Tell noble lies for America’s salvation!

Summary: How do we gain approval of the American people for necessary social and political changes? Especially important but expensive and painful measures? There is the easy and popular method: lie. In a good cause. Today we consider the effects on America and on ourselves. My conclusion: stick firmly to the truth; it is the most effective tool.


Two comments from readers about propaganda:

“Let’s say that climate alarmists are wrong. But let’s say that such alarms were contributing factor in changing economic policies in order to control CO2 releases into the atmosphere. Something like it already happened when pollution created bad air /smog in many cities in the US and environmental policies changed that. Do you agree that environmental policies provided for cleaner air today then it would be otherwise.”
— In reply to Better news coverage of climate change. Our institutions still function!

“The truth, which you wish to uphold in political discourse is often nuanced and has a range of opinions in the details, even when the bigger picture is generally agreed upon. Unfortunately, this nuanced discussion leaves lay people confused (possibly due to the nature of reporting) and does not persuade them to change their behaviour.

“Take climate change as an example: in general most scientists agree that there has been a degree of warming over various timespans. The degree and the time is under debate. Let us assume that the behaviour of the population in general needs to change. Should they be presented with the truth, even if this does not produce a change in behaviour or should they be presented with a (white) lie to produce a change in behaviour that benefits everyone?”

— In reply to The secret, simple tool that persuades Americans. That molds our opinions.

These comments approvingly describe a form of the Plato’s Noble Lie.  Similar sentiments often surfaced in discussions I had with leaders in the Peak Oil community (before it collapsed under the weight of so many falsehoods and failed predictions). The classics always remain trendy. From Wikipedia

In politics a noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly told by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda. The noble lie is a concept originated by Plato as described in The Republic.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, people approving the use of the Noble Lie to further their causes often denounce it when used to support causes they oppose. Either way, it is a pernicious tactic, for four reasons.



  1. Life is not a single round game. People are not fools, and eventually become skeptical. So this method becomes ineffective after repeated use.
  2. Many of the examples cited of its success are bogus. Such as the “noble lie’s” contribution to the anti-pollution efforts of the 1960s thru 1990s.
  3. What’s the cost of using white lies? “White lies” are lies; the cost of using them is lost credibility for your institution or movement (credibility is a capital sum, reduced by withdrawals). We are long past that point by now for the US government and — to many Americans — for environmentalists. They have burned away their credibility.
  4. Consider the effects on a movement that adopts lies. It’s necessary to first convince your followers of the lie, which increasingly takes their eyes off the real world as lies tend to grow in number and complexity. Resources are diverted to defending the lies, which become magnets for opponents. And it corrupts the soul — unless you convince yourself as well.

Looking back in history shows what we have lost. It’s a shock to read accounts from the 1930s and see how people trusted statements of government leaders. With reason. FDR’s plain speaking in his fireside chats and Churchill’s speeches show a frank honesty rarely heard today from politicians. Not just politicans; rare today are statements from generals like that of General Stilwell in May 1942:

“I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we should find out what caused it and go back and retake it.”

Another example, said by a general in the US Eighth Air Force returning after one of their early bombing raids in Europe, with heavy casualties: We took a licking; we are going back tomorrow. Direct honesty and committment.

Now people often assume that government officials lie (especially those from the “other” political party). Sixty years of lies might have contributed to the collapse of trust in America’s public institutions (see the numbers here). The effect of overusing Noble Lies is also seen in the failure of the climate change crusade, the Left’s movement to enact public policy changes to fight climate change. After 15 years of one of the most intense propaganda barrages in US peacetime history, what have they to show for it?

We still believe two groups of government officials

There are two large exceptions, officials we still believe although they lie:  people in the security services (formerly known as “law enforcement”) and the military.  See the numbers here.  Decades of scandals, even involving some of the most-trusted of American institutions (such as the FBI Crime Lab). Years of lies about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — we were winning until we left, achieving nothing for America at great cost in money and blood. Years of FBI and police recruiting and setting up domestic terrorists — from whom they save us.

