Political Truth

The Radical Libertarian

I have recently been reading the messages in a free-wheeling bulletin board and have been tempted to join in from time to time. What keeps me from making a cyberfool of myself is the question of truth. People simply donít agree on facts and there is not much hope that they ever will. The pace of submissions and the varied interests of the participants make a determination of truth impractical. The contributors are now discussing the question of American atrocities in Vietnam at length, but in most disagreements, someone simply throws out a quick fact or two and then moves on.

A doctor told of his conversations with a psychiatric patient who disclosed in detail the atrocities he had committed; another person mentioned a VA psychiatrist who claimed that many of his patients recounted horror stories of their crimes. Neither contributor had any motive to invent these tales (of course, I canít speak for the VA psychiatrist). Hereís my problem. Thousands of people have said that they were abducted by extraterrestrial aliens. There is even a psychiatrist at Harvard who conducts special group therapy for abductees. He believes that 1% to 5% of all Americans have been abducted.

Iím sure that most of these people actually believe they were victimized. They are not mentally ill. I would be tempted to believe them were it not for something I know: Thereís no such thing as an extraterrestrial alien. If hundreds of sane people can remember things that didnít happen, itís hard to accept the stories of deeply disturbed men as necessarily true. By the way, I think that a serious study of abductees would yield important information (but not about aliens).

The question of American atrocities in Vietnam is now a historical debate, not a political one. When we enter the political arena, truth itself takes on a different character. I recently read a study of smokers and nonsmokers. It found that both groups overestimated the dangers of cigarette smoking by a factor of 8. In other words, Americans believe that they are 8 times more likely to contract a serious disease from smoking than even the inflated statistics of anticigarette groups say they are.

I believe that this finding is accurate, but Iím not defending it. I just wondered what smoking opponents would make of it. Even if they believed it, they would say that it was false. Do you imagine that they would run TV and radio commercials telling people that smoking is not as dangerous as they think? Of course not. They would pat themselves on the back for doing such a good job of educating everyone. Would they be lying? Yes, in the narrow, literal sense, yes. But isnít there a higher truth? A social truth? A political truth?

Cigarette smoking is dangerous; but when the people had an accurate assessment of its danger (say in 1970), most continued to smoke. Knowledge of the truth did not produce the desired result. What good, then, is literal truth? Apparently, something more is required to encourage people to act as they ought to: Call it supertruth. What if this supertruth is not sufficient to fuel a political movement? Then we need hypertruth; if people believe that cigarettes are eight times more dangerous than they really are, they may be willing to take political action.

Letís suppose (as I believe) that secondhand cigarette smoke never caused a serious disease. Letís also imagine that antismoking groups knew this to be true. Cigarette smoking is still a dangerous practice. If antismoking people admitted that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) was relatively harmless, fewer citizens would campaign against smoking and the political impetus against smoking would decrease. The net result could be an increase in smoking and smoking related diseases. From a social point of view, then, the the literal truth would be counterproductive. There is truth and there is political truth.

Of course, the dangers of cigarettes and ETS are politically settled. The participants on the bulletin board have debated issues that are still open. For instance, several participants gave their opinions on the death penalty. One person stated that the death penalty did not deter crime; another asserted that each execution deterred 6 or 7 murders. Iím sure that both these people could find studies to back up their statements. There is a thriving industry in America that conducts studies to justify political positions. Libertarians, themselves, often do research and they never find that the government solution is the best one.

A famous anti–death penalty fact is that it costs more to execute a prisoner in America than to house one for life. The refutation of this assertion is also widely known. It turns out that it is more expensive to execute a murderer only if he never files an appeal of his life sentence. Of course he would file appeals. He appeals his death sentence; why wouldnít he appeal his life sentence? What else does he have to do? It seems that anti–death penalty lawyers (and a number of venal ones) file their clientsí appeals sequentially. A lawyer files an appeal that takes a number of years; then he files another one. By filing one appeal after another, one prisoner can tie up the courts for decades. Some lawyers use the inmates of death row as cash cows, milking every possible cent from their plight. One of the Bush governors proposed legislation to prohibit appeals after 5 years to end this practice. Such a law would probably be unconstitutional.

I believe that it would be possible to determine whether the death penalty actually deterred murder. Of course, the sociologist would have to be completely neutral and interested in nothing more than truth. Iím not sure where such a person could obtain funding. Furthermore, he would probably find out the answer was extremely complicated and varied from area to area and culture to culture.

