Truths and Untruths

The other day, as I was driving from one errand to another, I was listening to an NPR radio talk show where two independent budget analysts were discussing the federal budget and taking listener calls. One caller wanted to know why Congress didn’t stop all that wasteful foreign aid and use it to deal with the Social Security and Medicare problems. When the analysts both tried to point out that foreign aid is less than one percent of federal outlays [and they were absolutely correct], the caller insisted that they were wrong and that the government was giving foreigners money from other accounts hand over fist. Now, I spent nearly twenty years in and around the federal government, and I left Washington, D.C., some eighteen years ago. I started out as a legislative and economic analyst for a congressman, and I heard the same arguments and complaints about all that wasted foreign aid back then. Those arguments were numerically and statistically wrong in the 1960s and 1970s… and they’re wrong today.

Polls reveal that Americans believe that as much as ten to fifteen percent of federal spending goes to foreign aid, if not more. We’re talking about almost forty years of people believing in this total untruth. Why?

Despite the war in Iraq, the consistent trend in federal spending since WWII has been to spend a smaller and smaller percentage of the federal budget on defense [and foreign aid] and more and more on various domestic programs… and a majority of the American people still don’t know this, or the fact that domestic programs comprise over roughly 75% of federal spending and defense spending just over 20%.

Various groups of people, of varying sizes, believe in other “facts” that are not in fact true, including matters such as, but not limited to, the fact that the moon landings were a hoax, that the United States is a democracy [for those interested, it’s technically a form of representative federal republic], that Social Security taxes are invested, that the line you’re not standing in always moves faster, that North America was a barely inhabited wilderness at the time of Columbus, and that the world was created in 4004 B.C. [or thereabouts]… or [pick your own example].

Moreover, if you ever attempt to explain, rationally or otherwise, why such “facts” are not so to those who deeply believe in them, you risk indignation, anger, or even great bodily harm.

And many well-meaning souls will say in defense of those believers, “Everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs.”

To what degree? Is a man who “believes” that the federal income tax is unconstitutional free not to pay his taxes? Does he deserve the same benefits as do other citizens? Is the soldier who enlists free to refuse to fight in a war he or she doesn’t believe in?

On another level, what happens to public policy making and politicians when large groups of their constituents believe in such facts and demand more domestic programs and lower taxes because they “believe” that there’s enough in the budget for those programs so long as foreign aid and waste are eliminated? Or when one group believes that abortion is murder and starts murdering doctors who practice it and another group believes it’s a woman’s right to control her own body and they start attacking politicians, financially, verbally, and otherwise, who insist on opposing abortion at all costs?

Just what is a “truth,” and how far can one go ethically in supporting it? And what does society do when that “truth” is an untruth? Or when large segments of the population believe in opposing “truths” and are willing to go to great lengths in support of their particular truth, as is the case in Iraq and other nations around the world, and as appears to be a growing trend in the United States?