Mendacious Expediency

They’re both simply engaging in the sort of expedient lying that is a working politician’s everyday lot. Politics isn’t a profession for saints.

No, perhaps politics is not the career for the scrupulously honest, but that doesn’t mean that we should be happy about our elected representatives constantly treating citizens as somehow intellectually inferior and unable to understand the necessity to be frugal with the truth and at the same time true to one’s conscience.

I was going to make a comment to Ken’s post about the unacceptability of mendacious expediency but thought back to an article that appeared in last weekend’s AFR titled “THE NEED FOR TRUTH: When politicians lie: reflections on truth, politics and patriotism” by Raimond Gaita and decided that there is much more to the topic than would fit comfortably into a comment box.

In a piece called “Debates about primacy of conscience show the need for truth and freedom.” Andrew Hamilton says,

When so many people find government policies and their execution morally repugnant, we need a moral framework that expects and honours conscientious dissent …… It is not helpful to see truth and conscience as rivals for precedence. When placed within the play of conscience truth does have primacy. When we ask what we should do, we affirm the value of truth. When forming our conscience, we enquire about the truth. After we recognise the truth, we choose to follow it but remain open to changing our way of acting if what we believed to be true turns out to be false. So truth does have primacy within conscience over self-interest and arbitrary choice.

As Gaita puts it,

TRUTH AND TRUTHFULNESS matter to us in politics for at least three reasons. Most obviously they matter because they bring practical benefits. We want contracts to be honoured; we are reliant on information that we cannot ourselves secure, so we need to trust the media. We also want our bridges to stand, our doctors to cure us, our lawyers to defend us competently, and so on. In a society such as ours, standards of truthfulness need to be high and the means of discovering truths – medical, scientific, and so on – very sophisticated. For such practical reasons we even encourage people to seek truth for non-practical reasons – for its own sake – because we hope that it will increase the yield of groundbreaking work.

A widow who was consoled by government propaganda about the cause for which her husband gave his life may become suspicious of that propaganda and, with mounting desperation, seek the truth about what is fast appearing to her to have been an unjust war. She is reliant on the truthfulness of the institutions that can give her the information she needs – most obviously, independent media.

Citizens who also love their country can hold their politicians to account when the mendacity of their politicians affects their material interest and when it undermines their capacity to be lucid about important events or aspects of their lives. They can also hold them to account when their mendacity defiles anything that counts as the serious love of country ……… The Platonic Socrates of the early dialogues seems to believe that a preparedness to do evil when necessary is internal to serious political commitment and that those who refuse to do it will be judged to be irresponsible by their fellow citizens ……… Politicians must, as politicians, sometimes do what morally they must not do. That dilemma, soberly acknowledged, constitutes the misery and the dignity of a political vocation. It would therefore be quite absurd to deny that politicians must sometimes lie if they are honourably to rise to the responsibilities of their calling. Acknowledgement of that, however, is a far cry from the cynical expectation that politicians will lie to protect their parties and even their careers …….. Perhaps that is why so many people accept that there is nothing in the very nature of politics, as there is in professions like law or medicine, for example, that should make politicians ashamed to lie as often as they seem to – ashamed, not just as human beings but as politicians. Few people believe that politicians who lie regularly disgrace their profession.

Nonetheless politicians are regularly put at the bottom of the list of respected and/or trusted professionals. Indeed do they warrant the courtesy of labelling them professionals – and if the answer is positive probably only because most of them are lawyers whose egos are so supersized that the court is too small a place to air them. In the words of that famous professor (no, not the denizen of the billabong) ‘Why is it so ?’

I believe one of the reasons is that they regularly treat the electorate with contempt, while all the time mouthing the platitude “we respect the voter”. It isn’t true ! For instance I refuse to be drawn into the persistent presidential style of electioneering that is adopted by both parties.

