Sissela Bok



monograph · The Skeptical Razor


Long-term costs of political lies

Sissela Bok


«How can you tell if politicians are lying? Their lips are moving.» These mocking phrases, coursing through uTube and the social media, speak to deep layers of distrust for politicans and public officials: distrust further fueled as political opponents bandy about accusations and counteraccusations of corruption and lying. And dishonest politicians themselves, convincing themselves that they are doing nothing unusual, only add to the distrust directed even to their honest colleagues.

There is little mystery about the long-term costs from the practices of deceit and corruption among politicians and others in public life that the media document each day. A climate of at least minimal trust is needed if nations are to meet the environmental, economic, humanitarian, and other challenges that now confront them collectively. Meeting these challenges calls for unprecedented levels of international cooperation and, in turn, for a minimum of mutual trust. Yet every new revelation about suspected or documented practices of deceit eats away at public trust. By now, we see governments East and West, North and South hobbled by citizen distrust, many unable to marshal anything like the public support for even the most urgent reforms.

Economists describe trust as a fragile social resource, an indispensable element in our social environment necessary for cooperation and effective government – a resource that can be damaged, polluted, even poisoned just as much as the natural resources of water or air. Liars, functioning as free riders in this social environment, rely on a modicum of trust to dissemble, even as their conduct helps to wear it down. They have been compared to those who spread counterfeit coins among the public. The more such practices are exposed, the more distrust renders even the most reliable politicians and organizations suspect in the public eye.

Cynics shrug their shoulders, maintaining that it is only to be expected that a politician will lie. “Their lips are moving.” Such a view presupposes a broad definition of lying that includes, not just statements intended to deceive listeners, but also all manner of unspoken deception, factual mistakes and slip-ups, even hypocritical winks and smiles. This expansive view of lying effectively blurs all moral distinctions between the larger concepts of error and deception and the narrower concept of telling lies. It helps perpetuate an exaggerated view of the mendacity of politicians as of everyone else. Just as the eighteenth century French thinker Proudhon’s claim that “all property is theft “ makes it harder to see how robbing a bank differs from having a savings accounts in that bank, so the notion that smiles and winks count as lying makes it difficult to distinguish them from libel and perjury. Journalists and sociologists often include what they call “lies of omission” – namely deceit through silence – along with “lies of commission” under the general heading of ”lies. This allows some to make what would otherwise be preposterous claims about the countless lies told by the average person every day. Still others expand the category of lying to include metaphors, ironic remarks, jokes, and works of fiction.

If we ask, instead, about the telling of genuine lies in politics, can we know whether they are more common today than in the past? Not necessarily. To be sure, we are all at the receiving end of many more lies, conveyed by the media. However mendacious politicians may have been in earlier centuries, the public could not, as now, actually observe them looking straight into the TV camera while telling what turns out to be lies.

Entire new professions have sprung up with the express purpose of altering the public perception by means of every form of rhetoric, persuasion, sometimes deceit. They are specialists in disinformation, propaganda, public relations, spin-control, dirty tricks, false accusations; and even spin doctors who reject outright lying may be equally ‘effective in deceiving or confusing the public by misleading statistics, partial quotes, euphemisms, and misplaced emphases. Of course these professionals had their precursors in earlier times; but they are now more numerous and have access to new technologies such as the Internet and the social media. In the age of globalization and the internet, any one source can send false messages to millions of recipients.

Yes, there is much more deceit in circulation, therefore, and yes, many of the instances of lying are echoed in the media in entirely new ways, reaching far more people; so that though there is not necessarily more lying by the average politician, many more lies are coming our way as recipients, listeners, viewers. I am always skeptical about claims, decade after decade, that there is more lying than ever in politics. Forty years ago, I was working on my book Lying: Moral Choice in Public Life in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. I find it hard to imagine that the webs of deceit and secrecy at the time have now been surpassed. The underlying conflicts about lying and truthfulness have not changed, nor the moral challenge they pose to politicians as to everyone else, about the kind of persons they want to be, the kind of lives they want to lead. But although lying by politicians and other figures in public life is hardly new, these new contexts give it vastly greater scope. As a result, far more persons feel personally cheated and betrayed than ever before and develop protective strategies of distrust and skepticism.

Rarely are the conseauences of politicians’ lying more devastating than when their lies draw citiens into war. The burden that public officials impose on citizens by advocating going to war on the basis of faulty information and poor judgment is already great; but it is even greater if they knowingly resort to lies or other forms of deceit in presenting reasons for going to war or exaggerate the need for haste. As Thomas Jefferson said, insisting that citizens have a right to full information about the possibility of a war: “It is their sweat which is to earn all the expenses of the war, and their blood which is to flow in expiation of the causes of it.”

Once we see trust as the fragile social resource that it is, then the same questions arise for politicians as for each of us: To what extent do our actions debilitate or help restore that social resource of at least minimal trust needed for any society to thrive? How can we avoid being free riders damaging that environment? What can we do to help shift the balance? And what would it take for an individual, a company, or a government to offer leadership in this respect?

Although there may well be a shift, in some quarters, toward greater tolerance for deceit, even toward open advocacy of lying, so there are also new forces mobilizing to counter deceptive practices: strong, sometimes innovative, countervailing practices, stressing the search for truth and the need for truthfulness, and relying with equal ingenuity on the new media. Truth commissions in countries such as South Africa, El Salvador, and Guatemala have worked to bring an end to decades of secrecy and deceit regarding practices of torture, massacres disappearances and other abuses. Just as new technologies have revolutionized the potential for deceit and secrecy among human beings, so they have also opened the door to innovative ways of investigating such practices and to seek greater accountability.

Political lies cut at the very roots of democracy. To the extent that citizens cannot trust what public officials and candidates for office say, they are disempowered, bereft of the reliable information needed to vote or to decide about public policies about, for example, immigration, taxation, or military action. As James Madison wrote, “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.”

sisselabokSissela Bok


author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life



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