[This piece first appeared at the late, lamented Palace Of Reason in February, 2002. In light of the foofaurauw in progress today over the multiple scandals we’ve learned about these past few weeks, it seems unusually apposite. Besides, I need time off from the “Debunkings” series. — FWP]
Wise men see outlines, and therefore draw them.
Mad men see outlines, and therefore draw them.
— William Blake —
To a certain kind of mind, any sort of pattern is enough to infer a conspiracy. In its most extreme expression, this is the disease of paranoid schizophrenia, most recently depicted in all its poignant horror by the magnificent movie A Beautiful Mind.
This is not to say that conspiracies never exist behind the patterns in events. But to conclude that conscious intention lies beneath every pattern of human behavior that conduces to bad results is a logical error, a failure to distinguish correlation from causation, pattern from design.
Many patterns exist in human life. The great majority of them arise because of the commonalities in our natures: our shared needs and drives. We don’t work at our jobs because some grand plot concocted among powerful men has shackled us to them. We don’t seek love and commitment because chips in our brains direct us to do so. We don’t have children and (attempt to) raise them to be decent and responsible adults because some shadowy agency wants it that way.
On these things, there is general agreement that any designs involved were drawn by God. But let the patterns be slightly less grandiose, and out of the margins of society will spring men with megaphones to tell us that only evil designs can explain them. Among the great ironies of our public discourse is the way such claims have been used to impede the search for the real causes of events. Sometimes those impediments have been the whole point of the conspiracy charges.
Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, and others on the anti-capitalist Left have constantly screeched that the many patterns that run through the automobile industry clearly indicate an anti-competitive, anti-consumer cartel. While the potentates of Detroit have demonstrably maneuvered for market protection from foreign automakers — and now and then from one another — the patterns that run through their auto designs reflect consumer preferences, including a preference for the blessings of standardization, rather than a cartel’s decision that it will all be one way. Product differentiation is one of the three generic tools a business has for gaining ground on its competitors; no conceivable logic would lead to the forswearing of that tool.
The Dishonorable Hillary Clinton, currently the junior Senator from my home state of New York, once posited “a vast right-wing conspiracy” to smear her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was cresting toward its peak. Mrs. Clinton had not previously spoken in conspiratorial terms, but she was either too eager to deflect the scandal or too unwilling to believe that her capric spouse had dropped his pants in public yet again, and so resorted to the conspiracy explanation.
And now we have Enron.
Be not mistaken: Enron was a shell game for quite a while. Its “creative accounting” methods ranged from dubious to outrightly fraudulent. Its public relations were largely mendacious. When the shell began to crumble, it deceived its own lower-level employees and petitioned powerful government agencies for protection and advantages. Now that the game is over, its top men will do their best to exculpate themselves at others’ expense.
That having been said, there is at present no convincing evidence that anyone in either the Bush or the Clinton Administrations offered Enron political assistance with its difficulties.
The Left’s pundits point to the fact that Enron is a Texas-based company in the energy-futures field, and that the Bush Administration is populated from the top down with Texans who have backgrounds in the energy business. Aha! A pattern! Surely there is something to be investigated here. Surely, with enough subpoenas and Congressional committee hearings, we’ll find evil deeds and the malefactors who did them.
Not surely. Possibly, though as time passes, the likelihood of finding a political conspiracy behind the Enron mess dwindles toward zero.
Given the current popularity of President Bush and his Administration, it’s unsurprising that his political foes would search the rubble from Enron’s collapse for dirt to fling at him. Aha! A pattern! Men with political ambition and contrasting agendas look for weapons with which to sway public opinion against one another! Surely, with enough subpoenas and Congressional committee hearings… but wait a moment. We’re expecting the targets of our suspicions to investigate themselves, and report candidly on their discoveries.
Another great irony, here: the second suspicion of conspiracy is far better founded than the first. It’s even got a name. We call it a political party.
I have little trouble believing anything vile about anyone who seeks or wields the powers of the State. The worst do get on top, as Friedrich Hayek told us in The Road To Serfdom, and the right direction to look first when things begin to go badly wrong is toward the corridors of power. That doesn’t mean we’ll find anything. Because the suspicion of office-holders is so natural, and so frequently correct, we must be especially careful about it. As little as I like the State and its works, some decent people are involved with it. They might disagree with me on policy or principles, but they deserve the presumption of innocence, as do we all.
But the modern version of partisanry remembers this only half the time. Democrats conveniently forget it when Republicans can be made targets, and the reverse is true as well. The pitch of the accusations becomes ever more shrill, ever more strident, and the Man In The Street becomes ever more likely to stop his ears and disinvolve himself from the political process. This trend, along with the blending of the two major parties into a single, principle-free mass committed solely to getting power and thwarting competition, has been in progress for more than a century, during which time citizen participation in elections has fallen from 90% to a bare 50% of eligible voters.
Aha! A pattern!