Free & Clear: March 2013

There is no Popish plot
By John Hood

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, was the political patron of English philosopher John Locke, the namesake of the North Carolina think tank I head. Though Shaftesbury, who served as Lord Chancellor of England during the 1670s, did many good deeds, history does record a black mark in his ledger. For a time, he believed and acted on spurious accusations that Catholics were plotting to assassinate King Charles II. The so-called Popish Plot controversy eventually petered out, but only after dozens of convictions based on false testimony.

In this age of Truthers (“President Bush was in on 9/11!”) and Birthers (“President Obama’s birth certificate is a fake!”), I suppose it is somewhat comforting to remember that conspiracy theories have a long pedigree in politics. There is a natural human tendency to assume some person or faction is controlling events, an assumption that supplies either a scapegoat to blame for misfortunes or a villain to rally against.

Unfortunately, this impulse leads to the propagation of conspiracy theories. In 2006, an Ohio University poll found that nearly 40% of U.S. voters, and a majority of Democratic respondents, said they believed it was “very” or “somewhat likely” that Bush and other federal officials either perpetrated the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen to justify war in the Middle East. In 2009, another poll found that more than 40% of Republicans thought Barack Obama was ineligible to serve as president because he was born outside the U.S.

It is quite likely, by the way, that both of those poll results were inflated. People talking to anonymous interviewers on the phone are free to speculate or make a joke. Still, a surprising number of people put stock in conspiracy theories without any evidence — and without recognizing just how hard it would be to keep such deep, dark secrets.

As it happens, recent political events in North Carolina have thrust me into a new conspiracy theory: that because Raleigh businessman and former GOP state Rep. Art Pope was one of the John Locke Foundation’s founders in 1989, and his family’s charitable foundation has remained its largest donor, everything I do and say must be coordinated with Pope, the Republican candidates he has supported for state office and now the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who hired Pope as his chief budget official. A Business North Carolina reader, for example, recently complained to my editor that I was “dedicated to redistributing wealth from the bottom to the top” in my role as “lobbyist and water-carrier” for Pope (and the infamous Koch brothers, naturally).

Admittedly, this modern-day Popish plot is not as ridiculous as the Truther or Birther conspiracies. I’ve known Pope for more than a quarter-century, run a state policy think tank funded by his family’s foundation and worked with him on other nonprofit boards and causes. But that doesn’t mean that I’m involved in his business decisions, political activism or government service.

Neither he nor any of the other 2,500 donors JLF averages a year has any editorial control over what I write or say. The same goes for the governor. While we may share a similar philosophy, I have disagreed with both men about specific issues many times over the past two decades. Grown-ups can do that without rupturing relationships. The Pope Foundation supports free-market organizations in North Carolina and elsewhere because its board members favor free-market approaches to public policy, not because they want to micromanage our work. And if they tried, they would find my JLF team and me exceedingly difficult to corral.

There’s no need to take my word for it. Within weeks of McCrory assuming office, my JLF colleagues and I had criticized him on energy policy and the slow pace of appointments to the State Board of Education. Before the month was out, Pope gave an interview to reporters in which he disagreed with JLF and another Pope-supported think tank, the Civitas Institute, on key aspects of state tax reform.

As it happens, many of those alleging this new Popish plot work for think tanks that have received millions of dollars from left-wing philanthropies headed by Democratic politicians and activists. Are they just carrying out their benefactors’ directives, or do they really believe what they are saying? I suspect they would resent being called mouthpieces for partisan donors. Yet they don’t hesitate to do that to us.

In fact, confronted with clear evidence in January that McCrory, Pope and conservative organizations do not march in Lockestep (so to speak), liberals came up with a new conspiracy theory: that we were carrying out a prearranged stunt to fool everyone into thinking there wasn’t a conspiracy. I wonder if someone put them up to it.

John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation. You can reach him at jhood@johnlocke.org.