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.