The Biggest Liars

The Biggest Liars

Dan Ariely’s engaging and provocative article on political lying (“Liar, Liar,” September/October 2012) offers a valuable corrective to the widespread view that politicians are unusually mendacious, lying is unusually bad, and therefore politicians are unusually bad.

Even if you believe that politicians are unusually dishonest, it’s worth pointing out that democratic citizens are complicit in the deception. Voters who returned U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to power can hardly claim they didn’t know what they were getting. More generally, democratic politics puts unbearable strain on politicians when it comes to truthfulness.

Accountability processes — whether news conferences or legislative probes — are increasingly designed to put politicians on the spot. If these leaders state politically embarrassing truths, we immediately proclaim that they have committed a “gaffe” or “shot themselves in the foot.” The predictable result is shiftiness under fire, and public suspicion of politicians becomes self-reinforcing.

Admittedly, politicians’ sanctimony plays into the scapegoating. Keen to ingratiate themselves with voters, they feed demands for the impossible — for example, that the public get ever better returns for even fewer tax dollars. But even this sanctimony stems from the unreasonable call for politicians to be plaster saints; when they fail, public comment basks on the fertile shore where moralism is irrigated by schadenfreude.

Politicians’ lying, or being economical with the truth, matters insofar as what they are misrepresenting — such as the grounds for going to war — is false. But there are also strong public-interest defenses for lying, as when U.S. President John F. Kennedy denied striking a backroom deal with the Soviets over U.S. missiles in Turkey in 1962.

Political lies, in other words, can sometimes be good. By contrast, when congressmen talk, say, of “legitimate rape,” it raises a more chilling prospect: that they actually believe what they say.

Professor of Political Theory
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Brussels, Belgium

Dan Ariely replies:

Glen Newey highlights an important point about politicians: In democratic societies, they hold their positions thanks to voters who put them there.

In a study I conducted with Heather Mann, a graduate student in my lab, we asked Americans how acceptable it was for politician X to engage in “ethically gray” activities in order to get elected and carry out his agenda. We asked half the people this question about President Barack Obama, and the other half the same question about presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Afterward, we asked people to indicate which party they were planning to vote for in this November’s election.

What did we find? First, people planning to vote Democratic found it unacceptable for Romney to be engaging in ethically gray activities. People planning to vote Republican found it similarly unacceptable for Obama to do so. However, when we asked participants the same question about the politician they supported, people on both sides indicated that “ethically gray” behavior was much more acceptable. For both Democrats and Republicans, ratings jumped from below 15 to more than 40 on a scale ranging from 0 (completely unacceptable) to 100 (completely acceptable).

These results suggest that people think that within the current system, some degree of ethical compromise is necessary to advance the greater good (which, of course, means the opinions and policies of “our side”). This also leads to a chicken-and-egg question: Do people want their politicians to behave in morally questionable ways, or is it the morally corrupt system that makes people want politicians who can function in this type of system?

As politicians scramble to win votes, they “feed demands for the impossible,” as Newey points out. In such a reality, who, if not their own voters, will hold these politicians accountable? And if their voters want them to succeed in a corrupt system by being dishonest, who is left to defend honesty?