Lying politicians, part I: Why do they do it?

An oft-heard complaint is that politicians lie to us. They promise us 100,000 jobs, lower taxes, more generous spending, an end to poverty and inequality, economic growth, better schools, world peace, nicer climate, and victory over all our enemies. And when they do not deliver, shock horror! Worse, during their reign they sign the country onto meaningless declarations like the Millennium Goals or the Kyoto targets, once again promising things they know they cannot deliver.

Why do they do it? And what is the limit to their lies: why don’t they also promise us better looking and more considerate husbands and wives? Why don’t we get promised a reserved seat in heaven, a steaming cup of tea each morning, and fresh bread at the bakery?

Together with several co-authors I have several articles that tackle this question with the use of data and models, but in this series I want to give the basic story in a non-technical way. In this first part, the question is why politicians lie so much.

The key to understanding why politicians lie is to understand the interaction between servants and their bosses. Lying to your boss is something we basically all do, at least if we want to keep our jobs and marriages intact. The kind of lies we tell our boss on a daily basis are of the form: ‘Of course your strategic plan for the organisation is brilliant, boss!’, ‘Your new product is way better than that of the competitor’, ‘The rest of the staff should show you more respect’ and ‘that was not bullying, you were just laying down expectations’. Similarly, our wives/husbands are better looking than average, deserving of promotions and healthy children, clearly misunderstood saints, never grumpy, never jealous or arrogant, and invariably well-intentioned. Only fools and divorcees would say otherwise.

To politicians, we the population are their bosses. And we like to hear that all our dreams will come true and that we are infallible. There may be mountains of scientific evidence documenting our limitations, but the boss is always right and thus the boss does not want to hear about his own limitations.

Why do we enjoy flattery so much? From cognitive science we now know that pretending we are better than we are is an evolutionary trait baked into us and conveys great advantages. We are happier, healthier, and more attractive mates because we lie to ourselves and others about how great we are and how our ambitions are all going to work out. That trait is not going to disappear or become any less salient simply because a couple of egg-head scientists are aware of that trait. Knowing at some rational scientific level how flawed we are in no way prevents either the general population or the very same scientists from pretending that we are flawless and that our opportunities are endless.

There is thus absolutely no way that politicians can be honest about the limitations of the population. They cannot openly say that the population is too ‘mentally challenged’ to save up enough for retirement and that that is why we should have compulsory superannuation. The official line has to be ‘compulsory superannuation guarantees the population sufficient retirement funds’. Similarly, politicians cannot say ‘we are going to war with Iraq because we want to be seen to stand by our friends even if they are only in it because of pride and oil interests’. The official line has to be ‘we are fighting a just war against an oppressor who is developing weapons of mass destruction that will threaten our own borders’.

We don’t want to hear we are too mentally challenged to save up. Likewise, we don’t want to hear that we hand out life-and-death sentences to foreigners on the basis of our friendships. Yet, we still do want to follow those friendships and we still do want more certainty about retirement funds. Hence we want, and indeed, force our politicians to lie to us on such points.

To rail against politicians because of the lies they are forced into, is similar to asking every man and woman to be honest to their own boss and partner. It is not just unfair, but also pointless. Honest politicians would quickly lose the cut-throat competition with other politicians. Asking politicians to be honest is merely another self-serving myth we would force our politicians to pretend to espouse. Much like every US presidential hopeful has to at least pretend to be religious, so too must all politicians feign honesty.

23 thoughts on “Lying politicians, part I: Why do they do it?

  1. Well, politicians often DO promise the things in paragraph two.

    It’s perhaps unfair to cite America as representative of democracies, but note the ways that the Romney campaign is pandering to influential conservative figures like Pat Robertson and Bryan Fischer, who are eagerly describing the election as a choice between heaven and hell in the belief that God will punish nations that don’t support conservative politicians.

    Going back to the last US election, Google around for John McCain’s “The One” campaign advert, which was a direct and undisguised appeal to religious voters who are quite literally expecting to see the Antichrist appear as a politician, and suspect it’s Barack Obama.

