Capitalist conspiracies?

27/08/2012 § 3 Comments

An article over the weekend reported the following:

      If you think smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, HIV doesn’t cause Aids or Nasa faked the Moon landing, you are also more likely to support free market economics and be sceptical about climate change.

The fabulous Stats Chat picked up on the article and discussed the implications from the POV of probability theory. Thomas Lumley beat me to the punch:

I think free market economics correlates with the conspiracy theories in this survey for three main reasons.  The first is that most of the conspiracy theories on the list are conspiracies by or with governments, so believers should support anything that reduces the power of governments.  The second is that, economists, like statisticians, are professionally required to think up holes in arguments, and so suffer from reflexive contrarianism as an occupational hazard. And finally, when it comes to giving excuses for not wanting to do anything about climate change, what “free-market economics” and “IPCC plot” have in common is that they sound better than “I don’t care what happens to the world over the next century”.

A conspiracy theory is all about (a) power and (b) ‘truth’. The theory explains that someone with power wants to control the situation. They want to keep us from knowing what’s really going on, or destroy a challenger, or consolidate their power. That is, there is a motivation for the conspiracy; otherwise, why bother going to the trouble? Whether you are talking about ‘Paul is dead’, the international banking cabal, the assassinations of Marilyn Monroe and Vince Foster, Area 51, or WTC7, the key motivation is power.

Against this power, the conspiracy theory wields the truth. The believer sees specific patterns and congruences that are arcane but visible to those who ‘know’. This truth does two things. It holds out the possibility of an alternative world: if only the truth were widely acknowledged, then existing power relationships would be reversed. It is, if you wish, the dream of Carnival. Secondly, it provides an explanation for why the world isn’t as it should naturally be. The conspiracy is preventing the world from achieving its rightful equilibrium. If only people had understood the real meaning in Abbey Road, we would not have had Wings.

I agree with Lumley that if a person tends to believe conspiracy theories, they would tend to believe economic theories that suggest powerful people are preventing the market from operating properly. Since they already think that the world is not as it should be, then those beliefs would spill over into the economic sphere.

But two further things come to mind. First, what are their other economic beliefs? In the US, at least, they have quite a list of potential beliefs/theories from which to choose. How common are these? There’s some distance between thinking that the government has put too many regulations on businesses and consumers because politics gets in the way of sane economic policy, and thinking that Bernanke is the Rothschilds’ lapdog.

The second thing is more of a worry. How do other people, those who don’t believe the conspiracy theories, see free-market economic? The mixed economy model — some public, some private — has been extraordinarily successful, compared to the alternatives. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. But in terms of widespread prosperity, heath, and welfare, it sure beats feudalism, various forms of totalitarianism, hunting and gathering — pretty much everything else. A key element of the mixed economy is voluntary transactions based on market prices, or, y’know, free market economics. What do most people think about price-setting and willingness to pay? And how does that spill into thoughts about labour markets, asset sales, and property prices?

Do they believe that supply and demand forces affect prices and quantities (subject, of course, to all the usual caveats)? Do they think that people respond sensibly to incentives? What do they think about allocation of scarce resources?

Maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about the economic opinions of a few conspiracy theorists; maybe it’s the economics of the majority that we should be studying.


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§ 3 Responses to Capitalist conspiracies?

  • Andrew says:

    Michel Foucault has to come into this discussion. He collapses ‘knowledge’ and ‘power’ into one concept: Power/Knowledge basically to point out that power only exists through the wielding of some ‘knowledge’ base. So project managers wield power through PMBOK or PRINCE2 methodological ‘knowledge’; clinicians wield power through medical ‘knowledge’; economists wield power through economic ‘knowledge’ etc… The issue comes in with the relationship between knowledge and truth as you say. However I think you need to distinguish between truth with a little ‘t’ or a capital ‘T’. The conspiracy theorists, like project managers, believe that there exists some transcendental Truth with a capital ‘T’ that if we work hard enough we shall uncover – those of us who understand ‘truth’ as being multiple little ‘t’s’ see power as something fleeting, that comes and goes as society ‘knows’ different things over time.

    So to answer your question above: “How do other people, those who don’t believe the conspiracy theories, see free-market economic?” They see it as they now ‘know’ it – They ‘know’ the unscrupulous financier of 2008, the prudent governor, the poor worker, the incorrect economist etc… Basically the ‘knowledge’ that has come to be since 2008 is the power that the average citizen is subjected too – regardless of its relationship to truth.

    • Bill says:

      I hadn’t thought of it in Foucauldian terms, but you’re right. So, that suggests that the conspiracy theorist is setting one Power/Knowledge against another. Oddly, the conspiracy is always MORE powerful than the alternative. The conspirators have more power to influence events and narratives in the conspiracy than in the official version of events (which makes the believer corresponding less powerful).

      I can see what you’re saying about people seeing the economy from their experiences. I wonder how much they distinguish between legal/illegal, free-market/regulated, voluntary/involuntary, and other pairs. Or, to reassemble your words, between unscrupulous/prudent. Do they see what they have been subjected to as free markets or something else?

  • Andrew says:

    Yeah… this is tricky stuff. I think Key is in for instance because of the desire for national prudent behaviour, that being the behaviour ‘we’ have learned is appropriate during difficult times (tighten your belts!). Probably this is a reaction on perceptions of unscrupulousness. Paradoxically in politics we have turned to representative of the ‘free market’ (Key) to save us from the excesses of the ‘free market’. I guess a turn further to the left has also happened via the shift to green. thoughts?

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