Why All Politicians Lie

It's a job qualification.

Whoever gets elected president today is an accomplished liar. Lying, along with a capacity for backbiting, obfuscation, and double-dealing, are, in fact, actual job qualifications for politicians according to some deep political thinkers. If lying with sincerity is a required political skill, both major party candidates for president appear to be fully qualified to occupy the Oval Office. For example, in one whopper*, the Obama campaign deceptively asserted, “Romney backed a law that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.” Romney, too, has proven himself an able practitioner of the dark art of political prevarication. In Ohio two weeks ago, Romney falsely claimed that Chrysler’s Jeep division “is thinking of moving all production to China.” And let’s not forget about all those jobs the two claimed to have created at various points in their political careers.

It has been said that the first duty of a politician is to get elected to office. Unless she is elected she cannot do all the good things that she promises. However, the only the way to get elected is for her to get her hands dirty argues political Michael Walzer in his 1973 essay “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.[PDF]” In fact, supporters, commentators, and voters often actually disparage would-be politicians who are perceived as not doing what it takes to win. Walzer summarizes this common criticism: “He wants to win the election…, but he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty.” By which critics mean that the politician “is the sort of man who will not lie, cheat, bargain behind the backs of his supporters, shout absurdities at public meetings, or manipulate men and women.” Well, hooray, right? Finally, an honest politician!

Not so fast, says Walzer. The candidate’s “decision to run was a commitment (to all of us who think the election important) to try to win, that is, to do within rational limits whatever is necessary to win.” As an example of a real-world rational limit, Walzer offers the case of a politician who must make a corrupt deal with a dishonest ward boss. The politician’s supporters fervently believe his program is worthy, but he cannot act on it unless he wins the election, which he can only do by giving the ward boss what he wants. Consequently, argues Walzer, the politician’s supporters who believe him to be a good man who would do good things in office “hope that he will overcome his scruples and make the deal.”

Furthermore, even if a politician wanted to act morally, Walzer contends, “[He] probably cannot: for other men are all too ready to hustle and lie for power and glory, and it is they who set out the terms of the competition.” Thus, Walzer concludes, “[T]he men who act for us and in our name are necessarily hustlers and liars.” In Walzer’s view, the moral tragedy of politics is that a politician often must do bad in order to achieve good. Or as 16th century Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli put it in The Discourses, “[W]hen the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good…, it will always absolve him from blame.” Of course, it is dangerously easy for a politician to believe that his good ends can justify bad means.

In order to get power, University College (London) political scientist Richard Bellamy argues in his 2010 European Journal of Political Thought article, "Dirty Hands and Clean Gloves: Liberal Ideals and Real Politics," democratic politicians must make sneaky deals and compromises. In order to attain office, they must forge winning coalitions among voters who favor incompatible values, e.g., pro-abortion vs. anti-abortion, free markets vs. social democracy, drug legalization vs. drug prohibition. In trying to satisfy the conflicting demands of voters and, more importantly, stay in office, Bellamy explains that politicians will necessarily “be obliged to employ less than full candor, using ambiguity and a certain flexibility in their own principles to address the various competing constituencies among the public whom they must serve.”

In his 2009 article, "The Problem with Clean Hands," in the journal Essays in Philosophy, Hobart and William Smith Colleges philosopher Eric Barnes analyzes the use of “ambiguity and a certain flexibility” by politicians as a winning strategy in elections. The problem of dirty hands concerns the apparently inevitable need for effective politicians to do what is ethically wrong. Applying a game theoretic approach, Barnes explores the problem of "politicians being unwilling to commit themselves to precise positions on controversial policy issues." Barnes observes, “We want politicians to be honest and incorruptible, and yet because they are good we also want them to do what is necessary to win the election, even if it means lying and making deals with corrupt power brokers (for they will do us no good if not elected).” The result? “[I]t seems impossible to be a successful politician without making various unsavory deals and alliances.”

So while voters want their candidates to be open and honest, they don’t want them to be so open and honest that they alienate enough other voters that they don’t get into office where they can, allegedly, advance the public good (or at least our good). If being too specific about her plans means that a politician loses, then she obviously has a strong incentive to practice “ambiguity and a certain flexibility.” The upshot is that rational politicians offer vague slogans (“Hope and Change” and now “Forward”) and tell soothing lies (will balance the budget without cutting defense or raising taxes) in order to get elected. In other words, they must have dirty hands in order to attain office. And their partisans will, if not approve, at least look the other way.

Barnes argues that electoral incentives turn the classic prisoner’s dilemma on its head. In a prisoner’s dilemma, police question two suspects separately. If one agrees to testify against the other who remains silent, the accuser will go free and the silent suspect will be imprisoned for three years. If both agree to testify, both go to prison for two years. If both remain silent, they are incarcerated one month. While seeking to get off scot-free, the suspects end up testifying against each other and spend a total of four years in jail, the worst collective result.

Modeled on the prisoner’s dilemma, Barnes sets up a politician’s dilemma in which candidates have two choices: clarify or obfuscate. At stake is the probability of winning an election. Weak William is running against Strong Sally. If both clarify their positions, voters would choose Sally. If William clarifies (making his failings manifest) and Sally obfuscates, she wins by a landslide. However, if William obfuscates while Sally clarifies (alienating some marginal voters) William squeaks through. Thus both politicians have an incentive to obfuscate. “A vague, equivocal or non-committal stance is likely to neither incline voters to vote for the candidate nor incline them to vote against,” writes Barnes. “Or, even better for the candidate, they may imaginatively project their own views onto the candidate.” That strategy should sound distressingly familiar.

