Theories about a Conspiracy and “Conspiracy Theories”

What is a “conspiracy?” My rough definition would be something like this.

(1) A group of people work together with some regularity. This may be a one-time effort with one specific goal, but it might also be an ongoing operation with many facets.

(2) The cooperation is clandestine. The conspirators do not let on what they are doing, and they try to keep it secret when something begins to seep out.

(3) The purpose of the cooperation may be something illegal. Illegality depends on the legal framework, though. More generally it might also be about something that is illegitimate according to some moral standard, independent of specific laws. It can also be the other way around: If the framework is morally wrong, a conspiracy may turn around something that is illegal, but legitimate. A classical example would be the “20 July plot” to assassinate Hitler.

Note that my definition does not correspond to a legal concept in some jurisdiction although the thrust may be similar. It is only meant as a clarification to get a grip on the term and enable me to discuss what is a conspiracy and what is not. Since my definition is to some extent vague, it does not exclude ambiguous cases where it is hard to tell whether something qualifies as a conspiracy.

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First question: Are there conspiracies?

Simple answer: Yes, of course. People often work together for some purpose, so (1) in my definition is not a spectacular claim. There are also many goals they can pursue that are either illegal, illegitimate, or both. So (3) narrows the number of cases down, but not to nothing. Since illegality and often also illegitimate behavior that is not strictly illegal can result in some form of punishment or damage to the parties involved, (2) seems like an almost inevitable consequence of (3). It whittles the set of potential cases further down, but perhaps not by much.

What we are left with should be quite a few cases. If you want examples: Extramarital affairs will often take on such a character. Businesses may secretly work together to rig a tender for some public project. But there are even more serious cases, eg. criminal gangs or terrorist organizations. If illegality is not a problem what could be viewed as a conspiracy can be quite large: take the military of a regime that prepares for an aggressive war.

One of the pernicious effects of the Alex Joneses of this world is that they cast doubt on the very concept of a conspiracy. This delegitimizes the question whether something specific is a one. It is as if you should rule out apriori that there could ever be a conspiracy at all. Unfortunately, the term “conspiracy theory” has taken on the meaning of unhinged speculations and sloppy logic. It is small wonder that the Kremlin is so fond of pushing such people whereever it can. No, this is not a “conspiracy theory,” it is not even about a conspiracy, something that is meant to be kept secret: You’ve seen it first on RT.

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Second question: How large are conspiracies?

Answer: It depends: When a conspiracy does not have a problem with the legal system, eg. in an authoritarian regime under the protection of the goverment or even as a part of it, it can be large. If secrecy is not such a problem either, eg. because it is enforced by the government, a conspiracy can have huge dimensions.

Take the SS who would build a system of extermination camps. There was an attempt to keep this moderately secret, but it became still known to some extent. Many Germans denied this after World War II. But I think they mostly lied about it. Probably not the details, but the broad outlines were public knowledge. But that was not such a problem for the SS because they could count on the backing and cooperation of the state apparatus, of which they were a part, and often even society. As far as I know, all this was technically illegal according to the German laws on the books, not the least against murder. But there was no rule of law that could have enforced them. Estimates are that hundreds of thousands were rather directly involved in mass killings and had blood on their hands.

However, under different circumstances, conspiracies can only be rather small. If you are up against a functioning rule of law, you are in danger. That means secrecy is very important. If you have journalists and even ordinary citizens who can do their research as well as legislative bodies and law enforcement, to keep something secret may be hard. It does not make it impossible, but you have to be careful.

I can recall a good argument that the German journalist Dagobert Lindlau once made in a discussion on TV. He was certainly not the first or only one to make it, but it stuck with me. The context was organized crime, which he specialized on. His argument was: If you have many people in a conspiracy, there are inevitably some who will talk or even snitch. The more people, the more diverging interests that can disrupt the endeavor. So this puts a lid on how large a conspiracy can be. A reasonable guess might often be only a handful of people, perhaps one or two dozen. This does not preclude that you have various overlapping conspiracies that operate rather independently, but still manage to achieve some coordination. But that is strictly speaking a different case.

For terrorist organization, this is a fundamental problem when they operate in a hostile environment. Take Al Qa’eda: Where they had a free hand, they tended to have a high level of organizational structure. In many ways, they were ludicrously like a big corporation. They had a division of labor with various dedicated departments, internal memos, conferences, and guidelines, salaries and bonuses, even vacation plans. However, when they had to operate in Western countries, they had to resort to cell structure with small groups. The cell behind 9/11 was about twenty strong. That may help with secrecy, but lowers efficiency. And so there was a trade-off between the two goals, which is very well analyzed in “The Terrorist’s Dilemma” by Jacob N. Shapiro.

