Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why politicians lie

This explains so much about politics and government (written by an Australian economics professor, but applicable in the US to Democrats and Republicans alike):

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. . . .

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. . . . So the politicians must be honest about their inability to improve husbands and lie about the effect of their policies on climate change. . . .

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.
The comments about education remind me of this passage by the British philosopher A.C. Grayling in Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age (162):
Although there are few if any true democracies in the world — most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies — the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to treat everyone alike. This latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains. But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denomniator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.