    The softer form of this “vote for me to get to heaven” is in Julia Gillard’s reluctance to annoy Catholic voters by supporting same sax marriage.

    Then there’s the “better spouses” promise, which we see whenever the right blames feminism for robbing men of the pretty and gracious Stepford wives they’re entitled to, and which – as everyone knows – women were delighted to be before the horrid left came along and turned all the girls into abortion-crazed lesbians.

  2. Circumstances change constantly and we must go with the flow. Nothing is constant because of outside forces beyond our control. To criticise without offering a solution is merely to be negative, Calling things a lie is a cop out when there is no solution or evidence offered. POLITICANS are in a difficult position because they have so much to protect and the markets and research are in flux daily. WE cannot please all of the people all of the time. What is good today may be a bad idea tomorrow yet whole careers hang on this need for rock solid statements that may not be a good idea further down the track so mistakes are made. They must be acknowledged and move on instead of raking up mistakes as lies all the time looking backwards instead of forward.

  3. Circumstances change constantly and we must go with the flow. Nothing is constant because of outside forces beyond our control. To criticise without offering a solution is merely to be negative, Calling things a lie is a cop out when there is no solution or evidence offered. POLITICANS are in a difficult position because they have so much to protect and the markets and research are in flux daily. WE cannot please all of the people all of the time. What is good today may be a bad idea tomorrow yet whole careers hang on this need for rock solid statements that may not be a good idea further down the track so mistakes are made. They must be acknowledged and move on instead of raking up mistakes as lies all the time looking backwards instead of forward.

  4. Well, if we want more goodies from government, and don’t want to pay more tax, then we actually have to believe that it is possible to do so because there is so much fat in the public service.

    Now, that may be fine and true if one could point to a consistent example of where this was true. For example, we have had Labor and Coalition governments alternate roughly similar periods since the second world war, but has the size of the public sector changed? Yep, upward.

    The point I am making, is that it seems that when politicians are telling us we can have more, but not pay for it, they are lying. However, the direction of those lies seems to be toward the provision of services rather than the reduction in cost/taxes. Is it the problem that politicians lie, or that we are just too credulous?

    Politicians lie to us because they don’t get elected unless they do. Therefore elections become a selection process whereby only liars can survive. If one isn’t prepared to lie, don’t bother to stand for office.

    “Probatis laudatur et alget”. Nothing has changed much since the time of Juvenal.

  5. So, lying is part of human nature. People apparently prefer to be lied to.

    Are we making any distinction here between diplomacy, spin and outright fraud?

    Or is this slippery slope all good?

  6. emess, elise,

    both of you raise the issue of where the limits are and what the gradations of lies are in different circumstances. Its the topic of my next installment in this series, but please be my guest and give me your answer on it!

  7. Paul, you invite an answer on the limits and gradations of lies.

    I would venture that everyone has a different idea of limits. Some of us think that errors of omission (as opposed to commission) are the limit. For example, omitting to point out that your spouse looks hideous in their favourite tie, or favourite lippy, would appear to be an omission that falls within the bounds of diplomacy. Unless you strongly feel it would cost them the job interview. For subjective material, the omission is a matter of personal judgement.

    However, some omissions are reprehensible. For example, omitting information which could cost someone their life, or their life savings. The recipients of these particular lies are generally NOT happy about the lying.

    At the other end of the spectrum, we have people like Lance Armstrong, or conmen, who have a very different view of the limits, if indeed “limit” applies. “Errors of commission” would hardly describe it adequately.

    Arguably the cycling lead bodies are up to their necks in what they would view as acceptable lies. It will be interesting to see if the sponsors and followers of the sport have a similar perspective on “acceptable limits” to lying.

    So there is my answer. Some people have personal standards. Others push the boundaries to the limits that their recipients &/or society are prepared to accept.

