In an excellent analytic post on Frederic Mishkin’s money textbook, Scott Sumner wonders about Mishkin’s motives in giving an incorrect Aggregate Demand curve and in dropping a question that had been in the previous edition about the effect of the Fed paying interest on reserves. This last is breathtaking because it is strange to drop a question, not when the question seems abstract and irrelevant, but when the question has suddenly become quite relevant because the Fed has, for about two years, been paying interest on reserves.

In stating these criticisms and others, Scott says about five times, tongue in cheek, “If I was a conspiracy buff.” It’s obviously his way of attributing motives without quite doing so. I don’t object to that: it’s a rhetorical style I rarely use because I like to be blunter but I understand, especially given Scott’s fondness for Mishkin, why Scott uses that style.

Here’s my objection: Scott, like many people today, uses the word “conspiracy” incorrectly. The whole idea of a conspiracy is that it takes two or more people conspiring. If someone on his own, because of his own motives and incentives, tells less than the truth, that’s not a conspiracy. When I was on talk shows in September and October 2008, and I stated that Henry Paulson was not to be trusted because he was looking out for his Wall Street buddies rather than for Americans in general, I was sometimes asked if I was hinting at a conspiracy. I wasn’t. He was plenty able to work to help his buds without conspiring with them. I have no idea how smart or unsmart Hank Paulson is, but he hardly had to be in contact with his friends on Wall Street to know that they were suffering huge losses from the financial crisis.

Next time you hear someone attribute a belief in conspiracy to someone else, ask yourself if the person making the attribution is talking about conspiracy or is simply talking about, possibly unethical, self-dealing.

In fact, I’d like those commenters willing to take the time to give examples where people charge others with believing in conspiracy when those so charged have never even hinted at their own belief in a conspiracy.