Opposite Day: Can’t Handle the Truth?
On Opposite Day, we do our best to argue in service of a position that, under normal circumstances, we argue against. Coke people might sing the praises of Pepsi, Cat people might talk about why Dogs make for superior pets, Political Types might put forward the position that is usually held by their opponents. After all, *ANYONE* can beat up a strawman. Here is the kickoff post for the symposium. Here is a list of all the posts so far.
Opposite Day in upon us once again, and that means it’s time to let my dark side (or darker at least) out of its box. This cuddly little ball of misanthropy – which I have named Hamish, is thrashing about in its containment unit, ready to explain to you why governments should lie to the public, not merely as a regrettable necessity, but as a positive moral good. Take it away Hamish:
Lying is a skill that is not generally held in high regard. People don’t like being lied to, or at least they don’t like finding out that they’ve been lied to, and those who make a habit of telling lies are normally regarded with mistrust, or even dislike. I can understand this, no one likes to be taken advantage of – at its kindest a lie says “you can’t handle the truth so I’m going to keep it from you for your own good”, which is pretty condescending really.
But there mere fact something is unpleasant (or condescending) doesn’t make it false, any more than being pleasant makes something true. People may not want to be told “you can’t handle the truth”, but that doesn’t mean everyone can actually handle the truth. And if you run into such a person is it wrong to lie to them? Imagine you encounter some deranged person who thinks they can fly if they’re holding a 10 cent coin. You’re the only person around and they run up to you and ask if you have a 10 cent coin so they can jump off a nearby building and fly home. If you have such a coin is it moral to lie about having it? I think most people would say that it is moral to lie, I would go so far as to say it would be immoral not to. That might be an extreme example, but more common situations exist too – how honest should you be to your alcoholic friend about whether there’s an open liquor store nearby?
James might well believe that “that which can be destroyed by the truth should be”, and that’s a fine sentiment – until you realise that the truth can destroy people’s lives. Finding out your spouse is cheating on you could result in a crushing divorce that is far worse for you than the seemingly happy marriage you used to have. Learning that you are far less respected by your colleagues than you imagined could be a serious blow to your self-esteem. The truth can cause depression, even to the point of suicide. James may call me the dark one, but of the two of us, only I am compassionate enough to feel for these poor benighted souls – sometimes the truth chains you, rather than freeing you.
Equally, sometime telling one person the truth can harm other people. No one thinks telling a Nazi where the Jews are hiding is the right thing to do. But so what? No one thinks the truth is good in those exceptional cases. My central argument is that situations like this aren’t exceptional at all. Indeed there is one sphere in which they are near-universal – politics.
The political ignorance of the voting public is the stuff of legends, and of extensive research. Bryan Caplan notes in The Myth of the Rational Voter that politicians find themselves on the horns of a dilemma, either falsely assure the public that you’ll implement their stupid policy ideas, or face losing your office (either by implementing bad policy and being punished for failure, or for refusing to abide by the Will of the People TM). James laments this, but lamenting the stupidity of people is like lamenting the heaviness of lead – there’s nothing you can do about it, so you should build your morality around it. Truth-telling politicians won’t win the voters over – they’ll just be branded extremists and shut out of the debate (ask John Huntsman how that works). If liars were banished from politics, all you’d get would be politicians that actually believed the bizarre things they said, since voters would punish anyone with the audacity to tell them the truth. Would the US Congress be a better place if the atheists (and don’t tell me there aren’t any – no group of people that rich and well-educated has no atheists) admitted their atheism? Of course not, they’d be driven out of office and replaced by sincerely religious people. If facts could cure prejudice there would be no prejudice. The same is true of economics – better dishonest panderers than people who sincerely believe the tripe the average voter believes.
But all this is just the start – politicians lie but non-corrupt governments are mostly honest, and that’s where there’s room for growth. Your government might try to hide inconvenient information from you, but outright falsification is much less usual. But so much of people’s happiness is bound up in their perception of their lives – which means that the government can make people happier very cheaply by hiding unpleasant facts from them. For instance, income inequality is mostly harmful because people feel bad when they’re on the bottom of the heap. People don’t like being low status, so why not convince them they are higher status than they are? The government could spend a lot of effort talking about how badly off some sub-classes of the population are (or better yet, people in another country), so as to make everyone else feel better by comparison. And if that involves exaggerating a bit, why not? Isn’t happiness a valuable goal in itself? And why not convert unemployment benefits into a sort of work-like scheme. You’d have to make sure that the jobs look like they provide a valuable service, but that’s a pretty easy trick to pull if you know what you’re doing, hell the Dunning-Kruger effect will do half the work for you.
You can extend this to official statistics as well. GDP figures looking grim? Why not create a new measure that has a more positive message. After all, no one likes bad news. Bhutan is already doing this, and many countries are looking into alternative or supplementary measures for national wellbeing. That these measures will ultimately show their respective countries in a better light than GDP will be a pure coincidence I’m sure. And if these other countries can do it, why not the US. You’re a much more patriotic country than most other rich countries, so why not publish a Patriotism Index? Or a Religious Activity Quotient. Surely the moral and spiritual fabric of the nation is much more important than anything as cheap and tawdry as money? Plus, religion is recession-proof. Once you’ve found your alternative measures, it’s a simple matter to combine them using a sufficiently opaque methodology and then you can make it say whatever you want. You see, statistics are better than secret – they’re boring. Journalists will hunt for things you hide from them, but give them a methodology paper and their eyes will glaze over. You can hide your deception in plain sight and only a handful of stats geeks no one cares about will even notice.
Now I’m sure you all have many objections. Let me save myself some time by heading off a few of them.
- First off, the practical objections – What if people don’t buy it? What if you get caught? My argument here is a moral one, not a practical one. Of course you shouldn’t tell transparent lies, not because it’s wrong but because it’s stupid. The question I’m addressing is that if you can get away with it, then you shouldn’t feel that it’s wrong to do so.
- Second, you might ask if this should apply to individuals as well as governments – should fraud be legal? We grant all sorts of powers to government we don’t let private citizens have – up to and including use of deadly force. Deception is a less problematic case than plenty of things governments are already allowed to do.
- Finally, some of might object on the grounds a deceptive government can’t be held to account by the public. To which I say, are you kidding me? As I pointed out last year the idea of voter accountability is utterly naive. Who are you expecting to watch the watchers? The people who don’t know how many senators there are? The people who say they’ll vote for a president based on who they’d rather have a beer with and then don’t check that their preferred candidate actually drinks beer? If you need a politically alert demos to make your government work you are screwed.
Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men had it right, people can’t handle the truth. And they don’t want to either. There’s no evidence of any public demand for academic-level information on political science, sociology or economics that would teach them how things actually work, so why bother? The public demands that they be held in blissful ignorance, and I believe it is wrong for the government to refuse them.
Bonus Disclaimer: in addition to the normal disclaimers I put in my information box below, I just want to add that the position I’ve had Hamish argue for here is not merely one I disagree with, but one I find utterly and reprehensibly unethical. Under no circumstance should anyone attempt what Hamish is advocating.