Reasons to be skeptical of official statements

One very simple difference between my perception of government policies and most peoples’ is that I don’t presume the government’s stated purpose is its real purpose for any given policy. I admit here that the burden of proof is on me: why should they be misleading us or lying to us? I’ll give a few reasons.

1. There is ample documentation that governments (more properly, government officials or agents) have lied to us in the past. This is not proof positive that they are always lying, but it should make us aware that lies are a possibility. I mention this reason first because it is the most broadly known and accepted.
2. The government (and here I refer to the United States though the principles are the same elsewhere) is composed of several different parts, each incentivized to behave in its own interest. There are always incentives to over- or understate estimates of benefits, costs, times to completion, social ramifications, etc. before initiating a project, and ditto for evaluating projects in retrospect. But this extends even to the purposes of projects. Essentially, government agents are incentivized to try to expand their mandates and glorify their legacies, so in addition to false optimism about the success or failure of their programs, there will be false justifications. Even an ostensibly neutral administrative action very likely might be a power grab by a person/office/bureau/department/committee.
3. The government is actually made up of a lot of people with different influences and motivations, and furthermore works in concert with nominally private entities who have their own influences and motivations, and therefore has its fingers in a lot of pies. In point #2 I discussed the ways in which public entities expand their takes by lying, and here the obvious parallel is how private entities benefit by similar processes. A bill touted as pure political rent-seeking by a private entity has no chance of success, but these interests are an important part of the political process and will not be denied in our political system. Thus the backers of such a bill need to think of a plausible and acceptable story for what the purpose of the bill is. Remember that legislators rarely write legislation themselves with no input from the affected industries.
4. Political success is the result of taking credit for triumphs and deflecting blame for failures while trying to please people. If this isn’t a recipe for creating an incentive structure for official lies, I don’t know what is.

There are probably many more good justifications, but this is a quick list.

Realizing that there are incentives for government officials to lie to you is not particularly controversial, but very few people seem to take the lesson fully to heart. Moreover, these incentives are at work for Democrats, Republicans, and non-partisan officials alike. Even such a simple lesson, if internalized, results in a very different view of government than the prevailing one.


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