What counts as a conspiracy theory? Why do people have a natural tendency to see intent and design, even when there is none? Are there any conspiracy theories particularly prevalent among libertarians?
Daniel Bier of The Skeptical Libertarian joins us this week to talk about belief in conspiracy theories as a social phenomenon and the damage they can do to the perception of libertarianism and the credibility of libertarian arguments.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Listeners may also be interested in the podcast episode we recorded with Jesse Walker on his book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us today is Daniel Bier, Executive Editor of The Skeptical Libertarian. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Daniel Bier: Happy to be here.
Aaron Ross Powell: What is the Skeptical Libertarian?
Daniel Bier: The Skeptical Libertarian is a project that I started maybe five years ago with a couple of friends of mine to be a sort of counterweight to the conspiratorial mindset that seems to be prevalent in certain parts of the libertarian movement sort of as an explicit project to oppose the sort of Alex Joneses of the libertarian community.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that that kind of conspiratorial libertarianism is more common than we would like to believe? I guess here especially in Cato and people in the beltway and stuff?
Daniel Bier: I do think so. I think that in the beltway, everybody knows is a sophisticated basically liberal, tolerant, bourgeois type of personality and I think that outside of the beltway, outside of the policy circles, I think that conspiratorial ideas really do drive a lot of the public discourse. Not just for libertarians but also for leftists and conservatives.
So I think that if I were a leftist or a conservative, I would also be concerned about conspiracy theories being promoted in my community. But I happen to believe that small government, limited government and free markets really do have something to offer. So I’m very concerned when I see bad ideas attaching themselves to good ideas. So when we – it handicaps us and it also allows us to give credibility to lots of other bad ideas that I don’t want to see promoted any more than statism.
Aaron Ross Powell: Were you a skeptic who became a libertarian or a libertarian who became a skeptic?
Daniel Bier: I think I would have to say that libertarianism seems to be hereditary. My dad was a libertarian and I grew up reading Reason magazine and Liberty magazine. So I think I’ve always had a predisposition towards being skeptical of government power and I think my personal interest in skepticism, the skeptical movement started when – at a – I would say a fairly impressionable age. I came across 9/11 conspiracy theories which nobody really talks about anymore, but used to be a really hot topic particularly among libertarians and associated forces.
I remember hearing people explain all these reasons why George Bush was behind 9/11 and I thought, whoa, if that’s true, that would be really important for us to know that. This would fundamentally change my view of the US government and what it does. I had always been skeptical of US foreign policy. But if the United States government is actually carrying out terrorist attacks and there really isn’t a threat of blowback from US intervention, then this fundamentally turns my view of the world and how the government operates. Vast conspiracies, not just incompetence and bad ideas.
It really turns it on its head. So I spent really an inordinate amount of time trying to track down and verify all these claims that I was finding, promoted by libertarian anti-war people. I came to realize that they were all – pretty much all completely false, misleading or outright lies. They were being sort of cynically promoted because they were a way to take George Bush down a peg. They were a way to sort of smear the government and republicans and sort of discredit the Iraq war and so forth. Certain people seem to believe that you can do anything for a good cause and it doesn’t matter.
But I came to realize that the cost that we were inflicting on ourselves by – if not promoting these theories, then tolerating them, pretending that they don’t exist and allowing them to flourish under the umbrella of the anti-war and libertarian movements. We were inflicting real costs on ourselves which was that when Ron Paul got up and said we shouldn’t be involved in all these countries, we shouldn’t be bombing Iraq for 20 years, the response that he got was he’s crazy and people didn’t take him seriously because so many of his supporters were 9/11 conspiracy theorists.
So the conversation kept getting turned to do you think that a missile hit the Pentagon rather than what do you think we should be doing to defend the United States and what do you think about our foreign policy.
So our real concerns, our serious concerns were continually being diverted by these nonsensical and paranoid conspiracies. That was the real point when I realized that it’s not enough to simply ignore them, to not promote them. It’s that we really need something to push back against these ideas to say libertarianism is not about any idea that’s anti-government. It’s actually about explicit, specific, reasonable, rational beliefs and not about just anything that’s anti-state.
