My claim in an earlier post that I’ve no problem with lying in politics has irked some people, so I should defend it.
In part, I’m just putting a brave face on things. Politicians, I think we can all agree, talk a lot of rot. The question, then, is whether they believe what they say or not. Personally, I’d rather they didn’t. I’d rather we were ruled by intelligent liars than sincere fools.
There are (at least) four circumstances in which lying might be acceptable:
1. To preserve stability. This motive goes back as far as Plato’s “noble lie”, but we see it today in the G7’s statement that it will “take all necessary measures to support financial stability and growth.” It might be more truthful for the G7 to say “there’s not much we can do to raise growth and the only good solutions to Europe‘s debt crisis are politically unacceptable” - but such a claim would have clobbered the markets and served no purpose other than the inherent value of truth-telling.
In this context, political lies are just an extension of the white lies we tell every day: “No, you don’t look fat”; “I don’t mind at all”; “I‘ve got to pick the kids up“. If everyone told the truth all the time, the main beneficiaries would be divorce lawyers and employment tribunals.
2. To fob off silly speculation. Before the election, the Lib Dems opposed Tory cuts. Now they support them. Nobody is remotely convinced by their rationale for their change of mind. The truth is instead that such a change of mind is a necessary price of being in the coalition. But if the Lib Dems were to say this, we’d simply get endless tedious media speculation about “tensions” and “splits” within the government. Their lies serve to protect us from such mindless stories. And I thank them for this.
3. To promote decent policies in the face of an ignorant or prejudiced electorate. Labour’s policy on immigration was - with some scandalous exceptions - reasonably liberal. However, given public hostility to immigration, it could not proclaim this. Instead, it occasionally lied by talking tough.
If you don’t like that example, a very different one is the recession of the early 1980s. From a Tory point of view, this served the useful function of smashing working class militancy. But the Thatcher government did not, at the time, proclaim this as its effect. At best, it lied by omission. And it probably had to.
4. To project strength. During the cold war, the west gave the USSR the impression that it would retaliate against any nuclear strike. Such an impression might well have been a lie; would US presidents really have murdered tens of millions of people in what, in some circumstances, would have been a futile gesture? But it was, at the time, a lie necessary to preserve the peace.
We saw a similar thing recently when Leon Panetta pledged to “stay the course” in Afghanistan. This serves the doubly useful function of comforting the relatives of dead soldiers and of - at the margin - of demoralizing the Taleban. It might well have been more honest for Panetta to have said “we might have to give this up eventually as a losing game.” But that would serve no good purpose.
These four circumstances are, I think, sufficiently broad to permit a lot of lying. The trade-off between truthfulness and utility crops up pretty often.