Lying politicians, part II: the limits to lies

In part, I talked about how politicians were forced to lie to us because we the population are their bosses and we enjoy flattery. A nice recent example of just that was the announcement that we were going to have 10 universities in the top 100 by 2025. Yeah, sure.

We demand of our politicians that they share the same beliefs as we do, even if they are ridiculous beliefs, and that they explain everything as favourably for our self-esteem as possible, including our undoubted victory in the next war and the end to poverty within our lifetime. The impossible promises given out regarding  war and poverty are repeated for almost anything. For instance, we all want good schools, but we don’t want to pay for them or accept that to really improve the education of the majority means letting go of other ideals, such as the ‘no kid behind’ doctrine that in reality translates into an extremely low base level of learning. We want our cakes and eat it, so we fully expect to see many new initiatives that promise improvement but not much change in reality. Similarly, anything that we as a group have agreed is objectionable or desirable is something we expect our politicians to promise to remove or provide. Politicians are thereby mandated to promise us to remove poverty and climate change, whilst they will deliver economic growth and justice.

Yet there are limits to the lies. It is important to realise that the truth is important insofar as the population as a whole has been convinced of it. Consider the case of promising an end to poverty and unemployment. Whether poverty really can be eliminated is irrelevant: politicians must pretend they are going to eliminate inequality as long as a sizeable fraction of the population is unaware of the near impossibility (or extreme difficulty) of getting rid of inequality. Whether or not politicians are actually able to generate 100,000 jobs or not is also irrelevant. What matters is whether the majority of the population believes such job-creation is possible.

Hence the limits to lies are given by the education and intelligence of the population. The population knows full well that politicians cannot overnight make their husbands and wives more attractive and caring, and would thus quickly brand any politician promising such things a liar. Yet, the population has almost no understanding of how climate change could be averted and hence is fully capable of believing token policies are going to deliver even though there is no serious scientist that thinks this (although there are plenty of scientists egging the population on to accepting symbolic policies under the apparent, and in my opinion deluded, belief that ‘symbolic’ eventually will lead to ‘substantial’). So the politicians must be honest about their inability to improve husbands and lie about the effect of their policies on climate change.

When things become really important to a population and their attention is focussed on a particular problem, politicians will often be forced to switch from lying to extreme openness. The global financial crisis was a good example of this. Usually, politicians promise economic growth whether that growth is going to happen or not, and the population happily trots along enjoying a continued warm glow of being in a go-forward country. Yet, when a major crisis hits the economy that undeniably and very visibly halts economic growth for a considerable length of time, the population suddenly wants to know everything about it: how it was possible that housing bubbles emerged, why regulation failed, what can be done to avoid the next crisis, etc. At such moments politicians have to become as transparent and honest as water as any hint of sugar-coating or hiding important facts would be their undoing.

A skilled politician thus knows what their population is willing to believe, when they really want the truth, and when their attention once again wanders off. The truly brilliant politicians are those that are able to come up with bogus storylines about their political opponents that the majority of the population are willing to believe. ‘Interest rates would go to 15% under X’, ‘X would open the gates to immigrants’. ‘Y would do nothing and thus lead us to an unsustainable climate’. Such statements are usually fictional from start to finish in that they talk about things outside of the control of both party X or Y, and ones where furthermore X and Y would do the same thing in almost every eventuality. Yet, as political statements they are attempts at rallying support from within the population based on their hidden fears and desires and, above all, their willingness to believe such lies.

If you are good at reading the hidden desires and proclivities of your population, you win elections and thus ensure you and your party thousands of cushy jobs and all the associated trappings of power. The competitive nature of politics furthermore ensures a continuous search for storylines that gather political support. Those storylines are sought from the wide world of truth and fantasy alike: whatever is believed and is popular goes – the truth in one instance, a complete fabrication in another. The political process is thereby a search for popular truths and lies and will deliver both in ample measure.

In part III the role in this game for scientists will be highlighted. If you want to see more on the various implications of my ARC-funded research into the importance of political story-telling, then you should have a look at this forthcoming book.

17 thoughts on “Lying politicians, part II: the limits to lies

  1. An honest politician will not be tolerated by a democracy unless he is very stupid . . . because only a very stupid man can honestly share the prejudices of more than half the nation. –– Bertrand Russell, ”The Need for Political Scepticism,” 1923

    Perhaps the “… limits to the lies.” has more to do with the practical impossibility of us and our politicians sharing more than a relatively few prejudices at any given time.

    And is there a place in this orgy of mutual mythopoeia for the “low information voter” who hardly ever listens to politicians anyway ?

