Nobody denies that conspiracies occur. They happen every time two or more people collude in order to secure some malign end. When people criticize “conspiracy theories,” it is a particular kind of conspiracy that they find implausible. I’ve written several times before about some of the marks of conspiracy theories of this dubious kind. They tend to be grounded in “narrative thinking” rather than a rigorous and dispassionate consideration of the merits and deficiencies of all alternative possible explanations. They tend to violate Ockham’s razor, posit conspiracies that are too vast and complicated to be psychologically and sociologically feasible, and reflect naiveté about the way modern bureaucracies function. The vastness of the posited conspiracy often has implications for the reliability of news media and other sources of information that make the theory epistemically self-defeating and unfalsifiable. (For simplicity’s sake, from here on out I’ll use the expression “conspiracy theories” to refer, specifically, to theories having vices like these – acknowledging, again, that there are conspiracies of a more plausible kind, and thus conspiracy theories of a more plausible kind.)
A superficially similar but at bottom very different sort of theory is represented by examples of the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Theories of this kind posit forces which might seem analogous to the malign actors imagined by conspiracy theorists, but which ultimately operate in an impersonal manner. Hence Marxism analyzes prevailing moral and cultural institutions as ideologies functioning to uphold dominant economic interests, Foucault regards them as expressions of power, Critical Race Theory as expressions of “white supremacy,” and so on.
Such theories share some of the flaws of conspiracy theories. Like conspiracy theories, they rely on “narrative thinking” rather than rigorous argumentation, oversimplify complex social phenomena, and read sinister meaning into what is innocuous. They also tend to dismiss criticism and counterarguments as merely the expression of the purported sinister forces, rather than evaluating them logically and dispassionately. (“That’s just what the interests of [power, capital, white supremacy, etc.] want you to think!”) Like conspiracy theories, they thereby open themselves up to the charge of being self-defeating. If everything is “nothing but” the expression of some economic interest and can be dismissed as having no objective validity, why can’t we say the same of Marxism? If it is merely the expression of the interests of power, what power interests does Foucault’s analysis itself serve? If it is the expression of racism, how can Critical Race Theory itself be exempt?
All the same, instances of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” are not conspiracy theories, because they don’t attribute the phenomena they analyze to any sort of plotting or design. The claim is not that a cabal of capitalists, racists, or other powerful interests got together in a smoke-filled room to map out how cultural and social institutions would be set up. Rather, the malign forces such a theory posits are treated as impersonal abstractions that (somehow) nevertheless operate as if they were concrete, personal entities. Accordingly, such theories tend to commit a fallacy of hypostatization or reification. Where conspiracy theories attribute too much to human agency, the hermeneutics of suspicion attributes too little to it. Abstractions like “capital,” “power,” “white supremacy,” etc. don’t exist over and above specific individuals and institutions who could intelligibly be said, whether correctly or incorrectly, to exercise power, to have economic interests, to harbor racist attitudes, or whatever. Hence, to the extent that an analysis cannot be cashed out in terms of the motives and activities of such specific individuals and institutions, it fails to capture anything real.
Now, there is a third kind of theory which claims to explain the same sorts of phenomena as conspiracy theories and the hermeneutics of suspicion, but does not have the problems that those approaches exhibit. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a commonly accepted label for this approach. Borrowing from F. A. Hayek, I’ll label them theories of “spontaneous order,” though I’m not entirely happy with the phrase. In addition to Hayek, the best-known representatives of this sort of approach are the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Smith’s “invisible hand” principle is one application, as is Hayek’s elaboration of how prices generated in the free market encapsulate scattered bits of information that would otherwise be inaccessible to economic actors. In an earlier post, I suggested that Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of mass media, when abstracted from the specific political assumptions they bring to bear on it, counts as another application.
What analyses of this kind describe are, as Ferguson famously put it, “the results of human action but not of human design.” Smith argues that when economic agents act in their own best interests, society in general reaps unforeseen benefits insofar as production, innovation, services, etc. are efficiently fitted to actual demand. Hayek argues that when consumers are guided by market prices, economic information is communicated and used as effectively as possible. Herman and Chomsky argue that the incentives built into a corporately-owned media system tend naturally to filter out information and opinions awareness of which would be contrary to the common interests of corporations and governments.
Now, you may or may not agree with one or more of these theories of “spontaneous order.” That’s fine. I’m neither defending nor criticizing any of them here, but just using them as examples of a general style of analysis. Note, however, that you don’t need to agree with the use these theorists make of these theories in order to find the theories themselves of interest. Smith and Hayek are favorable to the market economy, and Herman and Chomsky are unfavorable to corporate media. But that is irrelevant to the cogency (or lack thereof) of their analyses. Someone could agree that the effects described by Smith and Hayek are real and still be unfavorable toward the free market, and someone could agree that the effects described by Herman and Chomsky are real and still favor corporate media. It all depends on what other premises and values are factored into one’s overall political or economic view of things.
