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Lies Are the Health of the State


Lies the Government Told You: Myth, Power, and Deception in American History, by Andrew P. Napolitano (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 349 pages.

Americans take for granted that politicians lie. You know one is lying when his lips are moving, so goes the joke. Even citizens snookered by one politician’s lies will quickly acknowledge that the other side lies.

“Bush Lied, People Died,” says the bumper sticker from a few years back, but many Republicans refused to concede that their president would knowingly deceive the public into war. “You lie!” shouted Rep. Joe Wilson at a frustrated President Obama on the question of health care for illegal immigrants — an accusation that was celebrated by the TEA Party Right, but left-liberals found the charge preposterous, even seditious.

Of course governments lie and always have. The state cannot maintain its grip on the people through violence alone — propaganda is an essential element in governance. Without a public ideology of statism, Leviathan cannot rule with a free hand. Such fictional dystopias as depicted in Orwell’s 1984 rely on lies outrageously brazen. Real-life totalitarian regimes deceive the world about the conditions endured by their people. The USSR’s Potemkin Village was but a microcosm of this essentially inevitable tendency of total states to employ window dressing to obscure their killing fields. In America, police are trained to lie to lull suspects into self-incrimination. Presidents have lied to whip the nation into a war frenzy for well over a century. Even when politicians believe their own lies, government itself utilizes falsehoods and disinformation to expand its power.

What a treat that Andrew P. Napolitano, Fox News legal analyst and a libertarian anomaly within the legal community, has provided us with a solid book on the U.S. government’s many lies. Lies the Government Told You takes on every sacred cow of the establishment — left, right, and center. Unlike the partisan and predictable sensationalism we get from most commentators, Napolitano exposes lies regardless of political ideology, partisan loyalties, political correctness, American exceptionalism, or any of the other trappings we expect from the talking heads.

Founding myths

Understandably, Americans distrust government claims, given their tradition of anti-government skepticism. But typically, a narrative will uncover lies associated with either conservative or liberal readings of history, while ignoring the others. For example, many conservative historians idolize the Founding Fathers, champion U.S. wars, and timidly criticize leftist economic myths. The Left, in turn, will criticize the Founders, question some U.S. wars, but then adopt absurdities about how America’s free market caused the Great Depression and every other ill in U.S. history.

Napolitano will have none of that. He tells it like it is. The Founding Fathers? Hypocrites of course — for all their talk about all men’s being created equal, “four of the first five American presidents, including the still-beloved George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, owned slaves.” Washington comes off as a particularly cruel taskmaster. He “raffled off the slaves of those bankrupt slave-holders who owed him money [and even] hired a dentist to extract nine teeth from the mouths of his slaves, and implant them into his own mouth.”

At the same time, an unqualified resentment toward all for which these men stood neglects the ideals of liberty for which they did, at times, stand courageously. Napolitano, unlike the politically correct Left, pulls no punches but still has the nuance appropriate to historical study. He credits Jefferson for pushing for the anti-slavery Northwest Ordinance and struggling with the greatest ethical dilemma of his time, and praises Benjamin Franklin for his pioneering anti-slavery work.

The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison is favorably cited for his opinion “that the Constitution was actually a pro-slavery document.” But Napolitano does not agree with the typical reading of Abraham Lincoln on the question of slavery: “Lincoln opposed slavery’s expansion into America’s new territories not based on any moral duty to uphold the Natural Law, or the need to right inherent wrongs. Instead, Lincoln simply wanted to keep African-Americans out of the West and keep the white and black races separate.”

The conventional view of the Founders and Lincoln has allowed for an elevation of those men to a near-religious place in many Americans’ hearts, which is troubling for a people supposedly dedicated to liberty and distrust of government. As for the myth that Americans to this day enjoy “inalienable rights” to property and the fruits of their labor, Napolitano cites the Kelo decision, upholding Connecticut eminent domain in behalf of private interests.

The idea that a city government, or any government for that matter, can justify a taking of one’s private property to give to another private entity for the local government’s economic benefit is one that utterly obscures the distinction between takings for private and public use.