There is also another problem with a lot of secrecy if you have different such cells who need to cooperate. The leadership can lose control. This may lead to embezzlement and corruption. But it can also mean that cells start to operate on their own. In extreme cases, they go rogue and disregard what the leadership wants. Independent cells tend to become more trigger-happy. They want to make a mark, and are unwilling to do tedious support work for others.

That may imply that such organizations, while structurally less efficient, can become more dangerous and, because of their secrecy, also harder to gage. In addition, cells can also lose track of the bigger political strategy and turn into ordinary criminal gangs, just with a revolutionary flavor. All this was a chronic problem, for example, with terrorist organizations in Tsarist Russia, cf. the analysis in “Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894–1917” by Anna Geifman.

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The go-to assumption for a conspiracy in a hostile environment should hence be that it is quite small and has little internal specialization. There may be outer rings around it with people who operate sub-conspiracies. But not too many. That’s where you can usually see whether someone is into “conspiracy theory” in scare quotes. They disregard all these arguments and have no problem positing huge networks that consistently work together over the long term without any frictions. Maybe that sometimes happens, but at first glance this is implausible and would need some strong evidence to be convincing.

In a way, this bent with “conspiracy theorists” is inevitable if you want to prove something that is false. Since it is false, there will be many contradictions. “Conspiracy theorists” handle them by tacking on further alleged co-conspirators as it suits them. I can recall a discussion with someone who perhaps twenty years ago had picked up the crackpot theory that AIDS was not caused by HIV. In no time, the conspiracy was supposed to encompass practically all scientists in the field, multiple pharma companies with their employees, large swaths of several governments and the international media. Possible, but very unlikely from the start.

What else are warning signs that someone is into “conspiracy theory” and not into a theory about some specific conspiracy? What most associate with the genre is the extreme sloppiness, the logical leaps, and outright fabrication. True, that is so, and that is a strong indication that something is wrong. Still, there can also be elaborate “conspiracy theories” without it that do not deserve your attention.

One important point in my view is that “conspiracy theorists” have a general worldview, namely that conspiracies explain practically everything. It is how the world works for them. They are hence into multiple such “conspiracies” at the same time, which can easily merge into one universal “conspiracy worldview.” While this phenomenon is in focus now when it comes from the Right, I would say that it also very common on the Left. Think of explanations how multinational companies run the world order. And I see this also a lot from libertarians: Ron Paul is a living “conspiracy theory.”

The crucial point is not just the lack of rigor. To some extent, you could perhaps fix this with footnotes and references. But to a large extent, it is not possible because what is false is contradictory per se. The problem is that someone cannot think of anything other than a conspiracy to explain some regular occurrence. If you want to decide whether something is conspiracy, you also have to have a concept of what is not one. If you cannot do this, everything looks the same.

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While I am not a big fan in many regards, Friedrich von Hayek insisted on an important insight. If you observe some regularity that is the result of human action, one explanation is that there is a person or a group of persons who have designed it this way. The human mind has a predilection for such explanations because we can immediately relate to them. We think of actions as caused by specific human and purposeful actors.

Take the view of practically any religion: If it rains, some God must be behind it and throws water on us. If the sun rises, another God or the same one sees to it. If animals have a clever body structure, someone created them according to his plan. This is intuitive for us, it is natural for humans to think this way because often it is really so that some regularity is the result of someone’s design.

What is much harder to understand and not intuitive is that something can be the outcome of human action, yet not of human design. Take a market for some good. Sellers produce it and try to find buyers. Buyers are willing to pay a certain amount, sellers ask a certain price. Many people make their decisions, and what emerges is that the market clears at some price. While all this is the result of human action, the market price is not set by anyone specific, at least in most situations.

Hayek was not the first to make this point, but he stressed it over and over, and it is a great insight. He attributed its origin to Adam Ferguson in his “An Essay on the History of Civil Society” published in 1767, and liked to quote him to the effect that something may be “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”.

People who can only think of human design will always assume that there is a conspiracy at work. Buyers suspect that sellers have colluded to foist an unfair market price on them. They then draw large diagrams where different sellers are connected by a dense network of lines, and that proves it. Sellers may have the same idea: Buyers conspire to drive their prices down, and then they draw their own network diagrams.