    • Yes, the Armstrong case is a fascinating example of whole layers of lies. Coming from the Netherlands where cycling was big for a long time, I think it fair to say ‘we cyclists’ have been comfortable with the idea that you needed to use artificial methods to ride something as grueling as the Tour and that the advantages of EPO were so great and that it was so hard to trace that you just basically had to accept that everyone at the very top did it. The pantomime of ‘being clean’ was just there for the gullible who wanted to believe in the fairy tale of clean sports. It was a pantomime that was ridiculed a lot anyway because how can any sport which requires you to train at high altitude, have zillions spent on high-tech equipment, coached by professional psychologists, with balanced diets, sugar drips in the night in order to restock the body, etc., ever be considered a healthy and clean sport anyway? You could only win if you had the unfair advantages of big money, insane amounts of training, and completely unnatural feeding methods applied to you. So banning substances that are hard to detect but that help a lot didnt make much sense in the first place. Health checks would have made much more sense, but of course if you really cared about health you should ban long-distance cycling completely, together with gymnastics, boxing, and many other sports. So in cycling there were indeed two layers of lies: the lie that the runners were clean in order allow individuals to retain their illusion that sports can be healthy and clean. A lie to cover a lie.

      Within that set-up, the fact that the pantomime is no longer tenable is somewhat unfortunate because the underlying realities are still the same so one is mainly pushing the riders towards criminal networks to organise their usage. Having professional and organised team doctors looking after the riders was much safer so one should expect more mistakes now that the professional medics are being pushed out. Having said that, the Armstrongs of the world did destroy others who threatened the pantomime by not playing along, so there was a loss in the old system just as there will be a loss in the new one.

      As to the rest, allow me to leave my reply on the general issues till the next post (where I hope you will note I use different language but agree with central tenets of your argument).

      • Almost complete, Paul. With a few more sentences, you would have me reaching for the tissue box…

        Lance becomes an unfortunate victim of the system. Forced to lie about his activities, repeatedly, for years, emphatically.

        Poor bugger…

        • The guy helped raise hundreds of millions for good causes and is still the best cyclist of his generation. What would you have preferred to have happened? If you answer ‘win clean’ then you are like the voter demanding a lie. If the answer is ‘lose clean’ then you deny the many who were saved by his charities their life. We would simply have cheered someone else who would have done less good with his win. I am afraid you cannot have it all…..

        • Paul, Lance Armstrong’s organisation, Livestrong, has unusually high operating costs and doesn’t fund cancer research.

          There seems to be ample evidence that Livestrong was founded primarily as a way of raising money for Lance Armstrong and associates.

          And while Armstrong was using doping as a way to build the reputation that made the cash-in possible, honest athletes were being dudded out of victories that they rightfully earned.

          http://www.smh.com.au/sport/cycling/how-dopers-stole-the-best-years-of-my-career-20121026-28aif.html

  8. “If the answer is ‘lose clean’ then you deny the many who were saved by his charities their life.”

    Ahh, the old trading moralities act: Bad + Good = OK.

    And rather overblown claims, methinks.

  9. Yes Elise, bad plus good is indeed ok in my book. I dont think another position is tenable, do you? Still, I had not seen Sancho’s allegations of bad faith by Armstrong’s charity. That would certainly change things but I bet we will hear more about those revelations soon.
    For those who are wondering: I have removed all the replies by SJ who was just being abusive. He just seems to swing by to be rude it seems.

    • Oh great. Now I’ll never find out which super-powerful secret society maintains the illusion of Labor and the Liberals being in competition.

      For all we know SJ could be a genuine Larouchian, and you hardly ever see them in the wild these days. Now Club Troppo’s chance to kick the week off with an undiluted stream of crazy is gone and we’re back to serious commentary.

      Anyway, here’s where Livestrong gets the full treatment: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/athletes/lance-armstrong/Its-Not-About-the-Lab-Rats.html

      • Agreed Sancho, It could have been interesting to read what SJ had to say. Human behaviour is all ‘data’; all ‘grist to the mill’, in the project to understand the amazing human brain and the fascinating outliers this culture, with its emphasis on individuality, is creating.