Aaron Ross Powell: So I’m curious. As you were studying all of these and reading up on these conspiracy theories and finding that they weren’t true. Did you find any that were? Did you go in? Were there any that you went in thinking here’s another one for me to debunk and decide that it was probably true?
Daniel Bier: I would say no. It turned out that the CIA was – I read quite a bit about the history of the CIA and what we know with pretty good certainty. They were doing for decades in many different countries overseas things like MK Ultra and very unethical tactics that they were using. So I ended up having I think a much more negative view of the US government and the CIA but I didn’t end up having any more positive views of conspiracy theorists because they – conspiracy theorists did not uncover what J. Edgar Hoover was doing or what the CIA was doing. All of those were uncovered in the course of normal journalistic investigation. It wasn’t a lot of people sitting around in their basements speculating and connecting random fragments and “mining public figures” and creating these elaborate conspiracies. It was just that when government operates in secret, it doesn’t magically become more ethical or more competent than what it does in public.
So I think I ended up – as a result of these investigations, I ended up being quite a bit more skeptical of our government but that just sort of reinforced the need for me to differentiate between claims that are well-supported and claims that aren’t because the government does in secret a lot of terrible, awful, unethical things and it’s really important when we accuse the government of doing that, that we not open ourselves up to being dismissed as merely conspiracy theorists because we latch on to every claim of the government doing something unethical.
Trevor Burrus: Now a while back we had Jesse Walker on Free Thoughts who has written a book about conspiracy theories and one of the things we discussed is what is a conspiracy theorist, especially because sometimes things are conspiracies and some basic meaning of the word. People do get together and meet and decide to expand the Vietnam War to Cambodia, things like this. So do you have a definition for purposes that you use of what a conspiracy theorist is?
Daniel Bier: Yeah, that’s a really great episode and I really enjoyed that and Jesse’s book is also excellent. So I highly recommend that. I think that it’s pretty difficult to nail down what a conspiracy theory is. One definition that I’ve come across that’s more or less – I think is more or less functional is a conspiracy that has not been uncovered already, that is not public knowledge, is not being reported on in the mainstream press.
A secret conspiracy that has not been uncovered or is not generally acknowledged to exist. So it is a prediction. A conspiracy theory as a prediction about something that has not yet been uncovered. It’s sort of connecting disconnected bits of information and postulating a conspiracy for which there is not direct evidence.
Aaron Ross Powell: Does this mean then that your conspiracy theorist sitting in his basement updating his blog based on connecting potentially tenuous dots, retroactively becomes a journalist if other journalists start covering what he’s doing.
Daniel Bier: I would say no, but this does sort of raise the – this gets back to the problem of defining conspiracy theories and conspiracism. It’s that conspiratorial thinking is not segregated to some section of a population that’s just sitting around in their mother’s basements, Googling random pictures and finding triangles in them.
The reason that people construct conspiracy theories is the same logic that leads us to all sorts of erroneous beliefs. Conspiratorial thinking is a problem because it encourages us to think that complex phenomenon, especially social phenomenon or widespread phenomenon, are the results of design that – we think that just because something happened, it happened for a reason and that reason is intention that something happened on purpose because somebody wanted it to.
Of course when bad things happen, people assume – they just carry this logic on that somebody wanted something bad to happen and there are very few people who are willing to come out and admit and say, yeah, we engineered this bad thing to happen. We engineered terrorism to happen or we engineered oil prices to skyrocket or something like that. We engineered a pandemic. So this is where the conspiracy part coms into, the assumption that people are hiding their motives, that they’re secretly conspiring to accomplish everything that we see in the world.
Trevor Burrus: Well, it seems like part of this would be – that is Aaron’s question about conspiracy theorists who happen to be correct as a reporter but you don’t – someone could just happen to be correct for very poor or bad reasons. I mean one of Alex Jones’ theories might be correct or just – but for poor reasons. So he’s still a conspiracy theorist who happens to be correct. It seems like the best way of thinking about that because it’s much about the process of having good reasons to believe something as it is about whether or not it’s a conspiracy or not.
Daniel Bier: Sure, sure. Anybody can be accidentally correct about anything. So it’s really about the process that people use to arrive at their beliefs. So you can have very scrupulous, rigorous, scientific study that leads to erroneous beliefs.
