South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Conspiracy vs. serious conservatism
You aren’t a conservative if you believe in conspiracy theories.
Before I defend this statement, I should say that as a general rule, I do not like statements that begin, “You aren’t a conservative if ...”
It’s not that I always disagree with such assertions. For instance, “You’re not a conservative if you think the state should seize the means of production and usher in anewage of socialist economics” strikes meas not just defensible but self-evidently true— at least if you define “conservative” in the traditional Anglo-American sense. (The most committed Communists in the Soviet Politburowere routinely called “conservatives” because theywere trying to conserve something very different from what American conservativeswant to conserve.)
My objection is thatwhen people say, “You aren’t conservative if ...” they are usually confusing what is with what ought to be. Sure, conservatives ought to be (fill in the blank) pro-life, pro-gun, pro-free market, pro-this or anti-that. But that doesn’t mean they all are. And if they disagree on this or that issue, they might simply bewrong. (Conservative is not synonymous with “correct.”) Or they might put more emphasis on different factors or concerns.
Think about it thisway: Most of the time when people say, “You’re not a conservative if ...” they are engaging politics. “You’re not a conservative if you aren’t protectionist” should be understood as, “We should exile the free traders fromthe ranks of conservatives sowe’ll have an easier time winning arguments.”
Sowhy are conspiracy theorists different? Well, for starters, conspiracy theories are almost always offered in bad faith because they are nonfalsifiable. The moment you provide evidence disproving a conspiracy theory, the response is invariably to resort to an even deeper conspiracy theory— or to accuse the debunker of being “one of them.”
For instance, Attorney General Bill Barr, whohas been far too loyal to the president throughout his tenure formy taste, recently told the truth: There’s no evidence for the vast conspiracy theories DonaldTrump has belched out to explain his election loss. The response frommany
ofTrump’s most ardent defenderswas to insistBarrwas in on the “deep state” plot to getTrump.
But the incompatibility of conservatism with conspiracy theories is more fundamental. One of the central tenets of conservatism is the idea that society is too complex to be easily controlled by a despot or even cadres ofwell-intentioned social engineers and bureaucrats, or what EdmundBurke, the founder of modern conservatism, dubbed “sophisters, calculators and economists.”
Burke’s argumentwas more about the nature of a just regime, but it rested on the belief that government planners, no matter howsmart, cannot simply will into existence whatever theywant theworld to look like through rawintellect. This insightwas fleshed out byAdamSmith, the Founding Fathers, FriedrichHayek and scores of other conservative sociologists, economists and philosophers. It’s central to every serious explication of conserva
tism and the free market and every conservative critique of socialism, communism, technocracy and progressivism.
John Lockewas arguably the first person to introduce the idea of the lawof unintended consequences, which holds that planners cannot foresee all theways their schemes will interactwith real life. And ever since, conservatives have mocked how the schemers always respond by redoubling their efforts.
“Themore the plans fail,” RonaldReagan quipped, “themore the planners plan.”
Or asWilliam F. Buckley put it: “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”
But here’s the thing: The “sophisters, calculators and economists” had real power. They had the power tomake laws, and to order police and armies to enforce them.
Andyetwe’re supposed to believe that conspirators— globalists, the deep state, lizard people or, asQAnonwould have you
believe, blood-drinking pedophiles— can pull off whatever theywant in total secrecy and with no formal power?
Here’s a simple fact: Themore you know about howgovernment actuallyworks, the less likely you are to believe anyone is actually in control. The idea that secret cabals could blowup theWorldTrade Center or steal the election, with the active participation of hundreds or thousands of conspirators, is beyond laughablewhen you consider that passing a budget is often beyond the capabilities of those “in charge.”
One ofBuckley’s top priorities in fashioning modernAmerican conservatism was that it be aworldview grounded in realism. Conspiracy theories aren’t grounded in anything beyond the vaporous phantasms of paranoia. They can certainly be “right-wing.” But conservative they’re not.