Yet still we trust them. I do not know why.  I doubt learning the reason will boost my confidence in America.

For More Information

For all posts about this see the FM Reference Page about Information & Disinformation.

Posts about propaganda in America:

  1. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009 — The big lie justifies the war
  2. Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
  3. A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
  4. Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 15 September 2010
  5. The easy way to rule: leading a weak people by feeding them disinformation, 13 April 2011
  6. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
  7. More use of the big lie: shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011
  8. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012
  9. But Hitler confiscated guns, leaving Germans helpless!, 11 January 2013
  10. Lessons about America to be learned from the Climate Wars, 28 June 2013
  11. The secret, simple tool that persuades Americans. That molds our opinions., 24 July 2013

No source known for this quote. But it’s worth considering, whatever the source.

Plato - strange times



27 thoughts on “Tell noble lies for America’s salvation!”

  1. “Yet still we trust them. I do not know why.”

    A possible answer:

    1. Assumption: People form opinions on the basis of their own personal experience.

    Working from that assumption: people’s exposure to the military is through veterans they know. Most Americans outside of the top 20% income personally know veterans. Most are great people.

    Most Americans trust the cops they meet on the street. SWAT teams and rough police tactics are used disproportionately against the poor. (And are those not the people most suspicious of cops?)

    People conflate their personal opinions of cops and soldiers with law enforcement and military institutions as a whole.

    Feasible answer?

    1. Greer,

      So by that theory, personal experience explains the collapse in confidence in organized religion and journalism?

      I would like more data before drawing conclusions. Otherwise we tend to devise “just so” stories (from Kipling — like “how the elephant got his trunk”).

    2. I would like to add one word to T Greer’s hypothesis: television.
      As Greer says, most middle-class Americans have not personally had negative experiences with police. So, for lack of personal experience, they form their opinion based on what they see on TV, from positive portrayals in shows like Law and Order.

      I would also blame the politicization of news, with networks such as Fox News having clear political biases starting perhaps around 2003, and then MSNBC a few years later, for the lack of confidence in journalism.

      1. Todd,

        I strongly agree about the effect if TV (but am unfamiliar with research on this). Hit shows like NCIS and NCIS-LA are powerful engines of right-wing propaganda — building fear, and adulation of the brave Demi-gods who defend us.

        I enjoy them, but am appalled at the messages they convey.

    3. Anecdotally I have heard people claim they lost their faith in organized religion about the same time when they noticed that aggressive homophobia seemed to have become its defining feature.

  2. A “noble lie” would be self-sacrificing, like congratulating and wishing the person you love well in a marriage (not to you).

    There’s nothing “Noble” about propaganda to force a public into action it doesn’t want, doesn’t need, and doesn’t benefit from.

    Plato was an Elitest jerk.

  3. It’s easy to know why we like the military and the police forces, they are the only two institutions where the adverage guy has a chance at a decent job with security. That’s why recruiters go to inner cities, or dead end towns, not Beverly Hills.

    1. Dashul,

      That’s a powerful observation. As the remaining bastions of well-paying lower-middle class jobs are crushed one by one, our lavishly funded security services and military look ever more attractive — Especially to those in the lower middle class.

      I don’t want to draw gloomy conclusions, but this is a common pattern in hierarchical non-democratic societies. The elites well pay the forces that maintain order and keep them in power.

    2. Every government job is more secure and has better benefits (better pay is arguable point), so why would millitary job be differentiated as a source for liking military and police force from any other government job?

      There are multiple reasons (just as in every case) why we like military and police. We like power.
      We know that they keep order for us.
      We know that if we have friends in police and military we could abuse that friendship and get some benefits from knowing a member, get out of tickets or get info on what we are interested in.
      We can get a protection whenever we need it, is that not enough to like it?