When we do tests for statistical significance for instance. We use 95 percent confidence that this effect is real. Well, if you conduct 20 studies, one of them is going to erroneously find the effect to be real. So you can use the best statistical methods and scientific rigor we have and still arrive at false beliefs. By the same token, you can use the worst reasoning, the most paranoid assumptions and the most I would say really profligate dot-connecting and happen to be sort of correct.
If you assume that the CIA is doing something really evil and unethical at this moment and they’re not telling us about it, you’re probably right in some sense. But that doesn’t do very much for us. When you specifically claim things that you have no good reason to believe are true, it’s just that is not a good way to approach these questions. So it really is about the process you use to arrive at your beliefs, not about the beliefs themselves.
Trevor Burrus: In addition to the idea of trying to find like a large or purpose or a big causal reason behind things that happen in the world as you mentioned, such as 9/11, it often seems to me that conspiracy theorists have a very personal reason for being a conspiracy theorist in the sense that they really enjoy it or they like the status that they feel that they have because they know the truth and the sort of almost revealed type of sense like knowing that Jesus is the prophet of God or something like this, that it makes them feel really good and so it’s very self-centered in a way. Do you find that too?
Daniel Bier: Yeah. I mean I do. There’s a certain amount of sort of Gnosticism that you have the secret knowledge that nobody else knows and it feels good to know what’s going on in the world, particularly if most people don’t and so it’s sort of a self-reinforcing narrative because if people don’t believe you, well, that’s precisely what your theory predicts is that people are deluded and they’re easily misled and when the scientists don’t back you up, your conspiracy theory that the scientists are all in on it is confirmed.
Trevor Burrus: Then you can also feel better that everyone else were not being a diluted person.
Daniel Bier: Sure, sure. But I want to say my objection to conspiratorial thinking is not against this group of conspiracy theorists. There certainly is a conspiracy theory subculture but I think that sort of mainstream liberal leftwing people, they have certain sort of conspiratorial beliefs about the Koch brothers. So I think they would listen to this podcast. We’re all part of the Koch-topus and they would postulate some sort of nefarious conspiracy by billionaires and millionaires to mislead the American public about free markets and free trade.
So I think there is this belief, this feeling of knowing what’s going on and feeling superior because you’re not being misled. I don’t think it’s restricted to conspiracy theorists, the subculture that we talk about. I think that it’s common to a lot of different political factions.
Aaron Ross Powell: Right. I mean I was going to say like this is where we have to get careful with drawing lines because if you describe people who think they’re clued in and that the rest of the world is being misled or doesn’t understand it and rejects your ideas, you’ve just described libertarians. I mean that applies – as you were talking about, I was thinking like that sounds a lot like economics professors.
Trevor Burrus: The list is endless really.
Aaron Ross Powell: But I wanted to ask about – so this is – your site is about skepticism which is a bit broader than simply conspiracy theories and a lot of what you talk about is not just conspiracy theories but scientific issues, genetically modified organisms, those kinds of things.
So what I was curious about is when you were talking about the harm of conspiracy theories. The way you’re describing it, it was harm in the aggregate. If we allow or we don’t push back on these tons and tons of poorly reasoned ideas, then when good ideas are expressed, they get lost in the noise or can be dismissed as crying wolf or whatever but that the individual ones are not necessarily as harmful but it seems like a lot of the other kinds of things that you talk about on Skeptical Libertarianism are more free standing harms, like we’re not going to vaccinate our children or we’re going to reject these foods. Is there anything there?
Daniel Bier: Sure. Yeah. So the sort of broader, philosophical justification for the Skeptical Libertarian project is we should oppose unsupported conspiratorial ideas because they’re wrong and tactically because they make it difficult to have an honest conversation about the real problems we’re facing.
But the way to do that is you really do have to address specific concerns that people have. You have to address people’s specific ideas about vaccines, about scientists, about pharmaceutical drugs, about HIV, about GMOs. There’s just sort of an endless series of very harmful beliefs that are being propagated and they do seem to flourish particularly among people who are skeptical of the government because if the government comes along and says HIV causes AIDS, and you should take these countermeasures, then people who believe that the government is always lying to us about everything will instantly become skeptical of that and the people who say the government is lying about HIV or about GMOs will come over and say, “Hey, you’re right to be skeptical. In fact GMOs cause cancer and all of these pesticides are poisoning us and they’re poisoning your children and vaccines are causing autism,” and all sorts of gastro – sort of gastric distress in children and those are all really horrible, horrible claims if they were true and fortunately they’re not.
