Why politicians lie

In Posts on May 13, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I recently saw The Adjustment Bureau, which marks at least the third movie I’ve seen (along with Bulworth and Man of the Year) where a political candidate has a crisis of conscience and starts giving folksy, straight-from-the-gut speeches: no spin, no doublespeak, just real talk. The “plain-talking politician” trope is an itch we can’t stop scratching.

Thomas Sowell wrote, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” This is a good statement of the problem facing politicians, but not a complete one. Politicians must grapple not only with economic scarcity, but with all the cold facts of human life: our ignorance, our vulnerability, and above all our mortality. The nature of life itself implies awful suffering, and it’s darkly comic to imagine politicians addressing this suffering in plain language: “Your opposition to abortion is based on religious beliefs that are no longer convincing enough to base policy on.” “Your children’s death was a statistical accident; additional safety legislation to prevent it would cost too much to implement.” “Your people are being unjustly treated by the international system, but acknowledging this would upset a status quo that presently favors our people.” If politicians don’t speak the truth, it’s partly because the truth is sometimes unspeakable.

Like many things in American culture, the straight-talking movie politician is a plausible, alluring impossibility, a wistful imagining of a world without our world’s constraints. Our politicians do sometimes delude us out of selfishness or crookedness; but often, they simply assist us in our self-delusion, our denial of life’s inherent coldness. Honesty starts at home: if we wish for an honest politics, we can start by making sure that our expectations are in line with the nature of the world.


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