      1. Jordan,

        Those are all cogent points.

        Esp the inherent superiority of Federal government jobs over most in the private sector. The massive numbes of people applying for civil service positions shows how widely insight has spread. In the 1970s it was just the postal service that had a thousand people test for each opening (and now Congress is bankrupting the USPS, for the benefit of private delivery services).

        However — how have these factors changed? In other words, how do we explain the decline (or for some, collapse) in confidence in so many insitutions — while that for the security services & military remains high?

    3. Contra the claim that joining the military pays well, military pay for the enlisted grades is better starting out than almost anything a young person of comparable age (18-22 years old) can get without being born rich or graduating from Harvard summa cum laude — but enlisted personnel quickly hit a promotion ceiling and their military pay quickly tops out.

      Moreover, for some branches of the armed service, like the marine corps or the air force, there’s an “up or out” policy meaning that if you don’t rise in rank, you get canned. So no benefits.

      This makes me suspect that the reason most people adulate the military is the heavily fictionalized portrayals we see on TV and in the movies.

      As for Greer’s claim that

      Working from that assumption: people’s exposure to the military is through veterans they know. Most Americans outside of the top 20% income personally know veterans. Most are great people

      , most of the veterans I’ve met a disturbed people from poor uneducated backgrounds suffering from PTSD and prone to make vicious comments about anyone from a different economic/social background (“we need to get rid of them [fill in the blank — blacks, latinos, asians, whatever] to get this country back on track”) and overwhelmingly apt to parrot far-right propaganda that Obama is a social Kenyan muslim communist fascist. Police who are ex-military are the scariest people I’ve met. None of these folks should be able to own firearms, but most own multiple expensive assault weapons and automatic pistols.

      Greer goes to assert:

      Most Americans trust the cops they meet on the street.

      Is he serious?

      What country is he living in?

      1. More,

        (1). The Vet education benefits are a large part of the compensation for most people who join the military, serving 3-6 years. It Akers the deal look a lot better.

        (2). I think a large fraction of Americans trust a cop they meet on the street. That is the basis so community policing, rather than the paramilitary patrols of LAPD and others.

      2. Speaking of talking to the police:

        An law school professor and former criminal defense attorney tells you why you should never agree to be interviewed by the police.



  4. I fully stand with you FM on what you wrote in this post.
    What puzzles me is how elites on the left is using such alarmists predictions. I always saw it as alarmists but never figured it out on what purpose it serves. Democrats do not push on it, it is mostly rethorical mention but no politician gave a full blown speach on global warming besides Al Gore who made money.

    Is it to keep left’s base motivated for elections? I do not see much effort on such goals, there is some but not as panic inducing climate predictions are.
    Is it to keep left and right bases divided? There are many other topics that keeps them divided, this barely have any additional effect.
    Is it to restart nuclear energy investments? This course is twosided since left is strongly divided on nuclear energy.
    I can not find a goal that is worth such effort that was shown in climate prediction given that so many scientists are on the side of alarmists. Politicians are not giving much voice to climate change as much as left base is believing in it. Politicians are not using alarms as much as they could given strong beliefs on it on the left.

    Only goal that could be worth such an effort on producing such widespread lie is population control.

    Mandated milage was introduced but by using economic reasoning and competition with asia produced cars, not by using climate predictions.

    On a side note, there were no lies used to produce efforts for cleaner air in 60′-90′. People were outraged by smog and polluted waters around them. There were no lies, only hiding the truth about how poluted the environment was. Official propaganda was against environmental protection, but grass roots changed that.

    Is this alarmist effort just an inertia of grassroots organizations?

    1. Jordan,

      My guess is that they use fear because it works. We respond to appeals to fear. This is something I’ve mentioned frequently, but never explored. Any look at America during the past few decades shows how fearful we’ve become. The Left plays that using cliamte alarmism. The Right plays that using terrorism and guns (to defend against you-know-whom).

