Lies The Government Told You

by Andrew Napolitano

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the introduction to Judge Andrew Napolitano’s book, Lies The Government Told You

During the 1980 presidential campaign, a joke made the rounds in the Reagan camp. George Washington, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter die and go to Heaven. In a chance meeting about how they got there, Washington boasts, “I never told a lie.” Not to be outdone, Nixon proclaims, “I never told the truth.” A determined Carter can’t resist: “I never knew the difference!”

What is a lie? What is the truth? What is the difference? One could not begin to count all the words, ink, and paper spent addressing those three questions, even though the answers are implicated in almost every thought and every word and every act that everyone perceives, utters, and engages upon every day of our adult lives.

Truth is identity between intellect and reality. A lie is a knowing and intentional violation of the truth. The difference between the two often depends on whether one is in the governing class or the governed class.

We have all come to expect some lying in our lives and have engaged in lying to some extent; perhaps to avoid or postpone a crisis, or to serve a higher good, or because telling a lie was easier under the circumstances than telling the truth, and the consequences of the lie were harmless. This is all normal human behavior, and it can range from being critical to existence to being innocuous.

If a ship captain is secretly ferrying innocents from slavery to freedom, and his ship is stopped on the high seas by agents of the government that enslaved his passengers, should he lie about their true identities? When a coworker asks how you are during a miserable day, should you lie to avoid a painful but harmless and useless conversation? Can silence be a lie when one has a lawful or moral duty to tell the truth? These are issues with which we wrestle almost every day.

In a free society, we expect the government to wrestle with them as well, but it does not; it is not concerned with truth. The government lies to us regularly, consistently, systematically, and daily on matters great and small, but it prosecutes and jails those who lie to it. For example, a male drug dealer with a heavy foreign accent and minimal understanding of English stupidly tells an FBI agent that his name is Nancy Reagan, and he is arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for lying to the government. Another FBI agent tells the cultural guru Martha Stewart, in an informal conversation in the presence of others, that she is not the target of a federal criminal probe, and she replies that she did not sell a certain stock on a certain day. They both lied, but she went to jail and the FBI agent kept his job.

What is it about the government and its agents and employees that they can lie to us with impunity, but we risk being sent to jail if we lie to them?

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