Saturday, January 16, 2021

1889 Institute: Lies We Tell in Government, and Our Debts to Truth

Lies We Tell in Government, and Our Debts to Truth
By Byron Schlomach

HBO’s mini-series, Chernobyl, depicts the disastrous 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union and the heroic efforts to control its meltdown. It shows Valery Alexeyvich Legasov, Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, working tirelessly to ameliorate the disaster’s consequences and investigate its cause. He is portrayed making a dramatic speech at a trial about how the nuclear reactor exploded, when such an explosion should not have been possible.

The reactor had a design flaw covered up by the Soviet State and kept from reactor operators at Chernobyl and identical reactors across the Soviet Union. Legasov’s speech, though fictional, seems to fairly accurately express his point of view. He addresses the question of how an RBMK reactor like Chernobyl’s explode? After explaining the nuclear and mechanical details, Legasov gets to what he considers the true cause:
“Because of our secrets and our lies. They’re practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there. It is, it’s still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor explodes… Lies.”
If someone lies about maintenance on an aircraft, it might crash, killing hundreds. The debt to the truth is not as expensive with an aircraft as with Chernobyl, where tens of thousands have and will likely die early deaths. Individuals’ lies are never as expensive as lies by government. Lies told by governments naturally impact more people and lives because government’s reach is wide.

But lies are expedient, hiding harsh truths, weakness, and wrongdoing. Lies can make money. Lies can make you popular. Lies make it possible to tell people what they want to hear.

Here are a few lies by government the 1889 Institute has identified (and the debts to truth that must be paid):
  • Renewable energy, like wind, is more friendly to the environment and could provide for all our energy needs (raising costs, using traditional energy less efficiently, and doing its own kind of environmental harm),
  • Occupational licensing is critical for public safety (denying opportunity, redistributing income to the rich, with little or no improvement to public safety),
  • Health care and higher education can only be affordable if government pays for them (making both more expensive and driving people into debt),
  • Subsidies and special tax rebates are critical for Oklahoma communities to compete with other states (creating an elite with unearned political and economic power),
Lies can be a source of considerable power. But we are all better off if we all commit ourselves to truth rather than expedience.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at


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