Two Things You’re Not Supposed to Know

I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist; I’m normally able to stay objective and practical when considering alternative explanations of incidents or policies. My philosophy is that most conspiracy theories can be debunked with a couple of thought experiments (note: I’m speaking primarily of government conspiracies, not copper bracelets and spirit mediums).

First, imagine the alleged beneficiaries of the clandestine scheme. Would they really benefit the most by setting up this scheme and not some other scheme? Next, consider all the parties that would have to keep the conspiracy under wraps. Would they all be able to do so? Would they all have more to gain by keeping the secret than by leaking it? All of them?

Both of those considerations have a common theme: incentive. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of the hit book Freakonomics and hosts of Freakonomics Radio, are strong proponents of the principle that incentives drive just about all human behavior, explaining all economic phenomena in the process.

Being skeptical of a conspiracy theory is not so much an exercise in critical thinking. It’s remembering that the parties involved are all individuals with families, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, pets, enemies, dreams, insecurities, opinions, affiliations, hobbies, favorite movies, favorite drinks, problems, and even fantasies. That said, there are two government conspiracies I can say I believe to be true because I can see real people with real motivations behind them. To reiterate points from above, I’m talking about large-scale perpetuations of misinformation to the public by and for the government’s leaders.

The first conspiracy is best summed up in the paper The Evolution of Tax Withholding by Charlotte Twight. In short, you’ve been tricked into barely caring about paying income tax. For one, most workers have taxes taken out of every pay check by their employers, which was enacted to remove the pain of having to pay one or even four large sums per year. Additionally, employers take out too much tax, effectively turning April 15th into a happy day where you get money back. “Thank you, Government!” These schemes have successfully allowed Washington to slowly and constantly increase your tax burden ten-fold in the second half of the twentieth century, with minimal complaining.

The second conspiracy involves the Republican Party. In a post called The Gold Majority, I speculated that getting a bunch of working and middle-class people to vote against income redistribution, of which they might stand to benefit financially, should be difficult. It’s not, however, if you can convince some of them that income redistribution helps minorities and immigrants more than it helps their own “kind.” Put another way, perhaps the GOP exploits that some modern-day conservatives in the United States are not so much intellectual champions of the free-market economy as they are homophobic and racist.

When I wrote that speculation, I did not know that proof existed in the form of a quote by Lee Atwater, former political advisor to Ronald Reagan. In it, he makes it clear that the Republican strategy in the South was exactly that: to convince working and middle class Caucasian Americans that the free market punishes minorities.

Maybe these conspiracies aren’t as sexy as 9/11 or moon landing theories; they’re certainly neither as elaborate nor entertaining. They are indeed grounded in reality with direct evidence not subject to interpretation. So despite my earlier disclaimer, they actually do have something in common with copper bracelets and spirit mediums. They are deceitful, exploiting loopholes in people’s perceptions to the advantage of the propagators. My advice: ball up the tin foil hat, but never forget that we’re all individuals with incentives.