Why Do Politicians Lie?

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Thomas Friedman thinks only a third party can save us:


We have to rip open this two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a serious third party that will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.

"If competition is good for our economy," asks Diamond, "why isn't it good for our politics?"

We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: "These two parties are lying to you. They can't tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world's leaders, not the new Romans."

To me, the most parsimonious story is not that politicians are lying because they are in hock to special interests--after all, their job is to appease the 200 million special interests in the electorate.  Rather, I think that politicians lie because lying works; the guy who wins is often the guy who can tell the best lies.  If you can generate an intuitively compelling, but empirically false, story about how you are going to deliver sumptuous goodies to the voters without costing them anything, you may well have a good shot at elected office.  That's why Republicans claim to absurdly high growth effects from supply-side tax cuts, and why Democrats promised that health care reform won't result in any changes voters don't like, unless those voters happen to be "rich".

For a third party to succeed, it too would have to tell wild lies about something.  Like, say, that the only thing standing between Americans and more effective government is the lack of a third party.

It's not that I'm against third parties, mind you.  It's just that when I look at multiparty states elsewhere, I can't say that they look noticeably more honest than our two-party system.  A third party might be an improvement over the ones we've got.  But I doubt it would get into office by telling us the truth:  that solving our problems is going to mean hefty tax increases or unpleasant spending cuts, or both.  American voters seem to like being lied to.  
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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