Whether the Bovver Boy swears in parliament or John Winston Pinnochio is frugal with the truth is of less importance than the big picture. Who will be responsible for the Treasury ? It will probably be Simple Simon (a politician widely regarded as untalented at best) if Labor gets in; but will Howard be able to put off the same sort of Costello-attack that unseated Hawke and led to the eventual demise of the last Labour government ? And if so who will be the new coalition Treasurer?

How is the government going to pay the public servants their $100 billion in superannuation ? These are the things I want to know about.

I guess it’s too much to ask that politicians of any ilk will have an attack of conscience and actually address some issues that are actually meaningful to the country rather than the squeakiest wheel or the most exposed hip pocket nerve.

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Niall
Niall
2022 years ago

Politics is NOT a career. Nor is it a profession. It’s a part-time occupation, by which I mean it’s an occupation undertaken by people who are good at other things, but choose to be in politics for varying periods of time. Politicians are not professionals. They are primarily liars, cheats and seekers of power and/or glory. In actuality, politicians are people who really do need to get lives.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Well here’s a couple of pollies that certainly aren’t dissembling at all.

http://www.soulpacific.com/archives/unaustralian/000661.html

Doug
2022 years ago

I’d always thought that for an activity to be a profession it had to be bound by its own peculiar code of ethics (separate from common-sense morality) and that this group of practitioners was (in theory) primarily responsible for policing the conduct of its members.

Despite the obvious failings of doctors and lawyers in policing their own and increasing levels of government regulation, members of these professions still sit on disciplinary bodies that judge the ethical and professional breaches of their colleagues.

The concept of a bipartisan committee exiling someone from parliament for a breach of “political ethics” is – sadly – so laughable as to show just why no-one would dignify the pursuit term with “profession”.

That said, I definately know people who can and do pursue a career in politics, in the sense that as party workers or political staffers they are not likely to spend many years of their “professional” life outside that environment.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Doug is right and Niall is wrong. There are plenty of people who make careers out of politics, some out of being apparatchiks or local electorate office workers, and some from being politicians. John Howard is a career politician who practised law only briefly before entering politics, and is now over normal retirement age. Mark Latham is also a lifelong career politician who worked as an apparatchik for years before running for office.

Doug raises a different point, namely whether politics can be called “profession”. He argues that it can’t be unless it has “its own peculiar code of ethics … and … was (in theory) primarily responsible for policing the conduct of its members.”

But politics meets those criteria. Politicians are subject to a detailed and mostly self-regulating code of ethics, both for behaviour on the floor of Parliament and outside (disclosure of financial interests etc). Some may argue that the code is fairly loose and sometimes honoured in the breach, but you can say the same of the legal profession as well.

I would have thought the major thing that distinguishes politics from most professions is that there’s no specific training ground or paper qualification that’s a prerequisite for professional practice, unlike law, medicine, enineering, accountancy and the like.

L.F. Brown
2022 years ago

Gaita wrote: “Few people believe that politicians who lie regularly disgrace their profession.”

Which obviously raises serious questions about the “profession”; questions, in my opinion, he didn’t adequately address in the article. A pity.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

LFB

I deduce that you’re also a lawyer. I can’t help thinking of pots, kettles and the colour black in the circumstances. The Jim Carrey movie “Liar Liar” reflects a popular perception of the truthfulness of lawyers that’s a long way from completely misguided. Of course, lawyers are ethically forbidden to mislead a court, but even that rule is fairly tightly delimited leaving plenty of room for conduct most people would regard as a very close first cousin to lying at the very least.

Of course, that shouldn’t prevent us from asking “serious questions” about the ethics of either lawyers or politicians, or ethics more generally. But nor should we suggest implicitly that politicians have a unique (or even especially unusual) propensity to lie.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

What is a lie?

Let me use an example I’ve covered elsewhere.

Did Mike Scrafton lie when he told the Bryant investigation that no one had told him that children hadn’t been thrown overboard?

Obviously. Er, hang on, Scrafton reckons that he was constrained by the terms of reference of that enquiry to answer questions only on the basis of official ‘public service’ information he had come across. So, aware of this, is he still lying…

Okay, maybe not.

