Why Libertarians Should Oppose Conspiracy Theories

Alex Jones: Yelling outside random buildings since 1996.

“Bilderberg conspiracies have become a handicap for the Liberty Movement,” says conservative commentator Jack Hunter in a recent article. “Bilderberg conspiracy theorists have become a political handicap. The Birthers probably have a few interesting points to make, but this doesn’t change the fact that their argument is toxic. It doesn’t change the fact that their rhetoric damages conservatives’ reputations every time a Birther opens his mouth.”

While we appreciate that someone else is speaking out against conspiracy theorists, the reason libertarians must oppose conspiracy theories is not merely because they are bad press, but because they are not supported by the facts. If the libertarian movement gained influence as a result of its proclivity for paranoid conspiracies, we would still need to oppose them. First and foremost, our commitment is to reality—popular or not—and to a conversation based on reason and evidence. Intellectual honesty should be our core value, and scientific skepticism is the surest way to preserve that integrity.

The reality is that telling conspiracists to shut up because what they are saying is unpopular or “politically toxic” is nearly pointless and surely self-defeating. It will only fan the flames of their delusions of persecution. Alex Jones, the king of conspiracy theorists, recently went after former-Freedom Watch producer, and friend of the blog, Austin Peterson for advocating skeptical inquiry and critical thinking at this year’s Porcupine Freedom Festival, the annual libertarian gathering in New Hampshire.

“Yes, yes, this is damaging us,” Jones mocked. “Well, yeah you could just become, I guess, an auxiliary of the Republican Party, and that’s what’s happening right now.” To the conspiratorial mind, everything is a conspiracy. Austin could not be simply expressing what he actually believes. No, it must be a subversive plan by the GOP to brainwash them, because he believes–and dares to argue–that most conspiracy theories are false and unsupported.

Explaining to conspiracy theorists that their ideas are unpopular or politically harmful is worse than irrelevant—it’s what drives them. They know the Truth™, and everyone else, even libertarians who disagree, are sheep. If other people don’t see the Truth™, it’s because they’re too dumb recognize it or possibly “in on it.” They expect to be unpopular, and they’ve constructed a self-reinforcing narrative to explain why their ideas are toxic.

Instead of trying to silence or ignore the crazies in our midst, we ought to confront them and expose the lunatic fringe for what they really are: peddlers of fear, falsehood, and paranoia, just like the politicians they claim to oppose. We cannot sit passively next to the people in tinfoil hats screaming about chemtrails and FEMA camps and still expect to be listened to when we try to speak about our real concerns on foreign policy or personal liberty.

Nor can we reasonably expect people who actually think the government was behind 9/11 not to mention that fact all the time. We must make the libertarian movement inhospitable to the crackpots and conspiracy theorists if we hope to move the philosophy of liberty from the margins to the center of public discourse. It needs to be crystal clear to everyone that our ideas based on–and defended with–facts and evidence, not superstition and innuendo.

What discredits and defames libertarianism is not the belief that government is corrupt, exploitative, or conniving. Rather, what hurts liberty most is when its alleged proponents lie, libel, and twist the facts. The government does not operate like a vast conspiracy. It is a lot of everyday bureaucrats who, cumulatively, erode our freedoms and restrict our rights. But there are no puppet masters and no grand secret society–just a lot of little would-be tyrants with half-baked plans. The evil perpetrated by government results not from the plots of secret cabals, but mostly from the unintended consequences of bad ideas.

If we fail to recognize this fact, we fall into the trap of believing that if we can simply expose the Truth™ about how evil our leaders are, then everything  will change. Conspiracy theories may sound complicated, but the belief that a few powerful men control the world is remarkably simplistic: we can replace the ones who currently twist the reins of power for their own ends with more benevolent men who twist them to the benefit of all. But with no real demons to slay, conspiracy theorists are just chasing shadows, ignoring the real causes of the world’s problems and diverting efforts to solve them.

The Editors

Senior editors of the Skeptical Libertarian.