Why do politicians lie?

January 23rd, 2009

The issue comes up at every election.

Politicians are liars. They never keep their promises. You can't trust them.

Yes, true. But why? You can complain all day that knives are sharp, but if you don't understand why they are then you're not going to make any progress.

Now let me see if I remember how it is that politicians come to power in a democracy. Oh yes, people choose them. How revealing. Don't you find it ironic to criticize a politician for doing precisely what causes you to vote for him?

Imagine that every Monday you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. They have ten different products. Nine of the ten have pink spots on them. You buy a bread with pink spots and head home. Once you get home you complain about the pink spots. Who would you say is to blame for the pink spots?

But wait, why do almost all the products have pink spots? Because the people making the bread know that you always choose one with pink spots on it. They don't make it with pink spots because they want to, they do it so that you will buy it.

Why do they lie?

Politicians exhibit a certain behavior. The behavior is making promises they have no intention of keeping. What can we do about this? Well, behavior responds to stimuli. If you want to change someone's behavior you have to give them an incentive.

It's no different here. Suppose a politician ran for office. One who was different from all the others. Suppose he didn't make any promises. Suppose all he said was "I intend to try my best" and "I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to achieve this". Would you vote for someone like that? Probably not.

So your incentive towards honest politicians is.. negative. You're rewarding deceit.

Why do we make them lie?

So why are we so eager to force people into making promises? We think this is an effective social instrument, don't we? If someone has said they're willing to do something, but they haven't committed themselves to it, then all too often we want to "help" them decide, don't we? How often do parents say "do you promise to do it"?

You find yourself right in the middle of a power struggle. You want someone to do something for you, but the person isn't really that eager. What's more, you're losing. Because you can't force him to do it. So one last hope is to make him promise you, make him commit to it. Then you think they'll be too ashamed to reneg.

We use promises in every day life to increase our power over other people. This is the way our culture functions, and we don't seem to have any qualms about it, do we? Face it, whenever you are forcing a promise out of someone, you either successfully stamp your power on them, or you make them lie. That's right, make them. You make them promise something they would not have volunteered. And it might even be something they can't deliver. But since you've forced this promise out of them, well what can they do about it?

So what about these pesky politicians? Well, we think that if a politician makes a promise, then there's just a chance he will actually do something about it. If he doesn't make a promise, he certainly won't. This is what we believe. Consequently, we want them to promise us everything. Have you ever heard a voter say he's disappointed with a politician for promising him something he wanted?

Why do we want them to lie?

But the truth is we want them to lie. We want them to promise not only what they know they can deliver, but so much more than that. Who's going to get more votes, a politician who only makes promises he can reasonably keep or one who makes lots of them? Not the conservative one. No, because he doesn't seem to care about our problems. He will only commit to the problems he knows he can solve, but what about my problems? I need more than he can deliver, more than he can promise. So I choose the guy who tells me he can deliver everything.

See the thing is elections are more about emotions than they are about facts. The people who get really caught up in politics don't do this over the cold facts, they feel there is something special to the whole process. As voters we love someone who can speak to us in a way that makes us feel like he understands our situation. Does that mean he can solve all our problems? No, but we sure like to dream it, don't we?

What was Obama's campaign all about? Hope. And what is hope exactly? It's the [possibly delusional] belief that something will happen that hasn't happened yet and hasn't shown any signs of happening either. And we buy this, because every once in a while we want to hope, we want to be delusional, we want to think that a better day is coming. Our experience tells us otherwise, but dammit we need hope sometimes.

Because what is the alternative? Realism. Things will never get better, and if they do it will probably be a change that won't make a big difference. And it might not even last. We are stuck with the way things are and that's that, hopefully it won't get worse. That's the realistic perspective on life. But what's more seductive, optimism or realism?

There are people out there who are trying to keep track of promises that were made to see what the politician actually did after being elected. Fine, I see nothing harmful in keeping track. But understand why the guy said those things. Because you, the voter, wanted him to.

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5 Responses to "Why do politicians lie?"

  1. erik says:

    I agree, and it's been getting worse. Can you picture a modern politician uttering that famous line "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask instead what you can do for your country" and receiving support for it? I don't think so. Voters have become more and more complacent, casting their votes on whichever character promises to do things FOR them, rather than WITH them.

  2. Boyo says:

    There are other reasons why politicians break their promises. If parties need to form a coalition government, they will have to form a cabinet with one (or more) other parties who have very different ideas and who will have made very different election promises. They will have to find some middle ground, some mixture of their ideas that all coalition partners can live with. Unfortunately that may mean not living up to their election promises, and as a result the voter will feel let down. The more diverse the political landscape, the more parties there are and the greater the need for a coaltition government. The alternative is forming a cabinet that does not have a parliamentary majority, but that will make it very difficult to govern, as the opposition can in theory vote away every single one of the cabinet's policies. Altough, I understand that there is some experience in the Scandinavian countries with minority cabinets.

  3. numerodix says:

    Sure, but this still runs under "promises they can't reasonably deliver". If you're a party with 10% popular support and you're hoping to get into coalition then it's plain as day that you can't expect to deliver on every campaign issue when you know where the other parties stand on those issues.

    It's not as if a party expected to get 55% and make the rules and instead they got 12%. As a politician you know what's realistic better than anyone else.

    Sure, we've had minority governments but even then it's a coalition.

  4. Ramnik says:

    Politics is usually associated with astuteness and dirty tricks. Very often, politicians are thought to be sweet-talkers. Like a man proposing love to a woman they can promise all the sweet things that one could ever dream of.
    Political men and women can be very persistent in their campaigns, just like relentless sales agents who never give up until they make a sale.
    It has become evident that prior to the elections politicians become very aggressive in their campaigns that they would do anything in their power in a bid to win votes. In the run-up to the recent elections, political posters and billboards of different sizes and designs with colourful promises of a better life were seen everywhere in the country.
    Politicians all over were on their toes, promising a better life for everyone if elected into power.
    "During this time politicians tend to be good listeners and some become Good Samaritans
    Are Political Campaigns Realistic?

  5. Alexandra says:

    Wow Amen! Everything this blogpost says it true. Im doing an essay for a class on why politicians make promises and dont keep them and it helps so much. Thank you