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May 27, 2015


Luis Enrique

this comes up a lot in development economics, where a lot of what looks like bad policy can potentially be justified by the realities of life in poorer countries. It's really hard to know when understanding context crosses over into justifying a bad status quo


One might add on to Luis Enrique's thought this recent Paul Krugman blog post:


I think the frame of "incentives" often leads to trying to fix everything (e.g. in development economics one thinks particularly of corruption) in one set of policies. As a counter it might be useful to think about Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.

Mr Cynical

“Listening to Malcolm Bruce's shocking claim that lying in public life iswidespread, however, raises the question: does this theory apply more widely?”

This is telling people what they already know or suspect in the hope that people will believe something will be done about it and those in power are on the case and soberly recognise the problem and therefore we can all sit back safe in the knowledge that this widespread lying is of the honest kind. It therefore hopes to put a lid on the perception and close the case.

Democritus Junior

It is possible to remain virtuous in a morally compromised world, but it does require a sort of concealment/lying: on the outside you deal with the world on its terms, while maintaining an inner core of virtue. This works at both personal and political levels--e.g. Ed Balls (or any Labour politician) says things about fiscal policy he knows to be false, in the hope that he gets elected and is able to promote good fiscal policy.

Shorter version: virtue + skill at manipulation is the magic formula.


"the best is the enemy of the good" as the saying goes.


Democritus Junior the problem with your conclusion is that speech is performative.

If a politician or their party lies to the voters about good policy they may be forced to apply the very policy they know to be wrong as they may have no way to avoid doing so. Going along with things as you fear you cannot convince people they are wrong is a moral failure. It may simply worsen public ignorance. The very political odd bods who valorise "leadership" spend their time refusing to lead and educate public opinion but instead follow it to hell.

All the Labour leadership lost all credibility when they refused to fight media macro and embraced austerity light and cuts to the welfare state. So far there is no indication they have the slightest idea how to escape from the Blarite black hole. So they will presumably lose again next time unless a black swan event smashes the tory party to bits.


I suppose lying was always pretty common. But children are (used to be) brought up to think lying was a bad thing and adults and leaders were truthful etc. So is there a form of 'grooming' in the workplace, selecting out those who show an understanding of the need to lie and accept moral compromise in order to help their employer. One can imagine this sort of thing goes on in the darker corners of government in order to select 'safe pairs of hands' who will do the necessary and not blab.


"If I were a politician, I would lie through my teeth about being tough on immigration and "scroungers", on the grounds that such dishonesty is necessary to get elected and implement better policy"

But does, in fact, evidence show that "such dishonesty is necessary to get elected" or that it merely leads to a dishonesty auction as the pursuit of non-existent problems trumps consideration of "better policy"? Does it in fact lead *away* from "better policy" because it creates an atmosphere in which public discussion is dominated neither by truth nor proportion but rather the opposite of both?

Don't forget that this may apply just as much after you've been elected - if you have - as it does beforehand: you need to keep the poll ratings up in order to have a chance of getting in again next time.


Small quibble: Dresden was not a war crime because the protocols that apply to area bombing were not ratified until the 1970s. People who say that it was are just making a moral judgement and not making a legal argument.

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