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August 08, 2011


john b

I like this post a lot.


Not sure the issue lies with the immediate utility of lying - it's what happens to the body politic and to voters' opinions of politicians in general when they discover they've been lied to that causes a longer-term degradation. By relying on lying, and sanctioning its use, you're just storing up bigger problems for the future. Why can't we have a third alternative to the two you propose: that is to say, instead of competent cleverness or honest idiocy, why can't we have the best of both worlds - a sincere intelligence?

Luis Enrique

Many activists display little interest in the factual accuracy and details of their claims, amounting to a de facto tolerance for lying. Charities routinely exaggerate, make claims with no basis, in effect lie. I don't know who exactly was objecting to what you wrote, but my guess is that some self-deception/delusions/hypocrisy may have been in evidence.


This is difficult territory. I see all these arguments, but I think they might be trumped by the counter-argument, which that it's very hard to hold the two beliefs 'I serve these people' and 'it's okay to lie to them'. Lies have consequences and one of the consequences tends to be a change in the relationship between the liar and the lied-to.

Luis Enrique

Sorry, I don't mean to accuse (some of) those who objected to your words of hypocrisy etc. Naivety perhaps.


The objection to your apology for lying as a policy is two fold. First if pols lie for a "good cause" they may loose the ability to make correct decisions. AS the USA probably will have to leave Afghanistan as the attempted occupation is a terrible idea and always was, all lying does is delay the inevitable and cause more human suffering while one President tries to kick the can down the road so another one gets the blame for "losing" Afghanistan. Talking about solving the euro crisis is not the same as solving it and lying may make it more likely that the euro collapses in a disorderly way. Actually solving it by clearly deciding on effective action is much better. If you think immigration is good should you not persuade people to accept that idea, and wont your lying be found out when all the poles turn up and start demanding perogi at the local store? Lying to avoid admitting you have made a mistake is common in party politics and it can be a disaster. It means trying to apply a policy that will fail and making the failure more damaging. Labour should have devalued the pound in 1964, refused to do so and had to abandon its growth plans in the attempt, was forced to devalue anyway and got booted out in 1970. All discussion about it was forbidden by Wilson. Not a good plan in the end.


Oh and it is certainly undemocratic to lie if your a elected figure. It contradicts the whole concept of constitutional accountability. As well as perpetuating bad policies.

Libertarian Political Analyst

To protect strength is the most important in politics, in my opinion. A country or region or state does not want to seem weak or naive to their super-power counterparts so they may lie and tell the determining party what they want to hear to prevent war or an economic panic. To maintain the strength of the party will always be a cornerstone in politics in any country at any time.


"I don't know who exactly was objecting to what you wrote, but my guess is that some self-deception/delusions/hypocrisy may have been in evidence."

Luis, I noted those objections when Chris cross-posted to Liberal Conspiracy. LC is "very literal" and not always liberal.

If you selectively pick the stats to back up a political argument, that is politics. If you selectively pick the stats to back up a scientific argument, you diminish science.


Very interesting. But who believes these 'noble lies'? Personally I never believe any govt statement until it has been denied three times. I am sure other governemts know the system and know the code and are not fooled. Similarly the financial markets know the system and are not fooled - but it suits them to appear to believe the lie.

So why lie? As in Plato's day - to keep the ignorant masses in order. Even they probably don't believe the lie but the brutal truth - we are going to screw you over - would probably spark a riot. So lies are good, the real trouble comes when you start believing your own lies.


Curious. Plato thought that the Truth existed, only that Politics was not its place. Today, we the relativists do not believe in Truth anymore, but we ask for it precisely there.


Lying is never good.

Jenise DePinto

Politicians lie in the interests of advancing their own power. The Lib Dems' flip flop now that they are in coalition with the Tories is explainable in terms of their desire to maintain a share in the political dispensation of power, just like the Democrats in the US, who pretend to be on the side of working people when they are campaigning and then do pretty much the same as the Republicans once they get the White House. It is about power not principles, nothing noble about it.


A lie is a lie, Chris. Leftists have this relativist position that lies can have degrees and that some are therefore OK. Not in the public sphere they aren't.


@jameshigham - I've been thinking about this idea of lies vs truth in politics, and have even written about it in relation to this very post. To be honest, Chris isn't saying lies are good: he's just saying he'd prefer to have a politician who didn't believe - perhaps in messianic fervour mode (and who does that now remind us of?) - everything they said.

Perhaps a more constructive axis of argument might be to posit our discussion around eloquence vs brevity of discourse. I've seen plenty of examples of eloquent politicians who start out with excellent goals, but as time goes by realise that their very ability to charm others allows them to do things they'd never have dreamed of doing at the start.

Meanwhile, someone who can explain their objectives and politics competently but is not up to the job of enchanting the socks off us is more likely to spend their time focussing on the job and results to hand.

An over-dependence on charisma brings out the worst in all of us - politicians and voters both. And it is from this quality that most of the lies probably begin to issue forth.

Laban Tall

What Mil said (1st comment).

"By relying on lying, and sanctioning its use, you're just storing up bigger problems for the future."

I'm sure this is one reason (among many) for the decline in political engagement over the last 50 years. It may take a long time to discover the lies, some people may never discover them, there may be short-term utility. But once discovered, you've just reinforced the lack of trust people like Robert Putnam are always going on about.

There's a worse possibility. A reasonably bright cynic will just have to do more cross-checking when they read something.

But lots of people don't have the time or the IQ to go around googling for confirmation. Yet they can't go around disbelieving EVERYTHING they're told - humans aren't built like that.

Enter the charismatic demagogue.


Many politicians have mastered the art of not lying (very much). They can talk for hours without saying anything but platitudes.

As far as whether politicians should lie. I would say number 3 is particularly bad. It may as well read.

3.) To promote polocies against the general will of the electorate.

If this isn't considered a bad thing, then what is the point of a democracy.

Of course, this kind of lie usually occurs prior to elections when the candidates publicly support popular polocies which they have no intention of supporting once in office. The primary effect is to make the populace deeply cynical about politics, and rightfully so.

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