But you really do have to address each one on its own merits. I can’t just expect people to be on principle opposed to conspiracy theorists on the aggregate because it’s very difficult for people to tell the difference between what’s an unsupported, irrational conspiracy theory and what’s not. So you really do have to look at the evidence. If it were true, that the evidence said that vaccines are a conspiracy to poison us and they’re causing all these sorts of problems, then that would have a lot of logical implications, one of which is the government should stop requiring people to be vaccinated to send their kids to school and doing all these other sorts of things to promote vaccination.
The facts really do matter. So you have to address each one of these separately. So in the aggregate, they make it difficult to have productive public discourse but in the particular, they also have specific harms and make specific discussions about public policy very hard to have.
Aaron Ross Powell: How do we go about operationalizing that necessary attitude? Because I mean I don’t know much about nutrition science. I don’t know maybe much about the history of government covert operations or I’m not reading the medical journals on vaccines and …
Trevor Burrus: How buildings collapse.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. I mean there are constantly sources of information coming at us all the time and people have to respond to the information they’re getting and it seems – I mean it’s a high standard to say, well, every fact that stated you need to go back to the original sources, you need to track this down, you need to assess it. So are there I guess easier tests or ways to be aware that this thing that someone just shared on Facebook about GMOs or vaccines or jet fuel melting steel beams is probably wrong?
Daniel Bier: It’s just a difficult problem to solve in general because most people don’t have time to investigate almost anything that they would need to know in order to make a completely rational, fully-informed decision about the totality of the evidence. So it really does require a certain amount of heuristics and filtering, learning what is a reliable source of evidence and what isn’t. So Facebook memes are not a reliable source of evidence.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a good general rule.
Daniel Bier: That’s a good general rule and certain sources that tend to pander to your worst fears and tend to promote similar sorts of claims about all sorts of things. It’s good to be skeptical of places like Natural News and Infowars and so on because they are willing to take any claim of a conspiracy or of dubious pseudo-scientific nonsense about naturalism or homeopathy and so forth and promote it. They do this – they do this all the time and they don’t have very good standards of – journalistic standards I would say.
So I think that when the stakes are high, we have to do a little bit more. When we’re talking about public policy, it’s really important that we actually – if HIV doesn’t exist – and this is a conspiracy thing. This is a belief that people really have and it’s – you would probably be shocked at how common this is.
If that belief is true, that would have enormous implications and if it’s false, believing it has enormous implications to individuals and to society as a whole. So when the stakes are high, we really do have to pay close attention to the types of sources that we’re taking in and doing a little bit more investigation to see how good the evidence is for it.
Trevor Burrus: Do you have any words that you see, favorite words that you see quite often that indicate that probably something is BS or at least making a somewhat inflated claim?
Daniel Bier: Yeah. Anything that – any study that claims to have found an association between anything that’s – the X is associated with Y. You should instantly be skeptical of that because that means that they’re just looking at two variables that are closely related. So you can go and find – there’s an association between organic food sales and the incidents of autism and it would be preposterous to claim that organic food causes autism. But this is precisely the kind of evidence …
Aaron Ross Powell: Are you saying that because you’re being paid by the organic food industry?
Daniel Bier: Yes. I’m a shill for big, organic and the non-GMO projects. But this is precisely the kind of evidence that people use to claim that vaccines cause autism, this associational evidence, this big correlations between variables without any clear explanation of why they would be …
Trevor Burrus: What about words like “toxins”? That one is always a good one for me. I pretty much think it’s BS if they use the word “toxins”.
Daniel Bier: Yeah. Anything that’s non-specific like that, like poisons or toxins or things of that nature, if they’re not being specific. Like if somebody says vaccines cause X, well, the only thing that all vaccines have in common is that they produce antibodies. That’s the only thing that they all have in common. So if they’re not being specific in their claim about what causes it and they can’t explain why, what causes what, then always be skeptical of that. But toxins is a good one because what’s toxic depends on the dose.
