It's the Incentives, Dummy.

Or, Why I Don't Believe Most Grand Conspiracy Theories

I’m not really a big believer in grand conspiracy theories.

Don’t get me wrong. They’re often fun to listen to, to think about, and to dig into. And many have kernels of truth in them (at an alarming rate, it seems).

But I’m not really a big believe in the central idea behind most grand conspiracy theories: that there’s some cabal of people pulling strings for nefarious (i.e., blood-sucking, reptilian, world-control, etc.) purposes. That would just be too convenient.

(There are, of course, non-grand conspiracies. As Thiel notes in Zero to One, that’s what any good founder does.)

I remember a line from John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education: It’s easy to look at the story of American schooling and see a conspiracy. You see people like the Brain Trust and like Horace Mann and the Prussians and Woodrow Wilson all moving in the same direction around the same time. So it’s easy to assume that there’s some Grand Inquisitor behind a curtain pulling the strings, working to enslave America’s children in compulsory state schools and turn them into nice little cogs in the managerial revolution.

That all sounds nice. And it makes sense when you look at the evidence. But the scary thing, Gatto says, is that it’s not correct. There is no grand conspiracy. All these forces just move towards the same conclusion around the same time. And that is scary.

The nice thing about a grand conspiracy theory being true is that it would mean that there is some Grand Inquisitor whose head you could (metaphorically) chop off and solve the problem. If only you could get to the cabal’s central office and expose them! Then you could show the world what’s been going on! But in cases of forces moving in the same direction at the same time, there is no Grand Inquisitor whose head you can (metaphorically) chop off. There are a lot of disparate and interconnected, but ultimately independent, forces moving at the same time.

And that’s a much harder problem to solve.

And disbelief in grand conspiracy theories makes sense, too, when you apply Occam’s Razor under a framework of incentives.

(Occam’s Razor holds that the simplest explanation for any given phenomenon is often the best explanation.)

What happens when the powers that be, all interconnected but independent, simply follow their own rational self-interest? Often that does lead to something that looks like a conspiracy theory.

To return to Gatto’s example of compulsory schooling in the US, it makes sense that compulsory schooling came about when it did when you look at the history through the lens of the incentives at play at the time. Industrialization had crushed the confessional states of Europe and the Jeffersonian yeoman dream of the America’s and made it clear economies needed good workers. Industrialists had every incentive to train up the next generation of desk jockeys, assembly line workers, and engineers as quickly as they could.

The Napoleonic Wars made it obvious that states needed lots of good soldiers. Generals and politicians alike had every incentive to organize the youth into clear groups that could believe in something bigger than themselves. And since “God is dead,” in Nietzsche’s famous observation, that something must be the state around which the schools could organize.

This, plus the political incentives offered by the jobs programs that would become state schools, made a clear case for the move towards collectivized, compulsory education all at the same time.

There was no Grand Inquisitor of the Illuminati pulling the strings. There was no command from the Masonic Great Architect telling US presidents to move the schools in that direction.

No. There were merely incentives and individuals in institutions following those incentives.

(I’ve written about these three I’s of social change here.)

I wish more conspiracy theories were true. The world’s problems would be so much easier to solve. And solving them would appear so much more heroic than it does now.

But alas, the world is not as nefarious as it can seem. It’s just lame. There are lame people in power following their own selfish self-interest and that’s what’s gotten us to a place of flabby-armed politicians urging us to upend our lives for public health, while they go about squandering the wealth and power that a less lame elite would have done something interesting with.

The good news is that this does mean that carving out your little part of the world and following that — living out your vocation for which you have the skills and interest to be quite good — well does actually make a difference. Just don’t be too lame.