A Theory of Conspiracy Theory

Welcome to a world in which the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and Vox  – on the same day! – cover in detail a theory that would have once languished in the shadows of mainstream coverage forever. It’s so outlandish and implausible that it would never have passed “respectable” standards of news in past times. But these days, so much trust has evaporated from official cultural organs of truth that the belief in conspiracy might be more common than trust in the media (in the last half century, three-quarters of people polled have flipped from trusting to distrusting mainstream media).

Which is to say: we have entered into a period in which the civic consensus as we once knew it has mutated into a nihilism in public life. Maybe. Or perhaps it is late-stage social democracy in which nothing official works and no one believes in any case. No one trusts. Few hope that trust in anything is regainable. It’s so intense now that we’ve crossed into a new epoch in which even the trusted/untrusted media sees nothing to lose in directly reporting and confronting the most outlandish beliefs in existence.

Rendered in the best light, this stage is, in the Kuhnian sense, post-paradigmatic, an expected sign of a collapsed public orthodoxy of a once-accepted paradigm that didn’t turn out to work as expected.

Rendered in the worst light, the loss of social trust in official institutions has prepared the way for a new form of despotism precisely as Hayek predicted in his Road to Serfdom. As in Weimar in the aftermath of the hyperinflation (a model Hayek drew on for this book), people believe in nothing, so they believe in anything (to paraphrase Chesterton).

Regardless, we need to understand. Here is my theory of conspiracy theory.

To Discuss or Not?

The mainstream press – and I mean that phrase as a description, not necessarily a slur – is of two minds about discussion about extreme conspiracy theories in politics. For decades, these have been ignored. But that only seems to feed them: “see the conspiracy of silence!” But now that many once-nutty ideas have gone fully mainstream, beginning probably with the “birthers” and continuing through “Pizzagate” and a thousand others, it seems like mainstream venues have decided that openness and frankness is better.

The media tacitly banned all discussion of so-called Pizzagate. It is arguably true that ignoring that strain of the “lunatic fringe”: a subset of the population came to be believers and voted based on it. The idea lived and grew in strange places to which anyone with a curious mind had access, which is to say anyone with a web browser and an interest in politics.

The new tactic is to shine the light on the darkness. In this case, it’s the theory of QAnon. The idea is that a deep-state insider is secretly sending coded messages to Trump supporters to reveal all the ways in which he is the only president in perhaps a century who is not owned and controlled by a secret cabal of take-your-pick-epithets so therefore he is the only person who can save the country from the abyss. The person named Q is pulling the strings.

The theory is multi-layered and complex, and there are many versions that live in what the media call “dark corners” of the Internet such as 4chan and 8chan. For example, because Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet, whenever Trump says something about 17 – such as that he had only been in D.C. 17 times before being elected – QAnon devotees believe that they are being signaled that they are on the right track.

I’m reading about this and see that there are Q t-shirts, signs on roads reading “Who Is Q?”, signs held up at Trump rallies, and a seemingly infinite number of tweets. Pro-Q tweets are upvoted and retweeted hundreds of times more than mainstream stories that seek to debunk the whole idea. Some of the proponents are deeply sincere, maybe your friends and neighbors. Others are merely trolling.

You might or might not be hearing about this for the first time. When I heard about it, my first thought was, oh, this is ridiculous. But then you listen carefully and consider. Is it totally crazy? Of course it is. And yet...there are aspects of it that make you wonder if there is some grain of truth. Is there a disgruntled federal employee? I’ve never met one who is not. Do many delight in the mess that Trump is making of D.C. norms? I have no doubt. Are things in Washington broken and have been for a long time, and is a group smaller than the population at large disproportionately benefiting from the system regardless? To ask is to answer.

Every Man a Theory

The wild and crazy campaign season of 2016 contributed mightily to the promotion of conspiracy theory, and all sides were part of it. For one candidate, the great danger to the country was invasion from the outside from a violent hoard of pillagers, whether by means of migration or trade. For the other candidate, the danger was a mob of deplorables inside the country that was plotting to roll back the clock on every manner of social progress.

