October 14, 2007

A Bill to stop Politicians lying

Politicians lie. This is bad. We should make it illegal. That would stop politicians lying. And then everyone would see that there is a truth, a good policy, which is only obscured by lies and spin and we could follow that policy. That seems to be the logic behind a new BBC documentary which advocates passing a bill to stop politicians lying. Unity at Ministry of Truth rightly blasts the non comprehension of the constitution involved in asserting that the people are sovereign when they aren't, the monarch is sovereign. But there is something deeper which is wrong here- because there is a real problem with what constitutes a lie, what constitutes spin and what constitutes the best interest of the people.

Lets take the recent debate about inheritance tax. The ideological thrust for this has come from the Tories so I'm going to concentrate on them. David Cameron and George Osbourne maintain that an inheritance tax would benefit everyone, it is a tax cut they say for the people of Britain. Actually it would effect a slice of the people of Britain. But the Conservatives aren't lying, they believe that any tax cut for the top group of the population is a tax cut for us all because at some point we might be rich and also for reasons that wealth spills down. The Left would disagree- its a tax cut for the rich and the opinion that its not is a lie. James Higham will then come back and accuse the left of deceit to stay in power. The point is that actually noone is lying, this is a real difference of opinion.

You can see this in other controversies as well. Lying is often a reflex when you don't understand the point that the other side is making. There are genuine cases where people lie. For example Jonathan Aitken is a definite crook. There is also spin. But here again the problem is that the sin is difficult to spot. Lets take an example the invasion of Iraq. I have no doubt that Mr Blair beleived wholeheartedly that the weapons of mass destruction lay in Iraq, two inquiries have proved that fact beyond doubt. I also have no doubt that the evidence behind the invasion was presented as more certain than it was, often though that was partly because these guys actually misinterpreted the evidence, partly it was because their process of government didn't weed information or design information presentation well. There wasn't in my view a conscious lie- and it would be difficult to prove that there was. There was a case for invasion- and over a million people knew enough about that case to say it was wrong and march through the streets of London in opposition. There were factual claims which turned out to be wrong- but they weren't intentional lies, both the intelligence was wrong, for the first time intelligence overestimated Saddam's capability (in the past we had always underestimated the capability) and the process by which that intelligence came to the Prime Minister was wrong.

Lying is too simplistic an explanation for political conduct. I'm afraid that the sources of political dispute and political mistakes lie much deeper. They are about the ways that our politicians, and yes us because we elect them, have made mistakes in the way that we view the world. When Golda Meir denied that there were Palestinians, she actually beleived that. She was terribly wrong but she wasn't lying, no more than a child who can't see that 2 and 2 make 4 is lying. Most often when people are talking about lying they are either trying to excuse themselves from their own opinions, or they are doing something else. Failing to understand that anyone intelligent might hold another opinion, they cry out that a politician has lied. Isaiah Berlin warned against monism- nobody listened- its time to take his warning to heart and try and take people seriously when they say what they beleive instead of just chucking accusations of lying around.

Shouting lie, is a comforting feeling, politics I'm afraid is not a comforting subject.


Ashok said...

cf. Plato's "Lesser Hippias" - there, Socrates defends Odysseus as a liar.

Well-said. The attempt to squelch "lying" is really an attempt to destroy opinions you don't agree with. The principle should be that a lie should be judged after the fact, not prevented before by some magical measure that makes us all truthful (and, by implication, omniscient).

Vino S said...

Yes, it is rather simplistic to talk of politicians 'lying'. A lot of the time, though, people do spin and say half-truths. But one of the the reasons they do so is that, if they didn't, there would be a media narrative of 'party splits' or 'controversial remarks' that would in itself harm them.

Also, to some degree, people don't like to be told the truth. Sometimes people don't like to hear that tax cuts require spending cuts or that better public services require more taxes. People thus prefer to vote for candidates who say that they can square the circle and give people both tax cuts and good, comprehensive public services. This could be said to be the incentive for politicians not to tell the whole story or to spell out uncomfortable home truths.

Eric Monse said...

If people in office lied less we could all make informed decisions. What we need is more accountability through technology. We can do it without new laws.

Andyc said...

Politicians who believe patently untrue things may not be lying, per se, but they are some combination of badly advised, dim and/or delusional. That makes them incompetent and unsafe, so they should be sacked.

Apart from that: Iraq could have been bristling with blatant WMD's, but until the UN sanctioned an invasion, it was a war crime to invade. Blair has no excuses.

And it is spelt "believe", not "beleive". Systematic mispellings are irritating and disorientating to us whole-word people.

Gracchi said...

Vino, Ashok yes I agree.

Eric- I disagree unless you rely upon politicians for news, in which case you are unwise, I think your question is better addressed to the media.

Anonymous- pedantry about spelling is the last refuge of those without an argument. As to your argument about politicians- it isn't the place of a court to sack a politician in a democracy- it is the place of the people.

As to wars without the UN's say so- was Kosovo a war crime.