However, it would be better for society if candidates clarified their positions so that voters could more clearly choose the stronger politician. But unlike prisoner’s dilemma, politician’s dilemma, while suboptimal for society, does not inevitably produce the worst collective result case, since Weak William loses to Strong Sally when both obfuscate.

The politician’s dilemma stimulates Barnes to wonder if there is some other way to organize elections such that candidates have a reason to prefer providing more clarity to voters. Debates? Well, no. “In the U.S., candidates have found ways to avoid clarifying their controversial positions while appearing to do so, such as by our own system of pseudo-debates,” admits Barnes. Perhaps the news media could demand more substantive positions from candidates? Successful politicians are adept at not answering questions, so anything short of locking them in newsrooms and TV studios until journalists are satisfied with their answers will not work.

Finally Barnes lamely suggests making access to dramatically increased taxpayer-financed campaign funds contingent on agreeing to participate in “some system designed to clarify candidates’ views.” First, Barnes should take his own decision matrix seriously; since obfuscation works, politicians have no incentive for adopting any system that unduly clarifies their views. As for taxpayer-financed campaigning, the Federal Election Commission’s Presidential Election Campaign Fund offer of $20 million per candidate is irrelevant when compared to the fact that the two major party presidential candidates and their supporters will have spent more than $2.6 billion by the end of the 2012 campaign.

Since dishonesty is inherent in electoral politics, perhaps some day disgusted voters will revolt and rein in the size and scope of government. Until that happy day, the only recourse of an appalled citizenry is to throw the current crop of scoundrels out when their lying, obfuscation, and double-dealing become too egregious. As political philosopher Whoopi Goldberg has astutely observed, it is the sad case that if you choose to participate in electoral politics, “You’ve got to vote for someone. It’s a shame, but it’s got to be done.” Today, our choice is between a mountebank and a charlatan: Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

*Whoppers courtesy of FactCheck.org.

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  • Tim||

    I'm voting mountebank.

  • BarryD||

    Racist! Misogynist!

    If you don't vote Charlatan, you're dead to me!

  • Loki||

    Today, our choice is between a mountebank and a charlatan

    I'll write in turd sandwhich.

  • John Thacker||

    People prefer liars. It's impossible to assemble a majority coalition of people who believe the same things, so you either need a coalition of people willing to work with people with whom they disagree, a coalition of people willing to subordinate issues that they don't care about as much, or a coalition of people willing to be lied to and believing that the other people in their coalition are the true rubes.

    Of the possibilities, the lying is the most stable and effective.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Because they can. And it's worse today than ever. No accountability, no repercussions. Heck, people hardly even resign anymore, even when busted!

  • BarryD||

    I think that the system in question has led to a crop of pols with greater and greater narcissistic tendencies.

  • Drunk Jamie||

    This just in: Water is wet.

  • tagtann||

    Whats sad is the American Sheeple are dumb enough to fall for the lies!
    www.anon-rule.tk

  • AnonoBot||

    If a politician's lips are moving he's lying, right?

  • Oso Politico||

    Hey Ron, who is 'she' - the turd in your pocket? PC hits Reason.

  • pmarrone5488@gmail.com||

    Statistically, politicians keep 75% of all promises made, going as far back as the 1890s.

  • Robert||

    For years I've made the same points here as cited in the article, i.e. that politics is about fooling people, so to be more effective we should practice improving our deceit. I hadn't realized there were scholars writing the same things, doing the same analysis.

  • hotsy totsy||

    Scratch a liar, find a thief.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    Good artice Mr. Bailey.

  • ZacJ||

    This is one of the areas where libertarians suffer. The question is whether I'd rather always lose and still be right privately or win sometimes but betray my values. While this may seem like a moral question, it is actually a practical question. Why? Because it depends on how much you feel you actually lose when you don't win an election. If Barack Obama wins that is not an inconsequential thing. The same is true for Romney or any other candidate. So the practical question is how bad will the outcome be and the moral question is how does that compare to the wrong of betraying my values?

    I think most people would lie to save their child's life so the idea that there is no practical consideration so bad that it doesn't justify betraying your values is false. So the only question left is how bad do you think it will be if you lose. It may be awful to think that means lying or being inconsistent may become necessary in order to do a net good but that is self-evident in our system. At least that is true if you believe that the actual real world consequences of elections (which are not unimportant) are worse than whatever moral loss you suffer in order to win. In other words, is the current loss in some way comparable to your child being killed and the current moral hazard comparable to lying to prevent it. Obviously that is a question of degree and therefore a question of judgement and practicality.

  • Politics Debunked||

    Lies vary in how serious they are.

    George Orwell expressed a fear in the book 1984 that leaders would gain so much influence they could: "announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it." Previously he wrote: "This prospect frightens me much more than bombs".

    We seem to have reached that point. Obama claimed at the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 6th, 2012: "I'll use the money we're no longer spending on war to pay down our debt".

    Yet the White House site contains his 2013 budget proposal with a table showing his planned national debt at the end of each year through 2022. It adds at least $900 billion to the debt every year, $9.6 trillion over a decade.

    If a CEO lied about his company's finances to get people to buy stock, the public would cry "fraud! send him to jail!". Should we trust someone to run our government that we wouldn't trust to run a company? This isn't a one time gaffe, he has repeated it from the State of the Union in January, through dozens of speeches into October and a campaign commercial.

    People failed to point out his own site contradicts him, there is no need to trust a partisan source. He'll keep lying if people don't spread the word since he gets away with it. See this short video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zJbYNDRn_Y or http://www.PoliticsDebunked.com for more including links.

  • Epicdelusion||

    We don't say lies, we say Malarkey

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