Big government requires big lies — and not just on wars but across the board. The more powerful government becomes, the more abuses it commits and the more lies it must tell. Interventions beget debacles that require cover-ups and denials. The more the government screws up, the more evidence the government is obliged to bury or deny. The government becomes addicted to the growth of its own revenue and power — and this growth cannot be maintained without denying or hiding the adverse effects of government power. Likewise, rulers become addicted to prestige and adulation — and these often cannot survive honest accounts of their actions. Lies have propelled Leviathan’s growth.
Social Security is the single largest government aid program and the big lie of domestic politics. From the start, the Roosevelt administration deceived Americans about the nature of the program. People were endlessly told that it was an insurance program that would give them vested rights akin to a private contract. But in a 1937 brief to the Supreme Court, the Roosevelt administration conceded that Social Security “cannot be said to constitute a plan for compulsory insurance within the accepted meaning of the term insurance” and characterized Social Security as a “public charity” program under the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution.
On the day in 1937 that the Supreme Court declared Social Security constitutional precisely because it was a welfare system and not an insurance system, the Social Security Administration changed the name of the program from “old age benefits” to “old age insurance.” The Brookings Institution’s Martha Derthick observed,
In the mythic construction begun in 1935 and elaborated thereafter on the basis of the payroll tax, Social Security was a vast enterprise of self-help in which government participation was almost incidental.
In a 1960 Supreme Court case, the U.S. solicitor general stated that Social Security “must be viewed as a welfare instrument to which legal concepts of ‘insurance,’ ‘property,’ ‘annuities,’ etc. can be applied only at the risk of a serious distortion of language.” New groups were continually dragooned into the system, partly as a result of the state’s “power to use funds raised by compulsory means to make propaganda for an extension of this compulsory system,” as economist Friedrich Hayek noted.
When groups such as the Amish objected on principle and refused to pay Social Security taxes, federal agents swept down and seized their cows, buggies, and other property. The Social Security commissioner, Stanford Ross, after he announced his resignation, conceded in 1979 that
the mythology of Social Security contributed greatly to its success…. Strictly speaking, the system was never intended to return to individuals what they paid.
If Roosevelt and subsequent politicians had been forthright with Americans — informing them that they were becoming ensnared in a welfare system that quickly became a war chest for incumbents’ vote buying — far more citizens would have opposed the program.
Government aid programs perpetually deceive the public on their batting average. Politicians and bureaucrats are renowned for hyping dishonest job-placement numbers. Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), who parlayed his role as chief author of the 1982 Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) into the vice presidency, claimed that the act “has a job placement rate … for the young people around 70 percent.” However, this statistic was actually based not on jobs but on “positive outcomes” — which included learning how to make change from a dollar and demonstrating “effective non-verbal communication with others.”
The Job Corps, the flagship of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, padded its success claims by counting Corps trainees as employed simply by confirming that they had had one job interview. The U.S. Employment Service, which bankrolls state employment services around the country, was long notorious for cooking its books. A 1977 General Accounting Office study found that the Employment Service exaggerated the number of its job placements by 75 percent. These false claims have allowed federal agencies to distract attention from numerous studies that show that federal job training is often worse than useless, undermining the work ethic and employability of people the programs purported to help.
Government education programs are notorious for using deceptive statistics to lull parents about the quality of schooling their children receive. School test data have been manipulated to allow “all 50 state education agencies to report above-average scores for their elementary schools, with most claiming such scores in every subject area and every grade level,” as former Education Department official Larry Uzzell stated in 1989. Pervasive statistical shenanigans at local and state levels helped inspire the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, which purported to bring honesty to education. President Bush declared in July 2003 that the new act “essentially says … there is [sic] going to be high standards and strong accountability measures to every State in the Union.”
But the No Child Left Behind Act itself has become another fount of scams. The act spurred states to slash their learning standards so that they could claim “adequate progress” in the following years, thereby complying with the new law and continuing to receive federal subsidies. Such false claims of the achievements of public schools have been vital to defending government’s de facto monopoly on education.
Deceit has long since become institutionalized in some government operations. In February 2002, the New York Times reported that a new Pentagon operation, the Office of Strategic Influence, was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.” Federal law prohibits the Pentagon from conducting propaganda operations within the United States (except for recruiting operations).
The proposal was widely derided as a 1984-style Ministry of Truth. When Bush was asked about the new endeavor, he denied any intent to deceive and declared, “We’ll tell the American people the truth.” The administration speedily backtracked. Rumsfeld bitterly announced the shutdown of the new office, and the media quickly returned to treating the pronouncements of Pentagon officials as gospel truth.
Nine months later, Rumsfeld notified the press corps that though the Office of Strategic Information was gone, its controversial activities were continuing: “You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have [sic].” Rumsfeld’s comments were ignored by all the major media outlets. The de facto revival of the Office of Strategic Information was part of a massive redesign of how the government seeks to manipulate domestic and world opinion. Los Angeles Times columnist William Arkin noted that Rumsfeld’s redesign of military operations “blurs or even erases the boundaries between factual information and news, on the one hand, and public relations, propaganda and psychological warfare, on the other.” Under the new regime, the Air Force’s “information warfare now includes controlling as much as possible what the American public sees and reads.” Arkin foresaw that “while the policy ostensibly targets foreign enemies, its most likely victim will be the American electorate.”
The sheer number of government interventions can drive politicians to scramble away from the facts. In 1976, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter promised that he would never lie to the American people. By 1980, his promise was a source of mirth. On the campaign trail, Ronald Reagan, after reciting Carter’s pledge, would comment, “That reminds me of the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The more he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”’ The quip got audiences laughing and nodding because it hit home. Governor Bill Clements of Texas, a Democrat, condemned Carter as a “goddamn liar” for claiming that his oil-profits tax program resulted in an increase in the number of oil wells that had been drilled, as well as the claim that there were more wells drilled in 1980 than in 1979.
In today’s Washington, lying for a president may be the ultimate proof of trustworthiness. Bush chose Elliot Abrams as his deputy national security adviser in charge of democracy promotion, even though Abrams had pled guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal. (Bush’s father pardoned Abrams in December 1992.)
Bush put John Poindexter in charge of the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness surveillance network, notwithstanding Poindexter’s five felony convictions, including two perjury counts, which had been overturned on appeal on legal grounds involving the Fifth Amendment.
Bush also appointed Henry Kissinger as the first chairman of the 9/11 Commission, despite Kissinger’s legendary record of duplicity. John Negroponte was appointed first as UN ambassador and then as the national intelligence director, despite his falsehoods regarding the Nicaraguan Contras during the time he was ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s.
Why do Americans trust government officials when they make it clear that they are not bound by the facts? Shortly after his first inauguration, Bush joked to a crowd of Washington insiders,
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you need to concentrate on.
During a May 24, 2005, speech in New York, he admitted, “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.” Bush’s solicitor general, Theodore Olson, informed the Supreme Court in 2002,
It’s easy to imagine an infinite number of situations where the government might legitimately give out false information.
Lying is part of the larger problem of deference to the government. If people were not trained to genuflect to their rulers, politicians could not afford to tell so many lies. Will future historians say of today’s Americans that “truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology,” as Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1941?
If citizens wish to retain their liberty, they cannot assume that those who seek power over them are honest. Skepticism of government is one of the most important — and most forgotten — bulwarks of freedom.
James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of the just-released Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil. He serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.