‘LET me not be accused of being a conspiracy theorist, at all costs’ seems to be the preferred position of moderate right-of-centre types who, seemingly, still crave some sort of approval from their sworn political enemies.
Until the epithet ‘anti-vaxxer’ recently came of age, calling someone a conspiracy theorist was the preferred form of abuse for those who adopted off-trend opinions on issues of the day, especially opinions which offended the sensibilities of the elites.
There are four characteristics of conspiracy theories: Evil intent, co-ordination, secrecy and purpose.
Conspiracies, of course, are as old as history itself – Man since the Fall has been afflicted by the desire to do bad things, and will often act both either in secret or in concert with others, sometimes doing both, to wound others.
The frequent use of the phrase ‘hidden agenda’ suggests there is a broad understanding that people’s apparent motives are not always the whole explanation for their actions. Seeing isn’t always believing. What you see isn’t always what you get. The cliches are plentiful and all cliches have their basis in fact.
Explaining how bad things come about is an essential task of the historian, the political scientist and the theorist of conspiracies. Taking things at face value is a mug’s game. As is assuming the best motives in the actions of others, including, perhaps especially, politicians. Being honourable AND popular is rare in politics, perhaps in life.
When politicians make head-shakingly bad decisions, or decisions which have unholy consequences, is it any wonder that analysts seek to delve deeper than the surface, to look behind appearances? Every secret meeting joined by two or more politicians to achieve an outcome is, by definition, a conspiracy, pure and simple.
The resistance of politicians to revealing, say through Freedom of Information requests, that which they have done in secret and that which might make them look either foolish or evil, is familiar to anyone who has working in or near government.
We know they lie. We know they don’t tell the whole story. But we still resist thinking them dastardly. We especially want those whom we have ourselves elected and supported to be above reproach.
When decisions are not merely ‘bad’ but positively evil, it is natural to ponder how seemingly good, well-motivated public servants could do such things. Pondering leads to the assumption of bad motives. Assuming bad intentions leads to plausible and sometimes implausible explanations of policy decisions.
Especially now, in the age of Covid totalitarianism. Such is the sheer evil that appends many of the routine policy decisions related to lockdowns, and now vaccine apartheid. Many of the explanations for the evil actions of politicians and others – public health bureaucrats, police, unions, the corporate media, Big Tech ‘fact’ checkers, and the rest – are perfectly plausible, and, indeed, fit the facts to a T.
Believing that politicians and their decisions are stupid rather than evil, that the ‘stuff-up’ will always beat the conspiracy, often appeals to ‘Hanlon’s Razor’. This is an adage, or rule of thumb, that states: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ Known in several other forms, it is a philosophical razor that suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behaviour.
As Wiki P explains: ‘In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate (‘shave off’) unlikely explanations for a phenomenon, or avoid unnecessary actions’. Hanlon was Robert J Hanlon, who, it is said, submitted the phrase to a joke book. The term has several other possible origins.
There is a sort of halfway house argument that has gained traction in the age of Covid statism. The convergent opportunism thesis – that a whole array of different actors have different motivations but a similar desire to see Covid and its various totalitarian policy responses last forever – is powerful, but is it sufficient? It is certainly a useful place-holder while we continue to back-and-forth over the status of conspiracy theories.
One doesn’t have to defend specific conspiracy theories in order to punch holes in the Hanlon’s Razor approach to explaining decisions. In particular, there are (at least) five basic flaws in the assumption underpinning the argument that Covid policy is the result of blunders and not hidden agendas.
Here are my top five hypotheses that show Hanlon’s Razor to be both insufficient and misleading:
1. It is entirely possible that decision-makers are both malevolent AND stupid. HR theorists assume a false binary;
2. One can distinguish (evil) intent from (mistake-ridden) execution. Blunders in execution are almost inevitable in regimes that are well-motivated and those less so. The sheer idiocy of many of the claims made by governments – too many to list here – about Covid, lockdowns, masks, quarantine, border closures and vaccines does not preclude those same governments having evil motives, such as spreading fear and desiring control over people.
3. The stupid politicians may be puppets of evil forces behind the scenes. The false HR binary attributes ultimate power to those who merely hold democratic office, whereas it is entirely plausible that politicians are merely doing the bidding of others, and that those others are evil.
4. The complexity of political decision-making means that there are competing sub-groups, not a single rational actor. The whole rational actor theory of decision-making, once a popular starting point in explaining political actions, has long been debunked and overtaken by more realistic theories.
For a start, decisions in politics are very rarely made by a single actor, but are the outcomes of group dynamics. Certainly, there can be collective stupidity and/or collective evil, but decisions that are the outcome of multiple actors variously interacting, and with many motives and levels of understanding of the problem, cannot be reduced to a simple binary.
5. There are relevant categories of decision-maker other than evil and stupid – venal, power-seeking, scared (see Gladys), confused, trapped, for starters. Hanlon’s Razor merely suggests two possibilities, and so is simplistic in the extreme.
These points suggest that appealing to Hanlon’s Razor might be cute, but it might also be a cop-out.
Formulating and testing conspiracy hypotheses is the core work of every half-decent working historian. It is called ‘doing your own research’, a principle accepted by most as the default for just about every decision you will make in your life. Reverting to blind acceptance of things that politicians say beggars belief, on reflection.
Appealing to Hanlon’s Razor is safe. It avoids the risk of being labelled, well, you know what. But it also lets the current crop of politicians off the hook, at a time when an increasing number of very, very disgruntled voters are itching for justice, indeed, for a Nuremberg Two.
Merely to suggest that they are human, they have made mistakes, that the worst thing you can say about them is that they are dumb. The five arguments above suggest that this is way too kind.
There is another problem with the ‘decision-makers are stupid’ theory. Clearly, given that every totalitarian measure executed by every Western government during the Covid affair has been accepted by the majority.
Governments facing election during the past 18 months have been returned with thumping majorities. Look at Western Australia and look at New Zealand. And Queensland. ‘They kept us safe.’ As a result of the actions of politicians taking tough but expected-to-be-unpopular decisions, many lives have been saved. Or so the argument goes.
On the face of it, then, the politicians are actually very clever. Anything but stupid. They have told big, clever, regular lies and these have all been believed. They got the media onside, totally.
I still do not know how they did this. They have acquired for themselves unprecedented powers, for example, of surveillance, without anyone batting an eyelid. They have run up staggering debts through their magic money tree approach to buying off the punters, and nobody besides Terry McCrann has bothered to call them out for their economic brinkmanship.
No, these people are not stupid. Look at the New South Wales health minister Brad Hazzard in his crass performance in front of that parliamentary committee. He looked like an idiot. I don’t think he is.
Appealing to Hanlon’s Razor does serve one purpose, and maybe therein lies its lingering appeal. It allows us to abuse politicians. No one likes being called stupid. Calling a politician a moron lets off steam, and shows appropriate disrespect. In the days of Covid, when the whole political class is against us, what weapons do we have other than mockery?
There is, quite likely, a more powerful process at work that is driving much of the desire of people to let the Covid class off the hook. Two processes, to be exact.
First, in the age of relativism, we have given up on truth. We have legislated it out of existence. When there is no truth, how do we know if someone is ‘telling’ it? The whole of existence is based on opinion. Your truth and my truth. All is relatives. There are no absolutes, only narratives, or as the French philosophers like to say, ‘discourses’.
Second, we have eliminated ‘evil’ from our now-godless vocabularies. Satan’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist. Most of the rest of us don’t believe in either evil or its personification. Legislating evil out of existence saves us the trouble of attributing it to anyone, including politicians and Bill Gates.