Why Politicians Lie

Winning a two-candidate election in which voters can be plotted on a spectrum will require winning the median voter. This is a well-known result in political science.

We usually think of the median voter theorem as applying to the left–right political spectrum, where it was first deployed. It does useful work over there, even if we can pick it apart sometimes at the margins. But let’s put it on another spectrum and see what we get.

Voters can also be ranked from low information to high. I postulate no correlation whatsoever with the traditional left-right spectrum; what I say here is true, and it stands alone.

Now let’s imagine that a political party—one bearing no postulated resemblance to either of the Big Two—set out to win the median voter on this continuum. “Being well-informed is important,” says the High Information Party, “and we pledge to have the most well-informed candidates and messaging around. If you’re especially well-informed, you should vote for us.”

The downfall of this strategy is obvious; well-informed people will still at least sometimes disagree with one another. A coalition can’t get off the ground.

But there’s still a way for the High Information Party to win the election. It can reach out to the less-informed voters using untrue claims that appeal to them. The best of these claims, of course, will be those that are also superficially plausible to some bloc of high-information voters.

And, owing to the median voter theorem, this will become the High Information Party’s only road to victory. It will stay that way just as long as well-informed people continue to disagree. Which means forever. The disagreements of the well-informed ensure that the median voter strategy will never work on a spectrum of how well-informed people are. For each marginal dissenter, the High Information Party needs to reach out to one more less-than-median-information voter.

To return to the real world: The High Information Party exists. It consists of the elite of the two major parties, who certainly know a good deal about how the country really works. But here’s their problem: To keep their jobs, they have to lie about how the country works in ways that less-informed voters will find appealing. They can’t do otherwise as long as any disagreement exists among them.

To win an electoral majority, the elites need the votes of people who — just for some examples — think that foreign aid consists of twenty percent of the federal budget, or that the government sets forty percent of prices, or that twenty percent of Americans are gay or lesbian, or that thirty-five percent of all workers make the minimum wage, or that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that Republicans want corporations to have all the same rights as people, or that… well, you get the idea.

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35 thoughts on “Why Politicians Lie

      • I almost wrote a counterpart paragraph about the Low Information Party. One interesting result is that the two aren’t perfect counterparts.

        The Low Information Party is never forced to tell the truth, not without some fairly implausible assumptions. That’s because any Low Information Party candidate might still appeal to a well-informed voter: How many times have we not heard the claim that a candidate “backs the right policy, just for the wrong reasons” — and heard it spoken by a supporter?

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  1. Nice post, Jason. I suppose this is really an axiom of marketing, with the major difference between non-political products and politicians and political parties is that it’s much more difficult to sue a politician/party than it is to sue a company.

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  2. The sad part? The person who is one step higher than median is not at all close to “how America works.” He’s being lied to as well. I’d venture to say that 10% of Americans have any idea how things really work, and that less than that are capable of working the levers.

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    • I would say that the idea that anyone knows enough to run the country is the weakest claim in the post.

      Truly I don’t think anyone does know enough. That’s why I’m a libertarian.

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      • This is where I was going to bang you — that elites know how a country should run. And it leads into what I want to comment on

        The High Information Party doesn’t have to have much agreement as long as as it can get enough to agreement on one point, that government has to be limited and that Americans in the private sector can figure out how the country runs as we make informed free choices and cooperate to deal with social problems. It seems to me at some point Americans will realize that statism is only making things worse, and that we are a knowledgable, capable people who can do in the private sector what the State has failed to do from central government. All the other stuff that we disagree on can be debated, and reason can influence us to slowly find many areas of agreement — but allowing government to “solve” all these problems is only balkanizing the country and creating more group warfare in the political realm.

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  3. Can’t argue here.

    This is perhaps a good defense of “he said/she said” political analysis (vs. political journalism, which should do more to elucidate Congressional, state, and local attempts at collective action).

    Since the lying is inevitable, best focus on whose lies are most effective and how different groups respond to different kinds of lies.

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  4. Not just politicians, of course. Why does Steve Ballmer say that open source software is theft, when he knows that’s complete nonsense? Because he’s trying to persuade the low information consumer.

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  5. This is a very good post.

    Of course this raises the question of how informed should the average citizen be about politics, policy, foreign affairs, what percentage of the population is gay and lesbian, etc. How bad is it to be a low-information voter?

    People on the League are largely very well-informed regardless of their political ideology. In general, I would say we are the high-information voters who disagree. However, every now and then we work from the same plague of working from different facts or information. This is the MSNBC v. Fox News problem. Of course, plenty of partisans can be low-information voters as well.

