The Conspiracy Theory of History Revisited

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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.

 

 

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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.

There
are, of course, good conspiracy analysts and bad conspiracy analysts,
just as there are good and bad historians or practitioners of any
discipline. The bad conspiracy analyst tends to make two kinds of
mistakes, which indeed leave him open to the Establishment charge
of "paranoia." First, he stops with the cui
bono; if measure A benefits X and Y, he simply concludes that
therefore X and Y were responsible. He fails to realize that
this is just a hypothesis, and must be verified by finding out whether
or not X and Y really did so. (Perhaps the wackiest example of this
was the British journalist Douglas Reed who, seeing that the result
of Hitler’s policies was the destruction of Germany, concluded,
without further evidence, that therefore Hitler was a conscious
agent of external forces who deliberately set out to ruin Germany.)
Secondly, the bad conspiracy analyst seems to have a compulsion
to wrap up all the conspiracies, all the bad guy power blocs, into
one giant conspiracy. Instead of seeing that there are several power
blocs trying to gain control of government, sometimes in conflict
and sometimes in alliance, he has to assume – again without
evidence – that a small group of men controls them all, and
only seems to send them into conflict.

These reflections are prompted by the almost blatant fact –
so blatant as to be remarked on by the major newsweeklies –
that virtually the entire top leadership of the new Carter administration,
from Carter and Mondale on down, are members of the small, semisecret
Trilateral Commission, founded by David Rockefeller in 1973 to propose
policies for the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, and/or
members of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation. The rest are
tied in with Atlanta corporate interests, and especially the Coca-Cola
Company, Georgia’s major corporation.

Well,
how do we look at all this? Do we say that David Rockefeller’s prodigious
efforts on behalf of certain statist public policies are merely
a reflection of unfocused altruism? Or is there pursuit of economic
interest involved? Was Jimmy Carter named a member of the Trilateral
Commission as soon as it was founded because Rockefeller and the
others wanted to hear the wisdom of an obscure Georgia governor?
Or was he plucked out of obscurity and made President by their support?
Was J. Paul Austin, head of Coca-Cola, an early supporter of Jimmy
Carter merely out of concern for the common good? Were all the Trilateralists
and Rockefeller Foundation and Coca-Cola people chosen by Carter
simply because he felt that they were the ablest possible people
for the job? If so, it’s a coincidence that boggles the mind. Or
are there more sinister political-economic interests involved? I
submit that the naïfs who stubbornly refuse to examine the
interplay of political and economic interest in government are tossing
away an essential tool for analyzing the world in which we live.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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