Why Governments Lie

Recently, I posted a short article explaining that the essence of the so-called “fake news” phenomenon lies not so much in the relaying of outright falsehoods, but in the selection, ordering and presentation of information in such a way as to lend a wrong impression. In passing, we noted also that the majority of “disinformation” is fostered not by private individuals posting on their Twitter or Facebook accounts, but by the government itself. In this present article, we will attempt to get to the bottom of why it is that the state is committed to disseminating so many officially believed falsehoods. As we shall see, the basic reasons are, at bottom, very simple, and are only tangentially related to the fact that governments are staffed by shameless amoralists.
First is the fact that the existence of truth on the one hand, and the discovery of truth on the other, are not the same thing. The former may be fixed and immovable, but the latter requires productive effort. Its costs real resources to discover, verify, authenticate and disseminate facts, resources which must be diverted from other uses. In short, truth costs money, and is subject to a trade-off, just like anything else. Each and every one of us must decide for ourselves the point at which spending more on obtaining information ceases to be worthwhile. In fact, it’s worth noting in this regard that no person can exist as a permanent sceptic. Even the most doubting of individuals must reach a point at which he stops investigating, testing and verifying, and accepts at least some propositions as true. The alternative is to starve to death, because the eternally doubtful would never even accept that a meal on his dinner table was able to satiate his hunger, for instance.
Given this, it follows that the discovery of truth cannot be divorced from the values of those who have control over resources necessary to engage in that discovery. In a generally free market, the vast majority of resources are owned privately. Thus, the discovery of truth would be a part of the market process, just the same as any other. The precise information that is discovered, the way in which it is discovered, the standard against which it is verified, together with the methods by which it should be disseminated would all be governed by the purchasing preferences of consumers. Those firms which estimate these matters correctly would make profits, those which do not would make losses.
To illustrate, let us take an example of a clearly ridiculous piece of information: the length of time it takes to fry an egg on the bonnet of a car in the scorching sun. Car manufacturers and vendors could spend a portion of their time and money breaking eggs onto the hoods of their cars, arming their employees with stopwatches to estimate how long it takes to produce a breakfast. After a certain number of tests, such information could then be published in the car’s brochure. Clearly, however, this knowledge is unlikely to be of much interest to prospective purchases of automobiles. Having done nothing whatsoever to increase sales, these vendors have inflicted onto their bottom-line a dead-weight cost. Thus, they are likely to go out of business sooner than those vendors which avoided wasting their resources in this manner.
The same is true of the yardstick by which information should be verified. Information can come in a variety of different standards, from mere gossip and chatter all the way up to detailed, rigorous studies that may cost hundreds or thousands of pounds to undertake. The number of resources that we are willing to commit to a process of verification also has to be determined. Generally speaking, for relatively trivial or less costly matters, we will be content with lower standards of veracity; the greater the cost (or the risk of loss) the more likely it is that we will seek an enhanced level of accuracy. For example, we are likely to be more thorough when purchasing a house or making a major investment than when we are buying a pack of ball point pens.
In determining what is valuable to its customers, a firm may find that the latter are willing to pay a premium if the firm undertakes more detailed studies to determine what a product can do. A manufacturer of washing detergent may find that sales increase even at a higher price if he tests the product on 10,000 washes, publishing the results to show just how efficient it is. Alternatively, the same firm may find that customers prefer a cheaper product that they are willing take a chance with and, as such, the study won’t be undertaken. Once again, we can see that it is individual people who are the ultimate arbiters of the standards of veracity, in just the same way as they are the ultimate determiners of standards of quality and safety. Discovery of truth and information is part and parcel of the trade-offs that have to be made when dealing with scarce resources.
However, if it is the state, rather than private individuals, that has power of disposal over a vast quantity of resources, then it is the state that is the primary determinant of how those resources should be deployed. It is, therefore, the state that has greater sway in deciding which information is worth investigating, the standard to which it should be held, and whether or not it should be acted upon.
It would be bad enough if the state was merely incompetent in this regard, for in just the same way as a nationalised shoe industry would produce substandard shoes, so too will a nationalised information provider furnish us with information of a lower quality. But the game is changed entirely when the state has an active agenda, with goals to fulfil at the expense of your own. In that instance, everything that comes to be known, believed and disseminated would be tailored to fulfilling the state’s priorities, not yours. It is no small wonder, therefore, that the vast majority of such information would turn out to be false, at least from the perspective of what is good for you and for your life; for its primary purpose will be not to inform, but to persuade, cajole and intimidate you into following the state’s line.
This provides a segue into the second reason, which concerns the nature of the relationship between the state and the people. Most people assume that they and their government – especially a “democratically elected” one – co-exist in some kind of symbiosis. The people elect the government while the government ensures we are furnished with such things as institutions of law and order, and at least some form of social welfare. In other words, the interests of the state and the people are supposed to align – we choose them to do a job for us. Belief in this notion is why the state usually achieves, at least, the minimum level of tolerance from the populace necessary to ensure its survival; we may not like it, we may whinge about it, we may think it does things wrong, but at least we can’t say that it is categorically inimical to our flourishing.
Every aspect of this neat little description is wrong. Because the state always operates through the use of force (or the threat thereof), every state action necessarily involves benefiting one person at the expense of another. Taxes must be taken from Peter to pay Paul; regulations must hamper company A (usually a small business) to the benefit of company B (most likely a large, politically connected multinational). Even services which are of an apparently necessary and universal benefit – such as the provision of law and order – can be a net expense to the vast majority when you consider a) the inefficiency with which the state runs them, and b) there is little guarantee that the precise way in which the state chooses to provide these services is beneficial for each particular taxpayer. This is before we even consider the existence of those who use the state as a source of pillage and plunder, extracting unearned privileges at the expense of the mulcted masses.
States can only survive, however, if they maintain the illusion that they are universally beneficial – that they are for us, with us and by us. As such, they must continue to tell us that everything they do for us is for our own good. This is the original lie that is the source of all others. The more that the state grows, the more nooks and crannies of our lives into which it weaves its tentacles, then the more this lie must spread like a cancer to infect an ever greater portion of our societal tissue. In fact, ironically, the illusion of symbiosis with the state can increase the more paternal the latter becomes; the more that the state fosters our dependence upon it, the more likely it is that we will reach for its teat at the first sign of trouble.
All of this, moreover, explains why states always end up engaging in the censorship and persecution of dissenters. For whenever the state’s activities are subjected to rational scrutiny, the only conclusion must always be the state is a detriment, not a benefit. We soon discover that there are better ways to provide certain services other than through the state’s monopolistic provision; we realise that its management of problems and crises tends to make things worse for ordinary people rather than better; it is easy enough to discover social engineers, rent seekers and plunderers masquerading as saints as saviours behind the state’s façade of legitimacy. The state cannot allow these facts to be realised, and so there will always be an assault on truth-tellers. Should the state becomes absolute, then the discovery and dissemination of all information throughout the entirety of our economic, social and cultural life will necessarily be strangled by the state’s choke-hold. The state would simply collapse if this was not the case. The flourishing of the state is inherently incompatible with the free dissemination of ideas.
This is why your government must always lie.