Attacks on “Institutions of Truth”

I have become increasingly alarmed by attacks by President Trump on our news media, the environment and people of color. 

When an authority figure constantly denigrates the media who’s duty, among others, is to be a window into our government, I conclude that authority figure is in the process hiding misdeeds and malintent.   News media has a duty to examine actions of the government and report them to the public.  Preferably to report without bias but even where there is bias different reporting agents will have different bias so we are able to grasp a reasonable approximation of what is happening in our government. A free press is an essential part of our democracy.

In this article economist Joseph Stiglitz was being interviewed by Foreign Policy (FP) magazine.  The complete interview is here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/20/an-icon-of-the-left-tells-democrats-dont-go-socialist/. The interview was related to his latest book.  The part of the interview that attracted my attention was the excerpt below.  Stiglitz tells us why we should be concerned by the presidents attacks on “institutions of truth”.

FP: Why did you publish this book now?

JS: There were multiple reasons. Part of it is related to my longer-term research program: trying to understand why our economy hasn’t been working as well as it should be and why there’s so much inequality. It also relates to what I regard as the most eviscerating effect of Trump on our society and the deepest threat to our civilization.

FP: Explain.

JS: First, it means understanding the marked change that happened around 1750 to 1800. For centuries before, there was stagnation. Then suddenly growth increases. You think of that as the period of Enlightenment, to which there were two important parts. One was science, broadly understood. The second, you might call it social organization. Before it was all just accepted, and there was a tradition of authority. Now with the Enlightenment we had to decide ourselves about what were good systems of social organization, such as democracy and capitalism. And both democracy, with its checks and balances, and markets, with the rule of law, require what you might call truth-assessing institutions. We may not know the truth with 100 percent probability, but we need a whole set of institutions that enable us to reach agreement on what is truth with high probability.

And now you have Trump talking about fake news, making up his own facts, assaulting the media and the universities and the judiciary—all of what I loosely describe as institutions of truth. There is a real assault on these institutions without an understanding of why we created them in the first place. We tend to look at these attacks piecemeal. Actually there’s a pattern here, and it is an assault on what’s made us successful for the last 250 years and is really the basis for our modern civilization.

Without these institutions, our society can’t function, and it’s very clear that he and those who support him lack an understanding of what it takes to run a complex society such as we have.


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