Pears have formaldehyde in them and a dose – a lot higher than what you will get in a vaccine but people are scared when they hear that there are toxins in the vaccines. Well, there are toxins in your organic fruit too but you shouldn’t be worried about either of them because what matters is the dose.
Aaron Ross Powell: So one of the things I noticed is that people who are self-professed skeptics – and there are a lot of communities of these on the internet. That tends to align – maybe I’m just imagining this. So tell me if I’m wrong but it tends to align not with libertarianism but a lot of the skeptic communities seems to be pretty kind of milquetoast progressive or I’m a skeptic/atheist and a reason-based person and I support Bernie Sanders.
So I’ve always been struck by why is it that people who are deeply skeptical when they hear claims about the supernatural or they hear claims about certain kinds of science or whatever seem to suddenly become very credulous when they hear claims about how great the state works.
Daniel Bier: Well, I mean I would have said that the skeptic community as a whole is actually – tends to be quite hard left progressives.
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s worse than I fear.
Daniel Bier: Yes, no. It’s much worse than you think. So that’s a good question and sort of my – the other part of the Skeptical Libertarian project is to try to reach out to skeptics and help them extend their skepticism beyond homeopathy and creationism. If being a skeptic to you means just opposing teaching creationism and public schools, then you are dare I say it being quite blinkered and quite narrow in your view of what the skeptical way of thinking about evidence and facts actually requires.
So I’m a libertarian not just because I think that the – you know, sort of the broad utilitarian argument for free markets and personal liberties is quite strong, although I do. I also have certain liberal priors that I think that people have a presumption of liberty. But I think those liberal priors are shared quite broadly with people on the left and in the United States frankly on many – with many people on the right.
So I think the problem comes. They don’t think about government. They don’t think about politics as something where facts and evidence – where expertise, where science can really be brought to bear on a variety of questions. They don’t believe that social science has anything to teach us about government.
So it’s entirely about value judgments and what makes them feel good and so they don’t think about – they don’t think very critically about what the political process entails. So voters are phenomenally ignorant and they’re phenomenally irrational and so we have no reason to believe that a government that’s being driven by voters is going to produce outcomes that are going to be to the benefit of the general welfare of society.
In fact we have a lot of good evidence that suggest that voters want terrible things that would be bad for all of society. It’s really only certain mechanisms that we have that separate people’s beliefs and prejudice from government power that keeps government from operating worse than it is.
Aaron Ross Powell: But isn’t there – I mean you could take that argument in the other direction though and you could say yes, voters are irrational when it comes to politics and they’re largely rationally ignorant when it comes to politics. But what that means is that the really smart rational guys of the atheism subreddit should pack up, take their katanas to Washington and be in charge and set everything straight. It’s an argument for technocrats, not freedom.
Daniel Bier: Yes, and I think that is the assumption that a lot of – the million fedora march. The assumption that they share that smart people should just run the world and we shouldn’t really care too much about what the people say when the people disagree with me. Unfortunately the second part of sort of public choice economics is that the sausage of public policy depends on the incentives of special interests and political coalitions, bootleggers and Baptists, moralists, crusaders and narrowly self-interested pressure groups.
They’re the people who really create the details of public policy. The voters want certain things like more safety and less crime. So people go to Washington and then the legislators pass the more safety and less crime bill and Bill Clinton signs it into law. But the details of that policy are being shaped by special interest groups that most voters are never going to hear about, that they don’t know anything about. The voters just want something in the very broadest sense of the word. They don’t have an incentive to be informed about it but police unions do. Prison guard unions do and so the policies that are passed under the ages of doing good things for society are not the ones – they’re not being shaped by the benevolent folks at Brookings who really do care about society and value evidence quite a lot.
