The Case for Conspiracy Theory

The Conspiracy Theory of History Revisited


This article originally appeared in Reason, April 1977, pp. 39–40.

Anytime that a hard-nosed analysis is put forth of who our rulers are, of how their political and economic interests interlock, it is invariably denounced by Establishment liberals and conservatives (and even by many libertarians) as a “conspiracy theory of history,” “paranoid,” “economic determinist,” and even “Marxist.” These smear labels are applied across the board,even though such realistic analyses can be, and have been, made from any and all parts of the economic spectrum, from the John Birch Society to the Communist Party. The most common label is “conspiracy theorist,” almost always leveled as a hostile epithet rather than adopted by the “conspiracy theorist” himself.

It is no wonder that usually these realistic analyses are spelled out by various “extremists” who are outside the Establishment consensus. For it is vital to the continued rule of the State apparatus that it have legitimacy and even sanctity in the eyes of the public, and it is vital to that sanctity that our politicians and bureaucrats be deemed to be disembodied spirits solely devoted to the “public good.” Once let the cat out of the bag that these spirits are all too often grounded in the solid earth of advancing a set of economic interests through use of the State, and the basic mystique of government begins to collapse.

Let us take an easy example. Suppose we find that Congress has passed a law raising the steel tariff or imposing import quotas on steel? Surely only a moron will fail to realize that the tariff or quota was passed at the behest of lobbyists from the domestic steel industry, anxious to keep out efficient foreign competitors. No one would level a charge of “conspiracy theorist” against such a conclusion. But what the conspiracy theorist is doing is simply to extend his analysis to more complex measures of government: say, to public works projects, the establishment of the ICC, the creation of the Federal Reserve System, or the entry of the United States into a war. In each of these cases, the conspiracy theorist asks himself the question cui bono? Who benefits from this measure? If he finds that Measure A benefits X and Y, his next step is to investigate the hypothesis: did X and Y in fact lobby or exert pressure for the passage of Measure A? In short, did X and Y realize that they would benefit and act accordingly?

Far from being a paranoid or a determinist, the conspiracy analyst is a praxeologist; that is, he believes that people act purposively, that they make conscious choices to employ means in order to arrive at goals. Hence, if a steel tariff is passed, he assumes that the steel industry lobbied for it; if a public works project is created, he hypothesizes that it was promoted by an alliance of construction firms and unions who enjoyed public works contracts, and bureaucrats who expanded their jobs and incomes. It is the opponents of “conspiracy”analysis who profess to believe that all events – at least in government – are random and unplanned, and that therefore people do not engage in purposive choice and planning.

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