Lying politicians, part II: the limits to lies

In part, I talked about how politicians were forced to lie to us because we the population are their bosses and we enjoy flattery. A nice recent example of just that was the announcement that we were going to have 10 universities in the top 100 by 2025. Yeah, sure.

We demand of our politicians that they share the same beliefs as we do, even if they are ridiculous beliefs, and that they explain everything as favourably for our self-esteem as possible, including our undoubted victory in the next war and the end to poverty within our lifetime. The impossible promises given out regarding  war and poverty are repeated for almost anything. For instance, we all want good schools, but we don’t want to pay for them or accept that to really improve the education of the majority means letting go of other ideals, such as the ‘no kid behind’ doctrine that in reality translates into an extremely low base level of learning. We want our cakes and eat it, so we fully expect to see many new initiatives that promise improvement but not much change in reality. Similarly, anything that we as a group have agreed is objectionable or desirable is something we expect our politicians to promise to remove or provide. Politicians are thereby mandated to promise us to remove poverty and climate change, whilst they will deliver economic growth and justice.

Yet there are limits to the lies. It is important to realise that the truth is important insofar as the population as a whole has been convinced of it. Consider the case of promising an end to poverty and unemployment. Whether poverty really can be eliminated is irrelevant: politicians must pretend they are going to eliminate inequality as long as a sizeable fraction of the population is unaware of the near impossibility (or extreme difficulty) of getting rid of inequality. Whether or not politicians are actually able to generate 100,000 jobs or not is also irrelevant. What matters is whether the majority of the population believes such job-creation is possible.

Hence the limits to lies are given by the education and intelligence of the population. The population knows full well that politicians cannot overnight make their husbands and wives more attractive and caring, and would thus quickly brand any politician promising such things a liar. Yet, the population has almost no understanding of how climate change could be averted and hence is fully capable of believing token policies are going to deliver even though there is no serious scientist that thinks this (although there are plenty of scientists egging the population on to accepting symbolic policies under the apparent, and in my opinion deluded, belief that ‘symbolic’ eventually will lead to ‘substantial’). So the politicians must be honest about their inability to improve husbands and lie about the effect of their policies on climate change.

When things become really important to a population and their attention is focussed on a particular problem, politicians will often be forced to switch from lying to extreme openness. The global financial crisis was a good example of this. Usually, politicians promise economic growth whether that growth is going to happen or not, and the population happily trots along enjoying a continued warm glow of being in a go-forward country. Yet, when a major crisis hits the economy that undeniably and very visibly halts economic growth for a considerable length of time, the population suddenly wants to know everything about it: how it was possible that housing bubbles emerged, why regulation failed, what can be done to avoid the next crisis, etc. At such moments politicians have to become as transparent and honest as water as any hint of sugar-coating or hiding important facts would be their undoing.

A skilled politician thus knows what their population is willing to believe, when they really want the truth, and when their attention once again wanders off. The truly brilliant politicians are those that are able to come up with bogus storylines about their political opponents that the majority of the population are willing to believe. ‘Interest rates would go to 15% under X’, ‘X would open the gates to immigrants’. ‘Y would do nothing and thus lead us to an unsustainable climate’. Such statements are usually fictional from start to finish in that they talk about things outside of the control of both party X or Y, and ones where furthermore X and Y would do the same thing in almost every eventuality. Yet, as political statements they are attempts at rallying support from within the population based on their hidden fears and desires and, above all, their willingness to believe such lies.

If you are good at reading the hidden desires and proclivities of your population, you win elections and thus ensure you and your party thousands of cushy jobs and all the associated trappings of power. The competitive nature of politics furthermore ensures a continuous search for storylines that gather political support. Those storylines are sought from the wide world of truth and fantasy alike: whatever is believed and is popular goes – the truth in one instance, a complete fabrication in another. The political process is thereby a search for popular truths and lies and will deliver both in ample measure.

In part III the role in this game for scientists will be highlighted. If you want to see more on the various implications of my ARC-funded research into the importance of political story-telling, then you should have a look at this forthcoming book.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

3 thoughts on “Lying politicians, part II: the limits to lies”

  1. This idea of limits to political lies seems quite similar to the Overton window. You say it’s deluded to get the public to accept symbolic policies on climate change in the hopes that it will lead to substantial policies later, but this seems a reasonable strategy from an Overton window perspective.

    In the case of climate change, do you simply think that politicians won’t have incentive to institute more effective policies if the public will accept ineffective ones based on lies, or is there something else going on?


  2. Nice plug for your book 😉

    But seriously, is there such a thing as “the population” or “the public”? Political lies are typically (always?) targeted at subsets of the population and I think this heterogeneity is of considerable importance. A very recent example: ”The next election is going to be a referendum on the carbon tax and the next election is going to be a referendum on prime ministers who say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.” Now, I think the first part is clearly silly at this point (and in fact it seems to be as good a demonstration as they get that lies and hyperbole can fire back badly), and the second part may confirm Alan Jones’s priors (that Gillard lied about the CPRS) and that of some hard-core followers of the Coalition but hardly by sympathizers of Labor who will understand that this was the price to pay for Gillard to get the support of the Greens and was a legitimate political manoeuvre. I suspect, even Abbott understands this and his attempt to implicate Gillard of lying is itself deceptive. I doubt that any of this will sway anyone. If anything, it seems to go, from Abbott’s perspective. in the wrong direction.

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  3. Chris,

    For many years now I have argued that the only realistic way to combat climate change is something that can be done by a few countries on their own. Anything dependent on sustained political idealism by nearly all countries with a clear cost to each one of them is dead in the water because of the temptation amongst politicians to free ride on the efforts of others. The last post I wrote on this was which has links to previous ones.


    Yes, you are of course right that different politicians have different audiences and that their story is based on what their particular audience will swallow. I don’t think the basic mechanisms are any different though: at every level, the political process will drag up those story lines that cater to the prior beliefs and interests of the audience, including its wish for optimism and flattery. It probably goes as much for a school principle as the PM and in both cases is it futile to ask for the truth. 🙂


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