Note: This lecture was given at the Scrivner Institute of Public Policy
University of Denver in April 2019.
Good morning. Thank you for having me here.
Quid est veritas: What is truth?
Two millennia ago, this important and divisive question was famously raised. Authorities had pulled Jesus of Nazareth before Pontius Pilate, who governed over Judea for Rome.
John 18:38 reports: Pilate therefore said unto him, “Art thou a king then?” Jesus answered, “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.” Pilate saith unto him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.”
What is truth? This question was followed by an equally important one—who is to say?
But this incident is not an illustration of relativism: “Meh, whatever.” What is true and who decides it as such — these are consequential matters. In this instance, if what Christ had said was true, then the truth was revolutionary—he was king of the Jews, and Pilate and the Jewish Sanhedrin, who had initially arrested Christ, were usurpers. If Christ was a liar, well, he was a pretender or simply mad.
We know how the story ends. Truth or no truth, Pilate agreed with an angry mob and Christ was crucified.
I reference this incident to highlight a longstanding problem: the uneasy relationship between truth, and government.
Christ was not the first instance that illustrates this point. A few hundred years earlier, and about 800 miles to the West, a man who sought the truth was also put to death by his government. Socrates, who spent his days in the public square asking questions, one day went too far. His questions about the truths propounded by Athens civic and religious leaders provoked a backlash. He was hauled before a jury, where he was accused by individuals representing the pets, politicians, and the professional orators of corrupting the youth by undermining belief in the city-state’s gods.
These gods were a central part of Athenian identity—what made the people of Athens the people of Athens was their shared belief in the gods, whose histories helped tell the Athenians’ own histories. These gods also were a point of reference for leaders within the city—be they politicians, poets, or rhetoricians. It was to these gods and the stories and powers thereof that city leaders referenced when they made their decrees about what government and its citizens should do at any point in time. To their minds, then, Socrates questions and disproofs threatened the order of the realm by dissolving the glue that united one Athenian to another, and all to their government.
With these two incidents came a long struggle to reconcile the perilous dissonance between governmental power and truth.
Socrates student, Plato, illustrated this dissonance between governance and truth, or knowledge thereof, in his parable of the cave.
You no doubt recall the imagery: prisoners tied in a cave, viewing shadows on a wall. All they know is the shadows, which are made by their unseen keepers, or rulers. One prisoner escapes, and is blinded by the sun shine’s truth. And when he returns to the save, he is awkward, and angers his fellow prisoners with talk of what is real.
Plato proposed, perhaps ironically, to unite truth by embedding it within government, which would manufacture consent. In his Republic, he proposed a city-state led by philosopher kings, those with the natural smarts and advanced intellectual training. These leaders would direct a city comprised of lesser men—those whose souls were not gold but silver and bronze. This hierarchical arrangement would be steadied against any sort of upwardly mobile insurrection by the leadership propounding a “noble lie,” — a story that explained that it was the natural order of things for men of gold to lead, and all others to follow. The lie would be enforced by training the men of silver to be guardians of the regime, who would set upon anyone who questioned the civic religion. Work, believe, and obey were the duties of the great many of Athens. The noble lie was the heart of res publica —the common matter— of the city-state.
Government as Keeper of the Truth
To a degree, theories of government spent the next 1,700 years propounding this model in different forms. All tried to keep truth and the definition thereof in the hands of leadership.
As they conceived it, civil society —a society civil and at peace with itself— demanded leaders propagating truth. These leaders’ told the story or history of the people, where it had come from and where it was headed. And they should cite scriptural and other authorities for these truths.
Leaders sometimes made claims that their truths were universal; frequently, however, their truth was a tribal-specific truth. Objectivity was bounded by the collectivity, the edges of the community. And being a member of the community frequently was a matter of belief. You accepted the leaderships’ truths, or at least did not speak contrary to them.
As an aside, I should note that religious authorities sometimes were exceptions to this rule. How many of you know where the word “propaganda comes from”? The term, which is an epithet these days, had a more positive origin. Think of the verbal version of the term, propagate, which means to spread or promote. The Catholic Church, which became the official church of many nations, established its Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in the 1600s to spread Catholic belief and doctrine.
There are many examples of the effort to embed a nation’s truth production in government.
