A Disreputable Fringe
The overlap of the libertarian and populist fringe includes a number of persons, websites, and organizations that imagine improbable conspiracies, embrace delusions, fabricate facts, relish bigotry, show no respect for the truth, and sell snake oil (sometimes literally).
Alex Jones and his Infowars.com provide illustrations. I think however that the bumping of Infowars from some platforms of Apple, YouTube, and Facebook says as much about the unquestioned orthodoxy of the bumper as of the bumpee. (I don’t claim that Jones himself is a libertarian, but he seems to have some sympathies on the libertarian fringe.)
No reasonable reader or listener would interpret Mr. Jones’ statements regarding the possibility of a “blue-screen” being used as a verifiably false statement of fact, and even if it is verifiable as false, the entire context in which it was made discloses that the statements are mere opinions “masquerading as a fact.”
The “blue screen” or “green screen” refers to a video technique that allows for changing the background of an interview, possibly (but not necessarily) for misleading the audience. The point is that Mr. Jones is apparently willing to admit that the “facts” he peddles are “mere opinions ‘masquerading as a fact’.” This sort of “facts” is the bread and butter of conspiracy theories.
After the tragic Sandy Hook massacre on December 14, 2012, when 20 children and six adults were killed, conspiracy theorists, including Jones, claimed that it was either orchestrated or staged by the government to serve as an excuse for strengthening gun control. This has led to the indecent mobbing of the parents of the six-year-old victim: they have been threatened by true believers who accuse them of being part of the conspiracy. Hence the current defamation suit. A New York Times story is also quite revealing.
A “conspiracy theory” works as follows. It presents an accumulation of small facts said to support the alleged conspiracy. These facts are sometimes unrelated to the event in question, sometimes coincidental, sometimes false. They may be rumors that circulated as the event unfolded but were later proved incorrect. They are based on no credible outside source and are costly to check. Moreover, the refutation of any single of these facts would not be sufficient to disprove the conspiracy. At any rate, invalidation of a conspiracy “fact” would be explained away by another conspiratorial element, just as any non-conforming trajectory in the Ptolemaic system could arguably be explained by adding another epicycle. In short, a good conspiracy theory is built in such a way as to be non-refutable.
For the gullible who really want to believe, these facts draw a convincing picture. They can be debunked at a cost in time and other resources, as illustrated by Snopes in the case of Sandy Hook or by a delicious YouTube video in the case of the moon landing.
This is not to say that conspiracies don’t exist. The real world or any spontaneous order is full of localized (and mostly legitimate) conspiracies, just as any conspiracy involving multiple persons and operations is a little spontaneous order in itself. This last reason reminds us that it is in the interest of any participant in an illegal conspiracy to rat on his co-conspirators before they implicate him, which is precisely what the paradigmatic prisoner’s dilemma is about. But conspiracy theorists ignore individual incentives.
They also ignore credible sources—such as the mainstream media whose reputations have monetary value. Indeed, credible sources (“the media”) are presented as part of the conspiracy. Here again, conspiracy theorists ignore incentives, such as the incentives of any journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize and of any media owner to make a big money coup. If anybody had been effective at a conspiracy, it would have been Richard Nixon.
We should be on the lookout for illegitimate conspiracies, but they must be incentive-compatible.
Interestingly, conspiracy theorists who claim they are revealing complex operations that would send the conspirators to jail for life don’t fear for their own personal security. If the government, in order to undermine the Second Amendment, is willing to organize mass killings or stage fake massacres and obstruct justice in the following investigations, why wouldn’t its agents eliminate the individuals who disclose their crimes?
Of course, tyranny is worse than conspiracy theories. The cost of free speech in terms of snake oil is certainly lower than its benefits in preventing tyranny. Good arguments exist against defamation laws themselves, if only because people are likely to become more gullible if the state claims to protect them against false information. Another reason is that silencing peddlers of false facts will bring more attention to them and make loose rumors more dangerous.
All this is not reason for libertarians to serve as a moral caution for the lunatic, fact-free fringe. These lunatics are giving a Judas kiss to serious challengers of Leviathan.