The lies our politicians have to tell

Scandals about politicians lying are a staple of our media, with the politician Mal Brough saga being the latest installment in Australia. At a dinner with others of his party there was a ‘mock-menu’ that included sexists jokes, made up by the restaurant owner. His protestations that he didn’t know about it or saw it were denounced as untrue by other politicians. I agree with Nicholas Gruen that he was probably telling the truth, if only because getting away with a lie in this case is hard with so many dinner guests there also, and because it would be the kind of lie politicians fear being called out on.

Yet, there are various types of lies that our politicians tell and the lies that they have to fear being called out on are rare. There are many more things politicians say that reasonable people would on reflection know to be untrue that are much more common and, indeed, are seen as completely necessary for the survival of any politician.

Let me thus categorise the 6 types of lies that politicians and other leaders regularly (have to) engage in so that you can appreciate the complete normalcy of lies:

  1. Flattery of the population. Constant flattery of the population is a staple of political debate and politicians who don’t engage in it don’t last long. The flattery ranges from ‘white lies’ like ‘Australia is the greatest country on earth, favoured by god, with a unique place in history destined to play a leading role in this world’, to unreasonable feel-good statements like ‘the law will be applied fairly and equally to all Australians’ or ‘The obese have been the victim of the food industry and carry no responsibility for their own habits’. If you don’t see how each of these statements is a flattery-lie then you should realise you are one of the reasons politicians have to say these things.
  2. Impossible promises like creating X numbers of jobs, promising a solution to climate change, an end to poverty and disease, a future in which our universities will be world-leading, etc. As statements of facts they are absurd for they carry the pretense that politicians truly control these things whilst such things are largely out of their hands. These are the kind of statements that a thinking person will know to be a lie, but precisely because they carry the pretense of control, they are greatly appreciated as statements of the ideals one has and the self-image of the electorate as having some control. They are not truly meant to be taken seriously but rather are meant to signal to others what one finds important. As such, they are white lies that serve as a soothing line for the gullible and a stock-in-trade response to people who ask what you are planning to achieve. They are the types of lies that few will chide a politician over or on which politicians will be held to account.
  3. Compromise lies that come from doing compromise political deals. For instance, the mining deal Gillard made with the mining industry when she took over from Rudd is now increasingly seen as a disastrous deal for Australia (but a good deal for the foreign owners of the big mining companies). Instead of owning up to the humiliating climb-down that it was, the deal was sold as a good thing for Australia. Revenue projections from it were vastly exaggerated and, even though I do not know if that was deliberate, conveniently did not include the lost revenue from the likely increase in royalties that would have occurred without the mining deal. Now, the lies that such a compromise entails are also entirely normal in politics: one cannot get all that one wants and yet one is forced to champion whatever deal one manages to get, complete with exaggerations and blind spots (in the case of the mining deal: the royalties). They are lies in the sense that the same people on reflection would know they are exaggerating and deliberately pretending not to see the blind spots, yet no-one expects any different from politicians. Indeed, part of the understood dynamic of negotiations is that all parties involved will ‘talk up’ the results of the negotiations, whether they truly believe it or not. As such, compromise lies are part of what is being bargained over and few expect any different.
  4. Lies of convenience that follow a particular story-line that is popular. These lies are the routine lies made in interpreting events in a particular way to justify current policies. A good example can be seen almost weekly when politicians report on the number of ‘terrorists’ having been shot in Afghanistan or the ‘number of deaths from smoking’. Such ‘numbers’ come from sources that have an interest in a particular spin and the politicians passing them on as ‘true’ are being lazy, but they are lazy in a way that their populations would agree with. The number of ‘terrorist shot’ numbers for instance ultimately comes from field commanders in Afghanistan who have an interest in counting everyone killed as a ‘terrorist’ because that sounds much better than ‘women and children killed as collateral damage’. Similarly, people who die of smoking usually suffer from many diseases at their moment of death and their deaths could thus be attributed to a large number of things. To then claim ‘smoking’ as the cause is a choice to exaggerate the degree of certainty one can have in the causes of death, which is why it is more accurate to speak of ‘years lost due to smoking’, but that sounds less catchy, does it not? So going along with the easy sound-bite that soothes the conscience of the population (everyone we kill is a terrorist!) or implicitly amplifies a popular story-line (smoking is bad!) is strictly speaking a lie but the kind of lie that populations appreciate and expect. You’d be considered an incredible nerd if you wouldn’t engage in these.
  5. Multiple affiliation lies. Politicians, and all other leaders, have multiple audiences and, depending on the audience they happen to be talking to, must appear to ‘belong’ to their particular audience, even if the next audience has diverging interests from the current one. So the same politician who in the morning kisses babies and promises a school to ‘leave no stone unturned to help schools in need’ will in the evening have to promise ‘fiscal prudence’ to a dinner gathering of financial investors. Strictly speaking the two statement are flagrantly at odds with each other and thus at least one of them is a lie, but both audiences know they are being lied to and appreciate the politician for doing so. Indeed, the politician who would not play the ‘multiple faces’ game will only be able to please a very small audience and thus will not be successful. So, for instance, the American politician who openly says he does not believe in God has no chance of being elected president simply because the vast majority of the population believes in god and distrust those who do not; whatever the true beliefs of a politicians, a belief in god is a necessity to get elected in that country and it would be entirely unreasonable for non-believers to really care whether that politician is lying on that point or not.
  6. Self-serving lies that protect the interest of a small group at the expense of larger groups. These are the kind of lies that politicians make when it comes to whether they have cheated on expenses, whether they have leaked political documents, and whether they have engaged in favouritism. These are lies that politicians know are lies and they are the kind of lies that others want to expose them for. They are thus in many ways the only kind of lies that are seen as lies in the eyes of journalists and populations. They are lies because they are understood to be made for the benefit of an individual or a small group at the expense of the population, not as a natural outflow of policy practice or a lie that is intended for the consumption of the population.

