Why conspiracy theories are unlikely

Many on the left just know that the Christian right is scheming with big corporations to take over the country and eliminate our freedoms.  Many on the right just know that the United Nations is scheming with the liberal media to take over the country and eliminate our freedoms.  Ezra Klein, in a piece on how China is trying to understand American schemes by hacking into government and business computers, explains why the kind of elaborate plans necessary for a good conspiracy just can’t get carried out.

From Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:

This is the most pervasive of of all Washington legends: that politicians in Washington are ceaselessly, ruthlessly, effectively scheming. That everything that happens fits into somebody’s plan. It doesn’t. Maybe it started out with a scheme, but soon enough everyone is, at best, reacting, and at worst, failing to react, and always, always they’re doing it with less information than they need.

That’s been a key lesson I’ve learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly implementing long-term schemes.

Democrats fear Grover Norquist’s Monday meetings, the message discipline across Fox News and talk radio, and Focus on the Family. Republicans believe the press corps is out to get them and Hollywood has dedicated itself to providing crucial air support. People are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unified and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities.

But they’re not. This city may be rife with plans, but no plan survives first contact with Congress. Nothing will disabuse you of the myth of scheming faster than listening to key congressional staffers speculate on the future of a bill. Communication between various political actors — a crucial ingredient in any serious plan — is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don’t really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they’re interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and parses what they just heard with all the intensity of a 13-year-old boy analyzing a hallway conversation with a crush.

And in a way, that’s a strength. Human beings like to think otherwise, but we’re not very good planners, at least not when matched up against reality.

I almost feel bad for the Chinese hackers. Imagine the junior analysts tasked with picking through the terabytes of e-mails from every low-rent think tank in Washington, trying to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, trying to make everything fit a pattern. Imagine all the spurious connections they’re drawing, all the fundraising bluster they’re taking as fact, all the black humor they’re reading as straight description, all the mundane organizational chatter they’re reading.

They’re missing our real strength, the real reason Washington fails day-to-day but has worked over years: It’s because we don’t stick too rigidly to plans or rely on some grand design. That way, when it all falls apart, as it always does and always will, we’re okay.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • sg

    The Manhattan Project certainly meets the definition of a conspiracy. It wasn’t a criminal conspiracy, but it was secret and extensive. Every year people are tried in the courts and convicted of conspiracies. It seems reasonable to assume that not everyone who conspires gets caught. Obviously there are conspiracies. Are paranoid nuts the most likely to discover them? Maybe not, but there certainly are conspiracies. 911 anyone? That was not a tiny undertaking of just a couple of guys. A ton of people were in on that. It was extensive and coordinated, and those guys weren’t even the brightest bulbs in the box, so it stands to reason that more professional organizations could do even more. Is this just a semantic thing, where the CIA’s Iran-Contra affair is labeled a covert operation instead of a conspiracy? Seriously, what is the material difference?

  • sg

    “And in a way, that’s a strength. Human beings like to think otherwise, but we’re not very good planners, at least not when matched up against reality.”

    This is so not true.

    Panama Canal operated 24/7 for like 70 years on its original circuitry installed by General Electric. Which goes to show, you can do it right the first time.

    Anyway, it is just depressing to see people say this kind of nonsense. Some people aren’t good planners, okay, but others are freakin’ amazing.

  • Tom Hering

    I don’t think the point was that people and organizations can’t be good planners and carry out conspiracies. It’s that our politicians, specifically, are more than a little challenged in this area.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Here I go agreeing with Tom again.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    On a somewhat related note.
    G.K. Chesterton said something to the effect of when people ceases believing in God they start believing in everything and anything.
    I have often wondered about that in regards to conspiracy theories. I’ve run into people who can’t seem to let a conspiracy go to rest, and will accept anythings as evidence for a conspiracy whether or not it would qualify as evidence in court. You have the Dan Brown book detailing a huge conspiracy so complex you wonder what benefit it would have had for those who first concocted it. Templars, moon landing in a Hollywood studio, and the same guy will tell you NASA is hiding aliens, so I mean why couldn’t we borrow alien technology to get to the moon? All of this sort of stuff. But it hits me, in order to deny the veracity of the gospels you have to buy into a massive conspiracy. To deny the death and resurrection of Christ you have to accept a conspiracy theory. And once you have accepted one, you are prone to accept others. But for many, it is more desirable to believe in a conspiracy than it is to believe that God became man and died for your sins. I even had one guy who tried to tell me Jesus was a Roman conspiracy to pacify the Jews, seems that one back fired badly.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    However, there is one problem I have with what I have said above. I have met way to many who believe in the death and resurrection of Christ, who are prone to give credence to any conspiracy theory that comes their way, for instance the whole premillenial Crowd.

