Most people, I find, have some potent memory from early childhood, in which they lied and then felt the blistering sting of remorse. For me, that memory takes me back to age five, when the two (much older) girls next door persuaded me to sneak ginger cookies and candy canes off of our Christmas tree so that we could eat them. I knew that this was forbidden, and at first I refused, but they said they would stop being my friend if I didn’t play along. So I stole the treats, lied about it, and was eventually caught. I can’t remember how I was punished but I do remember my father’s dreadfully stern face when he confronted me. And I remember the lingering sense of having done something terribly, terribly wrong.
There is a reason why lying is such a temptation for children, and a reason, too, why adults are so anxious to curb the tendency. For the powerless, mendacity is a primary refuge against the intrusion of authority. When the exercise of authority is good and necessary (as in the parental case), lying is clearly detrimental to moral growth. Thus, parents are right to insist on the importance of truthfulness. A misuse of authority, on the other hand, can make for some morally complicated situations. The systematic abuse of power can have many terrible effects, but honesty is one of the saddest casualties.
It’s something we should take time to consider given recent trends in the United States. A year after the current administration was shown to preside (at least in a general way) over a government rife with scandal and corruption, nothing has ever really been resolved, and many liberal journalists have gone back to repeating that nothing really happened. Do not believe this. Any fair-minded observer would clearly see that the IRS engaged in inappropriate political advocacy by harassing conservative groups, that the State Department engaged in a cover-up to keep the Benghazi disaster from sinking the president’s electoral chances, and that the Justice Department threatened journalists who were not sufficiently supportive of the White House’s agenda. Those are just the highlights. None of this has ever really been resolved.
In a time when most people are weary of politics, it’s easy for Americans to dismiss these kinds of abuses as “things that don’t affect me.” Conservatives may make this even easier by allowing their more libertarian impulses to trump their good-government advocacy. Hearing more speeches from Republicans about the problems intrinsic to overweening government, the public simply concludes that the Republicans are on their favorite subject again and that we must be back to business as usual. The problem goes deeper than this, however. Citizens of relatively free societies simply have trouble appreciating the deep and pervasive impact that oppressive authority can have on a society.
I was able to see this firsthand when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan from 2002 through 2004. Uzbekistan is by any realistic account a dictatorship. Islam Karimov, the Soviet administrator who assumed power in 1989, continues to rule a country that has remained economically, politically and morally stagnant. Back in the USSR, Uzbekistan was derisively regarded by many as the armpit of the Soviet Union; nevertheless, many older Uzbeks describe that period as the good old days in comparison to what their nation has become.
For Uzbeks, as for so many people in the world today, powerlessness in the face of oppressive authority is a way of life. They know that subterfuge is their only defense, so they stay away from public buildings and try to keep important officials from ever learning their names. Uzbek friends explained to me (but they really didn’t need to because I witnessed it firsthand) that their instinct around authority figures is to lie first, and reveal the truth only when absolutely necessary, especially when the truth is in any way revealing of the details of their personal lives. The last thing an Uzbek wants is to chat up an official about his home life. Though desperately poor, they will happily pay a crippling bribe in order to stay out of court. It barely occurs to them that their “justice system” would actually be in the business of dispensing justice.
Over time, I came to see a connection between citizens’ relationship to the state, and the general spirit of mendacity that seemed to reach deep into the bones of the culture. I learned quickly that I had to be attentive at my shopping, because merchants readily identified me (a foreigner) as a likely mark for a dishonest or wildly exorbitant price. (Uzbeks generally don’t post fixed prices in the market, so I had to pay attention to what other people were paying before buying anything myself.) My students were so addicted to cheating that I eventually stopped giving tests. I would have had to physically restrain them to stop them from copying one another’s papers, and when I reported my problems to the department head and the principal, they all seemed unconcerned. More than once I issued an invitation to someone and had it accepted, only to find that they did not appear. “I was afraid you’d be angry if I told you to your face I couldn’t come,” they would say when I confronted them later.
If asked why I am a “good government conservative” and not a libertarian, my answer could easily be: because Uzbekistan. I do want government to be smaller than it is. But witnessing life in a failed state enabled me to realize firsthand how much the quality of government can affect the character of its citizens. The degree to which that influence can be positive is a topic for further discussion; freedom is, to be sure, an important part of moral formation. I still think government can have some proper role positively forming the character of citizens. More importantly though, we should recognize that governmental corruption can have a profound negative impact, not just on prosperity, but also on virtue. It teaches us to regard authority as a threat, and thereby inculcates habits that are slavish and vicious.
Americans across the political spectrum should realize that we are not simply immune to this kind of oppression-induced misery. The corruption in our government most certainly is not on a level with what we see in countries like Uzbekistan, but unless we respond to governmental scandals with appropriate outrage, we will continue to move along that same path. That Hillary Clinton is seen as the Democratic front-runner despite her role in the Benghazi affair discourages me almost beyond words. Americans should demand better. It really is not too much to say that both lives and souls are at stake.