Tags: lying | politics

The Problem With Telling Too Many Lies

The Problem With Telling Too Many Lies
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Wednesday, 12 December 2018 04:21 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Lying and politics are closely related. This wasn't Shakespeare's point when he wrote, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" ("Henry IV, Part II"). But this statement, uttered by a king who was sleepless because of his worries, lifts rather well out of context and as such expresses a profound truth: Lying by politicians can occasionally be a good idea, but not if done too often.

There are situations where lying is obviously good. For example, during World War II the allies fighting Nazi Germany took great pains to deceive the Germans about when and where they would land troops on D-Day. Without this deception, allied casualties — terrible enough in fact — would have been much greater, and the attempted landing might have failed.

Whatever our moral opinions about lying, modern leaders engage in a great deal of it. Adolf Hitler was unusually forthright about the usefulness of lying, opining that people are more likely to believe big lies than to believe small ones. Nearly everyone tells little lies but most cannot imagine having the impudence to tell really big ones. Hitler had plenty of impudence!

We have recently seen obvious lies brazenly articulated by Vladimir Putin — that there was no Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, no Russian military forces in Ukraine. The Saudi regime repeatedly put out changing accounts of the murder of a Saudi dissident in its embassy in Turkey. (As Senator Ben Sasse noted, you don't bring a bone saw to a fist fight.) Donald Trump regularly denies having said things that everyone heard him say earlier.

Lying can be represented as a special case of the general formula, A --> X + Y, which says that action A, taken in pursuit of goal X, also unfortunately causes side effects Y. The special case of human speech can be represented with the formula S --> X + Y, which says that the "act" of saying something in pursuit of goal X also causes side effects Y. When someone decides what to say because it will produce desired consequences and minimize undesired consequences, rather than because it is what he or she actually thinks, that is lying in its most fundamental form.

But with its focus on the consequences produced by saying things, S --> X + Y also implies that it is possible to carry lying too far, undermining rather than furthering achievement of goals. After all, if someone always lied, people would catch on and would not believe anything that person said. But unless people believe what you say, there is no use in lying in the first place. A neat illustration: The fairy tale about the boy who falsely cried wolf so often that nobody believed him when he really was being attacked.

President Dwight Eisenhower understood the dangers of lying too much. In 1960, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured alive after being shot down while photographing Soviet military bases. The Soviets initially didn't announce they had captured him alive. Assuming he had died when his plane crashed, the U.S. government put out a cover story that he had wandered off course doing weather research. But then Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed that the Soviets had captured Powers alive and found plane wreckage proving that he was not doing weather studies. Eisenhower then admitted that the U-2 had been spying and that he had authorized it, saying, in effect, there is no use in lying when you have been caught red-handed.

Thankfully, modern surveillance technology makes lying a riskier strategy. Cell phone videos and police body cameras have made it harder for rogue officers to get away with abusing their powers. Street cameras in Salisbury enabled English authorities to get the goods on the Russians sent to poison the defected Russian agent Sergei Skripal. The Saudi regime was forced to refine its lies about the death of Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi when cameras outside the Saudi embassy in Turkey picked up critical evidence incompatible with its original explanation.

Improved surveillance technology, though, will not deter leaders from lying when they think it will produce good results. In democracies this may be mostly during election campaigns, when knowledgeable citizens can discount it as "campaign oratory." Hopefully, after winning election, most politicians will shift from campaign mode to governing mode, in which they will nearly always have to say what they mean and mean what they say if they want to be effective leaders.

As recent Russian and Saudi cases show, however, the lack of a free press in non-democracies allows top leaders to get away with lying more of the time.

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 in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." 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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Lying and politics are closely related.
lying, politics
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2018-21-12
Wednesday, 12 December 2018 04:21 PM
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