Why Politicians Have to Lie

9 December, 2006

Politicians and Used Car Salespersons

There are some occupations whose members we almost expect to be dishonest. For example, politicians and used car salesmen.

Used car salesmen (and saleswomen, but I think most of them are men) tend to be dishonest because car buyers only buy cars very occasionally, and a car is a big ticket item. The salesman has an advantage over the buyer, because he is selling cars all the time, and he can make a career out of learning all the tricks and schemes for ripping his customers off. The large size of each transaction means that it's worth putting significant effort into extracting maximum profit from every sale.

Similar logic applies to other salespeople who sell big ticket items to buyers who buy those items very infrequently.

What's different about politicians, as compared to used car salesmen, is that although they are often "selling" something, their communications are one-to-many, rather than one-to-one. Even when a politician talks one-to-one with a television reporter, really they are talking to the television audience.

With such a large audience, it should be so much harder to tell lies and get away with it. The words and actions of politicians are subject to intense scrutiny by many commentators and observers, all supposedly acting to serve the general public's desire to know what there is to know about the politicians that they vote for.

And yet, despite all this scrutiny and commentary, and the large audience, politicians lie, and they lie persistently. The car salesperson lies because there is a good chance that the buyer fails to see through some of the lies. But the politician lies and keeps on lying, even though the audience knows that the politician is lying. Why is this? If we know that politicians are lying, why don't we throw them out and get better ones that don't lie?

Politicians are Lying to us, but they are also Lying for us.

The reason that politicians lie so much is not because they are pathological liars (or at least not just because they are pathological liars), it is because we expect too much of them. In the first instance, we expect them to take political positions. A political position is a position intended to appeal to a particular constituency. But we also expect politicians to take moral positions.

So what's wrong with that? Isn't morality a good thing? (by definition?) Unfortunately, morality and politics are in conflict, because morality and politics must appeal to different portions of your audience. Morality is something that almost everyone agrees on, because the whole point of morality is to lay down the ground rules for a society. It's difficult to put a precise number on it, but I would say that a moral proposition is only really "moral" if at least 90% of people in a society agree with it.

Majority Politics

One would assume that getting 90% of people to agree with you can't be a bad thing, especially if you're a politician who wants as many people to agree with you as possible.

But it doesn't work like that. A political position that appeals to 90% of the population is a failed political position. Politics is never about getting everyone on your side – it's about getting a majority of people on your side.

The competitive nature of politics encourages politicians to appeal to the smallest majority that they need to in order to gain power. In a democracy this usually means that any percentage more than 50%, for example, 51%, is enough, although a smaller percentage can be sufficient if a three-way situation develops (but three-way situations don't last in the long run, because the two losers will always be tempted to join forces if they can). In a non-democracy a politician can make their case to any constituency that has the power and influence required to maintain control over a society – which may or may not need to be more than half the population.

The first reason that a politician appeals to the smallest majority possible is that this maximises the benefits that the politician can promise to that majority. The second reason is that the politician needs to spread the disadvantages of their policies over the largest possible minority of non-supporters. In other words, if you try to appeal to too large a constituency, the size of the minority that you can screw is too small, which limits what you can steal from them, and the benefits passed onto your target constituency will be spread too thinly.

This logic in itself does not require anyone to lie. Every politician can choose a majority of supporters and a minority of non-supporters and openly promise to benefit the majority by screwing the minority.

But, as it happens, we expect our politicians to be morally upright and to express moral positions that are regarded as morally correct, which means they are expected to state moral positions that are agreed with by at least 90% of people in society, because if the number of people in agreement is less than 90% then it isn't a moral position.

Moral Majorities versus Political Majorities

And that's the cause of the conflict: 51% isn't equal to 90%. To get the votes, if you're a politician, you must take a position that clearly benefits the 51%, and to be morally upright you must take a position that is agreeable to 90%, and you must take both of these positions simultaneously.

Luckily for you, although the 51% expect you to take a moral position, they don't mind if you do so dishonestly. Indeed your supporters will assist you to resolve this conflict – by expecting and tolerating political doublespeak. They will expect you to lie about the morality of your political platform, while remaining sensitive to whether or not your platform benefits them. They will expect you to use language which is deceptive and confusing in order to express positions which have the appearance of morality yet have the reality of exploitation and transfer of wealth and power.

So why bother with morality at all, if it's just something that politicians lie about? If morality counted for nothing at all, then politics would be the majority finding a minority to screw without constraint, and that would be it. In other words, politicians would select a target group, seize their property, round them up, send them all to special camps, and leave them to either die or escape as refugees to a neighbouring country. Or maybe just kill all of them.

This is the politics of genocide and civil war. It's ugly, yet it's a logical consequence of the logic of politics.

However, we are not all living in the middle of civil wars. There must be something that constrains the sharp edge of politics. And that something is morality. In other words, morality does count for something, and it's not just a sham.

The Two Faces of Morality

We can consider morality as a philosophical abstraction, or we can consider it from a purely pragmatic point of view.

Suppose for example that you're a politician, and you adopt a political platform of civil war and genocide which offers apparent benefits to an identified majority of supporters. Why might the potential beneficiaries of your platform decline to accept its benefits?

Philosophically, we can state a moral objection in terms of an abstract principle – it is unconscionable to better yourself by exploiting others. Of course morality is somewhat elastic, and it can be hard to determine what counts as "exploitation" and what doesn't, and some people will go further than others in order to serve their own interests. But there are usually limits, and those limits usually prevent the majority from selecting a target minority and killing them all.

Pragmatically, we can point out that if the majority attempts to screw the minority, the minority may fight back. The minority may fight back quite viciously, especially if they have nothing to lose. Even if the majority eventually wins the war, they will be worse off than if the war never happened at all.

