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December 1995
Volume 13, Number 12


A Phone Call From the Idea Police
Jeffrey Tucker


Washington agencies pay private-sector clipping services so senior management can know who their friends and enemies are. Journalists who write negatively about, say, the BATF, immediately enter the agency's sights. 

Even if nothing is done with the information, the knowledge that it's being collected is enough to dampen the criticism that appears in the press. Stopping criticism is the prime day-to-day concern of any bureaucracy, second only to keeping the budget high and growing. 

To do this, every federal agency has an elaborate public relations department. If you are researching government, it's the last place you want to call. Their function is to serve as guardians, not disseminators, of useful information. Every bureaucrat knows that if the questions are too probing, he can always bump callers over to the public relations department. 

Wasting people's time is not the only function of these departments, however, as the Mises Institute has discovered over the years. They are also the Headquarters of Critic Intimidation. They employ people to scour newspapers and magazines for skeptics, make phone calls, and try to muscle naysayers into silence. Talk about a chilling effect. Where's the ACLU when you need them? 

We're no fans of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and now they know it. After Hurricane Opal caused substantial damage here in Auburn, Lew Rockwell wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times arguing that we'd be better off without post-disaster federal aid. Why should California taxpayers be penalized for our misfortune? he asked. He also had choice words for FEMA bureaucrats who use natural disasters to enhance federal control. 

So the phone rang, and it was Morry Goodman of FEMA. Just what is the Mises Institute? he demanded to know. I went on the offensive and asked whether he was trying to intimidate us into not criticizing the agency. Not at all, he assured me. FEMA is just looking for input so it can improve its policies and services. I pointed out that "FEMA isn't exactly a think tank." 

That set Mr. Goodman off. He noted that we are located at Auburn University. Last year, he said with his voice rising in volume and pitch, "I gave you a $100,000 grant" to study emergency warning systems in Alabama. Now you are attacking FEMA. Isn't this hypocrisy? Isn't this the pot calling the kettle black? 

I waited for the end of this diatribe so I could explain to Morry that the Mises Institute receives no university funding and no government money, so "you can't bribe us into not criticizing FEMA." 

It's only thanks to the donors of the Mises Institute that I could say that. Not many groups, due to multifarious connections to government, can get away with this. That's why there are so few anti-government columns in major newspapers, and why college students so rarely hear about the downside of social democracy. 

In addition to propaganda and intimidation, government agencies also use the buyout method of controlling public opinion. The Mises Institute has received offers of grant money from other agencies we've criticized. By implication, we're supposed to return the favor by shutting up. 

All this raises the question as to why they care so much. After all, the Mises Institute is a small outfit. The agencies we criticize have multi-billion dollar budgets and the power of the central state. Yet they bristle at the slightest negative thought. They must know something about the power of ideas, and the danger posed by people willing to speak truth to power.


Jeffrey Tucker edits The Free Market.


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