Take Louis the XIV, the infamous 17th century king who ruled for 72 years, may have been the paramount example of the effort to forcibly unify truth and government. He took the sun, long a symbol of truth, as his personal symbol. He was the wellspring for France in toto.
“The whole public order emanates from me; and the rights of the nation, which some the nerve to turn into a body distinct from the Monarch (‘Moi!’), are necessarily united with mine and rest solely in my hands.”
Louis was not alone in this conceit. Various pre-medieval, medieval, and Renaissance kingships and official churches frequently jointly led societies. They partnered to unite ecclesiastical and civil truth, the two amalgamated together and often said to derive from one another.
Political theorists also tried to weave together governance authority and religious authority. England’s Robert Filmer proclaimed a divine right of kings to rule. Whereas Plato expected his philosopher kings to be both of good breeding and schooling, any first born lad sprung from a queen’s loins was imagined innately supreme.
Melding religious truth and government truth was inherently difficult. Theocracy is fragile because doctrine and reality all-too-easily could diverge. Famously, Henry the VIII went to war with religious authorities when they refused to sanction his matrimonial and other wishes. When is a marriage a marriage—and who is to say, was a question that touched off bloodshed and a governmental crackdown on those who refused to get with the new definition of the truth.
One of the most keen observers of the problem of truth and government was Thomas Hobbes, most famously author of the 17th century treatise, The Leviathan. Unlike Plato, who put great stock in narratives that would unite society around certain truths, Hobbes saw civil society’s salvation in language. Why do people so often fight? Because they do not understand one another because they define words differently. When’s a marriage a marriage? If everyone could be united with shared definitions of words, and persuaded to see the logical connections among them and the concepts they labeled, there might be peace and civil society. So he set about in The Leviathan to correct widespread misunderstandings of the most rudimentary words and notions used in governance: law, authority, rule, etc. Hobbes’ remarkable and elegant system concluded that the rational governance system was absolutism, with citizens obligated to obey the sovereign, a kingly figure who would declare what is what.
Of course, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same things —no matter how factual or logical— is an eternal problem. Indeed, Plato might have been laughing at Hobbes’ attempt. That humans more often are persuaded by myths and stories than facts and logic is an insight that lead Plato to have his philosopher kings propagating the enchanting noble lie.
America and Pluralistic Truth Ownership
Now let’s draw our focus to this country.
The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution marked a radical change in answers to the problem of truth and government. This development was momentous, and toppled the old model of making government the propagator of truth.
First, let’s consider the theoretical change. The Declaration declared explicitly universal truths, expressed most obviously in the contention of “all men being created equal and having being endowed by their creator with certain rights”—which were pre-political. Government was explicitly an instrument, not an authority nor authoritative in and of itself. These truths held higher authority than the government, and could be used against government. Witness Martin Luther King’s later fight for civil rights, which he justified on the grounds of the universal truth of human equality.
Now let’s examine the practical governance alteration. The Constitution split nearly all religious truths from the direction of the state. The First Amendment captures this sentiment with it prohibition against Congress establishing any religion and greatly curtailing government interference in religion. The Constitution’s First Amendment also empowered citizens and groups to freely speak both Capital T and lowercase t truth, often in direct conflict with the government, and turned loose a free press, which can characterize the truth of government action as it sees it.
Additionally, the Constitution fractured government authority and truth-propagating. Instead of one central government with subunits singing from the same song book, we have separated powers in the federal government, and we have state governments (which also have separate branches), and local governments. This guarantees a cacophony of contesting claims to truth.
Put this all together and we see that the Declaration and Constitution moved most of government’s role in propagating truth from capital T Truth to lower case t truth. Certainly, government officials may and do continue to reference god, but no longer may these elites declare capital T truth that the public must obey — risk being put on a cross or fed hemlock. Indeed, because government emanates from the needs of the people, government has a duty to report the facts of its doings to the public. (Embedded in the Constitution is the early requirement that the chambers of Congress keep journals of their proceedings.)
This new model of pluralistic truth ownership is an astonishing departure from the old ways. One can see the magnitude of the change by imagining present day truth-seeking and propagating activities occurring 500 years ago. For example, imagine the fate of a citizen of England who said, “Yes, your majesty King Henry, I would like to see the level of debt in the treasury. Please share those figures.” Or conjure the response of Louis XIV upon being fact-checked by quill-toting media on his ponderous propagations?
