This is quite a broad question since obviously there are many different political systems and ways of governing around the world. But I would like to boil it down to some standard concepts of leadership, ethics, and responsibility to govern a nation.

Throughout history (recent and long past) there are many recorded instances where a political leader (or their direct team) have been blatantly dishonest about their activities to the general public/their people eg. Watergate. In other instances decisions have been made which have direct affect on people's lives but have not allowed individuals to make their own decisions regarding these eg. Snowden. In these instances I am curious as to how leadership, ethics and governance ideally should be considered as a part of the pros and cons of the decision i.e. are they given equal weight or is the final outcome more important?

As an example, looking at the Snowden case; the apparent benefit of the "dishonesty" was that it made a nation more safe, while the general disadvantage was less privacy. One was decided to be more important than the other at that point in time.

Therefore in a general sense what are the benefits and disadvantages for political leaders to be honest with the people they are leading/governing?

Happy to add more detail as requested, it's my first question here so please go easy!

  • 2
    In political terms, the benefit is if you tell voters what they want to hear, you are more likely to get re-elected. The disadvantage is that if they find out you are lying, you are less likely to get re-elected. The ends-justify-the-means stuff is one for the philosophy stack.
    – Pete W
    May 27, 2021 at 4:57
  • 1
    If you have an effective argument, and a truthful one, which do you choose?
    – meriton
    May 28, 2021 at 0:16

2 Answers 2


Honesty, defined by my dictionary as "free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere," is foundational to any good faith attempt to govern. The term 'good faith' is doing a lot of work here, and means that the person in the position of power is attempting to execute the responsibilities of their office to the best of their ability and as closely to the spirit of the law that establishes their office.

The advantages of being honest are therefore, legitimacy, positive accord with those governed, and security.

  • Legitimacy, because you are only properly in an office to the extent that you were put there through no act of deception and execute your office in good faith;
  • Positive accord, because whatever your relationship with the governed may be, everyone who is party to it knows where they stand and can agree as to the facts; and
  • Security, because when you are honest you can never be caught in a lie - only an error.

There are no disadvantages, period, to being honest if you are occupying your office in good faith. From time to time someone may talk about being 'too honest,' but this is a misnomer. What they're actually objecting to is being too forthcoming, that is: too free with information that you needn't disclose. Honesty doesn't mean running your mouth off every chance you get, it simply means that when you open your mouth, what comes out is the truth to the best of your ability. Discretion is especially important when honesty is your watchword, but that's the closest to a disadvantage that you get and it can be absolutely devastating to be honest, but indiscrete.

Someone who occupies, or seeks, a political office in bad faith, however, does face serious disadvantages if they are too truthful, and this depends on the circumstances of the bad faith. If someone is engaged in corruption, criminality, or abuses of power, they will either have to lie about it or end up confessing to the misdeeds - deception becomes a necessity for the corruption to continue.

Even outside the realm of corruption, however, those who hold views that a majority of people find odious are strongly incentivized, structurally, to lie about their views in order to garner power, office, and favors. If they openly admit to their views they will be ostracized and isolated from power or political office.

In the case of political parties whose actual policy positions are odious to the public, there is strategic advantage to inventing crises that distract from the policy positions and insofar as their opponents have facts on their side, adding a miasma of uncertainty, doubt, or assumptions of bad faith to the whole political sphere allows them to operate under less effective scrutiny - and disturb the public less when discovered because, after all, "aren't all politicians automatically corrupt?"

Honesty serves best when the person holding power actually means to do well by the people governed. Dishonesty serves best when dealing with your enemies - and to a minority-rule government, the people are the enemy since the majority of them don't like the government, or wouldn't if the fully understood the truth of matters.

  • The OP mentioned the revelations of Edward Snowden. How would the government surveillance that was being done in secret, and which he made public, fit into your argument?
    – Barmar
    May 28, 2021 at 23:18
  • Doing something in secret is not dishonesty, it's discretion. lying about the fact that you're doing it would be dishonesty. People say "No Comment" for a reason. May 29, 2021 at 6:10
  • I don't remember for sure, but I feel like there were times when the government denied that they did the kind of surveillance that Snowden revealed.
    – Barmar
    May 29, 2021 at 12:37
  • Probably. I'm not defending the United States' policies here, if that's what you think I'm doing. May 29, 2021 at 17:34

There are advantages to honesty, but there are obviously disadvantages if they are too honest.

  • Disadvantage: Politician or person can reveal information that can put a community in danger. There was the recent ransomware attack in the Colonial Pipeline by the hacker group DarkSide while foreign hackers where able to gain information to Russian federal agencies. If a politician is too honest, they can reveal information that could make it easier to steal sensitive information that could help greedy felons and foreign enemies attack harm a nation. Data could be revealed about vulnerabilities in critical networks or places where security could be more relaxed (and thus, easier to infiltrate).

  • Advantage: According to an AARP survey, 86% of millennials and young voters think honesty is important in government. So, being a more honest politician can make you more likely to get support from young voters and help you remain in office. Next to honesty, job opportunities are an important issue and remaining honest means you can remain honest about job opportunities and the level of availability instead of potentially being caught in a lie & promising more jobs than society can possibly provide (and reducing your popularity as a politician by lying about an issue important to 83% of Americans).

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