Conspiracy Theories

It’s amazing how willing many people are to believe that their opponents are engaged in conspiracies. The claim that President Bush had a radio transmitter in his suit is a good case in point, but we could also point to the internet buzz about whether Senator Kerry had pulled notes out of his jacket in the first debate (which both sides had, bizarrely, agreed not to allow — bizarrely because in real life the president, regardless of party, gets to carry notes, ask for advice, and so on). And those are the mildest versions of the conspiracy theories that swirl around political issues. (Examples that readily come to mind are that Clinton had Vince Foster killed and that TWA Flight 800 was downed by a missile.) Here are my biggest problems with such theories: 1) the costs of getting caught are very, very high and most politicians are reasonably rational about weighing costs and benefits, and 2)conspiracies that involve more than two people almost inevitably break down, for the simple reason that it’s hard to keep secrets really secret (for many reasons involving the many incentives keepers of secrets have to share a valuable secret with others). In general, conspiracy theories are for losers, by which I mean people with nothing better to do with their time and with no interest in having a positive impact on political life. Of course, it could be that conspiracy theories are really diversions deliberately promoted by a group of powerful people who want to distract us from their real goal, which is to go about pursuing more and more power…..

P.S. I was just sent by a colleague this link to an article in the Washington Post (may require relatively painless registration) that I had missed on the flourishing of conspiracy theories. Philip D. Zelikow, executive director oft he 9/11 commission, is quoted in the article as saying,

“One reason you tend to doubt conspiracy theories when you’ve worked in government is because you know government is not nearly competent enough to carry off elaborate theories. It’s a banal explanation, but imagine how efficient it would need to be.”

8 Responses to “Conspiracy Theories”

  1. Michael Hardesty

    I just saw the picture in The New York Times
    and either Bush had a radio receiver in his
    back or I’d get that lump checked for cancer !
    The whole pooh-poohing of conspiracy theories
    is an old liberal establishment nonsequitur.
    Of course government officials engage in conspiracies, Watergate and Iran Contra are
    two prominent examples. I have no doubt there
    are many more such as Pearl Harbor.
    When the govt wants to charge you, they think
    nothing of trumping out a conspiracy charge.
    Obviously, govt officials engage in conspiracies
    too. Of course, there are nuts who think everything is a conspiracy, that’s no more tenable
    that saying nothing is a conspiracy.

  2. Very good reasoning. I tend to consider problem 1 as the most important. Most of these conspiracy theories would be completely irrational from the standpoint of the people involved.

    Also, most of them would be very risky and complicated ways to achieve results that could be pursued by much easier means by the “conspirators”.

    Then again, I think a healthy suspicion (within reason) of government activity in general is never a bad thing…

  3. Bill Woolsey

    How is Bush possibly cheating in
    a debate a “conspiracy theory?”

    Why is the true statement that
    Presidents have advisors and the like
    evidence that Bush was not cheating
    in the debate?

    Sure, it is sad that so many people
    believe that debates are somehow useful
    in determining a sensible vote.

    Whether Bush is good at coming up with a
    rapid and immediate responses to criticisms
    of his policies or to defenses of the policies
    of his opponent tells us little about whether
    Bush’s policies are more or less desirable
    than those of his opponent.

    Still, having some clever person feed him
    such responses would be cheating.

    That Bush and a handful of aides might cheat in
    that way is hardly a major conspiracy–nothing
    like some bizzare notion that the Federal Reserve
    is providing finance to an international banking
    conspiracy or that the IRS is tricking people
    into paying their income tax.

    Bill Woolsey

  4. Tom G. Palmer

    Bill raises some good questions.

    First, cheating in a debate would require that a number of people (his tailor, Karl Rove, a radio technician, etc.) all conspire. It would require keeping a very juicy bit of information secret. I doubt that they’d do it, just because it would be so hard to keep secret and so very damaging if it were to become known.

    Second, I did not say or imply that the fact that Bush has advisors was evidence that he was not cheating. I wrote that it was bizarre to agree that neither Bush nor Kerry be allowed to take notes into the debate, since the point of a debate is not to see who has the best memory, but who would be the best president. That was a parenthetical remark about the strangeness of the rules of the debate, not about whether one or the other candidate had cheated and broken the rules to which both had agreed.

    Third, I agree that cleverness or nice facial expressions is a strange basis for choosing a candidate. Nothing in my posting implied otherwise. And, yes, being fed answers would be cheating, but I’ve explained why I doubt that either candidate would do something like that. (The risks of detection are great and the penalty for being detected would be disastrous.)

    In any case, my point was that those issues were remarkably trivial. The more serious claims of conspiracy (airplanes shot down by missiles, White House counsels murdered, etc., etc.) are remarkably widespread, despite good reasons not to believe them. The real issues are usually on the table, like the debate on whether the state should steal from some people to give to others or monopolize the provision of money or support a huge military presence overseas. People who spend their time on kooky theories about Israelis or CIA officers or President Bush being involved in the 9/11 attacks simply divert attention from the issues that matter.

  5. Michael Hardesty

    Tom, I would take it on a case by case basis.
    There the obvious conspiracy nuts like LaRouche
    or the Birchers but sometimes politicians pursue
    agendas by means, fair or foul. From what I’ve
    read of Mr. Rove, there’s very little I would
    suspect him not capable of.
    On another topic, I actually came across what I
    consider a sane piece on the lewrockwell site (!),
    Justin Raimondo’s The Objectivist Death Cult.
    I don’t always agree with Justin but as a former
    Objectivist I think he’s hit the nail on the head
    in exposing ARI’s blatant advocacy of civilian
    mass murder and endless war. Their position on
    civilian war deaths is more extreme than any I
    have ever read anywhere. I feel almost metaphysically embarrassed at having known these
    people going back to NBI days.

  6. Brian Radzinsky

    It is suspicious, but wouldn’t you think that with all of the technology we have now, if the President wanted to cheat and be wired he couldn’t have had something a little smaller? I can get a smaller transmitter that fits behind my ear that’s much smaller without even an afterthought as the the level of advanced technology. The President must have access to more advanced tech than that monstrosity on his back, no?



  8. Olukoya Ogen

    I found your article very interesting. As far as Nigeria is concerned. State conspiracies here appear to be very real. It involves alleged state-sponsored killings, political assasinations, organised and systematic siphoning of Nigeria’s money and even tenure elongation as well as political cum social persecution of perceived political opponents. It would, therefore, seem that grand conspiracies are pervasive phenomena in Nigeria’s national life. I hope this debate that you have opened up continues. I suspect that it will be dangerous to posit a universally applicable theory of state conspiracy based solely on the American experience. National peculiarities have to be brought out.
    Thank you.