A Texas civil court found that Alex Jones defamed the parents of a young child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. He was ordered to pay $49 million in damages, including punitive damages.

Among others, Jones had been claiming that the massacre was a hoax, a government-staged fake shooting. Let’s consider some social consequences of the sort of conspiracy theorists that Jones represents—what we might call, at a very elementary level, the political economy of the Alex-Joneses. What I say below should not be interpreted as an argument in favor of defamation laws, nor as an argument against economic progress.

For nearly all the history of mankind, an individual handicapped by social illiteracy or limited cognitive abilities could only earn his keep by, at best, being a bottom-level manual worker (which is of course honorable) or a beggar or, at worst, a peddler of snake oil or a petty criminal. Economic progress and the reduction of communication costs have greatly increased the capability of such individuals to act and have an influence in the social world.

The reduction of communication costs has extraordinarily expanded the availability of information. Much of it is available online and is formally free of charge. But the cost of discriminating among information bits has not decreased in the same proportion. One still needs some research time and previously accumulated knowledge to determine where the truth lies in pieces of information broadcasted by, say, Alex Jones, Paul Krugman, the Census Bureau, or the Wall Street Journal. The mere fact that there is quantitatively more available information means that, ceteris paribus, the cost of sifting through it has increased.

At virtually no cost to them, conspiracy theorists throw at their audience a swarm of troubling or intriguing little facts (see what was the most popular conspiracy video on Sandy Hook), most of which are false or tendentiously interpreted. Most if not all of these little facts could be checked, albeit often at high cost (travel, for example), and there is always another ad hoc explanation that can be invoked to save the conspiracy. Anybody with a connection to the internet and a cheap smartphone can access that. According to some estimates, one fourth of Americans believed that Sandy Hook, where 20 young children and 6 adults were killed, was a government-organized hoax.

Such propaganda relies on the technique of the “firehose of falsehoods” mentioned by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman in his recent book The Age of the Strongman (Other Press, 2022); I am reviewing this book in the Fall issue of Regulation, forthcoming next month). Rachman writes:

Vladimir Putin and his propagandists established the technique of a “firehose of falsehoods” as a fundamental political tool. The idea is to throw out so many different conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” (to use the phrase of Trump’s aide, Kellyanne Conway) that the truth simply becomes one version of events among many.

Not only do conspiracy theorists incur low costs, but they can make handsome profits if, like Jones, they have gullible followers anxious to buy physical snake oil. When I visited Jones’s Infowars site two days ago, the special deal was a “combo pack” of two bottles, “Survival Shield X2” and “Super Male Vitality,” at 40% off. For such ventures, the cost of marketing has gone down with the cost of communications—although, on the other hand, competition has become fiercer.

Besides the spreading of implausible falsehoods, another consequence of the Alex-Joneses of this world is that they compromise serious ideas by claiming to be their defenders. Alex Jones and his ilk have given Judas kisses to a few libertarian (and classical liberal) causes. His company is called “Free Speech Systems.” He claimed that the Sandy Hook hoax was organized by dark government forces because they want “to get our guns.”

Some people have such strong opinions that they are unable to imagine they could be false. If their opinions are obviously and necessarily true, anything consistent with them or implied by them might have happened, including conspiracies to suppress them. “Might have happened”? If we ignore logic, they must have happened. From there, it is not too difficult to ferret out strange factoids to support the conspiracy or to invent facts that must have occurred.

I have explained in other posts how economic analysis strongly suggests that the typical “conspiracy theory” is invalid. See my “Epistemology, Economics, and Conspiracies” (EconLog, December 3, 2020) and its two links to previous posts of mine; and also “A Disreputable Fringe” (EconLog, August 2018), partly about Alex Jones. Of course, some low-level conspiracies with little risk involved happen all the time and we must keep a critical mind.

The solution cannot be to silence the Alex-Joneses, because distinguishing brilliant eccentrics and innovators from fools cannot be trusted to anybody. Only a free market in ideas can ultimately separate the wheat from the chaff. Trusting political authorities to separate falsehoods and true statements may turn out into trusting fools. (In America and elsewhere, we have had some recent experience with that.)

The minimum knowledge necessary to discern obvious falsehoods puts in sharp focus the classical-liberal argument that some level of schooling is necessary in a liberal or democratic society. Friedrich Hayek, for example, wrote (in his 1976 “The Mirage of Social Justice,” Vol 2 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty in the new Jeremy Shearmur edition, p. 285):

There is also much to be said in favour of the government providing on an equal basis the means for the schooling of minors who are not yet fully responsible citizens, even though there are grave doubts whether we ought to allow government to administer them.

Education helps to acquire the ability to recognize what one does not know and to learn some intellectual humility—or at least we can hope so. To know what it is that you don’t know is a tricky department of knowledge. One aspect of the complex problem was described by James Buchanan (pp. 16-17): “the person who qualifies for membership in the stylized order of classical liberalism,” he believes, must have

either an understanding of simple principles [of social interaction] or a willingness to defer to others who do understand.