I see that politicians lie a lot. And, very often they lie consciously.

This is not only true in my country, but also true all around the world.

Is telling lies a part and parcel of politics? Is it impossible to be in politics without resorting to lies? If YES, why is that?

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    I don't know if question maybe would be better if reversed. I have noticed sometimes when honest politicians are elected then they seem frail and are rarely re-elected. Jan 12 at 13:09
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    While this question maybe ontopic I don't see how it can be answerable. Let's leave it at the fact that politics is a struggle between telling people what they want to hear so they elect you, and then doing what is good for them, which is not what they tell you to do.
    – Rekesoft
    Jan 12 at 13:11
  • @Rekesoft Life is a struggle between telling people what they want to hear and the truth.
    – Joe W
    Jan 12 at 13:19
  • Voters reward "positive attitude". As far as the public is concerned, that's about it. Now whether politicians - or entire political parties - can get away with abandoning promises made to their sponsors... Different game entirely.
    – Pete W
    Jan 12 at 18:09
  • What do you mean by a lie? What examples are motivating you?
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 13 at 2:28

Frame shift:

I see that politicians lie a lot.

Do you have any specifics to back that up? Do all politicians - in democracies - lie a lot? Most? Some? More than in similar professions? Yes, you have Boris Johnson, but he was already known for that as a journalist. His election is less an indictment to his profession than one on the gullibility of the English public.

Do politicians lie more than other "convincing professions" like salesmen, marketers, journalists, lawyers, prosecutors, influencers, economists, academics in social studies, authors of non-fiction, documentary cinematographers ...?

Does it count as a lie when a politician says "I will bring back jobs" (they're all supposed to say that), tries to do what they said and then reality hits the fan: governments can't typically create jobs outside of tax-consuming public sector workers, only put in place certain policies to hopefully improve job creation.

Does it count as a lie when a promised reform is blocked by the opposition (in period of high polarization political parties are typically loathe to allow each other policy wins)?

Does it count as a lie when a member of the public believes in something that you know to be false (global warming is a hoax/global warming is a global emergency/capitalism causes cancer/capitalism cures cancer...) and then goes into politics to promote their beliefs?

I am not just being facetious here, one of the main ways in which public trust has been eroded over the last 30 years, since Communism discredited itself and politics originally settled into a center-left/center-right tug of war, before the rise of the populists, is constant blame and vitriol being heaped on politicians of all stripes.

That public distrust, cynicism and low expectations is part of what allowed Trump, a high-spending hereditary multibillionaire with a checkered history as a businessman and limited compassion to his workers and contractors to paint himself as the great white hope of the working classes. And to continue as a political force despite a very fraught relation with veracity.

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Francois Mitterand? (don't want to pile-on right politicians, slime puppies exist on all sides)

Just like the others if I am to believe you. No, these three are often viewed as liars precisely because they outshine their peers in that regard.

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    You could also add that some are lying in that that make claims that others are lying about something in order to improve their own position.
    – Joe W
    Jan 12 at 17:08
  • "Does it count as a lie when a politician says 'I will bring back jobs' (they're all supposed to say that)" -- IMO this would be one of most typical examples. And the connection to Trump is appropriate, his 2016 campaign referenced dissatisfaction over NAFTA, i.e. unrealized predictions about new tech jobs for displaced working class made by both Bush I and Clinton I
    – Pete W
    Jan 12 at 18:04
  • Communism didn't discredit itself because there are still nation that has low wealth gap--that is the closest we have to "a nation without class". Focusing on military instead of people's livehood, not holding proper elections/ensuring people's grievience can be heard and resolved, and installing puppet regime in countries not welcoming you is what been discreditted.
    – Faito Dayo
    2 days ago

What Is A Lie?

Before it is even possible to engage with the question

Is telling lies a part and parcel of politics? Is it impossible to be in politics without resorting to lies? If YES, why is that?

it is important to distinguish between a causal way of using the term "lie" and the more restrictive sense of that word used in the law and in more careful speech.

In the law, when we talk about a lie (which is called "fraud") we mean a false representation, about a presently existing material fact, made with knowledge of its falsity, with an intent to deceive the person to whom it is communicated.

What Is Not A Lie?

It is easier to talk about that that definition doesn't include.

In the law, making a promise about something you will do in the future, and not living up to that promise is not a lie.

Broken campaign promises are part and parcel of politics and impossible not to resort to.

This is because politicians in democratic systems of government aren't kings. They have to obtain the cooperation of other people to carry out their promises, and sometimes they fail.

Also, circumstances change and new information is discovered over time. So, promises that seemed doable when made and seemed like a good thing to do when made, may prove to be more difficult to accomplish than anticipated, and may turn out to be something that is abandoned because new information reveals a promise to have been, in 20/20 hindsight, a bad idea for an action to take.