    2. I do not see much fear on the left, There is much more apathy and that would be why Hope worked beautifully for Obama. Fear would produce much more energetic left as it did for the right.
      Fear doesn’t work on left leaning. Left is hopefull that “American spirit” will prevail.

      1. Read the Left’s writing about climate doom, peak oil doom, species extinction doom. They’re all about fear.

        As is the Right. They both understand their market, and play to its weakness.

    1. I have quite a few posts on this subject; see the For More Information Section of this post.

      My favorites concern faux history and faux economics. In both the Right’s narratives have divorced themselves from reality. Economics is a difficult taskmaster, so the price they’ve paid has been a series of false forecasts — about the recovery, interest rates, and inflation.

      Other examples:
      * the large number of “chain emails” having an astonishingly high fraction of total fabrications. The Snopes website overflows with debunking of these.
      * the large number of fake quotations from historical figures. I’ve documented many of these — links available upon request — but just scratched the surface.

      1. Jim,

        How could I have forgotten ObamaCare! Death panels, etc — a multiyear festival of misinformation. It’s a classic demonstration of the follow of relying on excellent tactics to implement weak strategy.

        The GOP has convinced much of America that ObamaCare is a horrific device of Satan. They have successfully disguised both its GOP origins (eg, Heritage Foundation design, initial implementation by Romney in MA), and that large majorities like its specific provisions — when they’re honestly described.

        Unfortunately the GOP was unable to repeal it, and soon Americans will discover that the GOP stories were largely lies. ObamaCare is a Rube Goldberg-like device, necessary to gain the support of the health care and insurance industries (and their lackeys in Congress).

      2. Jim,

        Speaking of health care — I wrote several posts about the Right’s propaganda showing American’s that their health care system is vastly superior to that in Europe. Which was mostly lies.

        My favorite were the Instapundit’s posts, such as that about an case of wrong site surgery in the UK — implying that to be the expected bad care from socialism. In fact wrong site surgery happens everywhere, including the US. From memory, I believe our rate was roughly equal to that of the nightmarish British National Health Service.

        Links available upon request.

  5. My suggestion was a hypothesis to be tested against the data, not a definitive answer. It was prompted by personal observations based off of my time living in an NE American ghetto, but this is of course subjective. It remains tentative until a way to test is found.

    With that said, a few more tentative thoughts

    I once read (did not save the link – it was years ago before I knew to do such things, I will see if I can find it) that there is a large discrepancy of between public opinion of congress and public opinion of individual congress members – almost universally, it seems, people who know who their local rep is like him/her much more than they like congress as a whole. Going along with the personal experience/source of exposure theme, people are more likely to be on the receiving ends of positive messages (or experiences) regarding their rep than they are Congress as a whole. Nobody, it seems, has much an interest in making the whole on congress look good.

    Religion is an interesting case. Data heavy Robert Putnam and David Cambell argue in American Grace that the politicization of religion has been the main cause of its decline. Even if you are skeptical about the argument, their book will have the kind of data you are looking for to really investigate the issue. I wonder which comes first: decline in religious attendance or a lack of trust for religious leaders? If the first precedes the second it would support my case – people trust religion less and less because it is more and more foreign to them.

    But again, that is a hypothesis yet to be tested. GSS might have some of the data to help there.

    As for reporters – a good question! I note only that our current media culture is one that thrives on cannabalism. Talk Radio survives off of discussing what dumb thing some talking head on the left said; the Salon-Huffington Post-Jezebel vortex serves a similar function for the left. Fox News and MSNBC are openly partisan and loved for it. There is a lot of talk about how ‘main stream media’ is liberal/biased/racist/propaganda full or whatever. The fact that the Daily Show and its like exist says a lot about our political culture. Not very many messages about how great news and reporters are.

    Possibly Project for Excellence in Journalism would have some data on this. They do trends on media content as a whole as well, so they might be a good place to look for the TV line of thought.

