Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Why Libertarians Should Oppose Conspiracy Theories

By Dan Bier and David Bier

“Bilderberg conspiracies have become a handicap for the Liberty Movement,” says conservative commentator Jack Hunter in a recent article. “Bilderberg conspiracy theorists have become a political handicap. The Birthers probably have a few interesting points to make, but this doesn’t change the fact that their argument is toxic. It doesn’t change the fact that their rhetoric damages conservatives’ reputations every time a Birther opens his mouth.”

Hunter is right, and we do appreciate that someone else is speaking out against conspiracy theorists, but at the Skeptical Libertarian, we oppose conspiracy theories not merely because they are bad press for libertarianism, but because they are not supported by the facts. If the libertarian movement gained influence as a result of its proclivity for paranoid conspiracies, we would still oppose them. First and foremost, our commitment is to reality—popular or not—and to a conversation based on reason and evidence. Intellectual honesty is our core value, and scientific skepticism is the surest way to preserve that integrity.

The reality is that telling conspiracists to shut up because what they are saying is unpopular or “politically toxic” is nearly pointless and surely self-defeating. It will only fan the flames of their delusions of persecution. Alex Jones, the king of conspiracy theorists, recently went after former-Freedom Watch producer, and friend of the blog, Austin Peterson for advocating skeptical inquiry and critical thinking at this year’s Porcupine Freedom Festival, the annual libertarian gathering in New Hampshire.

“Yes, yes, this is damaging us,” Jones mocked. “Well, yeah you could just become, I guess, an auxiliary of the Republican Party, and that’s what’s happening right now.” To the conspiratorial mind, everything is a conspiracy. Austin could not be simply expressing what he actually believes. No, it must be a subversive plan by the GOP to brainwash them, because he believes–and dares to argue–that most conspiracy theories are false and unsupported.

Explaining to conspiracy theorists that their ideas are unpopular or politically harmful is worse than irrelevant—it’s what drives them. They know the Truth™, and everyone else, even libertarians who disagree, are sheep. If other people don’t see the Truth™, it’s because they’re too dumb recognize it or possibly “in on it.” They expect to be unpopular, and they’ve constructed a self-reinforcing narrative to explain why they’re toxic.

Instead of trying to silence or ignore the crazies in our midst, we ought to confront them and expose the lunatic fringe for what they really are: peddlers of fear, falsehood, and paranoia, just like the politicians they claim to oppose. We cannot sit passively next to the people in tinfoil hats screaming about chemtrails and FEMA camps and still expect to be listened to when we try to speak about our real concerns on foreign policy or personal liberty.

The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.
– Frédéric Bastiat

Nor can we reasonably expect people who actually think the government was behind 9/11 not to mention that fact all the time. We must make the libertarian movement inhospitable to the crackpots and conspiracy theorists if we hope to move the philosophy of liberty from the margins to the center of public discourse. It needs to be crystal clear to everyone that our ideas based on–and defended with–facts and evidence, not superstition and innuendo.

What discredits and defames libertarianism is not the belief that government is corrupt, exploitative, or conniving. Rather, what hurts liberty most is when its alleged proponents lie, libel, and twist the facts. The government does not operate like a vast conspiracy. It is a lot of everyday bureaucrats who, cumulatively, erode our freedoms and restrict our rights. But there are no puppet masters and no grand secret society–just a lot of little would-be tyrants with half-baked plans. The evil perpetrated by government results not from the plots of secret cabals, but mostly from the unintended consequences of bad ideas.

If we fail to recognize this fact, we fall into the trap of believing that if we can simply expose the Truth™ about how evil our leaders are, then everything  will change. Conspiracy theories may sound complicated, but the belief that a few powerful men control the world is remarkably simplistic: we can replace the ones who currently twist the reins of power for their own ends with more benevolent men who twist them to the benefit of all. But with no real demons to slay, conspiracy theorists are just chasing shadows, ignoring the real causes of the world’s problems and diverting efforts to solve them.

– Daniel Bier and David Bier, Senior Editors

(This post was edited slightly for clarification.)

3 replies »

  1. The general advice here of skillfully advancing our point of view is right on. However, rejecting ‘conspiracy theories’ out of hand is problematic because so much of what the government and elites do is secretive. The Bilderbergers are surely not lizard men from another planet bent on galactic domination, but they are almost to a man evil, power-hungry men. When such people get together it’s never a good thing. I have a lot of respect for Jack Hunter but on this issue I don’t see completely eye to eye with him.

  2. I see the conspiracy theorists as a possible constituent group for anti-statism. The Alex Jones people who believe the Bilderbergers are plotting to ‘poison the people’ are part of our political tradition. Traditional distrust in government has always been rooted in conspiratorialism. From the Anglo-Republicanism of the 17th century and it’s conspiratorial views of Charles I and James II to the Boston Tea Party British colonists who saw the Stamp Act and the Townshend duties as part of a larger conspiracy to destroy their liberties. Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence talked about the possible “long train of unsurpations, pursuing invariably the same object” that “evinces a design,” and thus destroys liberty. It should be no surprise to see popular conspiracies or conspiracy-based movements against the elite.

  3. Conspiracies theories will always arise in a situation where power is not exercised transparently. To blame people for trying to make sense of that situation seems to me to ass backwards, even when they adopt rather outlandish models. If you want to end conspiracy theories, get rid of concentrated power and the secrecy attendant to it.

    Also, I endorse this about 99%: In Defense of Conspiracy Theories. Think it would be good to post to this site?

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