        Another totally off topic link from me, but you mentioned evolution and I’m an evopsych nerd Paul.

        http://socialevolutionforum.com/2012/09/13/joseph-stiglitz-the-price-of-inequality-cultural-evolution-the-evolution-institute/

        “I had a similar experience in the conference the Evolution Institute organized last December in Stanford on Nation-Building and Failed States. One of the participants was Francis Fukuyama, who had recently published a book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he was clearly interested in engaging with evolutionary thinking. Yet he had to resort to appeals to the two tired (and badly wrong) models of human sociality – reciprocal altruism and kin selection. I had a long conversation with him at the conference, and so did David – it will be interesting to see whether we were able to make our case effectively.”

        And Paul, you say “Knowing at some rational scientific level how flawed we are in no way prevents either the general population or the very same scientists from pretending that we are flawless and that our opportunities are endless.”

        But understanding the strength of that evidence and accepting it, is the first essential step to gaining the level of self-insight that is said to be, or will lead to ‘enlightenment’.

  10. Would Jimmy Savile qualify for the Bad + Good = OK award ??
    He did, after all, help the Crippled Kiddies Association, and then went on to cripple a few more.

  11. Perhaps it would be better for us all to adopt the “honest” century as the challenge rather then the plainly expedient for domestic politics “asian” century.

  12. I hope when you get to part 2, Paul, you will distinguish clearly between ‘lies’ and ‘untruths’: lies require knowledge of untruth and intent to deceive, untrurhs are just what most of us tell about ourselves and our world most of the time.

    As I’m sure you know, it was that most perspicacious politician John Winston Howard who alerted us to the definitional difference – in respect of what he said about the children overboard IIRC. Which reminds me of what, over many years, I came to understand about good salesman: they could say anything about anything, and they’d believe it totally for just as long as it took to say it. And all good politicians are good salesmen, non ?

    And if they believe it, even if only for as long as it takes to say it, then, vide JWH, that’s not a lie, is it.

    And while we consider salesmen, who was it that said that salesmen are the greatest suckers for a good sales line ?

    • Gruebleen,

      You bring up a very important point indeed: is it still a lie if someone has convinced himself of it or simply refuses to put in the effort to reflect on it but nevertheless presents it to all the world as a truth? Is someone for instance who says that Obama is a Muslim a liar or an untruth-teller. One might want to call such a lie a mere ‘untruth’ but I am afraid I am stricter and less forgiving than this: if you on reflection should have known something was not true and you did not want to put in the effort to reflect on it but just go with the ‘untruth’ because it is convenient, then that is a lie too. hence even if you managed to get yourself to believe Obama is a Muslim spouting that as the truth whilst you are smart enough to know it aint true makes you a liar. It is almost worse than a lie because it is a double deception: not just would you if you reflected on it know perfectly well that it is a lie but you willingly deceive yourself that it is ok not to reflect and go with what is easy.
      So, no, I do not include in general make much of a distinction between lies and untruths. For sure, there are honest mistakes and things that are not true but that one at the time could reasonably believe, but I am not talking about any of those: I am talking about things a reasonable person putting in a reasonable amount of time would not reasonably believe.
      As you might know though, in the academic and philosophical debates all kinds of distinctions are made to capture these nuances. You might want to read the little booklet ‘On bullshit’ that covers much of American politics!
      You are quite right though that to many people the lies they tell have become real to them. As my grandfather never tired to tell me ‘the first fool you convince is yourself’. He also though that by implication you could only be a good politician if you were pretty dumb intellectually simply because it made you a more convincing liar. I have heard the same thing said afterwards….

      • if you were pretty dumb intellectually simply because it made you a more convincing liar

        Indeed, I think that’s what I was trying to convey with my homilies about ‘salesmen’.

        Well, your definition of ‘lies’ is broader than mine, so, like informed, reasonable people of good will, we might just have to agree to differ here. Which, of course, means that at least one of us believes an ‘untruth’. but we haven’t lied about it. Yet.

        However, if the real thrust of your thesis is ‘why do people (ie us) believe politicians (at all), then I think we have common ground on which to go forward. Of course, when discussing the question of believing politicians, it behoves us to remember the very same John Winston Howard’s prescription of “core and non-core promises”. In short, that which may well have started out an ‘untruth’ can easily morph into a ‘lie’ at any time.

        I look forward to part 2.

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