On political lying

Like many commentators, I’ve been complaining a lot about the so-called “post truth” political environment. In response, some people have been trying to enlist my support for a “truth in politics” act. The idea is pretty simple. Why not make lying illegal? Why not punish politicians for saying one thing while campaigning, then doing another?

This is something that Democracy Watch has been pushing for a long time. Perhaps the highest-profile supporter of the idea is Andrew Coyne (e.g. here), which I find in some ways rather surprising.

I do not support this idea, because I think the issue is far too complicated to be dealt with legislatively. Just to pick an obvious point, there is an important difference between telling a lie and breaking a promise, which the concept of “honesty” unfortunately obscures. I would support narrower, more targeted legislation, dealing for instance with the problem of misrepresentation in political advertising. But to seek to prohibit lying in general would be a bad idea. That’s because, as I suggested the other day on CBC Radio, “there’s lying and then there’s lying” (a remark that was the source of some amusement).

Some of the stuff that I said in Enlightenment 2.0 on the subject also got people riled up. Here’s an example from an email that I received the other day:

What really shocked me about your book, was that – after spending pages castigating Ronald Reagan for “confabulation” – you endorse Jean Chretien’s policy of blatant, cynical lying!

It’s true.

On page 245 writing about the GST, you say, “The Liberal Party of Canada had previously campaigned on a promise to eliminate it, but only the most gullible thought they were serious. Once in office the Liberals did the right thing and reneged on the promise. (italics mine)

Lying is the right thing?!

Help me out here. Are you saying lying to voters is OK, so long as it helps Liberals get elected? Or is your lesson, that lying is OK so long as the only people deceived are the unwashed “gullible” masses, by whom I assume you mean those of us without PhDs.

Is that the kind of “ethics” you teach your students?

My correspondent is quite right that this is a point that merits further clarification. (Although the last line made me laugh, because it’s something I get all the time. People say “you call yourself an ethicist, and yet you say that [insert position I disagree with].” Luckily my term as Director the Centre for Ethics is up in about two weeks, so I won’t be vulnerable to this particular charge of hypocrisy for much longer.)

Anyhow, it is true that in the book I don’t actually lay out my fully nuanced position on lying, partly because I don’t have the details worked out. Someday I might write an academic paper on this, but for now let me just lay out a thumbnail sketch of what I think is the right framework for thinking about it.

First of all, it should be obvious from my remarks that “OK” and “not-OK” is not the most useful terminology for thinking about the issue of lying, unless you introduce “sort-of-OK” as an in-between status. I’m inclined to rank lying on a continuum from excusable to inexcusable. (For the lawyers and philosophers out there, note that I am saying “excusable” rather than “justifiable.” There may be some moral sense in which it’s always wrong to lie, but the interesting question is whether it’s excusable under certain circumstances.).

Now I think that in politics there are certain situations in which is it clearly excusable to lie, because lying is required by the role. The most obvious instance of this is probably cabinet solidarity. If a journalist goes up to a cabinet member and says “do you support the Prime Minister?” or “do you support this bill that has just been introduced?” the only correct answer is to say “yes.” Even to say “no comment” would be an instance of potentially newsworthy dissent. (This is like a wife asking her husband “do I look fat?” Every man knows that there is only one correct answer to this question. Even pausing for too long before giving the correct answer is an incorrect answer.)

So you often get interactions between journalists and politicians that are like some weird kabuki theatre, where the politician – for role-specific reasons – is only able to say one thing in response to a particular question, even though that one thing happens not to be true, and the journalist knows this – knows what the politician will say, knows that it is not true, but knows also that the politician has no choice but to say it – and yet will persist in asking the question, again and again. (Sometimes I wonder why: just to make the politician squirm?)

As far as I’m concerned, this sort of lying is fully excusable. I feel that, in these situations, we (as a society) are forcing politicians to lie, by asking them questions that they have no choice but to lie in response to. It’s all just theatre, and everyone involved knows that (although I suppose there are some low-information voters at the outer periphery who do not get this, but I’m almost tempted to say, not so much that they are being lied to, but that they do not know how to interpret correctly what the politician has said). Anyhow, I think that this is the political equivalent of a “white lie” — fully excusable, and possibly justifiable, because the “don’t lie” norm interacts with another norm that trumps it.

