Government Lies

By now you have no doubt heard about the Orwellian Office of Strategic Influence, a new layer of federal bureaucracy within the Pentagon which is charged with the task of placing false news items with foreign news organizations. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has since claimed, "Government officials, the Department of Defense, this secretary and the people that work with me tell the American people and the people of the world the truth."

Oh really, Mr. Rumsfeld? So when you told the American people and the people of the world, "I can’t imagine there’s been a conflict in history in which there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences," you were telling the truth. I can see that your use of the word "imagine" gives you plausible deniability (one of the all-time great euphemisms). If you can't imagine otherwise, then it must indeed be the cleanest military conflict in history. Never mind that an estimated 4050 innocents have been killed by the U.S. government's bomb-fest in Afghanistan. Of course, according to you, these numbers are blatantly false, coming as they do from unreliable foreign sources and left-wing academics that are hopelessly mired in the fog of war.

The plan to distribute false stories to the foreign press has come under a firestorm of criticism in recent days, sparking denials of sorts from the Pentagon. Talking out of both side of his mouth, as politicians tend to do, Rumsfeld maintained that a Pentagon campaign to influence global opinion will not include lies to the public, but might employ "tactical" deception to confuse an enemy for battlefield advantage. He then also admitted that the new office's mission was still "under discussion." In other words, he hasn't ruled out anything. All options, including deliberate lying to the foreign press – which, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, will always make its way back to American eyes and ears – are on the table. After all, don't you know everything has changed since 9/11?

Well, everything except the inevitability of government deception, obfuscation and outright lies. The very essence of public "service" forces the functionaries and apologists for the State to lie and deceive. To mask the fact that the State holds a monopoly on the legal use of force and plunder (engaging with impunity in activities that would land you or me in the slammer) requires the deployment of spokesmen within the government and especially within the complaisant mainstream media to convince the sheeple of the munificence of our "representatives."

Without a constant parade of lies, half-truths and spin-doctoring, how could people believe that the government is winning the war on drugs, the war on poverty and the war on terrorism? Why would anyone believe that the Enron collapse proves the evils of capitalism when the truth is that the free market burst the bubble of shady accounting procedures, while the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) stood idly by?

Why are so many people so willing to accept the lies of the State? Is it simply "ignorance is bliss"? Or is it the inevitable result of 150 years of compulsory government prisons for kids aged 5-18, also known as public schools? If you're like me, you probably learned in government school that Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the Constitution; that FDR pulled America from the depths of the Depression with his New Deal; that the Japanese perpetrated a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor; that if Truman hadn't dropped the Big One on Japan — twice! — the war would have lasted several more years and hundreds of thousands more American soldiers would have died.

Rumsfeld's claim that government officials don't lie is so transparently a lie itself as to induce uncontrollable laughter. Perhaps I could laugh if the record of government lies wasn't so damaging.

Consider this small collection of whoppers:

  • Woodrow Wilson won reelection with the prevaricating slogan, "He kept us out of the war." (Well, at least he did until after the election. Typical politician).
  • "Read my lips: no new taxes." (Well, maybe just a few).
  • Ronald Reagan knew nothing of the Iran-Contra shenanigans. (The Teflon President, indeed).
  • "I experimented with marijuana a time or two and I didn't like it, and didn't inhale and never tried it again." (Do you know anyone who tried it but didn't like it?)
  • "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." ("Hey, I just sat there; she did all the relating herself.")
  • Vince Foster committed suicide (how convenient).
  • "I am not a crook." ("I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.")
  • Marijuana has no medicinal benefits. (Tell Peter McWilliams' survivors that).
  • Children are being molested in a compound in Waco (to protect them, we must kill them).
  • "Let's Roll." Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania because heroic passengers thwarted the hijackers. (That the U.S. Air Force shot down Flight 93 seems far more likely).
  • We must take the war on terrorism to Afghanistan because the Taliban are harboring Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks (never mind that the U.S. government had already planned to invade Afghanistan long before 9/11).

You can probably come up with dozens more yourself. But my list, albeit short, illustrates that the term "government lie" is a redundancy of the highest order. As Lew Rockwell points out in The Free Market, "The State is a lie at its very root, so much so that it must change the very meaning of terms…. Instead of committing murder, it is waging war, and instead of robbing people, it is redistributing wealth or raising revenue…. Orwell didn't invent the idea of "Newspeak"; he was merely giving a name for what governments have always done: turned reality upside down with a duplicitous use of language."

So when Rumsfeld boldly asserts that those in government don't lie, we should understand that agents of the State could no more forego lying than a bear could forego hibernation. And why is this? As F.A. Hayek explains in The Road to Serfdom in a chapter entitled "Why the Worst Get on Top," those who seek power and dominion over others, i.e., those who wish to use legal plunder to reward their friends and punish their enemies, are most likely to seek positions that make that power possible:

"Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian leader would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous are likely to be more successful in a society tending toward totalitarianism."

Furthermore, "(The leader) must gain the support of the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are ready to accept a ready-made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently. It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party."

The lies will continue as long as we have a system that perversely encourages the worst among us to rise to positions of power. As long as the government monopoly on education continues, the lies of the State will continue to be drilled into the soft, mushy heads of our nation's youth. No tactic will be considered verboten as long as it seeks legitimacy among the "docile and gullible."

The wisest course of action for the independent thinker is to constantly question authority, to assume that anything he hears from the mouth of a politician or bureaucrat is unadulterated bullshit, and to recognize that the worst will always make it to the top. And because the worst among us always believe the ends justify the means, lying will always be a hallmark of their modus operandi.

February 26, 2002