The problematic issue, even in a world of honest politicians, is how to not unduly favor politicians who are making promises in good faith that they intend to keep but don't manage to, over politicians who are more careful in making promises and can keep more promises than someone who promised more can. There is a moral hazard for a politician to promise more than they can deliver to get elected, even though the politician knows in advance that some particular promises will be impossible to keep.

More generally, inaccurate predictions about the future are not lies if you believe that they are true when you make them.

In the law, statements made without knowledge of their falsity aren't lies.

Politicians aren't perfect. Indeed, they are particularly vulnerable to misinterpreting facts to fit with their worldviews and political visions. They are also busy people with lots of responsibilities. Sometimes, they assume that a source of credible, even if it is not, when it agrees with their point of view, and so do not fact check something they say. Sometimes they will say something believing it to be true, but will be mistaken. When this happens it is not a lie.

There is a moral hazard too that there may be incentives in the system to be sloppy and not fact check, if the statement advances your cause. But, normally, we think that active debate solves that. In a world of good faith honest politicians, politicians are still going to make untrue statements not knowing that they are false, but in that world, they will admit that they were wrong when they learn otherwise and are asked about it.

Similarly, immaterial mistakes and statements that no one told them was expected by the person making them to be believed (i.e. satire type statements) are not lies. A misstatement about which state Kansas City is in, shows that you are stupid, not that you are a liar.

Likewise, if you say that the sky is green when it is blue, you are probably engaged in hyperbole and not making a statement that you expect people to treat as a real statement of fact. Often this involves rhetorical exaggeration ("The most important issue facing our community today is . . .).

In the law, opinions are not facts.

Statements of opinion are incapable of being lies, if they are sincere. The only lie you can make about a statement of opinion is saying you believe something when you actually don't.

This kind of lie is often a necessity imposed by civility and the need to interact socially to get things done harmoniously and is only rarely pernicious.

None of this is to say that politicians don't actually flat out lie in the narrow sense.

But, once you cut through the morass of things that are often colloquially called lies, some of which really are inevitable, to actually lies, the issue is a lot less pervasive and clear cut.

Politicians aren't routinely in the business of making statements about presently existing facts period. Most of the time they are making promises and arguments and resolving differences of normative values, although certainly they do sometimes lie to achieve their ends or protect their reputations.

It would be interesting to consider the questioners examples of lies to determine what kind of statements are really the focus of that concern.

Even What Counts As A Lie Has A Partisan/Class Dimension

There is a fair amount of political science research to suggest that there is a big socio-economic class and cultural divide in what people means when they talk about politicians lying.

Upper middle class educated information sector workers like myself, tend to focus on the legalistic definition of a lie.

Many high school educated, working class people outside the information sector of the economy, often don't consider a legally defined lie to be a lie or a serious infraction at all, and instead focus on issues like politicians stating that they care about you, when this seems to be insincere and when politicians who say they care about you don't do what you want them to do.

This and closely related conceptions of what lying by politicians means and when it matters, is much more closely linked to declining trust in institutions than actual untruthfulness in the formal conception of what is is a lie.

For example, when you look at measures of trust of professions and public officials, the best predictor of lack of public trust is that a profession or public official is in the business of negotiating outcomes and deals, rather than simply issuing orders that must be followed (the military always ranks high because that is what it does, politicians, attorneys, and car salesmen always rank low, for the same reasons).


Works like "The Prince" and "The Dictators Handbook" suggest that rulers must be ever mindful of the possibility of being removed from office, either by election, or by force. For this reason, they need the support of allies to gain and retain their positions. Different allies are useful in different circumstances.

  • Wealthy backers are pretty much always valuable because no matter what your goals are, having more money on you side will increase your odds of achieving them.
  • Armed forces are useful because they may be able to prevent a violent overthrow.
  • Other political elites are useful because their influence can be used to either advance or stymie your agenda.
  • Media figures are useful because they can produce propaganda to influence public sentiment.
  • Bureaucrats are useful because they do the manual work of implementing policies.
  • There are several other useful classes of allies that I'm leaving out for brevity
  • The general public is important only in the event that they are in a position to remove you from office (e.g. via election or revolution).

Any ruler must balance the concerns of their allies, or those allies will turn on them and attempt to replace them with someone else more to their liking. With all these different people to please, rulers have strong incentive do whatever is necessary in order to keep allies happy. This includes lying to them. Being honest with everyone all the time risks alienating potential allies.

It is important to understand that gaining power and keeping it do not necessarily require the same types of allies. This can make lying an especially powerful tool. A ruler can lie to allies who are valuable now, but expected not to be in the future. By the time the lie is discovered, it may be too late for that ally to withdraw their support. More powerful allies are less likely to get this treatment, but less powerful ones have little defense against it.

The simple truth is that the majority of the time, the general public is not at the top of any ruler's list of concerns. Maintaining the loyalty of more important allies will almost always take precedence over being seen as honest in the eyes of the public.


These ideas are elegantly explained in CGP Grey's Rules for Rulers.

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