Revisiting “The Conspiracy Theory of History Revisited”

Only individuals have ever acted, and for every action there was someone—or several someones—responsible.

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History is the grand catalog of human action in the past. At its broadest, it encompasses everything that everyone everywhere has ever done.If all history is about individual actions, and all individual actions are based on some sort of perceived self-interest on the part of the actor, one may conclude that chronicles of an historical actor’s life would reveal patterns about how they expected to fulfill those interests.

Further Readings/References:
Rothbard, “The Conspiracy Theory of History, Revisited,” Reason (April 1977).

 

Anthony Comegna: History is the grand catalog of human action in the past. At its broadest, it encompasses everything that everyone everywhere has ever done. No doubt, this makes for a large subject. Few historians however practice the biggest history there is. Rather, we tunnel down, often as far as we can go. We follow the lives of individuals and groups, in usually very specific time periods. [00:00:30] At the root of it all, whatever the subject matter, there is human action. The constant stream of choices made by historical actors are the fundamental building blocks of larger narratives.
This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. Too often, however, historians forget that only individuals act, and they fail to assign agency to particular people. “France, China, or America does X, Y, or Z. The Church launches crusades. The Nation charges forward to war.” I’m not on some semantic crusade of my own here. There is room for these terms, but we have to pair our use of collectives with a more fundamental practice of methodological individualism. Only individuals have ever acted, and for every action, [00:01:30] there was someone or several someones responsible.
If all history is about individual actions, and all individual actions are based on some sort of perceived self-interest on the part of the actor, one may conclude that chronicles of an historical actor’s life would reveal patterns about how they expected to fulfill those interests. Over days and weeks, we make perhaps millions of economizing decisions, many of which are social in nature, and include [00:02:00] one or more other individuals. Each person who willingly associates with the group does so because they prefer participation to nonparticipation. Individual interests are served by creating and supporting some sort of group interest, through which each person involved can benefit from the coordination.
Those individuals or groups with benevolent or even neutral ends pose no threats to peaceful libertarian folks, but almost inevitably, there seem to emerge social groupings whose individual and by extension group motivations appear to be positively malevolent. The classic example is Spectre, from the James Bond series, but real-world examples abound. Social groups serving the interests of individual members take on enumerable different forms of appearance, serving a variety of purposes, and they are by no means equal in their abilities to unjustly wield [00:03:00] accumulated power. Whatever the case may be, whatever the situation you’re investigating though, there is a certain important sense in which all history is conspiracy. It is the story of individuals and groups operating solely for the advancement of individual ends. I first encountered this idea as a tool for historical interpretation in an article by Murray Rothbard from Reason Magazine, April 1977.
Reader:The Conspiracy Theory of History Revisited, by Murray N. Rothbard. Anytime that a hard-nosed analysis is put forth of who our rulers are, or of how their political and economic interests interlock, it is invariably denounced by establishment liberals and conservatives, and even by many libertarians, as a conspiracy theory of history, paranoid, economic-determinist, and even Marxist. These smear labels are applied across the board, even though such realistic [00:04:00] analysis can be and have been made from any and all parts of the economic spectrum, from the John Birch Society to the Communist Party.
The most common label is conspiracy theorist, almost always leveled as a hostile epithet rather than adopted by the conspiracy theorist himself. It is no wonder that usually, these realistic analyses are spelled out by various extremists who are outside the establishment consensus, for it is vital to the continued rule of [00:04:30] the state apparatus that it have legitimacy and even sanctity in the eyes of the public, and it is vital to that sanctity that our politicians and bureaucrats be deemed to be disembodied spirits solely devoted to the public good. Once let the cat out of the bag that these spirits are all-too-often grounded in the solid earth of advancing a set of economic interests through use of the state and the basic mystique of government begins to collapse.
Let us take an easy example. Suppose [00:05:00] we find that Congress has passed a law raising the steel tariff, or imposing import quotas on steel. Surely, only a moron would fail to realize that the tariff or quota was passed at the behest of lobbyists from the domestic steel industry anxious to keep out efficient foreign competitors. No one would level a charge of conspiracy theorist against such a conclusion, but what the conspiracy theorist is doing is simply to extend his analysis to more complex measures of government, [00:05:30] say, to public works projects, the establishment of the ICC, the creation of the Federal Reserve System, or the entry of the United States into a war.
