Persons who distrust the government in ways other than those sanctioned by that government are often labelled “paranoid.” (The relevant meaning of this term is “a tendency toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.”) As I hope to demonstrate, it is a rash and unjustified accusation.
Suppose that I, following Friedrich Hayek, take seriously the possibility of the government’s putting psychotropic drugs in the water supply. What reasons could a non-Nobel-prize-winning economist offer to dismiss my concern out of hand?
I submit that there are exactly five reasons for doing so:
The policy in question cannot be implemented due to inadequate technology. For example, there exist no drugs powerful enough and in sufficient quantities (at least at the moment) to produce the desired effect after being dissolved in great amounts of water.
The policy is unthinkable because the government is bound by ideological, moral, or religious prohibitions. In other words, who would do such an evil thing?
The policy is against government interests. Rulers themselves cannot avoid drinking the contaminated water; drugged-up populace cannot be whipped up into nationalist frenzy; and so on.
The policy will fail due to individual resistance. People, having become aware of what the government has done, will stop drinking tap water and switch to bottled water, move out of the territory affected by the drugs, or likewise evade the state.
- The policy will fail due to collective resistance. Secrecy cannot be maintained, and the natural elites can successfully resist this policy in the name of the entire community and threaten to remove the current rulers from power unless they rescind it.
In light of this, shall we say, “rationality test” let us entertain a conspiracy theory. I am going to claim that like Chancellor Palpatine in the movie Star Wars II, George Bush or some other high-ranking federal officials orchestrated the September 11 attack in order to consolidate political power and that Osama bin Laden does not even exist. (I will be focusing exclusively on the president, even though the D.C. mandarinate is composed of a multitude of semi-autonomous and often rival agencies.) Before examining any evidence that I may have, you accuse me of paranoia. Out of the five reasons above, which ones would you use to support your judgment of me?
Now reasons one and four are not applicable, while reason three is explicitly countered by the theory itself. Reason five fails due to several considerations. First, there are no longer practically any institutional restraints left to keep the state in check. Everything that has happened after September 11 has been mopping up.
Second, the government has admitted that bin Laden has managed to mastermind his spectacular crime in almost complete secrecy, and it is difficult to see why this feat would be any easier for a group of conspicuous foreigners than for the compulsively paranoid central government.
Third, the government has confessed to astonishing incompetence in what is supposed to be its primary function, namely, production of security, but why would malicious intent be any more unthinkable than such incompetence, both of which are natural and common occurrences in the life of the Leviathan?
Thus, only the second reason rings true. Suppose now that Bush was as corrupt as any dictator, from Nero to Stalin, and you were a traveler from a distant land studying America. (See G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man for a marvelous use of this device.) Might it not occur to you that Bush had a hand in this directly?
Wait a minute, you object at once, George Bush is a devout Christian. He is not a tyrant. He is not Saddam Hussein who we are supposed to believe speared babies on bayonets and gassed “his own” people. What kind of a psychopath do I take Bush to be in order to for him to murder thousands of his countrymen? Is he not just one of the guys? To this I will reply that the possession of vast political power along with a pervasive apparatus of flattery and glorification of force has a profound effect on a man. “Power corrupts” is not a cliché but reality. In truth, Bush is Nero and Stalin, and it is anybody’s guess how far gone he is. My conspiracy theory amounts to the claim that enough time had passed for Bush to go insane, and you counter that one year of being president could not have twisted him so badly. Fair enough, but let us understand that our disagreement is a trivial one, based on the evaluation of a man’s character. There is nothing a priori implausible about my theory.
Remember also that much more hideous things have been done by the supposed guardians of the commonwealth throughout history, including American history. It need not necessarily have taken outright madness for George Bush to do something much less destructive than what Stalin or Lincoln did and blow up the towers.
Now obviously I do not actually think that Bush had anything directly to do with the attack. But it is truly scary that this “crazy” conspiracy theory passes the rationality test. But then it can’t happen here, and it can’t happen now.