They’re not driving the actual public policy either. So even if we have a bunch of technocrats who are well-meaning, we have no reason to believe that they’re the ones who are actually going to – be the ones shaping public policy and what happens is that those people just end up providing moral cover for bootlegger Baptist coalitions. They provide moral cover with the left. They’re the Baptists for leftwing technocrats. They produce policy papers about how government can reduce waste in Medicare and then as a result, we get policies like Obamacare which are not particularly rational, do not particularly favor anything that is being found by the healthcare policy …
They’re being passed because there are a lot of established interests. We had basically – Obamacare is a perfect example because we had basically three healthcare systems. We had the individual insurance market. We had employer-provided healthcare and we had Medicaid and all of these groups wanted to expand, wanted to get government handouts, wanted to get more – the Medicaid bureaucracy wanted to get more money.
Insurers wanted to get more customers. They wanted to get government subsidies. So we just said, “Well, we will just do more of everything. We will do more employer healthcare. We will do more individual insurance markets. We will subsidize that and then we will expand Medicaid,” and none of this was what Obama wanted, what Hillary wanted, what the republicans wanted, what the free market or the single-payer people wanted. So I just don’t think that we have any good reason to think that the technocrats are even in control.
Trevor Burrus: We talk about skepticism, trying to get skeptics to understand libertarianism which unfortunately they don’t seemingly. Now we go to the other side and say libertarians who aren’t skeptical enough. So, the libertarian conspiracy theorists that we were discussing at the beginning of this episode. Does it seem sometimes that the Alex Jones type of at least self-proclaimed libertarian might be just an entirely different type of approach to why they don’t like government? Because with the libertarian conspiracy theorists, it seemed that they think the government is really good at being evil. So this is why you should oppose the government whereas my position and I think both of your position too is that I think the government is really bad at being good and therefore we should be libertarians. So they see like two very different types of libertarianism.
Daniel Bier: I think that’s basically right. But I think that it’s – people are good at maintaining cognitive dissonance. So it’s possible to hold both the belief that George Bush is the most incompetent person ever to hold the White House and apparently it’s also possible to believe that he’s capable of pulling off the most insanely complicated conspiracies ever, like blowing up the levies in hurricane Katrina and 9/11 and faking all of the evidence that they presented for the war in Iraq.
So I think it’s possible to hold both of these beliefs. So it’s not just two opposing groups of people who each hold one idea. But I think that is basically the problem here is that the problem with assuming that everything that is going on around us is being determined by people and being consciously planned and being designed by some group of people in a room somewhere is that this is a very bad description of the way the world actually works.
When you start looking at problems around the world, you start to think that certain people and bad intentions are responsible for them. So sometimes that’s true and often on small scales. But it doesn’t explain most of the problems and our biggest problems, poverty, global warming, disease, business cycles, unemployment. These things are not being planned or done on purpose. Poverty is not the result of the Koch brothers or malevolent, rich people conspiring to wreck the economy through something called neoliberalism or trickle-down economics.
So having misdiagnosed the problem, you’re going to mis-prescribe the treatment. If you see bad guys on top, you think the answer is deposing them and enthroning different people with good intentions. If the bad guys are – this is sort of Jesse Walker’s idea of the enemy below. If the bad guys are down below, you want the good guys at the top to crush them or at least tightly monitor them so they can be crushed if they need to be.
So really understanding the problem with government is quite critical to understanding the solution. If you think it’s just bad people with bad intentions, then good people with good intentions will solve the problem. But if you think it’s unintended consequences of bad ideas, of mistaken ideas, then the answer is something very different. It’s not different people. It’s not Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders or somebody you think is – has the right desires for the country. It’s actually understanding good ideas and bad ideas and limiting the ability of bad ideas to use government to carry out agendas and cause really, really terrible unintended consequences.
Aaron Ross Powell: It seems like there are layers of acceptability to some extent in these things. Like we’ve been talking about – among libertarians the Alex Jones sort which certainly doesn’t represent most and the 9/11 conspiracies which probably a lot of libertarians reject and it seems like there’s – but these things align ideologically, like conspiracy theories and credulity about pseudoscience and whatever seems to be very tribal. If you talk to someone and you say, “Do you think that GMOs are harmful or not? Do you think we should ban GMOs?” and they say we should ban GMOs, then you could probably predict with a decent amount of accuracy that they are on the political left. If you – but they don’t necessarily – there’s a layer of political left conspiracy that goes higher which might be – I don’t know. Like corporations control everything or the Koch brothers are really in charge of the country. On the conservative side, you might have the kind of acceptable thing like Mexico is sending people over and it’s doing bad stuff for the country versus like Obama is the secret Muslim. But again they seem to be pretty predictive.
