Speak truth to power

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A few weeks ago, I had someone come up to me after a public lecture and say, “I enjoyed your talk.” The man continued on by telling me he appreciated my honesty and wished more people in government would do what I did in my talk and speak to Americans about “old-fashioned” ideas about responsibility and self-reliance. He then asked me where my courage to “speak truth to power” came from. Thinking on my feet, I just said, “It must be my Midwestern roots.”

The man’s comments have stuck with me for weeks now. Are we really to the point in America where themes of self-reliance and responsibility are “old fashion,” shocking for an audience to hear, and examples of “speaking truth to power”? The answer just might be yes.

Government at every level is engaged in a grand game of distortion, evasion, and exaggeration. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised because as the great historian, Lord Acton, said more than a century ago, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power has led to a slow erosion of personal liberty and economic freedom; the difference today is power has been chipping away at truth and reality too.

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Take President Obama’s minimum wage proposal from last week. Almost every economist could tell you the minimum wage increase to $9 per hour is a terrible idea. As one of my colleagues in the Johnson Center, Dan Smith, said, “Has each person making the minimum wage become 24 percent more productive? If not, they’re at risk of losing their job or having their hours cut thanks to Obama’s proposal.” As I said last week, President Obama knows better, but he’s putting politics above truth.

Or, take a recent morning television interview with Democratic representative Steny Hoyer. Mr. Hoyer was asked point blank, “Does America have a spending program?” Rather than answer the question by pointing to the massive increases in government spending at the local, state, and federal level—both in percent and dollar terms—Hoyer pivoted away from a question he didn’t want to confront and instead said we have a problem of “balance” and inadequate revenue. For Hoyer to not even acknowledge the government growth we have witnessed in the last 50 years is disingenuous and disappointing.

Or, if we turn to more local issues, there are plenty of examples worth mentioning. In some of my state policy research, I have looked at the Retirement Systems of Alabama’s poor performance. RSA is among the worst public pension performers over the last 20 years. Their weak performance and consistent attempt to reinvest in Alabama, rather than pursue maximum pension returns, means Alabama’s RSA members are going to experience cuts in benefits and Alabama taxpayers are going to be on the hook for funding pension shortfalls. Rather than fess up to their poor performance, plan administrators torture the data to “spin” stories of good returns and fill their newsletters with discussions of the lavish golf resorts plan members own, rather than a focus on meaty issues like fixing the system for the long-term.

We could go on and on with examples of people in power not being honest with the people they serve: students aren’t being told the truth about the consequences of massive student loan debt are beginning to expect their debts will be forgiven; the elderly are being told Medicare and Social Security can be preserved as they exist now, which is a denial of basic reality and accounting. The deceit is everywhere, and when “speaking truth to power” is something to take note of in society, the prospects for liberty —l et alone truth — are not good.


Scott Beaulier is Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University