  • HippoAugustine

    Never underestimate the power of the state to act out its own massive fantasies.

    -Don Delillo-

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    Seriously, we all know that Obama is just a puppet of Dick Cheney, the evil overlord. Cheney set him up so that after 8 years we would be so sick of him we would swallow anything Cheney wants to feed us. It’s all a part of the plan people. Obamacare, is meant to drive us not to a single payer plan but to the waiting arms of Cheney who will lead us to the land of the tyranny by making us believe its all about freedom. This who fiscal thing is part of Cheney’s plan to look like a savior when he swoops in with his hidden Haliburton money to finance the country.

    Yeah, chalk me up as one who sees incompetence before conspiracy.

  • sg

    “It’s that our politicians, specifically, are more than a little challenged in this area.”

    Oh, I don’t know about that. They manage to execute planning pretty well for what they are actually interested in, like staying in office a long time and converting it into profitable positions once they get out.

  • Joe

    Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance (or incompetence). I try to live by that rule and I think it kind of fits here too. But I think the reason conspiracy theories are attractive is that they is often some plausible component to the theory and we are a society that is generally skeptical of powerful institutions (which is actually a necessary part of a republican democracy where we are the overseers of our “leaders”).

    Is it really that hard to believe that our federal or state governments would engage in conspiratorial acts when one considers the track record:

    1. intentionally infected and then refused to properly treat black sharecroppers with syphilis for over 40 years in order to study what happens when it goes untreated. The US public health service lied to these men telling them that they were receiving free healthcare.

    2. illegally sold weapons to Iran and diverted the money to south american freedom fighters that congress had expressly defunded

    3. when 35 states had laws that made it legal to sterilize people against their will and in many cases without even telling the people they were doing it (e.g. orphans, mentally ill)

    (these were the first three that came to mind that are not theories but historical facts.)

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I guess I’m thinking here that this article needs some criteria for what is the difference between a “conspiracy,” and a “conspiracy theory.”
    There are indeed conspiracies. Some are found out, and some go unchallenged and work, assassination attempts and so on. On the other hand conspiracy theories tend to be fictional accounts of reality for which there are simpler and better explanations. We really went to the moon, rather than it was done in a Hollywood film studio.
    I don’t think anyone believes that conspiracies don’t happen. But some of what people say is a conspiracy is not conspiracy at all, but complete fiction.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Wow… I have to agree with Tom too….

    I do believe there are some conspiracies, but not on the grand scale that tin-foil wearers insist.

    Ex liberal Bernard Goldberg brought this point up. He said that most grand scale conspiracy appearances are more due to the fact that liberals are just that like-minded on many things rather than actually huddling in back rooms and hatching out plans.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    And… to make any lefties here happy… I’m sure the same could be said for the apparent conspiracies (Valerie Plame) that happen when Repubs run the offices.

  • Steve Bauer

    J. Dean @12 has it right. When you’ve done the wiring correctly, you don’t need to have an overt conspiracy with secret meetings and paper trails and all that. The kind of thing that enlivens conversations over at Get Religion (such as Mollie’s recent posts about the anoymous Washington Post reporter’s approach to reporting believers’ positions that don’t fit the ‘liberal’ meta-narrative.

  • sg

    “I do believe there are some conspiracies, but not on the grand scale that tin-foil wearers insist.”

