Lying politicians, part I: Why do they do it?

An oft-heard complaint is that politicians lie to us. They promise us 100,000 jobs, lower taxes, more generous spending, an end to poverty and inequality, economic growth, better schools, world peace, nicer climate, and victory over all our enemies. And when they do not deliver, shock horror! Worse, during their reign they sign the country onto meaningless declarations like the Millennium Goals or the Kyoto targets, once again promising things they know they cannot deliver.

Why do they do it? And what is the limit to their lies: why don’t they also promise us better looking and more considerate husbands and wives? Why don’t we get promised a reserved seat in heaven, a steaming cup of tea each morning, and fresh bread at the bakery?

Together with several co-authors I have several articles that tackle this question with the use of data and models, but in this series I want to give the basic story in a non-technical way. In this first part, the question is why politicians lie so much.

The key to understanding why politicians lie is to understand the interaction between servants and their bosses. Lying to your boss is something we basically all do, at least if we want to keep our jobs and marriages intact. The kind of lies we tell our boss on a daily basis are of the form: ‘Of course your strategic plan for the organisation is brilliant, boss!’, ‘Your new product is way better than that of the competitor’, ‘The rest of the staff should show you more respect’ and ‘that was not bullying, you were just laying down expectations’. Similarly, our wives/husbands are better looking than average, deserving of promotions and healthy children, clearly misunderstood saints, never grumpy, never jealous or arrogant, and invariably well-intentioned. Only fools and divorcees would say otherwise.

To politicians, we the population are their bosses. And we like to hear that all our dreams will come true and that we are infallible. There may be mountains of scientific evidence documenting our limitations, but the boss is always right and thus the boss does not want to hear about his own limitations.

Why do we enjoy flattery so much? From cognitive science we now know that pretending we are better than we are is an evolutionary trait baked into us and conveys great advantages. We are happier, healthier, and more attractive mates because we lie to ourselves and others about how great we are and how our ambitions are all going to work out. That trait is not going to disappear or become any less salient simply because a couple of egg-head scientists are aware of that trait. Knowing at some rational scientific level how flawed we are in no way prevents either the general population or the very same scientists from pretending that we are flawless and that our opportunities are endless.

There is thus absolutely no way that politicians can be honest about the limitations of the population. They cannot openly say that the population is too ‘mentally challenged’ to save up enough for retirement and that that is why we should have compulsory superannuation. The official line has to be ‘compulsory superannuation guarantees the population sufficient retirement funds’. Similarly, politicians cannot say ‘we are going to war with Iraq because we want to be seen to stand by our friends even if they are only in it because of pride and oil interests’. The official line has to be ‘we are fighting a just war against an oppressor who is developing weapons of mass destruction that will threaten our own borders’.

We don’t want to hear we are too mentally challenged to save up. Likewise, we don’t want to hear that we hand out life-and-death sentences to foreigners on the basis of our friendships. Yet, we still do want to follow those friendships and we still do want more certainty about retirement funds. Hence we want, and indeed, force our politicians to lie to us on such points.

To rail against politicians because of the lies they are forced into, is similar to asking every man and woman to be honest to their own boss and partner. It is not just unfair, but also pointless. Honest politicians would quickly lose the cut-throat competition with other politicians. Asking politicians to be honest is merely another self-serving myth we would force our politicians to pretend to espouse. Much like every US presidential hopeful has to at least pretend to be religious, so too must all politicians feign honesty.

Author: paulfrijters

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

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