    However, I don’t think everyone needs to be a News or Politics junkie and I can see why people would find keeping up with news and politics and policy to be exhausting, depressing, and emotionally draining. There is nothing wrong with wanting to spend your downtime with friends and family in a relaxing manner instead of pouring over white papers from Brookings and Cato or watching the news.

    What do you (and other League members) think is the happy balance between being a political junkie with strong convictions and being a low-information voter?

    Of course, emotional appeals work of both sides and as proudly as I am I dislike inflamed rhetoric. But as you note, both parties know that they need emotional rhetoric to win.

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    • Nu. What Jason’s post discounts is the sharing of information. If someone you trusts says “Don’t vote for that guy”… it’s the same thing as “watch this, it’s really good, you’ll like it!” or “he’s a real creeper, avoid him”.

      It might be harder to be lied to, if you have impartial (relative to yourself) authorities.

      And it also discounts the “I know everything about the candidate at a glance” voter — the one who judges based on “character” or other nebulous things that they avoid quantifying. Can’t lie to him, cause he ain’t listening.

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    • the words Democratic Party supporter should appear after the word proudly.

      I am a proud Democratic party supporter but often find the inflammed rhetoric of sites like Think Progress to be too much. The right-wing equivalents do the same to turn me off if not more so as well.

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    • There is never a situation with perfect knowledge. Just like in the military, once the shooting starts all the plans go in the toilet. We /think/ we know this and that, but many of these issues aren’t even close to black and white, they are grey and gooey. It is like nailing jelly to a tree.

      On another recent OP it was said that Romney lied when his ad talked about Obama gutting welfare reform. Now the “fact” is that Obama hasn’t personally overturned the law, he’s just selectively enforcing or not enforcing the law, which while having the same effect is just gooey enough to have as they say in the intelligence trade, “plausible deniability”. And so it goes, in 100 different ways on 100 different days. This is why I’ve always preferred science to politics. In science there isn’t a lot of argument about whether water boils at 100C. Someone wants to argue you show them the facts or perform the experiment.

      Unfortunately when you munge politics and science as in climate science you end up with the worst of both worlds. Yes, much of America had one of the hottest summers since 1936, but the southern hemisphere simultaneously had one of the coldest winters. The worldwide average didn’t budge, except for the dearth of recording stations south of the equator vs the overabundance of them here in the good old USA. And so it goes, we don’t have sufficient facts to make informed decisions on a multitude of issues, and Jason is right, our fearless leaders can’t even tell us the truth because too many of us just can’t handle the truth. And so we quibble about the curtains while the elephant takes up residence in the living room.

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      • “Now the ‘fact’ is that Obama hasn’t personally overturned the law, he’s just selectively enforcing or not enforcing the law, which while having the same effect is just gooey enough to have as they say in the intelligence trade, ‘plausible deniability.'”

        In other words, he exercised the executive’s prerogative to define his enforcement priorities. Of course, presidents have a nasty habit of going overboard on this sort of thing, and other than having heard about the welfare/work thing, I haven’t followed closely enough to know much more about it. So you might be right.

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      • On another recent OP it was said that Romney lied when his ad talked about Obama gutting welfare reform. Now the “fact” is that Obama hasn’t personally overturned the law, he’s just selectively enforcing or not enforcing the law, which while having the same effect is just gooey enough to have as they say in the intelligence trade, “plausible deniability”.

        Actually, wardsmith, it is a lie. Hell, even my governor, arch-conservative, Sam Brownback, admits as much.

        The directive from the administration reads, “The Secretary [of Health and Human Services] is only interested in approving waivers if the state can explain in a compelling fashion why the proposed approach may be a more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry.”

        He’s responding to requests from governors–many of them Republicans, mind you–to grant them more flexibility in meeting the welfare-to-work requirements.

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        • Um gee Rambling Rod, nice of you to drop in hours after the statement was made to misinterpret the words for us. Brownback said, and I quote, “As far as I have seen, but I don’t know all of the basis to it“. Then we find that he HIMSELF wrote a letter to HHS saying that opting out of work requirements on a program that has worked successfully for 15 yrs (*since Clinton implemented it*) is “alarming”. Sure makes you think he’s all for it doesn’t it?

          HHS themselves are backtracking on this one. Therefore Romney is obviously lying since they’d have no need to backtrack if … whoops.

          BTW the secretary of HHS is a She, not a He. She actually should have known HHS lacks the authority to grant TANF waivers, which is exactly she did.

