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Conspiracy or Consensus?

Mr. Bidinotto is a long-time contributor to Reader’s Digest and The Freeman, and a lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE is available in a new hardcover edition at $24.95.

In my more pessimistic moments, I can begin to understand the appeal of the so-called “conspiracy theory of history.”

Sometimes there seems to be a kind of powerful force dragging modern society down. Surveying the bleak headlines, one wonders if the endless evils chronicled could be mere chance—or if they might have some conscious, common source and deliberate direction? After all, if it were only a series of “accidents,” it seems that good things would happen at least half the time.

Over the years, I have met many decent, concerned Americans who deduce that the world is in the grip of a powerful, malevolently directed conspiracy. Logic seems to suggest that such plotters must be few (or else there would be defectors), at the pinnacles of power (or else they couldn’t control things), malevolent (how else to explain the horrors in the headlines?), and super-competent (for all the preceding reasons).

Many thus infer that a handful of the “high and mighty” spend their days behind closed doors around conference tables, carving up maps of the world.

Is this a valid explanation of current events? And even if it isn’t, what’s the harm in holding such a view?

The second question is the easier to answer. Successfully remedying the ills of the world depends upon their accurate diagnosis. It makes a great deal of difference if we believe that social evils are caused by widespread economic ignorance—or false philosophical ideas—or personal immorality—or the American two-party system—or a band of conspirators. Each theory logically implies a different response: economic education, a new philosophy, moral indoctrination, a third political party, or investigative exposés. Accepting the wrong theory guarantees that our remedial efforts will fail and that evils will persist.

And the “conspiracy theory” is wrong:

1. False logic. All conspiracy theories depend heavily on inferences about the motives of certain prominent people, based upon the outcomes of events with which they have been associated. The assumption, invariably, is that if the outcomes are bad, those responsible must have intended the harm.

This does not follow. Economists from Frederic Bastiat to Henry Hazlitt have demonstrated that many popular political programs lead to unintended consequences—results opposite those desired by their proponents. Minimum wage laws, meant to raise workers’ incomes, lead instead to unemployment. Protective tariffs, meant to foster domestic industries, lead instead to reduced living standards. And so forth.

This isn’t because advocates of such policies seek mass unemployment and poverty. It’s due to their ignorance of basic economics. Which explanation is more credible: a deliberate conspiracy of a handful of world leaders to reduce their own people to poverty—or the appalling education they received in public schools?

At the root of conspiracy theories is the premise that whatever happens is either the result of “accident,” or the result of “intention.” But this doesn’t exhaust the logical possibilities. People often intend things—for good or ill—contrary to their eventual outcomes. Even would-be conspirators aren’t omniscient or omnipotent.

2. Naiveté. Many enamored of conspiracy theories are ordinary people with little occasion to rub elbows with the “high and mighty.” They imagine such people to be surpassingly devious and competent—just the type to hatch diabolical plots.

If they were actually to encounter international movers and shakers, they might be shocked at their ineffectuality, uncertainty, and ignorance. To believe that most world events are the result of devious deliberation, is to ascribe to so-called “world leaders” levels of competence, courage, and cunning that their own wives would find laughable.

Conspiracy theories make compelling plots for novels and movies; sly schemers make worthy adversaries for fictional heroes. We like to fantasize about villains of stature. Perhaps regrettably, villains in real life are built to far smaller specifications.

3. Explanatory elasticity. There’s an impressive malleability about conspiracy theories. Whenever something occurs contrary to what the theory predicted, its proponents offer some new, more complex conspiratorial machination to explain the unruly facts.

In the 1950s, the puppeteers of world events were supposedly the “international Communist conspiracy.” The conspiracy was centrally directed from Moscow, from which it extended globally like the arms of an octopus. Iron discipline held the conspirators together; highly publicized feuds among various communist nations were merely clever propaganda, meant to lull the West into complacency.

But when the Soviet Empire disintegrated, it was obvious that there had never been iron discipline and unity within or among Communist regimes—that the potent conspirators were only gray geriatrics and blundering bureaucrats, who couldn’t even hold their own armed forces and secret police in line.

With the Soviet collapse, the alleged locus of the conspiracy has moved to Washington and New York. We are now to believe that our own incompetent politicians and bankers—who can’t even govern their own private lives and portfolios, or agree on what to do about Bosnia or the deficit—are calculatingly, cooperatively marching us toward a One-World Government.

Yes—there is a powerful force dragging society down. But that undertow is not an international conspiracy: it’s an intellectual consensus. What conspiratorialists fail to appreciate is the power of ideas.

Virtually all of our cultural leaders accept the premise of collectivism: that individual rights should be subordinated to collective might. This moral premise logically leads them to similar conclusions on a wide array of issues. But such agreement isn’t the consequence of conscious collusion; it’s the fruit of a philosophical consensus.

For decades, Communism thrived in the world, despite all efforts to “expose” Communist activities. Why? Because millions accepted the collectivist premise at the core of Communism. They viewed Marxists not as vicious thugs, but as extreme idealists.

Unless the moral premise of collectivism is challenged and rejected, those millions still will be drawn, as if by some inner compass, toward collectivist ends; to cooperate with like-minded people; and to fight, as immoral, anyone who stands in their path. To those of us who are in their path, their concerted animosity might seem a matter of design and plan. But it’s actually a tribute to the power of ideas.

It is ideas that dictate the actions of men—and it is on the battlefield of ideas that the fate of the world will be decided. Even conspiracies depend upon agreement by the conspirators over premises and ends.

To defeat them, we must not simply expose their branches. We must expose—and pull up—their intellectual roots.

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