    • Beautiful quote. Very apt. The question is though what it means for the roles of the various other actors in the public debate. Should all the bloggers and people vying for attention by the media also go along with lies? Or at least little ones that are shared by many? It’s a conundrum,

  2. This is all well and good as far as it goes but you talk as if the relationship between politicians and voters was a direct unmediated relationship (so to speak). At no point have you mentioned the media which in fact enforces lying by harassing and abusing any politician who tries to tell the truth. It also does everything it can to control the agenda and limit what can actually be talked about. Interestingly it is now become more direct because of the internet and social media but as the mainstream media loses control it behaves in increasingly irresponsible ways in its attempt to maintain its influence over the political process.

  3. Does your book quantify this sort of thing? I’ve seen social network analysis for things like looking at levels of corruption in science agencies, but not other such things as you mention here.

  4. Is your criticism related to your disdain for the Freakonomics style of analysis you mentioned once before?
    Without reading the book of the same title I gather from reviews it is a novel way to try and extend comprehension of economics to those not trained in the discipline but this could be incorrect.
    I find these articles challenging – though my reaction to the first line was identical to yours .The lyrical if exaggerated descriptions sound good!
    Not sure what to say about the sensitivity of the moderator leading to deletions.

    • My rule about deletion is simple: if you keep it civil and keep somewhat on topic, it is fine. Being abusive like SJ is a no no.

  5. Ian,

    Yes, the role of the media is a big issue here, thigh I tend to view what they write more as demand-lead than supply-lead, ie they write to sell volume. The lack of demand for high-quality says something about the audience, though one can also try and look for something in the market structure to explain failures in provision of better news, such as the possibility of free riding or the possibility that free analysis is pushing out investigative journalism. It is a big topic though. Any views yourself?

    • Yes, big topic and complex. And the folowing is very crude. But I think the role of internal organisational cultures are invariably underestimated and also things like homosociability. So if you regard the newspapers as a cultural meme whose only objective is basically its own perpetuation; that has access to a range of resources eg income and control of information sources; that perpetuates itself by homosociability ie selecting like minded or conforming employees; and which basically always behaves in ways that increas its power or control – well then you have a pretty clear picture of the mainstream media. The media then has a range of techniques to deal with possible threats (like politicians) and those techniques include overt bullying simply to make sure politicians realise the media’s power. Of course the media’s problem now is that the resource base (advertising) is collapsing, the control techniques are also collapsing because the public can gain access to the information directly and the bullying doesn’t work because the public can also now do it’s own bullying directly. That doesn’t mean politicians won’t still be subject to a demand that they lie, just that it won’t be the mainstream media enforcing it with beatups, false outrage etc. it will be the less predictable social media

      • “So if you regard the newspapers as a cultural meme whose only objective is basically its own perpetuation…”
        What no profits?
        Extend some love to those long suffering shareholders please!

      • Ian the ‘news’ culture you describe sounds strangely like the old aristocratic dueling cultures of the South and other times and places-The Regulation of Social Meaning – Lessig.

      • Hi Ian,

        yes, I agree that the demise of the advertising-lead old media is making it harder for politicians. I also see your point about media organisations having a culture, their own wish for power, and an innate tendency to ‘boss around’ the politicians.
        Where we might differ slightly is in how organised the media is. I see them as a collection of competing groups, finding storylines and positions in a fairly ad-hoc evolutionary way such that, ultimately, they too are mainly the slaves of the underlying demand by the public and the supply by the politicians. Their reduced ability to cash in on the volume they create means that the more investigative parts die out and give way to blind copy-paste behaviour. I think of this every time SBS gives me undiluted American news of the ‘dog in a tree in Wisconsin’ variety. Must be the cheapest news going around.

  6. I take politics with a pinch of salt. Politicians with a bigger pinch of salt.There is no objectivity it is all very subjective . Time is the greatest revealer of what is truth. As my mother used to say ” It all comes out in the wash”

  7. Ah, the comment deletion rule becomes a bit clearer.

    Anything that’s potentially critical of Fritjers book is deleted.

    Wouldn’t want truth or integrity or anything like that to interfere with Fritjers earning what’s probably a trivial amount of money on the side.

  8. A somewhat belated postscript that you may appreciate should you ever get around to reading it. A little something from Eric Blair, from 1984 but of course:

    To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”

    How’s part iii coming along ?

    • great quote. Very apt.
      Part III is already written. Am waiting for a slow week to post it. Want me to send it to you by mail then just drop me a line.

      • It is indeed, though how applicable to present-day politicians is debatable as most of them appear to lack the qualities that would have elevated them from being proles to membership of the Party (Outer or Inner).

        I’m happy to wait for part iii when it arrives. I need something to read in a slow week too.

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