But what if we find that the supposed constraints placed upon him were figments of his imagination? For example Cabinet decisions that weren’t made until long after that enquiry. What if the only reason he omits vital details that make his submission utterly misleading is in order to protect his career?

Hmm, in that case, maybe he’s not lying, per se, but he isn’t really telling the truth, is he?

‘Yes he is,’ cry the lefties…Oh, wait on, if he was telling the truth there, then that would mean he was lying to the Senate Committee, wouldn’t it?

So he couldn’t have been lying, he just wasn’t telling the truth.

When the topic turns to politicians and lies, I think it might be useful if people put themselves in the shoes of the accused and ask: Well, what would I have said in the circumstances?

When anything but the most carefully worded statement is reported with hysterical sensationalism, perhaps the real culprit is less the personality type of the people who become politicians, and more why politicians have to feel that straight answers are so problematical. Why not examine the role of the media in the creation of the ‘spin’ industry?

mark
2022 years ago

I think it might just be relevant to bring up your phantom textbooks here, Al.

A figment of whose imagination?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“I think it might just be relevant to bring up your phantom textbooks here, Al.’

Why? How would that have any bearing whatsoever on the case he’s making? If you haven’t got a reasoned response to make, why bother?

L.F. Brown
2022 years ago

Ken,

Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not a lawyer.

Now to your main point: I was not suggesting that politicians have a unique propensity to lie. Rather, the business they are in, government, is unique.

Two simplified examples:

Let’s say politician A lies or misleads the public and is caught out. The repercussions towards him, generally, may be that he doesn’t get that cabinet post for a while/is demoted/gets a verbal slap on the wrist, or perhaps he does not get re-elected next time around. So he goes off and gets another job. His former employer is still around to fill his position.

Businessman B lies or misleads the public and is caught out. The repercussions towards him, generally, may be that he is fined, sued, or perhaps that his customers no longer wish to do business with him, rivals take over his market and his business goes down the gurgler, perhaps even along with his wealth and good livelihood. His existing business is no longer.

Not only are the standards of accountability, generally speaking, different in practice for those within and those without the realm of government; so too is it in theory. Government has the monopoly on the legal use of force. While I, generally speaking, can choose to do business, or associate, with whomever I want (and vice versa), when it comes to government the choice, in many cases, is not available. I have to pay taxes. I may have to comply with a government directive or regulation that may appear unjust to me. This ability to coerce, or use force, quite different from persuasion or cooperation, is unique to government. It is no surprise then that abuse of power, corruption and dishonesty has more of a chance to breathe in the realm of government than outside of it.

Gaita seems to be one of those “who think that it is not the system which we need fear, but the danger that it might be run by bad men…”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Businessman B lies or misleads the public and is caught out. The repercussions towards him, generally, may be that he is fined, sued, or perhaps that his customers no longer wish to do business with him, rivals take over his market and his business goes down the gurgler

Like James Hardie. Or cigarette companies. The “market” sorted out their lies? Sure. Only strong government action can do that, co-ordinated between countries as well given their propensity to shift operations and target markets to dodge accountability. We should indeed be suspicious of government, remain ever-vigilant and insist on transparent processes and adequate checks and balances to minimise abuse and dishonesty. But we should be equally suspicious of corporations and their urgings that checks and balances on them should be removed because “markets” are miraculously self-regulating.

L.F. Brown
2022 years ago

Ken,

I didn’t say that the market *solves* dishonesty; rather, government does it less well and can even perpetuate it, because while it cannot go out of business, others outside of it can.

I didn’t say that those who commit fraud and harm, etc. cannot be sued, etc. according to the rule of law.

I will say that the market does have many avenues to regulate, that are not coercive, can be politically motivated or encourage corporations to sidle up to the government.

I will also say that any dishonesty from outside the government should be treated seriously and I hope I didn’t give another impression. I just have more confidence in the market (the realm of voluntary transactions and relationships) than outside of it. After all, the government has for years done well off tobacco companies and I wonder where it was then.