The lies our politicians have to tell

Scandals about politicians lying are a staple of our media, with the politician Mal Brough saga being the latest installment in Australia. At a dinner with others of his party there was a ‘mock-menu’ that included sexists jokes, made up by the restaurant owner. His protestations that he didn’t know about it or saw it were denounced as untrue by other politicians. I agree with Nicholas Gruen that he was probably telling the truth, if only because getting away with a lie in this case is hard with so many dinner guests there also, and because it would be the kind of lie politicians fear being called out on.

Yet, there are various types of lies that our politicians tell and the lies that they have to fear being called out on are rare. There are many more things politicians say that reasonable people would on reflection know to be untrue that are much more common and, indeed, are seen as completely necessary for the survival of any politician.

Let me thus categorise the 6 types of lies that politicians and other leaders regularly (have to) engage in so that you can appreciate the complete normalcy of lies:

  1. Flattery of the population. Constant flattery of the population is a staple of political debate and politicians who don’t engage in it don’t last long. The flattery ranges from ‘white lies’ like ‘Australia is the greatest country on earth, favoured by god, with a unique place in history destined to play a leading role in this world’, to unreasonable feel-good statements like ‘the law will be applied fairly and equally to all Australians’ or ‘The obese have been the victim of the food industry and carry no responsibility for their own habits’. If you don’t see how each of these statements is a flattery-lie then you should realise you are one of the reasons politicians have to say these things.
  2. Impossible promises like creating X numbers of jobs, promising a solution to climate change, an end to poverty and disease, a future in which our universities will be world-leading, etc. As statements of facts they are absurd for they carry the pretense that politicians truly control these things whilst such things are largely out of their hands. These are the kind of statements that a thinking person will know to be a lie, but precisely because they carry the pretense of control, they are greatly appreciated as statements of the ideals one has and the self-image of the electorate as having some control. They are not truly meant to be taken seriously but rather are meant to signal to others what one finds important. As such, they are white lies that serve as a soothing line for the gullible and a stock-in-trade response to people who ask what you are planning to achieve. They are the types of lies that few will chide a politician over or on which politicians will be held to account.
  3. Compromise lies that come from doing compromise political deals. For instance, the mining deal Gillard made with the mining industry when she took over from Rudd is now increasingly seen as a disastrous deal for Australia (but a good deal for the foreign owners of the big mining companies). Instead of owning up to the humiliating climb-down that it was, the deal was sold as a good thing for Australia. Revenue projections from it were vastly exaggerated and, even though I do not know if that was deliberate, conveniently did not include the lost revenue from the likely increase in royalties that would have occurred without the mining deal. Now, the lies that such a compromise entails are also entirely normal in politics: one cannot get all that one wants and yet one is forced to champion whatever deal one manages to get, complete with exaggerations and blind spots (in the case of the mining deal: the royalties). They are lies in the sense that the same people on reflection would know they are exaggerating and deliberately pretending not to see the blind spots, yet no-one expects any different from politicians. Indeed, part of the understood dynamic of negotiations is that all parties involved will ‘talk up’ the results of the negotiations, whether they truly believe it or not. As such, compromise lies are part of what is being bargained over and few expect any different.
  4. Lies of convenience that follow a particular story-line that is popular. These lies are the routine lies made in interpreting events in a particular way to justify current policies. A good example can be seen almost weekly when politicians report on the number of ‘terrorists’ having been shot in Afghanistan or the ‘number of deaths from smoking’. Such ‘numbers’ come from sources that have an interest in a particular spin and the politicians passing them on as ‘true’ are being lazy, but they are lazy in a way that their populations would agree with. The number of ‘terrorist shot’ numbers for instance ultimately comes from field commanders in Afghanistan who have an interest in counting everyone killed as a ‘terrorist’ because that sounds much better than ‘women and children killed as collateral damage’. Similarly, people who die of smoking usually suffer from many diseases at their moment of death and their deaths could thus be attributed to a large number of things. To then claim ‘smoking’ as the cause is a choice to exaggerate the degree of certainty one can have in the causes of death, which is why it is more accurate to speak of ‘years lost due to smoking’, but that sounds less catchy, does it not? So going along with the easy sound-bite that soothes the conscience of the population (everyone we kill is a terrorist!) or implicitly amplifies a popular story-line (smoking is bad!) is strictly speaking a lie but the kind of lie that populations appreciate and expect. You’d be considered an incredible nerd if you wouldn’t engage in these.
  5. Multiple affiliation lies. Politicians, and all other leaders, have multiple audiences and, depending on the audience they happen to be talking to, must appear to ‘belong’ to their particular audience, even if the next audience has diverging interests from the current one. So the same politician who in the morning kisses babies and promises a school to ‘leave no stone unturned to help schools in need’ will in the evening have to promise ‘fiscal prudence’ to a dinner gathering of financial investors. Strictly speaking the two statement are flagrantly at odds with each other and thus at least one of them is a lie, but both audiences know they are being lied to and appreciate the politician for doing so. Indeed, the politician who would not play the ‘multiple faces’ game will only be able to please a very small audience and thus will not be successful. So, for instance, the American politician who openly says he does not believe in God has no chance of being elected president simply because the vast majority of the population believes in god and distrust those who do not; whatever the true beliefs of a politicians, a belief in god is a necessity to get elected in that country and it would be entirely unreasonable for non-believers to really care whether that politician is lying on that point or not.
  6. Self-serving lies that protect the interest of a small group at the expense of larger groups. These are the kind of lies that politicians make when it comes to whether they have cheated on expenses, whether they have leaked political documents, and whether they have engaged in favouritism. These are lies that politicians know are lies and they are the kind of lies that others want to expose them for. They are thus in many ways the only kind of lies that are seen as lies in the eyes of journalists and populations. They are lies because they are understood to be made for the benefit of an individual or a small group at the expense of the population, not as a natural outflow of policy practice or a lie that is intended for the consumption of the population.