    The Manhattan Project was grand scale conspiracy. They had a whole town in Oakridge Tennessee. My friend’s grandmother worked on it. She was a Ph.D. mathematician working as a “secretary”. Funny thing was as she got old and well uh, maybe um eccentric, she was a total conspiracy theory nut. I bet it was because she was personally involved in one and had seen and participated in all kinds of stuff and knew that yeah, people can and will do that kind of stuff. Figuring it out from the outside of course, is pretty unlikely. How about the US gov’t started or facilitated the spread of HIV? Now where have I heard that?

  • DonS

    I agree with J. Dean @ 12 regarding the leftist establishment. It’s not a conspiracy, just a lack of diversity in our establishment centers of power, which results in an almost uniformly liberal bias.

    Fortunately, the thing that has made us great, our individualism, is also the thing that keeps us from executing grand conspiracies. It’s also the reason why, so far, we as a people have been able to overcome the incompetencies of government — government is just not that important to us.

    Unfortunately, that may be changing, now that our federal government has acquired a substantial critical mass and has hugely burdened our future generations with unimaginable debt.

  • SKPeterson

    I’m reminded of an essay which I am currently reading by Gordon S. Wood, found in his book The Idea of America titled “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century.” In it Woods describes the oft prevalent notion in the Eighteenth Century in both the Americas, England and even on the Continent, that undesirable outcomes which came into being despite the protested good intentions of the various actors could only be described as having arisen from contrivances of deceit and conspiracy to throw off the public. In this early Enlightenment era, many political spectators could not believe that the jostling for economic gain, for political power and position, by multiple actors acting without concert or design might by there actions achieve unforeseen results. They simply knew that from Newtonian laws of motion that actions had consequences and that if the consequences were bad, then the actions precipitating those results must also have arisen from malevolent intent. To the extent that people on both sides of the political aisle continue to evoke conspiracies evil machinations they are continuing in this intellectual inheritance, while ignoring the more plausible explanation that most results in the political sphere happen not by concert and coordination of powerful unseen personages, but rather typically by a more fleeting and pedestrian confederacy of dunces.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com John

    The problem with government conspiracy theories is that they must presume that the government is capable of competence and secrecy at the same time. While either is highly dubious in its own right, together they present a significantly improbable challenge.

  • Steve Bauer

    Part of the conspiracy is to insist that there is no conspiracy.

    No, seriously, I really have no truck with conspiracys, thinking Robert Burns got it right;
    But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
    In proving foresight may be vain;
    The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
    Gang aft agley,
    An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
    For promis’d joy!

  • Trey

    The problem with these conspiracy theories is that is it still a conspiracy if it is public and all over the Internet? No! Like I have told friends and family that correlation does not show causation. Agenda 21 is the latest one I have heard about, and while I do not doubt that these people have an agenda, but it isn’t a conspiracy since it is public. The end of conspiracy theories is typically Armageddon an event. It boils down to that we have a bunch of paranoics in our midst.

  • CW2

    Sg@1,

    The Manhattan Project may not, exactly, have been a ‘criminal’ conspiracy,but Roosevelt’s complicity in allowing the attack on Pearl Harbor to take place,certainly is:

    http://buchanan.org/blog/did-fdr-provoke-pearl-harbor-4953
    http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2012/12/06/pearl-harbor-roosevelt-knew

  • CW2

    Bror Erickson @ 5,

    “…G.K.Chesterton said something to the effect of when people ceases believing in God they start believing in everything & anything”…
    Like talking heads on Fox ‘News’,CNN,MSNBC,Neocons on talk radio (e.g.Bill Bennet,Hugh Hewitt,Sean Hannity,etc.),Karl Rove and so-called ‘respectable conservatives’/members of Conservative Inc.

  • CW2
  • CW2

    Here is one more example of an ongoing conspiracy.This one,very similar to what is happening here in the U.S.,involves the deliberate population replacement taking place in Europe:

    Electing a new people
    http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2012/07/05/conspiracy-realism

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    This article does a great job of recognizing how stymied our political process has become, although I would make this quibble about Hollywood. Hollywood does have immense interest in producing films based on whimiscal, emotion-driven plots because they make more, the ultimate goal of business. The drive for more money leads Hollywood to align itself with the left.


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