There are easily discoverable facts that do not serve the political purposes of either major party. Such facts are never stated. Iíll give you an example that you can look up in the STATISTICAL ABSTRACT OF THE UNITED STATES. My copy is from 1995 so these statistics are from 1994. We are constantly told that we live in a ďviolent society.Ē Well, some of do. The arrest rate for murder and homicide among blacks was 461 per million; among nonblacks it was 45 per million. The nonblack murder rate is roughly the same as that of the notoriously peaceful Japanese. Democrats ignore this truth because it might offend their black clients and call into question their antigun crusade; Republicans ignore it because it makes their ďlaw and orderĒ rhetoric seem a bit silly. As a general rule, all politicians want you to feel afraid and dependent. Your weakness is the strength of the state.

Another interesting statistic is the decline in violent crime since 1994. It's just possible that there has been no decline. Several large cities have been caught underreporting crime for public relations purposes. Those who assume it is true usually cite the booming economy as the reason for the decline. However, there may be a more sinister cause: the war on drugs. Twenty-five percent or more of all black males are in jail or on parole. Most of these have run afoul of the criminal justice system for using drugs. Huge numbers of young black males have been incarcerated for the crime of using drugs that (unlike coffee) are not approved by the state. America leads the world in prisoners, beating out such contenders as Russia and China. When huge numbers of young men, especially those from a violent subculture, are taken off the street, that process has to have an effect on crime statistics. Iím sure that it also decreases the unemployment statistics, too, since prisoners are not counted among the jobless.

From time to time, Iíve been tempted to discuss some of the facts that are addressed on this bulletin board. The problem is that I do not share the unstated assumptions in many of the controversies. I do not believe in such entities as society, rights, and ethics. My position on the state is fairly simple, if not popular: ďAnd just what is this government? It's a man-made invention. It's not some natural phenomenon or a special creation of God. Government's an invention, just like the light bulb or the radio.Ē

ďThe state was invented for me, to make me happier, but a funny thing has happened: If I don't want this invention, people are outraged. No one calls me unpatriotic for refusing to buy a light bulb. If I don't choose to spend my money on a radio, no one says that I'm immoral. Why should anarchy upset everyone?Ē

From my point of view, government is an invention that doesnít work.

As for society, I wrote, ďYou exist, and I exist, but 'we' doesn't exist. 'We' is not an animal, not a person; it is merely a temporary fiction. And society is 'we' times a hundred million.Ē Anything that I say would be regarded as the words of a nitpicker playing word games or as unintelligible babble.

I always want to see the original source of the facts that back up positions, but bulletin boards (like TV shows) move too fast. Of course, television is much less informative. Television producers are careful to give the impression of neutrality and nonpartisanship. That means that if someone tells the truth, a spokesman must receive equal time to tell a lie. Usually, though, itís a matter of giving two half true positions the same time. I think it would be amusing to have a researcher backstage. He could quickly provide full and precise information if the guests disagreed on the facts. It wouldnít be hard to obtain such clarifying information since everyone knows what the guests on such show are going to say. The problem is that no guest would go on a talk show where he would have to confront the whole truth.

The Nazisí anti-Semitic science and Soviet Lysenkoism were out and out assaults on the truth. In one sense, though, they were relatively harmless. Once the regimes fell, their lies were revealed as lies and laughed at. The situation is different in democratic totalitarianism. (I call any government that prescribes 1.6 gallons of water per toilet flush totalitarian. Not a sparrow falls but your father in Washington sees—and cares—and legislates.) Competing interest groups enlist hard and soft scientists to bolster their political positions in endless struggles for money or power. As this practice continues, many people regard truth and the scientific method as mere tools of the political process.

In a few hundred years, we have risen from filth-covered peasants and slaves to literate, enormously productive members of the middle class. The scientific search for truth has provided us with riches unimaginable just a hundred years ago. We should thank God every day. But science cannot make people happy, and so they belittle it and turn to various forms of magic. On top of this, political interest groups are misusing scientific procedures in order to gain small partisan advantages. More and more people doubt the fundamental truths behind statistics, medical research, and sociological research.When science is servant to politics, is it any wonder that the people doubt every supposed fact they hear? I do. The notion of objective truth survived the Nazis and the Soviets but it might not outlive our totalitarian democracy.