Conspiracy is a system

An update to Hanlon’s Razor that accounts for systems.

”Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

This expression, known as Hanlon’s Razor, proves a useful refrain, but it does not go far enough. Why? Because it suggests that it’s mere stupidity that leads to seemingly malicious outcomes.

Consider, for example, COVID-19. Could it have been created intentionally and released on purpose? Sure. Or could it have been stupidity — or incompetence — in a lab, leading to its accidental release?

Hanlon’s Razor might call to mind Occam’s Razor. That’s not a coincidence. Stupidity leads to all kinds of bad outcomes by its very nature. Consider Cippola’s The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity — that stupidity is definitionally where someone acts in a way that is harmful to both self and to others. Applied to organizations — in our example bio-labs — “stupid” outcomes may just be stupidity at scale, where scale comes from a system (as opposed to an individual) doing something harmful.

So what does this have to do with conspiracies and systems?

Start with systems

Systems are all around us. And to be clear, in this context (and for the purpose of this discussion), this is a discussion about systems created by people. In this context and defined simply, systems are meta-structures created by and run by people. Examples: organizations, corporations, institutions, legal structures, etc. Critically, systems have something analogous to a life of their own. Yes, they depend on people, people who give them agency. People offer up their agency in exchange for the fruits of maintaining the system. Wealth, status, healthcare benefits … you name it, and systems will offer it to people in exchange for their agency. Systems also know how to use sticks. If they can, they will punish.

At their simplest, systems demand tending. Otherwise they create problems (See: John Gall’s Systemantics).

Consider a legal entity established to run a business. Once you create it, you must file reports, taxes, and if you don’t, you have problems.

Any remotely complex system soon starts to exhibit unexpected behaviors. The agency and actions of those tending to the system combines in unexpected ways, bringing scale and creating incentive structures. The combination, despite being made up of people, is fundamentally inhuman. It plays by its own rules.

A system does not love. It does not need food. It simply needs people — your agency and the agency of others, too — and that’s all. Grow a system to thousands or tens of thousands of people, and you have an organism that’s alive in every sense. Those who refuse to do the systems bidding, care not for the trade of agency for _____ … those people can and will be replaced by others who will.

Nothing personal. Nothing human.

End with conspiracy

Critically, any system like this — call them “behemoths” if you will — will inevitably do things that are definitionally stupid. They will also do things that are fundamentally malicious.

Systems will be stupid. Systems will be evil. They will still be run by people.

This last part is key. Because when you see systems acting in ways that seem fundamentally inhuman, evil, and harmful to mankind, it’s people that everyone sees. It’s Koch Brothers and Bill Gates and George Soros that people see. People do not see the organizations — that is, the millions and billions of funds deployed, all underwriting the paychecks of thousands of anonymous systems-operators.

So it is that conspiracy theories tend to ground themselves on actual individuals. Scapegoating an individual — like Gates (who assuredly is a busybody, even if one with good intentions) — is a convenient way to scapegoat a system. Evil needs to have a name, and it’s much easier to name Google, Phillip-Morris, Exxon, _______ than it is to name the fundamental structure that distances individual human agency from the meta-organism, the parasite, of a system that draws its lifeblood from many people.

Just-so stories …

Bring it back to Hanlon’s Razor. Why do people end up creating these complex narratives to villify Gates, Soros, etc.?

Sure, these people may have qualities that are disagreeable if not outright dangerous, but are they really the devil incarnate?

Or are they just systems doing systems stuff — at scale and to massive, dangerous effect?

I believe it’s the latter. And I believe it’s critical that you and I see the nature of what’s going on — it’s not about some cabal pulling the strings in the shadows, orchestrating impossibly complex schemes.

Mankind is in the systems business. And rather than Frankenstein piecing together some monster from inanimate lifeforms, people create monsters from individuals. You and me, we are the lifeblood of these systems, yet we’re so distanced from the evil they do, we have no accountability for it. We don’t realize they couldn’t exist but for our subservency to them.

Conspiracies are about systems.

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