Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Conspiracy Theories


NOTE: While I was reading an old article ("Greed Versus Evil") I was annoyed to find all the links still pointed to my defunct blog "Random Notes". Since these now simply dump one on a Townhall landing page, it is rather annoying to try to find the article on this blog, if it exists here at all. And so, once again, I am trying to update my old posts, changing the links to point to articles which have been moved over, and moving those articles I have not yet copied to this blog. This article is one such essay, a cited post which had not yet been copied from my personal backup copy of Random Notes and this blog. Some may seem rather dated, a few may even be contradicted by my later writing (as my ideas do evolve over time), but I am still copying them, both because having readable copies makes it easier to peruse old posts and, though they may no longer be entirely relevant, I still think almost all of them have some small value.

I have often wondered why those on the left seem so ready to embrace people espousing conspiracy theories. From people arguing that Bush blew up the levees in New Orleans, to those claiming the government was behind 9/11, to those saying the CIA spread AIDS and crack in an effort to kill off blacks, there is not a conspiracy theory that seems unwelcome on the left. The right, in contrast, while having its share of conspiracy theories, seems relatively unhappy to number these conspiracy theorists among its ranks, and does all it can to distance itself from them*.

Then it struck me. While I had been writing about how our view of our fellow man influenced our political philosophy, I realized that conspiracy theories work in a similar fashion as our impression of other people. As I wrote in "Apology as Arrogance" and "The Intellectual Elite" (among others), if you see other people as competent and largely like you, you will tend to favor minimal government and adopt a more conservative, libertarian or federalist approach. On the other hand, if you think people are stupid or evil, you will tend to adopt an authoritarian or interventionist system, to correct their mistakes and make sure the government runs smoothly. Of course, this assumes the existence of a smarter, or less evil, elite, who can be put in charge, but that is not important at the moment. What matters is that the way you see government depends on how you see people.

But there is one other category of thinking that also leads to authoritarian government. As I wrote in "The Citizen Dichotomy":
There are simply put, two ways one can view people as a group, either our fellow citizens are mostly competent, capable of knowing their own desires, choosing their own actions, and should generally be treated as our equals, or they are not. It does not matter whether we view them as wholly incompetent or incompetent in specific matters, whether we view them as stupid, or easily manipulated, or simply subject to the machinations of sinister forces, so long as we believe that other people are in some way incompetent, the outcome is the same.
And what is the outcome? If we view other people as incompetent,. either unable to know what they need, or unable to figure out how to reach it, or even that they simply can be easily mislead or distracted, provided people are not entirely competent, the conclusion must be that it is the purpose of the state to tell them how to behave.
It is that last bit that helps explain the willingness of the left to embrace conspiracy theories. "even that they simply can be easily mislead or distracted".

You see, even if people are largely like us, and are mostly competent, and could, left alone, manage to run their own affairs, they may still need the government to save them. How so? Well, if there is something bigger than them, some massive conspiracy, which is so large, so pervasive, that they are simply powerless against it. And so adopting conspiracy theories allows the left to argue, not that people are too incompetent to run their affairs, which may offend some, but that people are competent, but the world itself is so riddled with conspiracies, that the government must step into protect people against these malefactors.

Actually, the theories work even better than that. The left does not even need to argue for universality of conspiracies. They need only argue that a single conspiracy exists, be it among the oil executives to run up prices or inside the "military industrial complex" to cause wars, and they can justify intervention in that specific area of activity. And, as I described in "Inescapable Logic", once you can justify one intervention, the logic can be applied to any area. Granted, the justification of conspiracy is harder to apply more widely, but most people are not so careful about details. So, if they see that the government is intervening in the oil industry, and they an see no harm, they won't be as hard to convince of the need to regulate autos, even if no conspiracy is alleged in that industry.

So, in the end, it is not really so peculiar that the left is open to conspiracy theories. Admittedly, their willingness to embrace the more bizarre theories may sometimes make them lose some credibility, but it also provides them with yet another argument for intervention, as well as yet another group which is open to such arguments. At the same time, most people probably see the acceptance of these conspiracy theorists as a reluctant acceptance, not as official approval of their beliefs, and so the PR damage is probably rather small. (Think about how little was made of Michael Moore's prominent role in even official functions.) And so, in the end, their position probably benefits them more than it harms them.

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* With the advent of the "angry right", which mirrors in many ways the excesses of the "angry left", we have seen this become less true. Now we see people arguing about Obama's birth certificate, his covert moslem identity, etc being not just tolerated, but welcomed among some on the right. On the other hand, the more interventionist "paleo-cons" have always accepted conspiracy theories about the CFR and the coming "North American Union", but as they are far more open to government intervention, that only makes sense, as I will explain later in the post.

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POSTSCRIPT

It is interesting that on the right, the people most prone to conspiracy thinking are the paleocons. I think, most likely, they do not adopt conspiratorial thoughts to justify their interventionist ideas, but rather adopted interventionism because of their conspiratorial thoughts, or, most likely of all, both their interventionism and conspiratorial thoughts stem from the same beliefs. They support protectionism and unions because they believe "big business" is an all powerful exploiter which cannot be stopped without the government, and this same belief makes them open to tales of conspiracies at the CFR and plans for a North American Union. In the end, what is significant is that even the paleocons support my general thesis that interventionism and conspiratorial thinking go hand in hand.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/04/20.

NOTE: As I am trying to ensure the links in old posts all point to something useful, I have updated the links in this essay to point at local copies of each article.(Due to the number of links and lack of time, this specific article has yet -- as of 2015/01/20 -- to have the links fixed.)

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