Then after the election, the sides switched. The winner declared that the enemy of the American people is the American press, disloyal American businesses, and the other party that was erecting roadblocks to new legislation, thus making necessary rule via executive order. The losing camp declared that the election outcome was only made possible by shadowy foreign elites who manipulated social media using high-end hacking techniques and paid operatives.

Given all this, is it any wonder that regular people would get in on the act and explore other theories to explain the politically chaotic nature of our times? What the mainstream press declares to be an outrageous and even insane theory is a theory that the mainstream rejects, even as a third of the news cycle is spent wallowing in an unending hunt for some shadowy foreign forces that caused the election to turn out in a way that it was not supposed to.

What’s Really Going On

Michael Munger’s article Anti-Market Atavism Explained offers an intriguing look at the way the human mind is unable to come to terms with the lack of central direction in human life. We walk around as biologically evolved creatures but our minds are still stuck back in time carrying out a “Stone Age conception of clan life.” In this conception of life, nothing occurs without some directed plan. Every outcome around us is a consequence of some intention, and that includes large scale outcomes which must come about because something huge and powerful, however secret, is behind the scenes making it happen.

When things don’t go our way,, we seek out the culprit, the hidden hand making things as they are. Surely some powerful cabal manipulated the world. Nothing is random, spontaneous, truly decentralized, accidental, or the product of an emergent process that no one in particular controls. There is a power behind some curtain somewhere. The purpose of the conspiracy theory is to find it and bring it to justice.

It was the task of F.A. Hayek’s grand research program to unravel this presumption and replace it with a higher conception of the structure of social and economic life. The order in which we live is undesigned and undesignable. It was not created by authority but rather the product of billions and trillions of individual decisions – informed by depersonalized institutions like prices and behavioral norms and habits – that result in overall order far removed from the possibility of central management.

Munger in another piece quotes Hayek:

many of the greatest things man has achieved are not the result of consciously directed thought, and still less the product of deliberately coordinated effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand. They are greater than any individual precisely because they result from the combination of knowledge more extensive than any single mind can master.

Unplanned Order

I thought about this idea while flying into Los Angeles the other day. The sky was clear and from the window of the airplane I observed a vast and seemingly endless landscape of human life that took billions of forms, each distinct from the other and yet seemingly coordinated into a whole one can only see from on high.

To observe and contemplate it plays tricks on the mind. Who built this? Who designed it? There are many people who want to claim credit or cast blame. The reality is something few are willing to admit: it is an infinitely complex emergent order that extends over many generations, built one choice at a time, resulting in something no person could have planned.

A recourse to conspiracy theory represents a revolt against the Hayekian conception of social order. We just don’t want to believe that the world we live in is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and has been since we left Stone Age clan life. Once social and economic order extended beyond what we could directly see and manipulate, we’ve needed a different view of why things are the way they are. Economics as a science has been trying for half a millennia to give us exactly this view but it has yet fully to persuade.

Now, to be sure, this does not means that there is no such thing as bad people who do bad things. The political system is the perfect venue for such people. We look at the systems constructed over the course of the last hundred years and find vast programs that claim to do one thing but actually result in another.

Look closely enough and you find there are reasons for the persistence of political deception: some people benefit from the system even though the social cost is extremely high. You can observe this about most all aspects of government. If anything is deserving of the term conspiracy, it is politics itself, a system designed to pillage and subjugate the population while claiming to be in the public’s best interest.

The best example of an undesigned order is the market itself. And yet, even in politics, some results emerge without central direction or even intentionality about the final results. Not even Donald Trump truly believed he would win, and it is highly likely that many people voted for him as a means of protest and not a plea to be ruled by a different kind of master. There are elements of spontaneity even in the most controlled systems. But we find such explanations unsatisfying. Conspiracy theory is far more gratifying to our desire to believe that someone, somewhere, must be in charge.

Plus, the idea of emergent order does not do as well as “Q” on t-shirts and memes.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn