Friday, 29 September 2006

Lying in a democratic society

John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia points us to a very interesting article by prominent journalist Amir Taheri about the function of lies in the political life of a democracy.
In theory at least, political leaders do not need to lie in democratic societies. These are societies supposed to be based on transparency and mutual trust. If voters are considered mature and responsible enough to choose a government, they must also be assumed to have an almost generic preference for truth.

The problem is that things are not always exactly the same in theory and practice. Voters in democratic societies might resent being lied to, especially when the liar is caught in the act. But they have an immense capacity for lying to themselves. The topic once came up when I was interviewing the late British Prime Minister James Callaghan. According to Callaghan, democracy was a system that led societies to the edge of ungovernability, and that was the best place to be for an advanced human society. In such a system, lies could push society over the edge.

And, yet, the advanced Western democracies have lived, and continue to live, with some basic lies - lies that electorate likes to hear. The former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok had a nice formula: the entire welfare state was based on the lie that the same guilder could be spent many times over.


In despotic societies, the people lie to the despot who, when he lies back to them, invites only derision. In democratic societies, voters lie to themselves, forcing their rulers to lie back to them. The difference is that in democratic societies, whenever the need arises, the few can always be blamed for the sins of the many and chased out of power in an election. In despotic systems, however, the vicious circle of lies is seldom broken without violence.

I think he's hit the nail on the head. I have wondered for many years how to overcome this inherent weakness of democracies, that voters virtually insist on being lied to. It is indeed difficult to be an honest politician, because we punish them so brutally if they try it. But if they push the lies too far, we punish them brutally for that too.

My only consolation is that autocracies have not come to grips any better with the dynamics of lying; it just has a different dynamic.

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