The U.S. (Dis)Information Agency

Most People Don't Realize That Promotion of Big Government by Big Government Goes on All the Time

Tom Palmer is director of the Project on Civil Society at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

Being the skunk at the garden party is generally not very pleasant. And biting the hand that invites you can seem ungrateful. But when the organizer of the party is funded by the taxpayers and is both lobbying for more money and actively promoting an agenda of ever bigger government, risking not being invited back is the least a defender of constitutional government can do. I imagine that calling for the abolition of the host organization—or even cutting its budget—should serve to guarantee that I am not invited in the future.

I recently accepted invitations to discuss “civil society” before two audiences of Fulbright Scholars at separate events sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA). The view of American political life presented was, to say the least, highly unrepresentative of how most Americans view the matter. For example, the debate on welfare reform presented views all the way from the Clinton administration to the welfarist Children’s Defense Fund to the statist Center for Law and Social Policy. (There was a token budget analyst from the state of Maryland to discuss the financial impact on the states, but as he pointed out to me, there was no one there to defend actually reforming or cutting back on the welfare system, much less abolishing it altogether.)

The discussion on foreign aid had an equally wide range of views, all the way from the World Bank to the National Democratic Institute to the USIA itself. The panel on “Do Public Representatives Promote the Special Interests or Support the Common Good?” featured two former senators (left-liberals Birch Bayh of Indiana and John Culver of Iowa) and former Clinton domestic policy adviser William Galston. And addressing “Civil Society: Who Participates and What Are the Barriers to Participation in the United States?” was “consumer advocate” (and hired gun of the trial lawyers) Ralph Nader. As far as I could tell, in four days of debates and panels before the Fulbright professors I was the only person who supported smaller government.

Par for the USIA Course

What most people don’t realize is that promotion of big government by big government goes on all the time. The U.S. government scours the globe for bright scholars and thinkers and then brings them to Washington at taxpayer expense to be propagandized on behalf of the ideology of big government.

The 1995 annual report of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, which was distributed at the conference, contains a great deal of whining about not getting enough money from the taxpayers and noted that “the Board and others responsible for the Fulbright Program had failed to communicate effectively to Congress and its constituent U.S. taxpayers the unique value . . . of the Fulbright Program in particular, and consequently had failed to communicate the consequent national interest of the United States in protecting the Fulbright Program from diminution.” A major theme of the report was “How does it [the Fulbright program] serve the national interest and why should Congress continue to support it?” This is a good case of your tax dollars at work, lobbying for more tax dollars.

It is at least a debatable question whether the national interest is served by indoctrinating foreign students, professors, and teachers with welfare statist ideology. Surely they get enough of that at home already. Well, evidently not, according to the bureaucrats at the USIA, who stand ever ready to export American-style statism.

I well recall my work in central and eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I spent more time battling the USIA than I did the communist authorities. On one memorable occasion, my friends at the Liberty Institute of Bucharest had arranged a meeting with the board of directors of the Humanitas Publishing House, at the time the largest and most prestigious serious publishing house in Romania. One of the directors was favorable to publishing translations of books in the classical liberal tradition, such as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Ludwig von Mises’s Liberalism, David Friedman’s textbook Price Theory (for university use), Nobel laureate Ronald Coase’s essays on the nature of the ½rm, and so on. The director had invited me to make a presentation to the board. I did so, with translation handled by a Romanian libertarian economist, and I offered to handle the copyright negotiations (which I had successfully done in other countries), to find contributors to pay for the copyright fees, and to donate some money to support the translation work.

Unfortunately, a representative of the USIA had come from the U.S. Embassy and rather crudely pooh-poohed the books. (“Nobody in America reads that stuff,” he noted.) He then offered a very large subsidy (I recall the figure of $20,000) to publish the works of the leading theorists of the American system, namely, Robert Reich, Robert Heilbroner, and Robert Kuttner, statist social democrats all. (It was very difficult to argue with the combined force of a wad of taxpayer money and the prestige of the U.S. Embassy. As a result, books that actually explained the principles of a market economy and constitutionally limited government were not published by that ½rm. Thanks, USIA.)

The USIA Vision of America

According to the typical USIA representative, America is prosperous because there is so much state control, coercive income redistribution, and bureaucracy, whereas all of America’s problems stem from an excess of laissez faire. And it seems that it is the job of the USIA to tell the world how much better off they would be if they were just to copy what is best about America: the post office.

The stateside program in which I participated offers telling evidence that Washington has developed an enormous network of persons and institutions dedicated to extracting the maximum amount of wealth from the taxpayers and to imposing on the general public the agenda of those with power. Most of the institutions that were represented on the panels are coercively funded and spend much of their effort justifying that funding and jockeying for ever more of the public’s earnings. In the process, I told my audience, great clouds of deceit are generated to obscure the fundamental nature of the process, to concoct specious legal justifications for immoral, illegal, and unconstitutional acts. As I explained to the assembled Fulbright scholars, our hosts were as culpable as the other organizations. So much for expecting to be invited back.

Congress is all atwitter about snipping a mere $128 million a year from the budget by eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m all for that. After all, politicizing art is dangerous and immoral in a free and pluralistic society. But using tax dollars to promote a particular political agenda is probably even worse. How about closing down the USIA ($1.2 billion a year) and the Fulbright Scholars program (about $98.9 million from USIA and another $96.4 million from the Department of Education, foreign governments, and “in-kind donations” from the private sector)? That would stop Washington bureaucrats from promoting a distorted and highly partisan vision of America to the best young scholars of the United States and the rest of the world.

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