          Now of course you’ll tell me Romney lied because Sebelius did it and not Obama personally. Then I”ll try and explain to you what the word Obama Administration means, then you’ll be off to other blogs never to be heard from again here I suppose.

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          • From Politifact:

            Romney’s ad says, “Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

            That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs — HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.

            The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: “They just send you your welfare check.” The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is “designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

            The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!

            It may be possible that the Secretary doesn’t have the authority to do this, but if so, that’s unfortunate because the intent is to meet the desired outcomes of the law while giving states the flexibility to experiment. It’s called federalism. IF you weren’t so incredibly over-the-top, in-the-tank, partisan you could see that. But you can’t.

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      • The No Perfect Information argument is overstated, even in combat. Information isn’t perfect and doesn’t have to be. For this reason, the US military pushes decision-making to the lowest possible level, to the platoon and squad level, where the information is fresh and can be confirmed. When you’re managing by objective, knowing everything is less important than you might think. No matter how good the intelligence might be, it’s not a question of what the enemy’s doing as your own status and deployment.

        Case in point: the Communist armies were highly hierarchical. Information flow and objectives were managed by zampolit, political enforcers. For example, in the USSR’s tank companies, only the commander’s tank had two antennae: one for communicating with subordinates and the other for communicating up the chain of command. Take out that tank and you’ve cut off the rest of that company from its command hierarchy: the subordinates didn’t even know the frequency for battalion command.

        Politics, more precisely, campaigning is about objectives. It’s not about facts. Paul Ryan’s out there, lying his ass off about Simpson-Bowles and Medicare. This is zampolit crap, telling management what they want to hear. The GOP is lying, everyone knows it. The GOP wants to win and they don’t care about the facts.

        Facts are completely irrelevant and Breitbart’s only repeating the lies. Obama’s not gutting welfare. 1996 set up work-for-welfare. The weirdest thing is this: Republican governors asked for the waivers. Not Obama. This year HHS said the states could apply for waivers. No waivers have yet been issued.

        You know all this, Ward. Why even bother putting up a link to this lie? It’s zampolit talk, brave Pericles shouting “On to Sparta!” There’s only so long people will tolerate being lied to, plied with the cheap liquor of Obama’s a Socialist. He’s just not a socialist. It’s not going to make any difference what the facts might be in this or any other political campaign.

        I sorta wish Obama would come out and say “Paul Ryan’s philosophy is to take all your welfare away and if you don’t work you don’t eat. And Mitt Romney’s nothing but a stuffed shirt who’d let him do it.” Now that would be true.

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        • Rambling, You quoted Politifact /after/ I’ve already quoted the article that debunks what Politifact said. Their partisanship isn’t even up for debate, it is demonstrably so, but /I’m/ the partisan hack here? This OP is concerned with the reasons politicians have to lie, partisanship is one of those reasons.

          Blaise, as usual a lot of words but little of substance. Ryan didn’t like Simpson-Bowles for well documented reasons. Show me the “lie” or shut your pie hole. It is all well and good to ‘assert’ a lie, and as I’ve ably shown, there are certainly GRAY areas where the entire episode is a matter of interpretation of fully subjective material. Again, I prefer the objectivity of science to the subjectivity of politics.

          But you /almost/ made a good point about objectives. In Ryan’s speech last night he stated his objectives quite clearly. You may not agree with those objectives, but they are the same as Jack Kemp’s decades ago. A strong economy supports a strong tax base. If we all lived in your (and Obama’s) fantasy land, we could overspend year after year and borrow at zero percent interest indefinitely. I don’t share your fantasy, I’ve been in business just as long as you have and there is NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH! Worldwide economic conditions have given America breathing room to set its fiscal house in order but it is lunacy to believe that will continue indefinitely.

          Answer this question. Should we or should we not live within our means? Put another way would you personally run up ever larger mountains of debt in the Pascal household?

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          • Your second link above is broken, Ward. Your first doesn’t seem to support your argument.

            I’m looking at the Heritage one now, but just offhand it says that HHS is breaking procedural rules (I’m not sure yet that this claim is substantiated, but I’ll get there eventually). It doesn’t, however, lay any groundwork as to what sort of burden this is putting on the welfare system.

            I mean, if HHS is breaking the rules, that’s one thing. If HHS is breaking the rules and it’s adding negligible burdens to the welfare state, that’s another thing. And if HHS is breaking the rules *and* it’s adding a substantial burden, that’s a third thing.

            None of those things are “ending Welfare Reform as We Know it”, which would be a fourth thing.