To be sure, something like this can sometimes happen on either or even both sides, but it is a mistake to assume that it is necessarily so. Actually, a lot happens by human action which is not the result of human design. Take how languages evolve. Only if you have understood this, can you pin down what is a conspiracy and what is not. I suspect that many on the Left and many on the Right have not gotten the point. Although this insight should be very basic for libertarians, I would say that also many of them tend to forget it as soon as an attractive “conspiracy theory” presents itself. Others draw the false conclusion that regularities can never be the outcome of human design and so conspiracies can be ruled out apriori.

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My whole discussion here is a springboard for an analysis of the Trump affair. I will explore this in further posts. But let me sum up my current take that may evolve:

  • Yes, there was a conspiracy around Trump and it is still ongoing. I would think, though, that it is rather small, presumably only Trump, his eldest three children and his son-in-law Jared Kushner plus perhaps very few other people like his personal attorney Michael Cohen.
  • I would view other events as the outcome of side-conspiracies also involving the inner core. Those were perhaps more limited in scope and turned around specific questions. You would have different, perhaps overlapping cells here. Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon or Paul Manafort seem like central figures. I can imagine that the other cells may also have gone rogue to some extent with their own agendas because there was little oversight.
  • My hunch is that Trump was not used to much scrutiny and therefore did not realize the danger he got into. That resulted in sloppy management and rather blatant mistakes, eg. like freely admitting he had met Putin and only later walking it back. He was probably also smug that what he did was legitimate, and so he lacked an understanding that it was illegal. That meant a certain self-righteousness which induced further errors. Trump’s underdeveloped management skills and his opportunistic and tactical approach accerbated all this.
  • As new problems arose, Trump had to set up new conspiracies, eg. to thwart the FBI investigation. All in all, the conspiracy expanded because of its inner logic and became too large. My guess is that this will bring Trump eventually down. The organizational complexity went beyond what he could manage.
  • As for the Kremlin side: The organizational degree was certainly higher. Because of a favorable environment with little scrutiny and no legal inhibitions, many more people were involved. There were also different rings with a small core and many sub-conspiracies. My guess is that we are talking about hundreds or more. With peripheral operators like those who run the bot and troll armies, it could be many thousands, maybe tens of thousands. But then Putin has had the same problems with running a conspiracy as you can see in the Steele dossier where critical information apparently leaked out. I would view this as the outcome of a similar management style and opportunistic short-termism. Much may have evolved without a plan, by human action, not by design.
  • The time scale on the Kremlin side was certainly longer, in some regards perhaps over years, a decade and more. However, I would think that many decisions came late and were adhoc. I don’t think there was one grand masterplan that was worked out in, let’s say, 2000 and then meticulously executed over time and step by step. Much of it seems more like it came together by chance and without an overarching plan. That’s where I think many media analyses go wrong. To Putin it must be flattering because he comes across as a genius. But he is not.
  • I would also think that many of the “Russian connections” developed by human action, but not by human design. Once they were there, they could also be used for purposeful action. But on the whole, the design part is overrated in my view.
  • And then I would think of the connection between the two sides as rather loose. Of course, there were many contacts, but I would still view the Trump side as mostly independent. Just one tidbit: Kushner was desperately trying to set up a secure channel to Moscow still after the election. That means they did not have one until then. A spy under direct supervision would have some appliance or tool to send secure messages and receive them.
  • It is hard to disentangle, but my impression is that many regularities were the result of human action, but not necessarily of human design. The outcome may look like Trump received orders from Putin, but that may not have always been the case. Or it may have been the case, I don’t know. It makes sense to be agnostic here and not jump to conclusions as long as there is little evidence either way. I would not be surprised if the relationship was one of spymaster and spy. But it could also be more complicated.
  • Since the core of the Trump affair may remain very hermetic, I can imagine that we will only learn some about its inner workings. Much could stay elusive and speculative. What may trip Trump up in the first place could be rather peripheral actions, eg. obstruction of justice with the Comey firing, a web of lies surrounding the dismissal of Michael Flynn, and so forth. It could be like with Al Capone: You can get him on tax evasion, but not on his other crimes. Actually, financial wrongdoing could also be how Trump blows up, things like participation in money laudering and the like.

Okay, I will leave it at that for now, and as always: I am not an expert, I may be wrong, use your own good judgment …