As I discovered more than 50 years ago, decisions and actions can be neatly analyzed using a simple quasi-mathematical expression: A ——>X + Y. In plain English, this expression tells us that action A, taken in pursuit of goal X, also unfortunately causes side effects Y. Its mathematical form makes it easy to manipulate this expression.
If we don't like the probable side effects of a particular action A in pursuit of goal X, we can always try to find a different action, A1 (pronounced "A sub one") that will produce the same goal X but with different and hopefully better side effects Y1 .
Or, we can consider modifying our goal X to a different but related goal X1 that can be attained by still different actions with still different, and hopefully less undesired, side effects.
Actions that take side effects into account can be considered rational. In general, we can assume that it is good to act rationally. But in one dimension of human life, acting rationally, as defined here, is problematical: when we are deciding what to say, the "action," as it were, of speaking.
This is such an important special case that we should use a special form of our general expression to analyze it: S——>X + Y. The "act" of saying a certain thing, taken in pursuit of goal X, also unfortunately causes side effects Y.
What if saying what you really think, or saying what is true, is unlikely to deliver your goal, or will probably produce side effects that you consider bad? And what if saying something else, that is not what you really think, or isn't true, will achieve your desired goal with side affects you consider acceptable?
Thinking in terms of your goals, your actions, and the side effects of your actions in this situation gives strong temptation to lie.
Granted, there are important matters of degree here, and different considerations in different contexts. If our dinner hosts serve up food that we consider terrible, it is usually best not to say what we are really thinking. We can remain silent about the food, or we can say nice things about it that we do not really believe, because we know this will please our hosts.
Such utterances are lies, but we usually consider them to be "white" — or harmless lies.
In a political context, however, the implications of deciding how to speak on the basis of goals and side effects are far more serious.
Unfortunately this approach to deciding what to say is common in political life, where we often speak of "campaign oratory," "demagoguery," and "sycophancy." The large amounts candidates spend on opinion polling, focus groups, and analysis of attitudes expressed in the social media, is not spent out of idle curiosity.
Candidates want to tailor what they say (action S) so as to please the largest number of voters (goal X) while alienating the smallest number of voters (side effects Y). In short, candidates buy information about voter attitudes that enables them to lie more effectively.
It is ironic that we call people seeking public office "candidates," since candid is exactly what many of them aren't and probably cannot afford to be if they want to win.
This kind of behavior is regrettable.
If people seeking public office do not tell us what they really think, voters will be disadvantaged when they go to the polls. They will be reduced to deciding whether to support incumbents, if any, since actions do speak louder than words. But in the absence of candor, voters will just have to guess whether the incumbent's challenger is likely to be any better.
When our leaders tell voters what they want to hear, it also wastes their opportunity to try to educate the public to understand the often difficult choices governments must make and the factors involved in their decisions.
It's bad enough for politicians to resort to lying during campaigns. Before Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, was inaugurated, columnist James Reston commented approvingly that he was "clearly not going to swallow his own campaign baloney."
But when lying continues after campaigns are over and governing begins, it can easily poison the whole public sphere and could ultimately destroy a political system.
It is therefore not a good sign when the president of the U.S. begins campaigning for re-election immediately after being inaugurated.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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