In each of these cases, the conspiracy theorist asks himself the question, “Cui bono? Who benefits from this measure?” If he finds that measure A benefits X and Y, his step is to investigate the hypotheses, “Did X and Y in fact lobby or exert pressure for the passage of measure A?” In short, [00:06:00] did X and Y realize that they would benefit and act accordingly? Far from being a paranoid or a determinist, the conspiracy analyst is a praxeologist, that is, he believes that people act purposively, that they make conscious choices to employ means in order to arrive at goals. It is the opponents of conspiracy analysis who profess to believe that all events, at least in government, are random and unplanned, and that therefore, people do not engage in purposive [00:06:30] choice and planning.
There are of course good conspiracy analysts and bad analysts, just as there are good and bad historians or practitioners of any discipline. The bad conspiracy analyst tends to make two kinds of mistakes which indeed leave him open to the establishment charge of paranoia. First he stops with the cui bono. If measure A benefits X and Y, he simply concludes that, “Therefore, X and Y were responsible.” He fails to realize that this [00:07:00] is just a hypothesis, and must be verified by finding out whether or not X and Y really did so.
Secondly, the bad conspiracy analyst seems to have a compulsion to wrap up all the conspiracies, all the bad guy power blocks, into one giant conspiracy, instead of seeing that there are several power blocks trying to gain control of government, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in alliance. He has to assume, again, without evidence, that a small group of men controls them all, and only [00:07:30] seems to send them into conflict. These reflections are prompted by the almost blatant fact, so blatant as to be remarked on by the major news weekly, that virtually the entire top leadership of the new Carter administration, from Carter and Mondale on down, are members of the small semi-secret Trilateral Commission, founded by David Rockefeller in 1973 to propose policies for the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, and/or members of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation. [00:08:00] The rest are tied in with Atlanta corporate interests, and especially, the Coca Cola Company, Georgia’s major corporation.
How do we look at all this? Do we say that David Rockefeller’s prodigious efforts on behalf of a certain statists public policies are merely a reflection of unfocused altruism, or is there pursuit of economic interest involved? Was Jimmy Carter named a member of the Trilateral Commission as soon as it was founded because Rockefeller and the others wanted to hear the wisdom of an obscure Georgia governor, or was [00:08:30] he plucked out of obscurity and made president by their support? Was J. Paul Austin, head of Coca Cola, an early support of Jimmy Carter merely out of concern for the common good?
Were all of the Trilateralists, and Rockefeller Foundation, and Coca Cola people chosen by Carter simply because he felt that they were the ablest people for the job? If so, it’s a coincidence that boggles the mind, or, are there more sinister political/economic interests involved? I submit that the knaves [00:09:00] who stubbornly refuse to examine the interplay of political and economic interest in government are tossing away an essential tool for analyzing the world in which we live.
Anthony Comegna: Though it is today derided, history as conspiracy has a long and respected pedigree. With Rothbard, we can add most of the progressive historians, many of their New Left descendants, and a great number even of today’s historians from below. Richard Hofstadter famously [00:09:30] wrote about the paranoid style in American politics. From the Puritans, who saw Satan’s minion behind every tree, to the revolutionaries, who blamed the king for everything, to the Jacksonians, who elevated paranoia and conspiracy theory to a way of life and even a national mythos, for many generations of Americans, the Conspiracy Theory of History was part of a larger world view, according to which some elite few have always exploited the great [00:10:00] masses.
Despite the colonists attempts to escape Old World power, the beast sprouted New World heads to torment the people still. The Progressive generation’s interpretation of the so-called Founding Fathers is perhaps best represented by Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, 1913. Beard built upon Carl Becker’s argument that the American Revolution was really two struggles. It was the contest over whether [00:10:30] there would be home rule in the Americas, and a fight over who should rule at home once the trans-Atlantic dust settled. While the 1783 Treaty of Paris resolved the question of home rule, who shall rule at home remained an open and explosive subject.
According to Beard, colonial elites circled their collective wagons and orchestrated the coup we lovingly call the Constitutional Convention. There, they constructed a document which protects a variety of interests, [00:11:00] landed, moneyed, planter, manufacturing, and on and on, while denying the states or the people any real ability to constrain Leviathan. If the Constitutional Convention was a coup, its participants were all conspirators of one stripe or another. Beard diligently detailed the personal interests of each delegate, and either uncovered or inferred direct causal links to the document produced. Cold War-era historians were right to note that not all decisions are made on the basis [00:11:30] of mere economic self-interest, but even conspiracies between ideologues are conspiracies.
There they were, in Philadelphia, plotting to replace the government with one of their own creation. Once put to popular votes, the Constitution received the suffrages of only about 6% to 8% of the population. Whose law is it then? Should every single one of us be forced to live under this particular Constitutional regime [00:12:00] because a small cabal of merchants, bankers, slave holders, slave traders, speculators, and otherwise unscrupulous figures duped 6% to 8% of the people into being accomplices? America did nothing to produce the Constitution. It was the product of particular men and their particular interests. I asked the Cato Institute’s other resident historian, Jason Kuznicki, “Is history really all about conspiracy?”