            Not to say that the fourth thing isn’t happening, but there seems to be some disagreement here that should be clarified.

            P.S. -> If you’re going to claim that Politifact is biased and this renders them unsuitable as a source of evidence, I think a Heritage Foundation link is an odd counterploy.

            Biased or not, in terms of what they cover… claims are substantiated or they’re not. Politifact and the Heritage Foundation can both be biased in what they cover without actually lying about something.

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            • Patrick, thank you for your reasoned response. First things first I think this is the missing link which references HHS backtracking. I don’t know how or why it got munged.

              The backtracking discussion elsewhere addresses your concerns. As always in this jelly nailing business, HHS has plenty of wiggle room in “interpretation” of the memo, and just to be sure they sent out a whole new letter to “reinterpret” what they’d already said in the memo so they could retroactively claim the original (correct) claims against them were (now) false. Sausage at its worst.

              As to Politifact comparing to Heritage? Heritage Foundation does NOT put themselves out there as “Sorting out the truth in politics”. There are entire websites devoted to Politifact bias one called: http://www.politifactbias.com/

              I recommend you read THAT site if you’d like to learn a bit about the blatant bias exhibited on the politifact site. Not that liberals won’t scream and yell when they get pinched a little now and then by a “half true” judgement on a statement that one of /theirs/ makes. Without question politifact is biased and biased in the liberal direction. Do a statistical survey of “pants on fire” judgements against liberals and conservatives on their site to prove it to yourself. Or accept their bias and state as Blaise and other partisans would gladly contend that only the conservatives lie. Good luck with that.

              Meanwhile Hertiage Foundation does NOT claim to be the arbiter of truth, nor anything like it. Furthermore, I didn’t use Heritage to rebut politifact but Breitbart who themselves reference the NYT! And we all know how biased /they/ are so that in itself is extraordinary. At the end of the day one must use one’s own judgement. You know I use my own, you may not agree with me and I guess we’d have to compete on IQ tests to determine who has the better judgement skills.

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  6. Cool post.

    I think there is an additional that (somewhat) counter-balance the incentive to lie: other people can convince the low-information voters that you are a lier in a low-information way and you will lose their trust and their vote. This is something that can come from within your own party (e.g. the recent pushback against Akin or Bachmann from the GOP); from the opposition (e.g. the lampooning of Kerry as a flip-flopper or the “Read my lips: no new taxes” promise made by Bush Sr.); or from the news-media in general.

    The whole idea of Fact Checkers, in my opinion, was meant to strengthen the role of the media in credibly informing low-information voters, but instead it’s revealed the fact that all politicians lie so much that simply demonstrating those lies does not encourage them to stop doing so.

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    • The whole idea of Fact Checkers, in my opinion, was meant to strengthen the role of the media in credibly informing low-information voters, but instead it’s revealed the fact that all politicians lie so much that simply demonstrating those lies does not encourage them to stop doing so.

      Yes! There’s also a coordination problem here. If the leadership of one party all somehow collectively decided — without any defections — that they would convert their party into a High Information Party, then the other party, which did no such thing, would be the one to benefit.

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  7. I agree that this is the case. The parties are coalitions of:
    1) those that are informed but have different values or goals or disagree on the interpretation, 2) those that thrive off the coalition and thus serve it. Some of these even serve it by concocting the rationalizations and arguments. Tribalism.
    3). Those that are uninformed and motivated by what Caplan refers to as “naive populism.”

    Parties thrive by creating and growing dependent tribalistic populations and by persuading disinterested uninformed voters via naive populism. ( Buy American!…. Preserve Traditional Families!) Liberal democracy degrades over time, thus leading back to the recommendations the libertarians tended to suggested on the recent Democracy forum ( the need for more competition, upstarts, creative destruction, choice and exit rights).

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  8. Politicians lie because the process makes it impossible to tell the truth. The truth is something that comes from your heart without being filtered by considerations of self-interest. Every word from modern politicians is run past dozens of consultants, media-experts, etc. The spontaneous remarks during debates are rehearsed endlessly with those same people. When the statements of a politician are congruent with reality, it is for the purpose of making you believe the next lie.

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    • While (much of) politicians’ messages are run past consultants and the like, that alone doesn’t explain why they say things that they know are untrue. After all, the consultants might be urging them to tell the truth. I’m sticking with the original idea, that any victory in politics requires a coalition of the knowing and the ignorant. And that all but demands a good deal of lying.

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  9. Pingback: Stupid Politicians May Be Smart « Thinking Things Through

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