The courts have likewise undercut contractual liberty: “[Like] our right to private property, our natural right to contract, as well as the rights defined in the Contracts Clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 10, Clause 1), have been repeatedly violated by the government,” as when the Supreme Court upheld “a Minnesota law prohibiting banks from foreclosing upon mortgages that were in default” in Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934).

The judiciary and constitutional rights

The judiciary is often hailed as being separate from the government’s political vagaries and coercive nature, but Napolitano kills that myth. Far from being like “umpires” or folks who dispassionately follow the Constitution, judges are political beings with biases and human failings. During the Sonya Sotomayor confirmation hearings, conservatives feared that she would let her ethnic and ideological concerns trump judicial objectivity. They often accuse liberal judges of trying to make the law, but that hardly began with Obama’s judicial appointments, or indeed with any of the liberal judges of the modern era: the real precedent was set with Marbury v. Madison in 1803, handed down by the revered Chief Justice John Marshall, which expanded the effective reach of the Court in determining questions of constitutionality. Marshall “clearly engaged in a form of policymaking or ‘activism.’” On the other hand, “There have been many Supreme Court opinions throughout history in which the Court should have acted in a more activist way, but failed to stand up to government abuse.” In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court upheld governmentally mandated racial segregation.

At the same time, true judicial activism does exist, as in Roe v. Wade, where the “seven-justice majority … blatantly legislated from the bench. “A less popular, yet exceedingly ridiculous, example of judicial activism occurred in the case of Missouri v. Jenkins,” where U.S. District Judge Russell Clark “ordered [Kansas City] to increase property taxes on its citizens by 91 percent!” A court of appeals panel upheld that order.

Local governments have long undermined the ability of blacks and minorities to vote. But judicial activism has also played a role in hijacking the vote, most notably in Bush v. Gore in 2000, which Napolitano calls “an assault on federalism and freedom…. [The] conservatives acted out of character. Until Bush v. Gore, neither the Supreme Court, nor any other federal court, had ever enforced a uniformity rule in the counting of ballots.” Napolitano attributes some of that decision to “the justices’ political motivation,” describing the close ties Justices Scalia and O’Connor had to Republican politicians and the Bush family.

Finally, we are told that every vote counts, but that is an oversimplification at best. Before the Seventeenth Amendment, senators were elected by state legislators.

Personal liberties

But surely some rights are treated reverently? Napolitano would beg to differ. Freedom of speech is “invaluable to our personal autonomy because it removes constraints on our ability to think what we want to believe.” It is a natural right that “preceded the existence of the United States.” But politicians have uprooted this sacrosanct right. Under Woodrow Wilson, opponents of his war faced up to “twenty years in jail for the utterance of government-prohibited political speech” through legislation upheld by the Supreme Court. Filmmaker Robert Goldstein was “sentenced to ten years in prison” for his movie about the American Revolution, depicting Great Britain as the enemy. Because Britain was an ally in World War I, even such patriotic films became a federal offense. Since World War I, political agitators have been jailed for sedition, adult movie-makers have been persecuted under obscenity laws, and the Fairness Doctrine was used to effectively silence radio commentators.

The right to bear arms has not fared much better. The first people targeted (other than blacks) were the poor — “The core of the National Firearms Act was the price people were expected to pay. In order to register a shotgun, payment of $200 was required … equal to $3,056.11 at today’s values.” Later, in 1968, “came the Gun Control Act and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act” and numerous other local, state, and federal gun restrictions. “Guns are used defensively more than two million times per year,” but we are moving toward a political culture where only the police have a right to bear arms.