Anyway, the thing to emphasize for present purposes is that theories of “spontaneous order” are neither conspiracy theories nor instances of the hermeneutics of suspicion. The effects described by Smith, Hayek, and Herman and Chomsky are brought about by specific human beings and specific institutions acting in clearly identifiable ways according to explicit motives. There is no reference to reified abstractions acting in ways that only personal or other concrete entities can. (The “invisible hand” is no exception, because Smith’s whole point is that there is no such hand. It’s only as if there were.)
At the same time, these specific agents and institutions are not acting with the intention or design of bringing about the specific effects that Smith, Hayek, and Edward and Chomsky describe. There is no conspiracy. Consumers are not consciously trying to increase the efficiency with which economic information is transmitted, reporters are not consciously trying to uphold the interests of corporations, and so on. Again, the whole point of theories of this kind is to explain how complex social patterns can be “the results of human action” and at the same time “not of human design.”
We might think of the systems posited by “spontaneous order” theorists on the model of what philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright calls “nomological machines.” A nomological machine is a system of substances whose causal powers, when acting in tandem, generate patterns which approximate laws of nature. For example, the solar system is a nomological machine. What it is fundamentally made up of are objects like our sun, the various planets and asteroids, etc., all with their distinctive properties and powers. Given that such objects are in the right sort of proximity to one another and mutually trigger the operation of their causal powers, the result is a system that more or less operates in the way described by Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Cartwright’s point is that laws of nature are not fundamental to physical reality. Rather, what are fundamental to physical reality are various concrete physical substances, and their distinctive properties and causal powers. When these substances get into the right configuration, the result is a pattern that approximates a law. Laws are, accordingly, idealized descriptions of phenomena that are themselves derivative from something more fundamental. Treating laws as themselves the fundamental facts about physical reality just gets the natural world badly wrong. (See chapter 3 of my book Aristotle’s Revenge for detailed exposition and defense of this sort of view.)
The processes posited by theories of “spontaneous order” are like this. Given a collection of individual economic actors responding to market forces, the result (the theory says) will be the patterns described by Smith and Hayek. It’s as if these economic actors are following economic laws, but really they are not. Any purported economic laws are really only approximations at best of complex patterns that arise when economic actors interact in certain ways under certain conditions. Something similar can be said of the behavior of media personnel, government officials, etc. in the context described by Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. It’s as if they are following some law of corporate media behavior, though really they are not.
Because human beings and social phenomena are vastly more complex than (say) the solar system, the “laws” in these cases are only very remote approximations and idealizations, rather than closely conforming to what actually happens (since human beings, after all, are moved by far more than merely economic considerations, political incentives, etc.). There are and can be no strict “laws” where human beings and social phenomena are concerned. But the “spontaneous order” models are still useful, because they do capture real systemic features and tendencies, even if mere tendencies (rather than exceptionless patterns) is all they are.
I would suggest that Cartwright’s account provides one way of seeing what is wrong with conspiracy theories and the hermeneutics of suspicion. Cartwright’s neo-Aristotelian view of laws is what you might call a “bottom-up” view. Again, what are fundamental to nature are concrete substances and their powers, and laws are derivative abstractions, and typically approximations at best. (This is true, as Cartwright famously argues, even of laws of physics.) The view she opposes takes a “top-down” view of laws, according to which laws are the fundamental physical reality and imposed from above on the rest of nature – whether by a divine designer, or as just a brute fact about the world.
Conspiracy theories and the hermeneutics of suspicion are, I submit, comparable to “top-down” views about laws of nature, and are especially comparable to attempts to identify strict “laws” governing economic or other social phenomena. They both try to wedge what is really a very messy, complex social reality into a simplistic model that abstracts from how human beings and human institutions actually operate. Conspiracy theories do so by identifying a “designer” of the patterns they claim to explain, whereas the hermeneutics of suspicion takes those patterns to be something like a brute fact about the social world rather than the product of design. (I don’t claim that my analogy here is terribly exact, only that it is suggestive.)
The Substack writer Eugyppius has written some helpful articles (e.g. here and here) about why the manner in which governments have handled the Covid-19 situation is best understood in “spontaneous order” terms rather than in terms of conspiracy. In particular, the stubbornly incompetent and callous nature of pandemic policy reflects the incentives, values, and information flow that prevail in modern bureaucracies, rather than centralized planning.
As Eugyppius emphasizes, this by no means entails that those responsible for making policy don’t often have bad motives. That’s not the point. The point is that in order effectively to counter destructive policies and corrupt and incompetent authorities, we need to understand how social institutions, including governments, actually work. Conspiracy theories and the hermeneutics of suspicion darken our understanding – and thereby inadvertently give aid and comfort to bad policymakers whom we can effectively resist only with sobriety.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with his kind permission.)
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