Some more thoughts on what to do with conspiracy theorists and other libertarian sympathizers

Just a quick note on a perennial topic…

Years ago I met my (now) ex-girlfriends crazy uncle. For whatever reason we ended up talking about how some policy or other was a bad idea. “Oh cool,” I thought, a fellow traveler. And then he started talking about how 9-11 was an inside job. “Okay, sure, whatever, but there’s so much else. We could actually convince people that, for example, a better regulatory system could improve the world.” To which he replied that yes indeed 9-11 sure was extra inside-job-y.

Now, this guy was a legitimately crazy uncle, so whatever. But this exchange wasn’t about his being a crazy uncle, because I’ve met plenty of non-crazy, non-uncles who have been similarly zombie-like. Whether they’re of the “Obama is a secret gay Muslim” variety, or any other variety of conspiracy theorist, they are just completely uninterested in attacking the Democratic party for any sensible reason. And this is true of anti-Republicans too. There the conversation is something like “war sure is bad, huh?” “Yeah, and Bush’s puppet masters set the whole thing up.” “Okay, let’s just assume that’s true, how do we reduce the amount of war?” “By getting hung up on evidence that only convinces people who don’t need any more convincing!” “I’m going to go get another drink.”

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of good arguments for opposing whoever it is you want to oppose. Yes, it feels good to talk about how the bums in charge are pawns for the cartoon-mustache-twirlingly-evil powers that be. But if you want to be taken seriously, keep it to yourself.

I see two things going on here. First, these conspiracy zombies are simply bad at thinking like economists. The first rule of being a good economist is that you have to recognize opportunity cost. By perseverating on the big, exciting, good-vs-evil struggle amongst competing factions of the Illuminati (I guess?) you attach all your attention to something you’re unlikely to have any real influence on at the expense of minor but achievable goals like marginal improvement of the immigration system, or school choice, or any number of other things the other side is willing to discuss with you (yeah, yeah, they aren’t willing to discuss that stuff because they’re convinced that your side is in a deal with the devil too…).

Second, and this is more troubling, people have a natural predilection to these sorts of things. People would rather get excited about conspiracies than actually make the world a better place. Is there anything we can do about that? I don’t know. Maybe we need to convince rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats that aliens are conspiring to pit humans against one another by making us argue unproductively rather than simply reform immigration policy. Maybe Krugerz was right?

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3 thoughts on “Some more thoughts on what to do with conspiracy theorists and other libertarian sympathizers

  1. One problem in dealing with conspiracy theorists is that if I ask, How do you know?, they might hand me a thick book that I don’t have time to read. If I ask for a summary, they might respond, “It’s complicated. Read the book.” So I just categorize this as conjecture, and change the topic. As far as I am concerned, it’s orthogonal to real-world issues.

  2. Human stupidity and cupidity are almost always enough to account for things that go awry. Once in a great while there may be a bit of substance to a conspiracy theory.

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