    The comment about job security and economic potential of LE/military was insightful. If a significant factor then the real concern is not whom average people have had experience with, but whom they identify with that matters. Do people identify with cops and soldiers more than they do reporters?

    Final note – I saw that FM referenced Peter Turchin’s post on social cooperation a week or so ago. His body of research is relevant here. His suggestion is that social trust (Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyah) moves in cycles throughout every civilization and that these cycles are usually closely tied to inequality and war. He wrote an article for Aeon Magazine explaining how this might apply to America:

    If true then we can tie the collapse of America’s civic society and the general distrust Americans have of their institutions to these ‘secular cycles’ of wealth and social solidarity. Regime change tends to happen during the trough of these cycles – the transformation of the Roman Republic to the Principate is an example discussed in Turchin’s book. Bad portents.


  6. FM remarks:

    (1). The Vet education benefits are a large part of the compensation for most people who join the military, serving 3-6 years. It [makes?] the deal look a lot better.

    Only 29% of veterans make use of the post-9/11 GI Bill. The reason is obvious. For financial reasons, the U.S. military recruits primarily from rural high-poverty low-education regions of America. Alabama is number one, followed by Alaska and Arizona. West Virginia has the highest proportion of enlistees per capita, and southern (impoverished, mainly rural) states with the poorest K-12 national test scores provide the highest proportion of recruits to the American military.

    Minorities are over-represented in the U.S. military today, as congressman Charlie Rangel’s 2002 New York Times op-ed “Bring Back the Draft” points out:

    Service in our nation’s armed forces is no longer a common experience. A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent.

    Offering a GI college bill to veterans recruited overwhelming from the most impoverished and most undereducated rural areas in America’s most backward southern states explains why only a fraction more than one out of every four vets ever makes use of the post-9/11 GI bill.

    Clearly, today’s GI bill is a scam. Most of the people recruited by the U.S. military can’t make use of it. To give some idea of the quality of today’s miltiary recruits, 377 former convicts were granted waivers to allow them join the American military in 2008, while 20% of recruits joining the Army were required waivers for medical or conduct reasons.

    (2). I think a large fraction of Americans trust a cop they meet on the street. That is the basis [of] community policing, rather than the paramilitary patrols of LAPD and others.

    It’s true that most Americans trust police they meet on the street. Problem is, police no longer walk beats — they ride around in patrol cars and descend in force with military-style weapons and body armor even for minor infractions. See Radley Balko’s new book The Rise of the Warrior Cop for horror stories about ordinary citizens shot to death by SWAT teams for playing a game of cards, arrested by heavily-armed SWAT teams who shotgun the hinges off their doors and use flash-bang grenades because the citizens are suspected of importing orchids without a license or making unpasteurized organic milk, and so on.

    If I saw a police officer running toward me from one direction and a burglar running toward me from another direction, I’d head for the burglar — it’s safer. Most Americans now feel the same way. The day of trusting police officers are long gone.

    1. (1) Good point about the low number of people who USE their GI benefits. However, the point remains it is part of the package offered as compensation.

      (2) From memory, you data doesn’t closely match what I’ve seen about the demographics of the US military. I was going to write about that, and found that much research actually disproves the story about recruiting disproportionately from poor and rural.

      I will check on that, as my memory is not what it used to be.

      (3) Police

      Most people encounter police in traffic stops, which is a hostile encounter. Other than that, most people (ie, middle class & upper class whites and some other minorities) probably trust police encountered on the street. The Gallup confidence in institutions polls supports this theory.

      As for encountered police during some form of violent encounter – I don’t know. Blacks probably are afraid, for good reason. Fortunately, it’s a rare encounter for those of us not living in inner cities.

      I have had only one such, in one of my two personal brushes with terrorism (one in person, the other destroyed my former office). It didn’t improve my personal opinion of police. To this day I regret listening to them instead of acting (acting foolishly, most people would say).

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