So the question is, among libertarians, are there pseudoscience or conspiracy-oriented views that are of that kind of more palatable and more acceptable among reasonable people things than the – you know, really out there 9/11 was done by the US government but are in that way predictive of libertarianism or more unique to libertarians. The one that comes to mind to me is like the “paleo” diet.
Trevor Burrus: You mean in terms of the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory behind the FDA’s like food tree by itself.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, but just the idea – so we can say well, we’re all libertarians here and there’s those out there guys and Infowars. But most of us are pretty reasonable and don’t believe this kind of silly stuff. But there are ones that look more like the kind of common beliefs among leftists about organic food or the more common beliefs among conservatives about immigrants that are common specifically to libertarians.
Daniel Bier: Well, libertarians, because we overlap a bit with the right and a bit with the left, it actually tends to be a little more profligate, a little more promiscuous with the conspiracy theories that we borrow from each one. So I think that you actually end up with a little bit of everything or a lot of everything in some cases of sort of right wing and left wing conspiracy theories. So I think – so Jonathan Haidt has this theory about moral foundations where people on the right are allegedly more – they score high on this purity concern. They’re very worried about keeping things pure. So they worry a lot about sex and drugs.
But people on the left, they worry about GMOs and food purity and so forth, except when you go to Chipotle. That’s not as big a concern there for some reason. But I think that there are some beliefs that are quite a bit more – some conspiratorial ideas that are quite a bit more common for libertarians and I think they tend to center around foreign policy and I think it’s quite a bit more common among libertarians to accept that what the US government is doing overseas and in various countries around the world is actually malevolent, is actually the result of their desire to do harm, to Iraqis and Muslims and so forth.
I think that that is – that actually doesn’t describe the motivations of the neo-conservatives or the sort of left wing benign imperialists very well. I don’t think that it’s – people say George Bush lied to get us into the Iraq war for instance. So this was a common belief on the left too. But I think that mostly what they were lying about was that they were lying about their confidence, about the quality of the information they have to the extent they were lying. It was that they were exaggerating how certain they knew that there were weapons of mass destruction there and that there were links to terrorism.
But as far as deliberately manufacturing false evidence and fabricating wire taps and so forth, I don’t think that that really describes how the US foreign policy establishment works and – but I do find those beliefs to be more common on the right than the left because – I mean more common among libertarians than the right or the left because the right and the left sort of trade off being in charge of the foreign policy establishment. So that sort of limits how critical the right and the left are willing to be of – you will notice that 9/11 truthers sort of disappeared right around the time that Obama became president because they didn’t – they didn’t want to attack Obama. It was really more about being anti-Bush. So I think that conspiracy theories and beliefs about foreign policy are sort of more common among libertarians than they are among either the right or left.
Trevor Burrus: Now we’ve talked a lot about various incarnations of skepticism which I can actually – I was thinking about this, imagining talking to an anti-GMO person who might describe themselves as a skeptic about – not – we kind of see those conspiratorial but they probably see it as skepticism. We’ve kind of touched on it in this episode. But properly conceived, what do you think is the best relationship between skepticism and libertarianism? What is the best way to do it, to do it correctly as opposed to find yourself going off the rails?
Daniel Bier: I think that the belief that we’re the true skeptics because we don’t believe what the FDA or the American Medical Association says. I think that that actually results from a misunderstanding of what the conventional wisdom actually is. I think that the conventional wisdom really is that secret malevolent forces, that there are large groups of people conspiring against the common man. I think that that is an extremely common mindset and perspective on the way that the world works and seeing past that and seeing the nuance and the complexity of what’s going on in the world and what is causing the problems that we face requires rejecting this sort of conventional intuition about how the world works.
So as far as how – the proper relationship between skepticism and libertarianism, I think that the right way to be skeptical about government is to require – demand a lot of evidence, demand very high burdens of proof from the government when it is trying to restrict our liberties. Demand that they prove beyond a reasonable doubt that what they are doing is justified and that this can’t be handled by free people in a free society.
Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.