So, if one reflects on it, politicians need to lie almost on a minute-by-minute basis as they talk to audiences with diverging interests, populations that enjoy flattery, constituents who wish to be assured that ‘everything is under control’, that want to hear easy self-affirming stories rather than some complicated morally ambiguous truth, and that need to be sold the compromise outcomes of negotiations. None of these lies are hurtful to the politician and almost no-one in the population or the audience really minds being lied to on such points. Often, they are so normal and commonplace that both the utterer and the audience would probably be surprised to hear they were lies. On careful reflection both might realise that the politicians are lying, but ultimately these are the types of lies others want to hear and that they realise they would need to tell themselves if they were in charge.

The only type of lie that is seen to be a ‘real’ lie is the lie that politicians tell to protect their personal interests at the direct cost of the population or their own party members. Those are the types of lies that others put in serious effort to expose and that potentially carry the sanction of exclusion from a group. But to the intellectual these lies are just the tip of the iceberg.

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8 years ago

Nice taxonomy — interesting too is also the extent that politicians lie over and above that which they need too. I think it’s actually too much here — people like Jeff Kennett showed that you can be popular with some types of honesty (until he himself became corrupt).

Also, there are big cross-cultural differences. After living in HK, where no-one really needs to worry too much about getting elected since even for the open positions it’s entirely rigged, they often just say things as they are. But no-one seems to actually care much, apart from a few serious things, which I couldn’t blame them for worrying about (too much Beijing interference), wasting money (again, not a bad thing too worry about) and, curiously, petty corruption which makes no difference to anything or anyone (e.g., a politician who illegally builds something in their basement — your category 6).

If I’m correct, there are also big discrepancies in Euroland, where in places like Germany they’re actually willing to admit problems (which is why they will end up retiring at seventy), and in other places, even ones that haven’t become broke yet because of it, they’re not (like France, where you can still retire early and indeed they crazily wanted to reduce the age). It would be interesting to examine the extent that your country fails because people too willingly accept lies. It would also be interesting to know the extent your categories are correlated.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago
Reply to  conrad

Hi Conrad,

yes, the cross-cultural differences are interesting. I dont know HK well enough, but can say that in the Netherlands there is a stronger penalty for obvious inconsistency, so you see less of 1 and 4. Yet, because compromises and multiple audiences are normal, the compromise lies are more frequent and more insidious (the politicians really have to pretend to believe themselves there). In a weird way I thus find Australian politicians more honest in that they are quite relaxed about being called out on lies 1-5 and hence don’t mind if you openly display skepticism on those.
The UK is interesting in this regard too. They love to pretend they are in control, but on the other hand talk more of ‘positions of the government’ rather than their personal beliefs. Dont really know why that is.

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

I think positions in government are presumably used more in places where people are obliged to vote with their party, even if they don’t believe it (as is the case here, unlike the US where they get far more scope to have their own opinions and vote against their party). You can see this with current social issues. For example, presumably the majority of the politicians think that gay marriage is fine, but some whose personal position is already known are obliged to use such rhetoric (Penny Wong used to use this before Labor decided they’d allow anyone to believe/say what they wanted on the matter). A similar things occurs in reverse with Abbot’s maternity leave scheme, which presumably any number of his cronies don’t agree with (and possibly himself!), although there almost no-one tries to mention it excluding Jo Hockey, who isn’t very good at looking like it seems like a good idea, even when saying that’s “our” (versus “his”) position.

I imagine this will become more common thanks to social media as politician’s a-priori beliefs are better known, and so they won’t just be able to pretend to believe something else. For example, you could probably dig through some of Andrew Leigh’s stuff pretty easily, and see where he differs on party issues economically, in which case he would be either be forced to say he changed his mind or say that he is obliged to follow the party position (or just say nothing).

Andrew Norton
8 years ago

I also like the taxonomy. During the various debates about John Howard’s ‘lies’ (usually things that subsequently turned out to be incorrect, rather than things he knew were untrue at the time they were said) I noticed that honesty ratings for individual politicians were almost always much higher than overall ratings for the honesty of politicians. It suggests that perhaps we implicitly acknowledge that most ‘lies’ are of acceptable kind when we judge individual people, or that we put them in the context of the vast majority of things that they say which are true or statements of opinion.

For the reason Paul noted in talking about Mal Brough, politicians are probably among the least likely people to tell conventional ‘bad’ lies – not because they are unusually honest, but because they face unusually high scrutiny.