All Commentary
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thinking Twice about Doublethink

Truth is the first casualty.

In my public-policy course we recently discussed the chapter from F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom called “The End of Truth.” In it Hayek argues that totalitarian propaganda undermines “one of the foundations of all morals: the sense of and the respect for truth.” He writes:

The need to rationalize the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, i.e., assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine.

The problem is that when unforeseen circumstances arise, as they always do, that force the planner to significantly alter her plans, she must justify her actions by appealing to new facts and theories while at the same time downplaying or ignoring what was carefully laid out before.

An Orwellian World

George Orwell, who read and evidently liked parts of The Road to Serfdom, illustrated this brilliantly in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.  (The parallels between the two books, published at about the same time, are striking.)

Winston Smith, the central character in Orwell’s classic, works in the Ministry of Truth.  His job is to erase all historical references to facts that contradict current government policy.  If the Party announces that the nations of Eurasia and Oceania, which yesterday were loyal allies, are today at war with each other, Smith’s Ministry gets busy deleting from the record all evidence that any alliance ever existed and replaces it with evidence that they were and always had been sworn enemies.  Or when a popular official is purged from the Party, Winston makes sure that that person disappears from history — so thoroughly in fact that even he himself wouldn’t be able to find any proof that the former official was even born.

Facts contradicting government policy are swept swiftly into the dustbin of history – the “memory hole” — to be just as swiftly replaced by a new set of “facts.”


The really frightening aspect of this is the role it plays in the Orwellian concept of “doublethink” – the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in one’s mind at the same time.  Those who can perfectly recall that the ousted official was, just the day before, popular and high-ranking in the Party, have nothing to support what they know to be the case.  Since no evidence exists to corroborate anyone’s memory of that fact, and since all are expected to spout the Party line, everyone eventually comes to believe in the new set of “facts” and must suppress any thought that contradicts it.  That goes even for high-ranking officials themselves.

Truth in a totalitarian state is highly inconvenient.  And, as Hayek argues, surrendering to the belief that truth is an illusion, that expediency disguised as principle should guide action, pulls the rug from under any basis for morality.

Fast-Forward to 2010

Although both Hayek and Orwell were writing about the consequences of totalitarianism, it’s frightening how easy it is to find instances of this phenomenon in the political discourse in our own interventionist mixed economy. Of course, no one would be surprised that success in politics does not depend on telling the truth, but one must at least appear to be doing so.

Observe the following diagram, which has appeared in several places.  (This version comes from a website called Brainshavings.)

(Click to enlarge.)

It tracks the official measure of the rate of unemployment from 2007 to the present, and projects it to 2014.  The Obama administration in 2008, in arguing for the $700 billion “stimulus” bill that was passed in early 2009, warned that unemployment would climb from 6.5 percent to just over 9 percent by mid-2010 without the stimulus.  That is the light-blue line in the middle.  The dotted line represents where unemployment actually went after the bill was passed, hovering around 10 percent.

So, according to the administration’s own estimate, the unemployment rate would have been significantly lower had the government not passed the stimulus bill (the “do-nothing” option that President Obama emphatically said was not an option).

My point is not that the administration was wrong and refuses to admit it. It’s rather that so few among both supporters and even detractors of the stimulus seem to even care that the administration was wrong or demand an explanation for why it was wrong and why its recent calls for even more stimulus would be any more successful than the earlier package.  Few seem to remember or bother trying to remember what was said so loudly only two years ago.  The government hasn’t wiped history clean of its earlier assertions.  The scary thing is that it hasn’t had to.

Admitting error and correcting course based on that admission is the real “third rail” of politics.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.