In terms of due-process rights, Napolitano discusses pretrial hearings, the treatment of the accused in jail as though they are convicted criminals, holes in the insanity defense, civil commitments, guilt by association, prosecutor and police deception, and court precedent that an innocent man “cannot appeal on the basis that he has proof of his actual innocence” as stark examples that Americans are not always treated as innocent until proven guilty. Recent DNA analysis “shows how indisputably false is the idea that our system protects the innocent.” The Fourth Amendment, meanwhile, has been obliterated by the secret courts set up by FISA in 1978 (“between the years of 1979 to 2007,” this “rubber stamp … rejected only nine of the 25,361 warrant applications submitted to it”) and the post–9/11 National Security Letters (“the NSL is in essence a search warrant, but one that requires no probable cause or judicial oversight and that allows for any federal agent to request any and all of your personal records”). There is also a terrific chapter on the myth that “we don’t torture,” exploring detention policy after 9/11 and its threats to habeas corpus.

How about the right to control one’s own body? That has been made a joke by everything from deadly FDA regulations that deprive dying Americans of life-saving drugs to petty bans on transfats. The drug war conspicuously challenges the concept of self-ownership. Napolitano provides a chapter on drug policy and elsewhere shows that RICO statutes, wartime hysteria, and other statist favorites have allowed for constitutional protections to be diminished under special circumstances.

America’s supposed free market

We often hear that a government program is only “temporary” — another lie demolished by Napolitano, who cites income taxation and withholding (“when the government takes from us, it is just as immoral as any other type of burglar”), rent control (“originally meant only to help wives and children while husbands and fathers were fighting World War II, it has become an enduring and harmful legacy”), and Social Security (“thievery at the highest possible level”) as examples of programs lasting far beyond their advocates’ promises. Napolitano takes aim at FEMA, an agency with “no lawful basis” that bungled its response to Katrina, as a typical instance showing that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is often without much truth.

Napolitano also takes on an issue the mainstream neglects: the monopoly control of money and its systematic debasement for political ends. The Federal Reserve has turned our money “from gold to toilet paper” and, despite what the Fed’s champions of 1913 promised, is not effectively controlled by Congress but has become a “legally sanctioned cartel” responsible for financial panics and massively regressive inflation. “In essence, Congress struck a deal with the private bankers who would run the Federal Reserve, granting them absolute power over the control of America’s money … in exchange for infinitely deep pockets.”

One chapter explores the myth that “America has a free market,” addressing the housing boom and bust that occurred in an atmosphere of heavy regulation and subsidy. “Yet, even with all the laws and regulations around, the government continues to blame deregulation and the ‘free’ market,” despite the fact “that we have seventy-three thousand pages of detailed government [economic] regulations.” Then came the finance and auto bailouts, after which “the lesson learned was that as long as you did not take responsibility for your actions, then you would receive more money.”


Napolitano devotes a chapter to the vital topic of wartime propaganda and lies. There is the seminal example of the Lusitania sinking — “President Woodrow Wilson wanted innocent American deaths to justify politically American entry into” World War I. But that “was not the first time, nor the last” that America saw such propaganda. “In 1898, President McKinley used the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor.” A most exciting section discusses the “eight-point plan” used to lure Japan into firing the first shot in 1941: “The United States got word of the Pearl Harbor attack in January 1941, eleven months prior to the actual event,” which was “provoked, undoubtedly anticipated, and ardently hoped for by the privately lying President who publicly condemned it. The infamy was his.”

Years later, in 1964, the Pentagon jumped on the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate U.S. intervention in Vietnam. “A 2005 NSA report revealed, however, that not only was there no North Vietnamese attack on August 4, but there may not have even been any North Vietnamese boats in the area.” Napolitano extends his analysis to the current day: “President George W. Bush’s use of deception to trick Congress and the American people into authorizing the Iraq War should go down as one of the deadliest, yet most creative marketing jobs in the history of the world.”

For government to expand and abuse its power, the public must put up with it. The ideology of statism is the key factor in allowing for America’s bloated welfare-warfare state. To chip away at that ideology, we must show that so much at the core of America’s civic statist religion is built on lies and deception. Lies the Government Told You is an excellent introduction to these lies, on a wide range of topics, and always with a focus on individual liberty as the moral foundation of a just society.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute, a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation, author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and a history graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.