There is a closely related situation which is a bit more difficult to assess. It has to do with the role of the opposition in an adversarial democratic system, and it is an issue over which lots of democratic theorists disagree. Some people think that the role of the opposition should be to oppose the government, not necessarily to put forward its own considered views. The most important priority, according to this way of thinking, is that the opposition should give voice to the feelings and perspectives of those who are not in power, so that these will be heard in the legislature, regardless of the degree to which the opposition party happens to share those feelings.

Now normally there is not that much tension between the “true feelings” of the opposition party and the “public sentiment” that they are encouraged to channel. But there are cases where the two come apart, particularly when there is significant divergence between expert opinion and public opinion. Whenever I think about this, the example that always comes to mind were the debates over the introduction of the GST in Canada (which is why I used that example in the book).

The story here is a bit complicated, but basically it went like this. Mulroney was, as usual, a bit too clever for his own good. As a conservative, he was opposed to taxes. But he was also opposed to inefficient taxes, and the old manufacturing sales tax in Canada was the worst sort of inefficient. So his economic advisers told him to switch to a VAT (which is what the GST is). Unfortunately, the GST is such an efficient tax that it runs the risk of bringing in too much money, and permitting a more general expansion of the welfare state (as one can see across Europe). So Mulroney, in order to make sure that the GST would not bring in too much revenue, chose to make the tax visible – added on at the cash register – so that future governments would have difficulty raising it.

Unfortunately the second tactic was so effective that it led to an explosion of anti-tax rage across the country (a rage that fuelled, among other things, the rise of the Reform Party). And so both the Liberals and the NDP got put in an awkward position. Both parties privately supported the GST – in many ways they were more supportive than the PCs, since they weren’t all that opposed to taxes in the first place, and because they also could see that the GST was infinitely better than the old sales tax. So we wound up with a situation in which the government was instituting the most unpopular tax in the history of the country, everyone was going crazy, and yet all three federal parties, in their heart of hearts, supported it. In such a situation, what is the opposition supposed to do?

Part of me wants to say “suck it up, do what’s right” — which is to support the government, and try to educate the population about the virtues of the policy. Many people might think this is unrealistic. But lots of people also think that it is wrong, that the job of the opposition is to oppose the government, regardless of what it happens to think (the same way that the job of a defence lawyer is to defend her client, regardless of whether she thinks that he is guilty or innocent). According to this view, opposing the GST was the correct thing for the Liberal Party to do, even though “privately” the party was not opposed to it.

Anyhow, that’s what I was thinking when I wrote those two sentences in my book (which said “The Liberal Party of Canada had previously campaigned on a promise to eliminate [the GST], but only the most gullible thought they were serious. Once in office the Liberals did the right thing and reneged on the promise.”) As you can see, it takes a bit of unpacking, but the thought was that they were opposing it only because it was their job, as the opposition, to oppose it, particularly when a majority of the population is up in arms about it. But once you’re no longer the opposition, then it’s no longer your job to oppose everything that the government did.

Now there is a third case that is a slightly darker shade of grey. This has to do with a situation where the politician is subject to strategic or political considerations that dramatically limit what he or she can say. In these cases, while it would be an exaggeration to say that the politician has no choice but to lie, it would clearly be political suicide to speak the truth. For example, the leader of the NDP is always being asked “since you have no hope of becoming premier/prime minister, what do you hope to accomplish in this campaign?” I actually don’t understand what the point is of asking this question (other than just to torment the person, by forcing him/her to lie), because the only thing he or she can say is “I’m in this to win” — and I’ve never heard an NDP leader say anything other.

Similarly, when journalists ask politicians, during a campaign, about forming coalitions, they are forcing them to lie – because admitting that you would consider forming a coalition with party X is tantamount to giving your supporters permission to vote for that party. Strategic considerations rule out any talk of coalition prior to election day, which journalists know full well, but somehow it doesn’t stop them from asking the question again and again. (This in turn has the perverse consequence of subsequently making it difficult for the parties to collaborate – an interesting example of how a particular tic that journalists have can really interfere with the proper operations of the democratic system.)