The development of this new model has a couple of particularly noteworthy practical features.
First, the U.S government split its truth-telling duties between different types of rulers.
Elected officials and their appointees are mostly viewed as inherently political creatures. The public recognizes that their job is to persuade, to employ rhetoric to affect unity or divisions within the population in hopes of garnering public support. They are expected to have truthiness about their utterances. In the earliest days of our republic, elected officials and their political appointees comprised most of the government workforce, aside from the soldiers and sailors episodically mustered for service then returned to civilian life.
Civil servants, meanwhile, are expected to be apolitical. Since they are not recallable by voters, they are demanded to not serve any political interests and to tell voters—who pay their salaries—the small t truth. The late 18th century Pendleton Act and subsequent civil service acts solidified this class of governing authorities as a permanent portion of our government, one that has subsequently grown to make up 99% of government. Various statutes enacted in the 20th century aim to require these civil servants to not assist the politicos in propagating falsehoods, to say nothing of capital T truth.
This too is a remarkable change. Plato and a millennium and half of European polities had one king or a small number of elites in charge of propagating Big T truth to keep everyone else in place, and these elites felt little need to report small t truths to their subjects. Today’s U.S. government has a small class of politicos who sometimes talk about Big T truths but mostly peddle small t truths and untruths in hopes of remaining in the voters’ favor or for fabricating their own personal legacies. And the rest of government has, over time, evolved an ever larger duty to share with the public data, facts, analyses, etc.
A second interesting feature is the government has a positive duty to help the public come to its own conclusions about the truth. As alluded above, the government is expected to produce immense flows of information for the public: Statistics on K-12 educational achievement, data on the economy, weather forecasts, reports on agency spending and program success rates, etc. There are historians who work at federal agencies and write histories of the government warts and all. There are stenographers who follow the president and record what he says. One visit to the website of the Government Publishing Office will make clear the immensity of government efforts to inform the public, who then may decide what they think.
This new regime has worked pretty well, and today we view regimes that have a leader ruling indefinitely on the basis of divine favor or genetics and propagating big T truths as hopelessly retrograde and tyrannical. And we look in shock at countries where governments release fake employment data and withhold information small t truth as a standard operating procedure.
Our regime for handling the imperatives of government and truth was to pluralize and marketize truth. Politicos can say as they wish; government agencies and courts are expected to stick to the facts, and groups within society can push their own arguments about truth, capital T or otherwise, as they please.
Do we care “What is truth?”
But, this new pluralistic truth regime is not without its challenges.
Certainly, government has told capital T truths which have proven untrue, and by virtue of its massive communications apparatus it can get away with it for a time. Two decades ago Amercans were told that Iraq had to be invaded because it had a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Or the claim that it was a nation collectively yearning to become a western democracy and market economy.
And in instances, public speech has been crushed as illicit dissent from the official government truth. Recall the such as the early 18th century Alien and Sedition Acts and various Wilson administration attacks on public dissent.
The power imbalance between government and the public invites such troubles.
But “we the people” are not without blame. Plenty of neuroscience research has shown what we have always known—humans are imperfect calculators. They suffer bias, get anchored on particular facts and willfully ignore data that offends them.
Their judgment also is colored by politics. A recent study of Americans’ opinions reports:
“When told that a CO2 emissions trading system is proposed by “Some People,” which serves as the baseline or the control category, 50% of Republican respondents support the policy. However, when the proposal is ascribed to Democrats in Congress, support among Republicans declines by 9 points. When Republican voters are told that Republicans in Congress propose a CO2 emissions trading system, support jumps by 16 points to 66%. And when they are told President Trump proposes the policy, support among Republican voters skyrockets to 88% — a 38-point increase from the baseline.”
Something similar happens when this experiment is run on Democrats.
Human fallibility in judgement has implications for the system of government we have erected around pluralistic truth ownership.
For one, the system assumes we the people can and should rule. Vox populi est vox dei—the voice of the people is the voice of god. Elections and referenda are the most explicit expression of this idea—they presume citizens collectively know better than any philosopher king or divinely ordained monarch. This may well be true over the long run, but at any moment in time “we the people” can get things spectacularly wrong.
For another, pluralistic truth ownership presupposes individuals care about the truth and believe it exists. Do we?