Or will they?

The Short Run and the Long Run

If Group A is 60% of the population of a country X, and they fight Group B which is the other 40%, and Group A kills all of Group B, but while they are being killed Group B kills the same number of people from Group A, then in the end there will just be 1/3 of the original Group A left (i.e. 20% of the original total population of country X). Can you be said to win a civil war if more than half your side is dead?

In the short run it seems like a disaster for both sides, but in the long run, Group A has won, because they can use all the resources of country X, and they can recover lost population by breeding, all without having to compete with any members of Group B (who, remember, are all dead).

So if we judge success in the long run, even a brutal war that kills almost everyone on both sides can still have a winner.

However this conclusion, that every civil war has a winner, depends on one assumption: that external forces can be ignored. But of course there is more than one country in the world, and our hypothetical country X will have neighbours. If most of the inhabitants of country X kill each other, and the infrastructure of country X is destroyed, then country Y which is next door to country X may decide to take advantage of country X's weakness and invade it and take all country X's resources for itself. And if the inhabitants of country Y have not themselves been recently fighting a civil war, then they will be internally stronger and they will be better positioned to fight and win an external war, i.e. against country X.

First Pick Your Minority

There are other difficulties (besides moral considerations) for the politician who wants to gain power by exploiting a vulnerable minority. One is that the minority has to be relatively inelastic in its membership. If the minority is defined in a way that makes it easy to leave or join the group, then a policy based on victimising that minority won't be very successful – because its members will all leave the group.

Another problem is that the minority has to be not too entangled with the majority that is benefiting from the screwing of the minority. For example, a policy of benefiting men at the expense of women is less likely to win political acclaim, because the biggest source of happiness in most people's lives comes from man-to-woman relationships. If you take from the women to give to the men (or vice versa), you're not going to achieve any net benefit for either party, and even if women don't get to vote, their male relatives and partners will disapprove of policies that disrupt relationships between the two sexes (and we must remember that in any give/take relationship, there is usually a net loss such that the amount given is less than the amount taken away).

In practice, the following types of minority can be effectively targeted as victims of a political policy:

Over time, Western democracies have moved towards using abstract criteria of wealth and power to choose political consitituencies, i.e. the last two items rather than the first two, and this corresponds to the "left"/"right" polarisation that we have all come to know and love as the basis of politics in modern Western democracies.

Policies based on explicit racial, religious or other ethnic fashion have somewhat gone "out of fashion", although in many countries there are major correlations between ethnic group and economic status, sometimes for historical reasons (i.e. one race screwed the other race in the past), which means that the racial aspect of politics never completely disappears, even in those countries where everyone likes to think of themselves as explicitly "anti-racist".

When it comes to the conflict between politics and morality, the left/right polarisation has a corresponding moral polarisation, based mostly on uncertainty about whether those worse off "deserve" their fate. If we could study every person's individual circumstances, we might decide that some do deserve their fate and others don't. But political policies are necessarily based on averages, and everyone has a different opinion on how much the poorer and the richer in general deserve their current economic status. And most people have opinions that are conveniently consistent with their own personal economic interests (and which therefore determine their voting decisions).

Democracies and Non-Democracies

As I mentioned above, in a democracy a 51% majority is enough to get power. In a non-democracy it is less clear what the required minimum is. In practice there is usually some minimum number of supporters required to maintain power by force. The very clever dictator can arrange things so that everyone else is scared to challenge him, and everyone one is scared not to dob in those who look likely to threaten their leader, but such arrangements can be fragile, and a dictator's position is more robust if there is some substantial group within society who are clear beneficiaries of the dictator's dictatorship.

Which means that even dictators have to play politics, because they have to advertise the benefits of their political policies to their target constituency.

It also means that dictators have to adopt a facade of morality, just like "real" politicians do, and for much the same reasons. If a dictator openly admits the immorality of his rule, then that increases the chances that the people will rise up and depose him.

Hope For World Peace

Many ideas have been put forward for creating everlasting world peace, including:

The problem with all these schemes is that they ignore the fundamental logic of war and politics, which is that if a majority can screw a minority, then in the longer term, the majority is better off. Even if poverty is solved and all countries are democratic and we all belong to the same religion or to no religion and we all have the same colour skin, people will still be looking for ways to better themselves at the expense of others, and politicians will be looking for ways to identify a majority group which can better itself at the expense of a remaining minority.

As for world government, there's no particular reason to believe that it will be any more effective at preventing war than any other kind of government. The only difference under a world government is that there will no longer be any distinction between "civil" war and "world" war.

And if we think that not having a world government will prevent a world war, then we are also mistaken, because countries inevitably tend to group themselves into friendly alliances, and today's friendly alliance is tomorrow's defensive military alliance, and so on and so on. (And there will always be some "evil" threatening alliance that "needs" to be confronted and dealt with.)

Is There Any Hope At All?

The basic constraint of biology is that winners win the evolutionary race and losers lose and we are living on a finite piece of real estate with finite resources. Maybe one day we will expand into space in different directions, and there will be less requirement to continually exterminate each other just in order to have descendants. But space exploration is expected to remain rather expensive in the short to medium term future, and there seems to be little chance that it will ever change the basic parameters of life for 99.99% of the world's population.

One future change likely to happen soon is the technological singularity (which will probably arrive before major emigration to other worlds becomes feasible). Human competition and co-operation are becoming more and more entwined with self-accelerating technological development. This doesn't necessarily solve the war problem, and indeed when the singularity arises it might just decide to engage in a war of extermination against everyone and everything else. But if we are lucky, somehow most of "us" will be a part of the singularity, for example if it's a combined human-machine amplified-intelligence singularity, in which case things won't be so bad.