Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Presumption of Dishonesty

NOTE: These four essays were reproduced from my now defunct blog Random notes, as they are referenced in my upcoming post on elective government and monarchy.

I have noticed something that troubles me. Much of what is said in modern political discourse makes absolutely no sense unless you assume that no one means what they say. In other words, you can't understand modern politics, unless you start with the assumption that politicians are lying. And that is disturbing.

Now, let me deal with some obvious complaints before we begin. No, I do not mean to suggest that we should assume politicians are honest. Nor do I mean to suggest that our ancestors really believed politicians meant what they said.

On the other hand, in the past politicians did make efforts to appear to be telling the truth, and, longer ago, many politicians really did tell the truth as well. After all, can one imagine that Jefferson and Hamilton were concealing motives in their impassioned debates over the form of government? And even if they had motives in addition to those they revealed, I doubt anyone could argue that the claims they made were dishonest. If anything, they were, at worst, incomplete.

But our current politics is nothing like the past. So often political debate takes the form of "Politician X would like to pass Y, but people would never accept it, so he enacted Z as a way to get it through the back door." Or "A wants B, but he can't admit that, so he says C." In other words, we have come to accept lying as part of politics, and even try to understand politics by trying to guess what lies are concealed by the claims the politicians make.

And that is wrong. Part of representative government is the assumption that people will elect politicians who represent their beliefs, if politicians are known to lie, how is that possible? Even if we assume we can get a general idea where they stand from their lies, that is still far from certainty and introduces so much uncertainty we might as well elect politicians by lot.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that we are dishonest as well. For example, many conservatives claim to want small government, but then allow enough exceptions to make it meaningless. ("Inescapable Logic", "Special Cases", "Smaller Government , Fair Weather Friends and Special Cases", "Good Intentions") While liberals claim to want popular government and to empower the little guy, but want government to rule as if everyone were stupid and only an elite should make all the decisions.( "Those Other People", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Seeing People As Stupid", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2", "Changing Incentives", "Three Types of Supporters of Big Government", "Bad Economics Part 9", "The Right Way") In other words, we all claim to want equality and freedom, and yet want to rule as if we were the all-powerful omniscient dictator. ("What We Deserve",  "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Who Is To Blame?", "What is Wrong with Us", "The Single Greatest Weakness", "The Difficulty of Principle")

And it has bled over into our policies. We favor policies which lie to us, allowing us to think one thing is happening while in reality something else is taking place. Be it our social security "insurance" ("Social Security is Not Insurance"), our "health insurance" ("The Insurance Sham", "Redefining Insurance... To Actually BE Insurance"), our "flood insurance" ("Welfare for Malibu Residents"),  unemployment and disability "insurance" ("Perverse Incentives", "When Help Hurts"), or the dozen of other types of welfare we claim are simply payments due to individuals ("Subsidizing Irresponsibility and Poor Planning"), we like to hide the truth. Rather than shame individuals as leeches, we pretend they are "insured". Similarly, instead of letting ourselves know what we pay in taxes ("The Problems of Spending and Taxes"), we favor withholding to hide how much we pay ("Making Taxes Hurt"), rather than see what we pay, we favor corporate taxes, sales taxes, and other methods to disguise and distribute taxes randomly. And the list goes on and on. We simply cannot seem to face reality when it comes to politics. We want nothing more than to tell ourselves we are doing fine, while giving every indication we know its a lie.

Even the solutions we propose are absurd. Rather than ask for honest politicians, who will tell us the truth, and trust in ourselves to vote them in, we insist on term limits ("Why Term Limits Will Fail (And Should)") as if we needed to be forced to do the right thing, as if we cannot trust ourselves.

Unfortunately, I see few signs that this will change soon. Much as we talk of reform, of bringing in real conservatives, of asking for honest politicians, we still show every sign of favoring the well told lie to the ugly truth, of favoring the one who promises the moon rather than tell us to do it ourselves. And so, though we may talk a good game, I really see no signs it will change in the near future. Unfortunately, I worry we will have to see things get much worse before they get better. At least on the topic of honesty in politics.

UPDATE (01/11/2009): 
I found another post which sheds some interesting light on this topic. "Beware Alternate Explanations" argues that the right tends to follow the lead set by the left, even when they do not believe the positions. In other words, the right often lies because they believe the truth won't sell to an audience used to left wing media. However, in so doing, they also fail to present a real alternative, and (as I argued repeatedly - ""Doing Something" Revisited", "The Difficulty of Principle", "Inescapable Logic"), end up handing the argument to the more consistent left. Just another way dishonesty hurts us in politics.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/01/10.

Update (2016/02/10): As this essay is cited in a recent post, I have tried to update all the links in it. However, four still point to my old -- now defunct -- blog, "Random Notes" ("Beware Alternate Explanations", "The Insurance Sham", "Three Types of Supporters of Big Government" and "Good Intentions"), and I did not have time to copy over those essays. I do plan on copying all cited essays sometime in the immediate future, and will then fix all articles with a "FIX LINKS" label. Until then, I apologize for nay dead links.

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