Libertarians are skeptics. We question the history we're told and we question the future we're promised. It is only natural that people with curious minds -- especially those with no previous interest in politics -- find comfort in libertarian circles (if not for the ideology, at least for the skepticism). This curiosity often devolves into conspiracy, though, and over time these individuals forget about the actual ethics of liberty, even as they maintain and wear proudly the "libertarian" label.
Most recently this phenomenon popped up on various libertarian forums after the July 20 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. Calls for gun control immediately followed news of the violence, taking aim at deregulators who prefer the firearm sector remain free. For example, ABC's Brian Ross falsely identified the shooter as a member of the Tea Party. Then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for stricter laws against gun ownership. Many libertarians took both of these sentiments personally, and for good reason.
But other libertarians went way too far. One article -- the website of which I will forgo mentioning, lest I raise its traffic rankings -- attempted to demonstrate that the shooting was staged by government officials in order to push through a campaign in support of gun control. Ridiculous as it may sound, the article was greeted with extreme enthusiasm (i.e., it has more than 200,000 'likes' on Facebook and 5,000 mentions on Twitter).
I promptly deleted fellow libertarians who sent the link to me, and I will tell you why.
It does the liberty movement no good to insist that all emotional uproars are products of manufactured violence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has certainly contributed more than its fair share of time to aiding and abetting (and then foiling) terrorist plots, but the piles of evidence shedding light on this corruption are the result of research into concrete background information. Conspiracy theorists fail when they try to determine policy motives from a mere observation of policy effects.
Politics is clearly a reactionary game.
For instance, we saw these same political reactions after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) about two years ago. One member of Congress used it as a reason to call for a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and then another member proposed a bill making it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000 feet of lawmakers. A few libertarians decided it must have been a government plot from the get-go, especially since a federal judge killed in the incidence once ruled that certain provisions of the Brady Act were unconstitutional.
Yet what is more likely, I ask: politicians directing the murders of a sitting congresswoman and a federal judge for the purpose of furthering gun control, or politicians expectedly feeding off moments of raw tension? People get scared, newspapers exaggerate danger on A1, and finally politicians call for swift action in order to qualm their constituents' fears and to, hopefully, collect their votes come election time.
That's it. Far from an organization demonstrating brilliance, the State is what happens when you mix together public stupidity and timely rhetoric. It is nothing more and nothing less. And creating complex theories out of simple (albeit calculated) opportunism is giving way too much credit where none is due. These people are lowly opportunists. Ridicule them, make memes about them, and for God's sake don't vote for them.
But at such a crucial time, when libertarians are busy convincing the world that politicians are insignificant figures, don't give these bumbling fools shoulders to stand on.
It makes libertarians seem inhumane to flaunt conspiracy theories when 12 innocent people lay dead on the floor of a movie theater. Instead, explain how gun control actually increases violent crime: I'm terribly sorry these deaths happened. A ban on firearms will lead to even more deaths, though, and I'm doing my best to prevent this potential future from unfolding in the wake of well-meaning citizens. Or point out the utter overreaction: The National Rifle Association reports more than 70 million gun owners in the United States. You want to change the country's entire gun policy because a miniscule percentage of those people decided to open fire on a peaceful crowd? Ten times more civilians were killed by cops than the other way around in 2008. Let's focus on that statistic first.
The attacks on September 11 constitute another good example. We have records outlining how much U.S. foreign aid is shipped to Middle Eastern dictators as a method of subtle appeasement. And we have press releases, if you will, from terrorist organizations saying that they only participate in mass murder in order to protest of these monetary packages. Wouldn't you say, then, that conspiracy theories about "controlled demolitions" undermine all we've accomplished informing the American public about blowback?
See, the ethical and utilitarian foundations of libertarianism stand stronger than ever before, independent of any weird conspiracy theories out there. Even so, let's say the government did, indeed, plan and execute the Aurora shooting. And now you've convinced the population that it's true. What possible conclusion can you draw from this evidence other than the already-known fact that the government kills people? There is nothing. So it becomes a major question within the libertarian community: why, if conspiracy theories offer libertarianism no forward momentum, do they exist at all?
Steve Horwitz offers a psychological origin at The Freeman. He writes,
Conspiracy theories are as old as human thinking; they satisfy a deep desire to believe that some person or group is in control of everything and that the apparently chaotic way that social life evolves actually has an underlying unity ... But there is a more fundamental problem with a classical liberal's embracing most conspiracy theories. Ultimately, believing that a small group of evil people are manipulating economic and social processes for their own ends concedes to defenders of government economic planning that controlling and manipulating the economy is in fact possible!
I certainly believe this is true. People like to believe that intelligent minds and genius plans were behind Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Politicians wanted to rule a country, so they took away individual freedoms one-by-one. Gun control, economic tariffs, societal regulations -- people like to believe that these policies weren't established on accident. It's comforting to believe that these dictatorships were not the effects of well-meaning policies but of something greater, darker, and centralized.
Perhaps, we hope, human ingenuity -- and not human fallibility -- is the mother of tyranny. These theories give us an enemy to defeat. If someone is in charge of this mess, then we aren't up against hundreds of years of human reactions gone awry. Thus our fate is not to snowball into eventual tyranny. Yet, ultimately, I will take Stephen Jay Gould's opinion of religion it and apply it to conspiracy theories: "Look, it's a tough life and if you can delude yourself into thinking that there's all some warm and fuzzy meaning to it all, it's enormously comforting. But I do think it's just a story we tell ourselves."
The real story is that, when Person A is placed in charge of Person B's life (and vice versa), chaos ensues and planners are elected. Dictatorships come and go, but they never stay. The mechanism that creates them is the same as the one that destroys them. Human beings are fallible. It is why government power corrupts. Centralized inefficiency applies to bad plans as well as "good" ones. The impossibility of economic and societal calculation always tears down the monopoly powers that be.
I wrote earlier that the State is not an intelligent organization, and I feel I must state it again for emphasis. Government is riddled with stupidity, propelled only by the disinformation circling through the ears of individuals who don't have the time or resources to pay attention as well as we do. When the liberty movement's full attention is focused on the actions taken by government -- and not on motives -- we will succeed.
Outlandish conspiracy theories dilute the concrete information we already understand about legislative policies. One day "the boy who cried wolf" will turn into "the libertarian who cried conspiracy," and, next time politicians try to send the military into battle under false pretenses, we won't be lucky enough to find an ear willing to listen.
So I ask at last: why cloud logic with conspiracy?