How can you tell if a politician is lying?

By Megan McArdle

He's moving his lips, goes the old joke.

A number of people, in the comments and elsewhere, have demanded to know incredulously whether I really believe that the Republicans are no worse than the Democrats. They have challenged me to take a side. Here goes.

For starters, I voted for Bush in 2004, but Democratic in the last election, and though I haven't dug too far into their policy prescriptions yet, but I find it hard to imagine a circumstance under which I would vote for Romney, McCain, or Giuliani. (I know nothing about Thompson except that he plays a damn fine district attorney.) It depends on who the Democratic nominee is, but I'll probably either pull the lever for Obama or an independent. So I am not defending Republicans, to the extent that I am defending them, because I am one.

But that doesn't mean that I think the Republicans are evil. I think they are tarred with scandal right now because that's what happens to the party in power--by which I mean, the party in power is the one with the big opportunities for corruption. Bill Clinton got caught renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to donors because he had the Lincoln Bedroom to rent out. I did not admire the Republican machine's depradations on K Street, and think that they were a disgusting innovation in American political culture. But now that that machinery is in place, I will be very surprised if the Democrats don't use it. I will be very pleased, of course, to be proven wrong; but if Democrats control Congress for ten years, I expect that the end result will be a rash of corruption scandals with Republicans crying that the Party of Tammany Hall is just doing what it has always done, while conveniently forgetting their own more recent history.

I think most politicians, like most people, are basically well meaning folks who act out of some combination of idealism, a fervent desire to be liked, greed, power hunger, and trenchant ability for self-deception. I do not think that these qualities are notably unequally distributed between the parties, which is why I don't identify with either of them. Moreover, I think that the electoral calculus of a bipartisan system means that those qualities will always be roughly evenly distributed between the parties.

I think that laws get passed through a combination of idealism, pragmatic horse-trading in order to deliver goodies to local districts, and electoral positioning with key interest groups. I think that fundraising consumes a great deal of time, but is not a particularly important explanatory variable in high-profile policy making. Lobbyists do a great deal of damage by securing small tax breaks and subsidies for themselves, locking out competition, and otherwise distorting the economy. But they do not get to buck the will of the people on anything that the public genuinely cares about. Major policy initiatives are stymied at the behest of big interest groups, not big donors; CAFE standards fail in Congress not because GM gives a lot of money to congressional campaigns, but because the UAW has a lot of members, and those members will vote against anyone who passes a law that hurts sales of American cars; and also because Americans do not like to drive more expensive, less powerful, and smaller cars. Campaign money buys a congressman's ear, but what buys his vote is your ability to convince him that your idea will be good for the country, his constituents, or his electoral prospects.

I therefore do not think that, for example, rich donors snapping their fingers are a good explanation of the Republican position on tax cuts, or much else besides trivial provisions in bills you've never heard of. It is not that I excuse these things--they are repulsive. It's just that I don't expect the Democrats to be any different--witness Nancy Pelosi's special exemption from the minimum wage for a territory in which a canner in her district happens to have a major plant, or Charles Schumer's otherwise frankly bizarre position on carried interest. I don't think that Republicans have some special brand of evil; I think that they behave as I expect people given lots of government power to behave, which is to say fairly badly. Nor do I expect that I'd behave any better in their place, which is one of the many reasons you will not catch me running for office.

I think that their ideology does differ, and many progressives think that that ideology is evil. Obviously, I differ there too. I diverge in many places from the core ideology of the Republican Party, and in many other places from the core ideology of the Democratic Party; in some places I respect honest differences in value judgements, and in other places I think that both parties engage in willful ignorance of reality in order to foster a more self-satisfying world view.

I think that there are better and worse people in politics, but I also think that it is hard to know decisively who those people are; I've found out that politicians I hated were lovely, honorable chaps in person; and conversely, that people I respected were widely known for being venal, lying, power-hungry jerks.

So when I decide who to vote for, I try not to decide who the better person is; I try to guess which one of them is likely to come closest to my preferred policy basket--for whatever reason, good, bad, or indifferent. Obviously, I occasionally guess wrong. But that's my general approach to politics--which is why discussions about who is stupider, or meaner, or less honest, or whatever, generally leave me pretty cold.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/09/how-can-you-tell-if-a-politician-is-lying/1916/