When I was in college and first became active in politics and public policy, I periodically would meet people who warned about sinister conspiracies that had to be exposed and overcome.
The most common villain, reviled by conspiracy theorists on the left and right, was something called the Trilateral Commission, though the Council of Foreign Relations often was mentioned in the same breath (I also remember a lefty friend warning about the Bilderbergers and Illuminati, though I never quite understood who or what they were supposed to be).
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anybody mention any of the above groups, but this doesn’t mean conspiracy theories have faded into the sunset. There are thriving communities of people who think:
a) Obama is a Kenyan and/or Muslim (the birthers).
b) The U.S. government and/or George W. Bush were complicit in the 9-11 attacks (the truthers).
c) The Federal Reserve is a sinister cabal.
d) The Koch brothers have a secret plan to turn America into…well, I’m not sure, but they have a secret plan to do something bad.
This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea. The common theme in all these conspiracies is that wealthy/powerful people, in some unaccountable and hidden fashion, manipulate the levers of government to achieve some evil goal.
I suppose a quick disclaimer would be appropriate. The Koch brothers directly or indirectly provide 3 percent of the funding for the Cato Institute, so if they have a conspiracy, I’m part of it. Though I’m not sure how a conspiracy can be a conspiracy if it’s all public information.
But I digress. The main point I want to make is that it is almost always foolish to believe in conspiracies. Or, to be more specific, it’s foolish to believe in big conspiracies. We have a government that is spectacularly incompetent, filled with some of the most short-sighted and narcissistic people in the world, so why would anyone think it is realistic to believe that this bunch of buffoons could maintain a conspiracy using an organization that doesn’t even have the ability to give away money without creating giant clusterf*cks?
In a column for National Review, Jonah Goldberg made this point quite effectively in discussing the fevered speculations of the birthers and truthers.
I’m not saying there are no secret dealings in Washington. There are lots of them. But they involve run-of-the-mill corruption, with politicians doing things like providing earmarks in exchange for campaign cash. That’s the kind of scheme that works, because only a tiny handful of people are in on the deal, and they obviously have lots of reasons to keep quiet. Heck, in most cases there’s probably not even an overt conspiracy, just an implied understanding.
I think people are drawn to conspiracy theories because they assume that things happen for a reason, as part of a deliberate design. So if we have a TARP bailout, for instance, they assume that there was a deliberate effort to create chaos so the people who are part of the conspiracy can grab more money and power.
I’m willing to accept the last part of that scenario. Washington is filled with people who are willing to use any excuse to grab money and power. But I think it is silly to think that some hidden group of bigwigs orchestrated the financial crisis for that reason.
As indicated in my title, it is much more realistic to believe bad things happen because of corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self-interest. These ever-present characteristics of human nature help explain why politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and interest groups pursued the various policies (easy money, housing subsidies, etc) that inadvertently came together in a perfect storm to destabilize the financial system.
Yes, powerful interest groups have a lot of influence on the political system. But it’s not a hidden conspiracy. Take the example of Goldman Sachs, which frequently is cited as being part of some evil plan. Their lobbyists are well known, their campaign contributions are public knowledge, and their policy positions are openly stated.
I often disagree with the actions of Goldman Sachs. But you don’t need to believe that the company’s endorsement of, say, the Dodd-Frank bailout bill is part of a conspiracy. It’s just the kind of the out-in-the-open, day-after-day, special-interest deal-making that is routine in Washington.
I like good conspiracy theories, but I like them in David Baldacci novels rather than as explanations for what happens in Washington.