Jason Kuznicki: Conspiracy [00:12:30] theory, it’s sort of a motte-and-bailey domain in history. There’s a famous way to characterize arguments as having a motte-and-bailey approach. The motte is the defended position. It’s the castle in the middle of the town, where nobody can assail it. This is the argument at its very strongest form. The bailey is where there are no defenders around, there are no opponents around, and you can run around, unsecured, [00:13:00] and make wild accusations. Conspiracy theory I think has a motte-and-bailey character to it.
In a sense, there have been very real conspiracies in history. There have been. Lincoln’s assassination was a conspiracy. It actually was a group of people meeting together in secret with a plan that involved killing the president, and they did it. That was a conspiracy. September 11th was a conspiracy. A group of people got together to commit [00:13:30] acts of terrorism. They all agreed that it would happen in a certain way, and for the most part, they executed their plan. These are real conspiracies.
Now, there are other conspiracies that are much less real, that the CIA is using mind control by way of cellphone towers, or fluoride in the drinking water, or whatever. This is the bailey of conspiracy theories. You can begin with the observation that conspiracies [00:14:00] have happened, which is true and unassailable, and then you can progress from there to increasingly wild and unsupported conspiracies that are less and less and less credible. It’s not necessarily clear, by the way, where the motte ends and the bailey begins, if you will, because there are some conspiracy theories that have varying degrees of plausibility to them.
Is Vladimir Putin assassinating his political rivals? [00:14:30] Well, yeah. It really, really looks that way, even if, in every single case, we don’t necessarily have all of the evidence that we might need to convict him in an American court. It still looks like he’s doing it. That’s relatively plausible, but it’s not as well-evidenced as, say, the Lincoln assassination.
Anthony Comegna: Have you encountered in your personal research any conspiracy theories that were the real, classic, smoke-filled room, or scheming court aristocrat-style conspiracy?
Jason Kuznicki: Well, [00:15:00] one of my favorites is an old classic, which is that Thomas Jefferson and his Freemason associates planned the French Revolution and caused it to happen. What makes this one very interesting is that there is a kernel of truth to it no matter how much you want to deny it. There were, in fact, Freemasons who were very active in the French Revolution, and they were some of the key players [00:15:30] in the revolution. Lafayette was a Freemason. Jefferson himself was a Freemason. Can you say that they planned the French Revolution?
Well, Lafayette was one of the key players in the French Revolution. In a sense, yes, but were they really pulling all the strings? Were they the ones who made it happen in all of its particulars? That’s impossible to say. You cannot say that. That’s completely unfounded. If it were not for the ordinary people of Paris, if it were not [00:16:00] for the ordinary people of the countryside, the French Revolution would not have happened. It would have been crushed, and it would have been remembered as a momentary incident. It would not have been remembered as this great, world-changing event, which it actually was.
Yes, there was a Masonic element to the French Revolution. That’s well-evidenced. That’s undeniable. Did the Freemasons get together and say, “Hey, we’re going to have a revolution. It’s going to be in France. This is what’s going to happen.” No. [00:16:30] That is not supportable.
Anthony Comegna: What I hear you saying is that tens of thousands of average French men and women were also devil-worshiping, Luciferian communists. Is that correct?
Jason Kuznicki: No. They were hungry. They were scared. They were tired of being oppressed. They had political ideas, which historians still debate the degree to which the Enlightenment had percolated down to the ordinary people, but they had political ideas that were in many senses new, [00:17:00] and they wanted to act on them. It was a big, messy, complicated thing. As I often say about history, there are few truly world-changing events like the French Revolution that don’t arise from multiple causes. The French Revolution certainly did. It had lots of different causes.
Anthony Comegna: Catherine Williams was one of many women historians writing for a popular audience in the Jacksonian era. Among her many volumes [00:17:30] with an historical cast is the Neutral French, or, the Exiles of Nova Scotia, 1841. As was the style at the time, Williams blamed Great Britain and diplomatic court intrigue for the French Revolution, and an unknowable number of other historical events. She writes, “When the secrets of all men shall be disclosed at the Great Day, it is presumable that the exposé of court diplomacy will reveal the greatest mystery of iniquity [00:18:00] the whole assembled universe can produce. If the real origin of many of the disturbances that have deluged Europe in blood, divided the councils, and destroyed the resources of nations could be known, in 19 cases out of 20, the intriguers of foreign courts would be found at the bottom of them, and in 9 cases out of 10, during the last 500 years, England has been the intriguer.”
Okay, maybe Catherine Williams was one of those over-eager [00:18:30] amateurish historians Rothbard was talking about when he said, “The conspiracy theorist’s big mistake is lumping everything into the same conspiracy.” The British monster wasn’t the only creature stretching its tentacles across the globe, after all. Nonetheless, you have to admit, she has a point. Even the history of great national events comes down to the decisions made by particular people. Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. [00:19:00] It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.