The world is too stupid for your conspiracy theories

Occam's razor cuts through tinfoil

Attorney General William Barr Jeffrey Epstein and former President Bill Clinton.
(Image credit: Illustration | Alex Wong/Getty Images, Florida Department of Law Enforcement via Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, iStock/noLimit46)

The jailhouse death of Jeffrey Epstein is fueling conspiracy theories, and understandably so. Wouldn't it be awfully difficult for the most famous prisoner in the country to kill himself, especially after a stint on suicide watch? And isn't it remarkably convenient for the wealthy and powerful people Epstein's testimony could have implicated to have him suddenly silenced? Isn't it plausible this was murder?

Yes, yes, and yes — and yet, I'm far from convinced what we see here is conspiracy. I wouldn't categorically rule it out, but neither do I think it probable. In fact, despite the, uh, skeptical reputation of libertarians like me, conspiracy theories are never my default explanation. Conspiracies happen, certainly, but more often they do not. Occam's razor cuts through tinfoil.

Indeed, the older I get, the more I land on "stupid" in the "stupid or evil?" debate, and the more I realize what true evil does exist in Washington and our society more broadly rarely takes the trouble to hide its face. Circumspection about government and politicians is always healthy, but its fulfillment will typically be mundane.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

With Epstein, the most obvious and compelling explanation is that our justice system is often dysfunctional and inhumane. If you find the suicide account implausible, it is likely "because you think jailers would have to be freakishly incompetent to allow it to happen, and surely they aren't," wrote attorney Ken White, a former federal prosecutor, of Epstein's death. "But they often are. You find it implausible because they would have to be wantonly indifferent to human life ... because jailers/law enforcement would surely get into huge trouble for letting something like this happen ... because you've accepted the fairy tale version of the criminal justice system, one utterly divorced from the reality."

Think about the average person, and then consider that, by definition, half the country is less competent and considerate than that person and that we have no reason to think the criminal justice system is only hiring from the other half. On the contrary, we have plenty of reason to think the exact opposite. As White suggested at the end of his comments, you have merely to google "guards laugh jail death" to get a bitter taste of the ignorance and cruelty on too many staff rosters in America's detention centers.

And jailhouse suicides are a real and growing problem in the United States. Suicide is increasingly common in jails specifically (smaller carceral facilities where people await trial) as opposed to prisons (larger places where inmates are serving sentences post-conviction). The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2015 that suicide is three times more likely in jail than prison, dubbing jail suicide a "national crisis."

In the context of how death often comes to American correctional facilities, is it really so hard to believe Epstein killed himself and his guards let it happen? Do we really need a conspiracy theory here?

Or let's think beyond Epstein to consider another recent theory. Polling before the release of the Mueller report showed that half of Americans believed Moscow has kompromat on President Trump and was using it to manipulate his behavior. This, the thinking goes, is why he fawns over Russian President Vladimir Putin and shows little to no interest in investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election or preventing similar interference in future campaigns. Kremlin blackmail wouldn't allow it.

That's possible, but there is a simpler explanation which requires us to marshal no proof beyond what we can see every single day on the president's Twitter feed: Trump cares only about himself. His "staggering vanity, narcissism, and selfishness," as New York magazine's Andrew Sullivan recently wrote, means that whenever "there is a conflict between his and others' interests, his must always win decisively. If he doesn't win, he has to lie to insist that he did."

Admitting that anything other than the overpowering appeal of Trump could have produced his 2016 victory is unthinkable for a man of this mindset. His brain has atrophied into total self-absorption, the same self-absorption that now has him dabbling in Epstein conspiracy theories as a means of self-protection. There doesn't need to be any kompromat for Trump to behave exactly as he does. His injudiciousness and animus is exactly what it looks like.

So it often goes. Governments generally don't need to launch a false flag operation to start an unjustified war or curtail domestic liberty. They just do it. Politicians typically don't need to be framed by their opponents or the "deep state" to go down in a blaze of scandal. They're just that corrupt and reckless.

Our brains like conspiracy theories because they have satisfying explanatory power and, crucially, present a pattern to which we can intelligibly respond. One murderous guard or inmate in Epstein's jail cell is an easier situation to tackle than systemic problems with our justice system. A president subject to foreign manipulation can theoretically be held accountable; an elderly politician whose mind is permanently warped by self-obsession cannot be fixed. A cadre of powerful enemies of America secretly steering our government wrong might be exposed and stopped, but what if everything we hate about Washington is just ... how things are? That's a more daunting prospect.

It's also almost certainly the case.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us