So, if one reflects on it, politicians need to lie almost on a minute-by-minute basis as they talk to audiences with diverging interests, populations that enjoy flattery, constituents who wish to be assured that ‘everything is under control’, that want to hear easy self-affirming stories rather than some complicated morally ambiguous truth, and that need to be sold the compromise outcomes of negotiations. None of these lies are hurtful to the politician and almost no-one in the population or the audience really minds being lied to on such points. Often, they are so normal and commonplace that both the utterer and the audience would probably be surprised to hear they were lies. On careful reflection both might realise that the politicians are lying, but ultimately these are the types of lies others want to hear and that they realise they would need to tell themselves if they were in charge.

The only type of lie that is seen to be a ‘real’ lie is the lie that politicians tell to protect their personal interests at the direct cost of the population or their own party members. Those are the types of lies that others put in serious effort to expose and that potentially carry the sanction of exclusion from a group. But to the intellectual these lies are just the tip of the iceberg.

Author: paulfrijters

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

6 thoughts on “The lies our politicians have to tell”

  1. Can a false promise be a lie? I don’t think so, because a promise relates to the future, which is contingent, not factual.

    Can a subjective statement such as “the mining deal was a good deal” be a lie? I don’t think so. Whether it was “good” or “bad” depends upon your objectives and your choice of counterfactual.

    Can meaningless statements such as “X people died from smoking” be lies? I don’t think so. If the statement is not well-defined it cannot be true or false. Misleading, possibly.

    Is flattery a lie? Only if one or other party takes it as a statement of fact. But if both parties realise that it is just good manners (as people usually do), nobody is being deceived.

    If you were to say “intentionally mislead” rather than “lie”, then I would agree with a lot of what you say. But then “politicians intentionally mislead” would be even lamer than “politicians lie”.


    1. Hi Dave,

      Yes, we can argue about what a lie is. I would define it as saying something that one would on reflection know is most probably untrue. Under that definition, all 6 above are lies.
      Have a look at the following post which ruminates on the definition of lies.
      Carson (2006) seems to be the guy whose definition I agree with. But there are plenty who agree with you that in order to be a lie, it needs to be intended to be believed.
      I disagree that one cannot lie about the future though because false promises include the expectation that the future will be a certain way when one in fact does not expect this. For me, it is enough that the politician doesn’t really believe the promise, but surely it would be enough under almost any definition if the audience is purposely deceived by the audience?


      1. Your strict definition of a lie would include things like jokes and works of fiction. Is Moby Dick a lie? I’m sure there’s been a few credulous individuals who’ve believed it to be a true recitation…


      2. Works of fiction are preceded by caveat-words like ‘the following is a work of fiction. All similarities to true events are accidental’. You are thus indeed being forewarned about the coming falsehoods!

        But yes, one could call a joke a lie in the openly acknowledged situation that you are about to be told something untrue that is also funny. Bit of a long definition which is why I would prefer to use the shorter term ‘joke’. The types of lies above dont have that open acknowledgement though. Or, put the other way, flattery is like a fictional statement without telling the receiver that you are about to tell them something untrue. Indeed, it would be considered rude to say ‘I am only joking, but you look so young!’. It would no longer be flattering.

        It is not so odd though that a joke can also be construed as something else. A joke is also a story, for instance, merely a particular story. Not all stories are jokes, just as not all jokes are untrue.
        Carson’s (2006) definition is quite apt here because he is concerned with evidence given to courts and is thus interested in lies as untruths (given that truth is what one swears to speak), even if the audience is not intended to believe them. Similarly, politicians making open announcements are more like testimonials than jokers, though sometimes one wonders….


    2. The issue is even more complicated: a politician has a large audience, including the gullible who are deceived. Plus there are layers of beliefs in that flattery works because an audience wants to believe something not quite true. Almost like a lie to sustain a self-lie.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: