When 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”: