Truth and Government - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Truth and Government

The underlying assumption in much of American politics is that government knows best.  It is rarely stated explicitly—for reasons of political expediency, no doubt—but therein lies the problem: political expediency drives government.

The government does not retain a monopoly on truth.  There’s a reason we say “In God we trust,” not “In government we trust.”  The beauty of truth lies in its ability to stand alone.  Anyone can propose arguments and anyone can challenge arguments.  The truth of these arguments stands apart from the individuals who attack and defend them.  Reason and free enquiry, writes Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia, enable and protect our search for truth.  Far too often, government opposes truth.  As he writes, “It is error alone which needs the support of government.  Truth can stand by itself.”  Truth, unlike humans, is infallible.

When government, run by fallible men, incorrectly claims to have definitive truth, it inhibits free inquiry.  This hubris subsequently leads to coercion.  As Jefferson writes, “subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.  And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity.  But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature.”  Coercion crowds out free inquiry, clouding the truth.

These points are very broad, I know.  But I see this coercion manifested in many contemporary debates.  To name a few: gay marriage advocates expend far more energy calling opponents names than they do in developing rational arguments.  Politicians use “rights” language to defend every policy they advocate.  Yet politicians never explain why something is a right; they merely decry any opposition on the grounds that it would deny a fundamental right.  Global warming proponents label anyone who challenges their agenda as naïve and anti-science.  But human science, unlike truth, is fallible.

Jefferson addresses this, writing that “Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics.  Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and obliged to abjure his error.”  I have ignored (due to space constraints) many questions about our access to truth and how certain we must be to have truth.  I think it is clear, however, that coercion is not the solution.  Instead, we must foster free inquiry, regardless of how stupid you may think another’s views are.  The truth will prevail.

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