Then there are cases where it would be political suicide to tell the truth, just because it would cause a media freak-out. The most clear-cut example, I think, concerns religious belief in the United States. I have great difficulty persuading myself that Barack Obama actually believes in God. So I suspect that the reasons he gave for not “joining a congregation” upon moving to Washington D.C. were not entirely forthright. At the same time, I have great difficulty thinking of this as culpable lying. I think the situation with “taxes” is pretty similar. The example that I was alluding to on CBC is that Rob Ford in Toronto campaigned on a promise to build subways and to reduce taxes. Given how expensive subways are, one of those two promises was going to get broken. So eventually he voted to increase taxes. I have trouble getting too excited about that, but maybe that’s my policy preferences starting to intrude – I’m happy to pay a bit more, in order to have subways.

My temptation is to classify all of the above as, in some some sense, “involuntary” lying, because politicians are being, in one way or another, forced to say the things that they say. I’m inclined to distinguish this from “voluntary” or “recreational” lying, which is done just to gain advantage. Philosophically, however, I recognize that this is not a good way to draw the distinction, because it’s all just a matter of cost. In all the “involuntary” cases, the politician could tell the truth, it’s just that the political cost of doing so would be very high. And since a foregone benefit is a cost, there doesn’t seem to be any principled difference between this and lying for political advantage.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten with all this, which is admittedly not very far. I also think that there are interesting things to be said about how upset we, the people, are entitled to get when “the shoe drops” and a lie is exposed (or a promise broken). For example, approximately 30 per cent of the electorate belongs to what a colleague of mine defines as “Ford Nation” — those who consistently express support for increased public services, lower taxes, and balanced budgets. So it seems to me inevitable that politicians will come along promising all three, practically guaranteeing that they will later find themselves forced to renege on at least one commitment. But how entitled are we to get upset when this happens? If you insist on having a round square, and will accept nothing less, and so I promise you a round square, is it really my fault that you are subsequently disappointed, when you find that it is either less round, or less square, than you had hoped?

All I’ve talked about above are examples of excusable, or partially excusable lying. The question of what is inexcusable, and the gradations that exist there, is a whole other topic, which I’ve thought about a bit, but only enough to realize that it’s also very complicated. (If I ever got more serious about this, the first thing I would do is take a look at Sisela Bok’s book Lying, which I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read.)

What should be obvious from the above, however, is that I’m much softer on political lying than either Duff Conacher or Andrew Coyne. What really bothers me, in contemporary political discourse, is not so much the lying as it is a much deeper and more systematic strategy of seeking to bypass the rational assessment of claims entirely. This is why I keep saying that our existing vocabulary, of “lying” or “dishonesty,” or even “bullshit,” is inadequate to express what is going on. Colbert’s term “truthiness” comes closest to identifying the problem. It involves a systematic replacement of the “norm of truth” with what one might call a “norm of affective resonance.” In order to carry out this strategy, you have to lie, but the lying is not really the issue for me, it’s rather the attempt to substitute the intuitive for the rational that bothers me.




On political lying — 1 Comment

  1. I understand that you’re still trying to work this out, but what I don’t get from this post is why you subject lies to a different sort of test than confabulations. Do correct me if I misread your argument in Enlightenment 2.0, but I saw you to be arguing that a descent into truthiness was bad because it threatened our ability not only to strengthen, but even to maintain the institutions we’ve built to solve difficult problems of cooperation. In this post, however, you’re not asking the same question of lies as you are of appeals to intuition: rather than asking what effect politicians’ lies have on our ability to uphold our institutions, you’re asking whether politicians’ lies are excusable given the constraints of their political environment. If you had asked the same question of teapartyesque rhetoric, I suspect you would have been considerably more sympathetic to it than you are in your book.

    Indeed, I would argue that politicians’ lies can be just as corrosive to our ability to engage in democratic deliberation and self-governance as confabulation can be. In Ontario, since all three major parties have committed themselves to platforms that they certainly cannot carry out, voters can’t determine who they’re going to vote for by choosing between reasonably realistic political plans. Instead, voters have to accept that it’s all bullshit and simply decide who they trust the most. I don’t see that as healthy for our capacity to determine collectively what kind of infrastructure or education system or health care system we want to build together.