How an English King’s Ruthless Tax Policy Helps Us Understand Modern Conspiracy Theories
Henry VII was King of England from 1485 to 1509, following his usurpation of the Crown from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The battle and its aftermath act as a microcosm of Henry VII’s reign. He crushed his opposition, stripping those who had fought against him of their land and titles, began a severe process of disempowering the ‘overmighty subjects’, and manipulated the legal system to serve his purposes.
The young King’s reign was to be defined by this manipulation. He acted as a spider, spinning a tight web around the country to secure his position as a monarch with little legitimacy (his link to the throne being established through a marriage by his mother’s great-grandmother’s to John of Gaunt). A network of spies was established throughout the country to prematurely suppress rebellion, royal finances were increasingly dealt with in the chamber rather than the exchequer (allowing the King greater oversight), and in 1495 the Council Learned in the Law was established — an extralegal group of lawyers headed by Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley which extorted the gentry and nobility to such an extent that both men were later executed under Henry VIII. Although Henry’s economic success is often attributed to miserly behaviour, the reality is likely quite the opposite. For one, Henry was almost certainly quite a lavish spender, who invested in maritime exploration (this was the Age of Discovery after all) and spent millions of pounds on clothing. The real reason for Henry’s financial success is more likely down to how he handled taxation and, in part, how one of his key adviser’s shaped a ruthless taxation policy which let no one off the hook — and I mean no one.
This man was John Morton. Morton was born around 1420 and played a fairly important role in the Wars of the Roses which roared across England sporadically between 1455 and 1485, when Henry’s victory at Bosworth saw the conflict come to a de facto end. Morton was a government lawyer for the House of Lancaster (of which Henry VII was to become a part) and so was well-versed in crafting policy by the time he was made both Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor by Henry VII in 1486 and 1487, respectively. Morton was Henry’s primary tax collector and it is the logic he used in taxing both rich and poor alike which can also be applied to modern conspiracy theorists.
Morton’s policy is known retrospectively as Morton’s Fork. The term dates back to at least the 19th century, but an allusion to it is made in Francis Bacon’s Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seventh (1622). Very simply, Morton’s Fork is a false dilemma: a fallacy which asserts that there are only 2 (or in this case 1) conclusions when in reality the conclusion may be much more nuanced. For example, “you’re either a religious believer or have no moral compass” and “you’re either an atheist or a science denier” are both examples of classic false dilemmas. Morton’s Fork is even more restrictive, leaving room for only one conclusion based on two contradictory premises. The classic example is that of taxing both a very poor man and a very wealthy man:
If a man lives frivolously and has lots of material possessions, he must have a lot of money and therefore can be taxed. If a man lives frugally and has little possessions, he must be saving money and therefore can also be taxed.
Whilst it is possible that a frivolous spender is wealthy and a frugal spender is sitting on unspent money, it is also possible that the frivolous spender has made themselves bankrupted and the frugal spender spends little because they have no money. Morton was not oblivious to this of course, but could use this logic to justify taxing literally anyone.
Morton’s Fork can be applied to subjects other than taxation. For example, there is a coup (strategy) in contract bridge named after Morton’s Fork and during witch trials, the accused often faced a sort of Morton’s Fork dilemma if the means of trial was the ducking-stool because those who were innocent would drown and those who were deemed guilty (due to floating) would be executed. In both cases, the accused would die.
Morton’s Fork is also a favourite strategy of conspiracy theorists. It is most commonly applied to the accused conspirators’ decision to address, or not address, the conspiracy theory and follows a flawed, but superficially convincing logic:
(1) If the accused conspirator responds to the allegations, it’s because they’re afraid that they’re going to be exposed and are attempting preemptive damage control. (2) If the accused conspirator does not respond to the allegations, it’s because they know that they are true and want to hide them from public sight.
Whilst both (1) and (2) have some truth to them (people do often hide from criticism that they know is accurate and trying to shut down true accusations before they become widespread is a common tactic), by establishing both as concrete logical deductions, the conspiracy theorist’s conclusion can only be justified by the accused’s action or inaction.
QAnon is an apt example. A far-right conspiracy theory which claims that an anonymous 4chan poster known as ‘Q’ is a White House insider with high-level security clearance, followers often claim that Trump is in cahoots with Robert Mueller to round up and arrest Barack Obama, the Clintons, and George Soros (among others) for treason and a variety of horrific crimes. The theory is an utter shambles, kept afloat by a whimsy foundation of fallacies and biases. QAnon truthers ignore incorrect predictions made by Q (who will often post dates where significant events are supposed to occur but which end up being entirely uneventful) while accepting extremely tenuous links between vague predictions and significant events. On top of this, the conspiracy theory is completely unaddressable.
When any mainstream media outlet, such as CNN, had attempted to report on QAnon, the comment sections have been filled with supporters claiming that the media is “getting scared”. Yet, these same people also harass the alleged conspirators (from media outlets to celebrities) online, asking them to explain why their name is present on a Facebook meme with no source, covered in red circles, and shared so much that you can almost count the pixels on one hand. There is no possible response you can give to these people because the response inherently affirms their position.
It’s cognitive dissonance to nth degree, a safety mechanism by which ignoring or responding to the theory both validate it in the eyes of its supporters. It’s not unusual for members of the far-right to be stuck in the past but falling for a logical fallacy created by a man who’s been dead for over 500 years — and whose birth was closer to the Battle of Hastings than the signing of the Declaration of Independence — still comes as something of a surprise.