According to Henry Wotton (1568-1639), Britain’s ambassador to Venice, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent abroad to lie for the good of his country.” And a politician lies for the good of whom? That’s the question!
Politicians lie – that’s a cynical assessment of politicians that seems too close to the truth. Of course, politicians don’t always lie, but they do lie often enough that we have to consider anything a politician says as a probable lie. To be honest, if I thought a politician would never lie, I would worry more about him than I would about the others – the worry being that a politician who never lies must be a dangerous fanatic.
Politicians lie. Does that mean that there is no point in listening to what they say? No, just the contrary: it means we have to listen very carefully and analyze what they say. Politicians don’t lie without reasons. Lying is a strategy – and for that matter, telling the truth is a strategy too! If we understand the strategy behind the lie, or the truth, we can get a better understanding of what the politician will do if he gets into office. Game theory provides some tools for doing this.
The key point is that no politician can do anything without the support of some important faction in society. Even a dictator will rely on the support of a strategic minority – a crack paratroop brigade, the secret police, businessmen who profit from the regime, his own tribesmen or ethnic or religious minority. Let those strategic supporters lose confidence in the dictator, and the dictatorship will collapse – as the Arab Spring and the collapse of the Soviet Union both demonstrate in different ways. In a democracy, ideally, the support would be a majority. In practice, it will be a coalition of groups that, all in all, outnumber their opposition. In any case, the purpose of a politician’s lies (or truths) will be to gain the support of some group.
Suppose, for example, that a particular politician really personally despises “liberal” ideas and programs, but lies, saying that he supports them and will enact them if elected. This lie will certainly not gain him conservative support. If he is elected it will be with liberal support, and if he does not govern as a liberal, he will lose that support, and his career in politics will be short. Thus, the lies give us better information on what the politician will do than the truth would!
Truth-telling will often be the best strategy. The big lie can be difficult to pull off successfully. A person of conservative convictions who seeks a career as a liberal politician will probably not be able to compete successfully with a candidate who holds liberal convictions sincerely – and conversely. But the big lie does happen, and in smaller things, lies will be pretty common. Nevertheless, what politicians say gives us important information. The information is: whose support are they seeking?
So that is how we ought to listen to the truths and lies that politicians tell. We should ask ourselves, “True or false: whose support will these statements attract?” If a politician says, for example, that global warming is not a scientific fact but a myth – we should ask ourselves, not whether the politician believes what he says, but who will benefit if that claim becomes the basis of policymaking. Are those the people you want to put in charge? If not, don’t vote for that liar, even if he is a truth-teller.
Roger McCain is a professor of economics. He can be reached at [email protected].