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.”