irsWhen I was a young Marine I learned that when the commanding officer says, “I wish” or “I desire,” these expressions have the force of a direct order and should be acted upon as if they had given a direct order. If our CO were to say, even in musing to themselves, “I wish there was something that could be done about that,” we knew we should jump into action. But what sort of action was called for? And should we get clarification before proceeding on our own? The peculiar custom always struck me as open to misunderstanding and abuse.

Sometimes a leader doesn’t even need to be so direct as to say “I wish” or “I desire” for subordinates to get them impression that their boss wants them to take action. A prime example is the latest political scandal in which the Internal Revenue Service admitted that some of their employees had singled out nonprofit applicants with the terms “Tea Party” or “patriots” in their titles. As Ross Douthat says, “the bureaucrats in question probably thought they were just doing their patriotic duty, and giving dangerous extremists the treatment they deserved.”

Where might an enterprising, public-spirited I.R.S. agent get the idea that a Tea Party group deserved more scrutiny from the government than the typical band of activists seeking tax-exempt status? Oh, I don’t know: why, maybe from all the prominent voices who spent the first two years of the Obama era worrying that the Tea Party wasn’t just a typically messy expression of citizen activism, but something much darker — an expression of crypto-fascist, crypto-racist rage, part Timothy McVeigh and part Bull Connor, potentially carrying a wave of terrorist violence in its wings.

Some conspiratorial minded people will assume the actions of the IRS employees had to have come from direct orders from their superiors. But I think a simpler, more indirect phenomenon, like what Douthat presents, better explains such situations. Rather than attributing it to a “conspiracy theory” I’d say it is a version of what I’d call a “confederacy theory”:

A theory that explains an event as being the result of an alliance between well-intentioned persons or parties who allow their biases and motives to shape their actions in such a way that the results can be evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious.

For an example of where confederacy theory may be a more apt explanation than an assumption of a conspiracy, consider Adam Smith’s famous quote:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Perhaps times have changed since Smith’s day, but “people of the same trade” rarely are so direct in engaging in such conspiratorial activities—but they don’t need to. The modern world offers plenty of ways for them to signal their desires and preferences to each other without even having to meet. The biases and motives of confederates are sufficient for the task; there is no need for the type of direct coordination that is required for a conspiracy.

It makes more sense to believe that the folks like the employees at the IRS do not intentionally contrive to do something evil or unlawful. Instead, their complex relationship as confederates leads them to share certain biases, presumptions, and goals that align in such a way that makes it seem if they are intentionally attempting to cause harm or conceal truth.

This is not to say, of course, that their actions are excusable. In fact, in many ways, it is worse than if there had been a conspiracy driving their actions. Following an unlawful order from a superior is wrong, but the self-preservation that motivates such action is often understandable (e.g., “I need to do what my boss says to keep my job.”). But when you act in an unlawful manner because you believe you are doing what a particular group of elites would do if they were in your position, then it adds a layer of gullibility, if not outright stupidity, to the nefarious deed.

President Obama is not directly to blame, as he would be if he had given the order to a group of conspirators. But he is responsible for the climate of hateful rhetoric that he helped to create. He is quoted as having said that “race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent Tea Party Movement.” By painting these groups as racist Obama didn’t have to come out and say directly, “I wish their was something that could be done about those groups.” But that appears to be the message some of his confederates in the IRS heard.