Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Q: Why do politicians lie?


How do you know when a politician is lying? Answer: Because their lips are moving.

Why do politicians lie? Well, that’s a more interesting question. Ilya Somin from The Volokh Conspiracy suggests three main reasons.

The first may be considered a ‘technical’ reason that may be forgiveable.

Political duplicity is sometimes a necessary tool for facilitating deals, negotiations, and diplomatic maneouvering… ‘Often, the only way to get something done is to have separate private and public truths.’

But the other two? Not so much. Somin calls them

  • Lying to exploit public ignorance; and
  • Lying about the nature of your policies in order to overstate benefits and conceal possible downsides.

He doesn’t consider another reason: because the lied-to have come to expect it. But he does ask if political lying is always wrong.

It is easy to see how political lying might cause harm. But sometimes politicians might actually be justified in lying to the public. Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan argues that such deception is defensible if it prevents an ignorant or malevolent electorate from pushing through harmful and oppressive policies.
    For example, if a bigoted electorate favours slavery or racial segregation, a candidate might be justified in pretending to support these positions himself, and then reneging on his campaign promises when he takes office.

In other professsions that might be called ‘pandering’ -- and better by far, surely, to use your platform to persuade rather than dissemble.

That said, the routine use of lying and exploitation of public ignorance probably causes more harm than good. It also likely contributes to the atmosphere of suspicion and partisan hatred that helps make public opinion even more ignorant and illogical than it otherwise would be.
    Given the structure of the political system, widespread deception may be unavoidable. Politicians who refuse to lie and exploit public ignorance are systematically disadvantaged relative to those with fewer scruples, and win fewer elections because of it. Ironically, the very same voters who hate dishonest politicians regularly reward deception by doing a terrible job of sifting lies from truth – especially when the lies reinforce their preconceptions.

In other words, politians lie because you let them. And because you let them, every new crop of political porky-tellers is rewarded for continuing the practice.

        The public ignorance that makes lying an effective political strategy is extremely difficult to overcome.

That is, it’s all your fault.

Some of the resulting lying may even be justified. Still, we might wonder whether so many of our important decisions should be made by a system where lying is just politics as usual.

Perhaps if we put most of those important decisions beyond politics, where we judge sich things much more severely, we may all be better served.

[Hat tip David Prichard]


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