Conspiracy Theories by George Friedman, Mauldin Economics

The term “conspiracy theory” has been part of our culture for a very long time. It is often justifiably followed by the word “nut.” It is also a way to stop discussion, or to embarrass others from believing what is being said. The aversion to conspiracy theories flows from a revulsion at the thought that well-known events are caused by a group of people acting in secret.

If that is true, then the common-sense understanding of why things happen is defective. And if it is defective, then those who are seen as best informed are actually mistaken. They lose their standing, and we are faced with a grim world where important events have dark and unknown causes.

Conspiracy Theories
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Conspiracy Theories

Those who believe in conspiracy theories think that the common explanations are defective. In their view, others fail to understand that the world doesn’t just happen. It is forged by hidden intentions. They believe that those who try to explain the world without recourse to secret agendas are either duped or part of the conspiracy.

Believing in conspiracy theories means that the world is not out of control. Instead, things are made to happen. This implies that something can be done to counter the conspirators’ actions.

There are those who believe that the price of oil fell because of a global decline in economic growth and the emergence of new technologies. In their view, nothing else is needed to explain it. There are others, though, who believe that the decline in the price of oil was deliberately engineered by some nation or powerful financial figures in order to cause harm.

If it is the former, then we are trapped by uncontrollable market forces… but at least we understand what is going on in the world. If it is the latter, then the world is controlled by powerful forces that determine the world’s fate for their own benefit.

Conspiracies: from Mundane to Fantastic

We are surrounded by conspiracies. Conspiracies are a normal part of the fabric of human life. I have worked in universities and governments and with publishers. A lot of what we do, as a matter of course, is conspiratorial.

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories can be thought of in three classes. First, there is the routine. These take place in politics, business, families, and other human organizations. Second, there are significant, discreet events, such as a coup or an assassination. Finally, there is the macro-conspiracy, which is about forces controlling broader areas of life, up to and including history.

It is the last two where the debate—if it can be called that—about conspiracies takes place.

Consider the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were ascribed to a lone gunman. In evaluating whether a conspiracy was behind either, the measure must be plausibility. My rule is that the idea of the lone gunmen must at least be a plausible hypothesis.

The Classic

Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? It is possible that he got a job at the Texas School Book Depository, heard of the president’s motorcade, and for reasons of his own, fired an old Italian rifle three times in seven seconds, hitting Kennedy twice. He was, after all, a trained Marine. I can imagine him doing it.

There are two problems, however. The first is that Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Ruby is described as a nightclub owner. He actually owned a strip club and was a pimp. It is said that he was emotionally distraught over Kennedy’s death and decided to kill Oswald. Nothing in Ruby’s past indicates a deep sentimental attachment to anyone, least of all a president. It stretches plausibility.

There is a second difficult piece to this. Lee Harvey Oswald defected to the Soviet Union while he was a Marine. He met his wife Marina in the Soviet Union. Her father was killed in World War II, and she lived with her uncle who was a colonel in the MVD, the Interior Ministry’s security forces. She attended Leningrad School of Pharmacology.

Marina married Oswald just a few weeks after meeting him. They were granted exit visas from the Soviet Union and were admitted to the United States… with no court-martial for Oswald and no apparent questions about Marina. This was 1960. Nieces of MVD colonels didn’t marry American defectors and were not issued exit visas with the new hubby. Nor were they just admitted to the United States.

But in the end, Ruby could have been emotionally attached to Kennedy, and Lee and Marina might have had a magic moment, and the rest sort of happened. But since I can’t really explain either story, I can say that the lone gunman theory is plausible, and I buy it pending other data.

Stretching Plausibility

The story of James Earl Ray killing King by himself is much tougher. Ray was a petty criminal in and out of jail, until his fourth conviction when he was sentenced to 20 years in Missouri for stealing $120 dollars. He escaped in1967, bought a new car in Alabama, and went to Mexico. In March 1968, he underwent plastic surgery to his face in Los Angeles. He moved around the US acquiring weapons and shot King on April 4.

Ray then drove to Canada where he obtained a Canadian passport a few days later. He then went to Britain. He was arrested at Heathrow while leaving the UK, when it was discovered that he had an American passport in addition to the Canadian one. He also had $10,000 in his possession.

Could Ray have been the sole shooter? Absolutely.

Could he have broken out of jail, bought a new car, gotten plastic surgery, and traveled the US and Mexico alone? No.

He had just broken out of jail, had no money, and was a small time punk. Could he have gone to Canada and gotten a passport under a false name in days? Could an escaped convict have gotten a US passport in days? Could he have gotten $10,000?

All of this is completely implausible. He had to have had help. Whose help? That’s tougher. The obvious help would be from white supremacists. I could postulate alternatives but haven’t a shred of evidence.

This brings me to the problem about discreet significant event theories. Theorists move far too quickly into the implausible category. In doing so, they immediately imply that the investigation was a fraud, and the investigators were part of the cover up.

The problem is that it’s implausible in the Oswald story that so many people—from the Dallas Police Department to the Warren Commission to the judge advocates in the Marines to Soviet intelligence—could have been involved. There is no way to involve so many people and keep the story secret. If you have ever told five people something secret, you know that. The Oswald story would involve hundreds of people in several countries. Some conspiracy theories implode on their own implausibility. Vast conspiracy can’t stay secret.

In the case of the King assassination, the utter implausibility of Ray acting alone makes the theorist try to deduce who else was involved. Sometimes it is logical. Sometimes it is an attempt to bring in someone (or

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