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Lies We Tell in Government, and Our Debts to Truth

HBO’s mini-series, Chernobylis a drama depicting the disastrous 1986 explosion, and heroic efforts to control the resulting meltdown, of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union). A flawed man, but true hero, Valery Alexeyvich Legasov, worked tirelessly to ameliorate the disaster’s consequences and chiefly investigated its cause. He was Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, a Soviet elite, who is portrayed at the end of the series making a dramatic speech at a trial about how the nuclear reactor exploded, when such an explosion in that type of reactor should not have been possible.

In the course of the series, the audience learns that the reactor had a design flaw that had been covered up by the Soviet State (true). The audience also learns that Legasov knew about the flaw before the explosion (true). The official position before the disaster was that all was well and knowledge of the flaw was kept from reactor operators, not only at Chernobyl, but at other identical reactors across the Soviet Union. And that is where Legasov’s fictional speech that, nonetheless, seems to fairly accurately express his point of view comes in. The question he addresses is how does an RBMK reactor like Chernobyl’sexplode? After explaining the nuclear and mechanical details, Legasov gets to what he regards to be the true cause:


Because of our secrets and our lies. They’re practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there. It is, it’s still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor explodes… Lies.


Fact is, that’s how a lot of bad things happen. Lies. If someone does maintenance on an aircraft improperly but pretends otherwise, the aircraft might crash, killing hundreds. The debt to the truth is very expensive. It’s not as expensive with an aircraft as with Chernobyl, where tens of thousands have and will likely die early deaths. Individual or personal lies are never as expensive as lies that come out of government. Lies told by governments, by government’s nature, affect more people and impact more lives because government’s reach is so wide.


But lies are expedient. Lies hide harsh truths, at least for a time. Lies hide weakness. Lies hide wrongdoing. Lies can make you money. Lies can make you popular. Lies can make it possible to tell people what they want to hear.


Lies told in and around government, unfortunately, are many. Part of the 1889 Institute’s mission is to expand opportunity by pushing back on government when it has interfered excessively and to fight privilege artificially granted by government. An alternative way to characterize this aspect of our mission is to identify and expose the lies told to justify government power and action, and then work to roll back uses of government based on lies.


Here are a few of the lies we’ve identified (and the debts to truth that must be paid):


• Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs) are critical to eliminate blighted areas (destroying competing areas and businesses),


• Renewable energylike wind, is more friendly to the environment and could provide for all our energy needs(raising costs, using traditional energy less efficiently, doing its own kind of environmental harm, and leaving a legacy of abandoned facilities),


• Occupational licensing is critical for public safety (denying opportunity and redistributing income to the rich, with little or no improvement to public safety),


• Health care and higher education can only be made affordable by having government pay for them (making both more expensive, driving people into debt, and making the wealthy wealthier),


• Subsidies and special tax rebates are critical for Oklahoma communities to compete with other states (creating an elite with unearned political and economic power),


• Oklahoma’s Judicial Nominating Commission creates fair courts and ensures the rule of law (distorting justice and lending to courts usurping legislatures).


There are many others. For example, lies and myths absolutely dominate public education. Few are more common than “public dollars for public schools.” Public schools are a cottage industry for a host of private businesses, from food vendors, to sporting goods, to textbook companies, and a veritable smorgasbord of consultants. Another common fantasy, the minimum wage, is also one of the most popular public policies. It’s a policy that blocks opportunity for low-skilled labor, and even displaces those who have limited opportunities with individuals of relative privilege, exactly opposite of what many minimum wage advocates have convinced themselves to believe.


The lies that have led to special privilege and the blocking of opportunity for so many have contributed to the social troubleswe are experiencing now. They provide seeming legitimacy to policies that have made income inequality worse, have saddled people with debt, and have spread an ideology – socialism – that has destroyed Venezuela, Argentina, Eastern Europe before them, and is in the process of destroying Chile.


The 1889 Institute tells only the truth as best we can discern it. Some may not like what we have to say, but truth is not dependent on what people want to hearJust as there are physical laws like the law of gravity and quantum mechanics that are ignored to one’s peril, there are laws of human behavior, like the laws of supply and demand, incentives, and self-interested behavior. Ignoring these truths in forming public policy are as dangerous as ignoring fluid dynamics in designing a plane.


Lies can be a source of considerable power. But whether people like it or not, whether they believe us or not, our commitment to the truth is far greater than any commitment to power, to influence, to fame, or any other consideration. That’s our commitment to you, to ourselves, and to truth.


Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at

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