Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thoughts on Why Leaders Lie

I just finished reading John Mearsheimer's Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics.  It's a short easy read providing a taxonomy of the kinds of lies leaders tell and their possible consequences.  Two things struck me.

First, nothing encourages lying like war.  Since war is a matter of survival, successful prosecution of war is a moral imperative that overrules prohibitions against lying.  Plus, the government takes risks and has consequential screwups in war more often than in any other venture.  There are fewer penalties for lying in war and much more to lie about.

Second, lying has bad consequences for democracies.

  • It impairs the ability of voters to act on their interests at the ballot box.  Informed choices are impossible without good information.
  • It impairs the ability of government itself to function as agencies learn to distrust each other.  Everyone has to devote extra resources to verification and they won't always get it right, either missing a lie or assuming something true is false.  As with voters informed decisions requires good information.
  • Lying undermines the rule of law.  When it becomes commonplace it's hard to hold anyone accountable, the excuse that "so-and-so got away with it so why shouldn't I" looms larger and larger.  Plus, frictional costs weigh down the system.  IL governor George Ryan banned the death penalty not because it was wrong but because lying was so prevalent in prosecutions that it could not be fairly applied.
  • Finally, it breeds cynicism in the public and dissolves respect for democracy.  A nation with a cultural of lying is vulnerable to authoritarianism.

Putting those two ideas together you have to wonder, what happens to a democracy that embraces permanent war?

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