Should politicians who lie be hounded out of office? Wherever debate is possible, that is to say in societies where the people have a say in who rules over them, the question has been debated since the dawn of history.
Aristotle, who was the first to offer an organized study of politics, did not pay much attention to the issue of trust, presumably because he took it for granted. Over 15 centuries later, Machiavelli not only discovered the role of lies in politics, but also tried to codify, if not justify, them in the service of a higher cause: that is to say public order.
But what does one mean by lying? Despotic societies are structured on a hierarchy of lies with the lower echelons lying to the higher ones. The slave never told the master the truth, at least not all of it and all the time. The chief victim in a despotic regime, however, was the despot himself if only because everyone, including his favorite consort, lied to him.
But what about democratic societies? The assumption has always been that in democratic societies the direct of the lie is reverse, with the government lying to the people.
The issue has come under the limelight because of a speech made by Hungary’s Socialist Prime Minister Ferenec Gyurcsany to a group of his party militants. Init, he admitted that his coalition government had systematically lied to the people in order to win re-election.
Someone had the bright idea of leaking part of the speech, triggering street protests in Budapest, pushing the country to the brink of violence, and threatening to curtail Mr. Gyurcsany’s political career.
Here is what the Hungarian leader had to say: “There is not much choice. There is not, because we have screwed up. Not a little but a lot. No country in Europe has screwed up as much as we have. It can be explained. We have obviously lied throughout the past 18 to 24 months. It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true. You cannot mention any significant government measures that we can be proud of, apart from the fact that in the end we managed to get governance out of the shit. Nothing. If we have to give an account to the country of what we have done in four years, what are we going to say?”
So should Gyurcsany be thrown out because he won power under false pretenses? Should the Hungarian treat him as a bride who turns out to have lied not only about her age but also about her sex?
The problem is that the prime minister did not address his speech to the public as a whole. Had he done so he might have been regarded as something of a hero, a man of character capable of admitting wrongdoings and offering an apology. But he did not. His little speech was addressed at a handful of militants who may have been pressing him to adopt particular policies.
Gyurcsany might have done what Richard Nixon did: trying to cover-up his lies. To his credit, the Hungarian leader did not such thing. As soon as the speech was leaked, he owned it and stood by its analysis. In that sense, therefore, Gyurcsany deserves praise because he did not act as a typical politician who would have claimed that his speech had been taken out of context or that he had been misquoted by the malicious media.
In theory at least, political leaders do not need to lie in democratic societies. These are societies supposed to be based on transparency and mutual trust. If voters are considered mature and responsible enough to choose a government, they must also be assumed to have an almost generic preference for truth.
The problem is that things are not always exactly the same in theory and practice. Voters in democratic societies might resent being lied to, especially when the liar is caught in the act. But they have an immense capacity for lying to themselves. The topic once came up when I was interviewing the late British Prime Minister James Callaghan. According to Callaghan, democracy was a system that led societies to the edge of ungovernability, and that was the best place to be for an advanced human society. In such a system, lies could push society over the edge.
And, yet, the advanced Western democracies have lived, and continue to live, with some basic lies- lies that electorate likes to hear. The former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok had a nice formula: the entire welfare state was based on the lie that the same guilder could be spent many times over.
Now let us return to the case of Prime Minister Gyurcsany. He knows that joining the European Union would require Hungary to do away with the last vestiges of its socialist system. The system under which everyone was always sure to have a job, albeit for meager wages and with little productivity, has to be dismantled. The generous pension schemes, early retirements for public sector employees, and generous state subsidies for a wide range of activities- from folk dancing to the study of long dad languages- have no place in a capitalist market economy in which making a profit is the matrix.
Had Gyurcsany entered the election determined to tell the truth he would have had to say something like this: Dear voters, I am offering you policies designed to inject a high dose of uncertainty in your lives in the hope of better things to come. You will lose job security, and might see your businesses driven out of the market as a result of stiff competition from other European Union members. Your taxes will go up and your social benefits will be slashed. Please vote for me!
It is almost certain that, with a platform like that, Gyurcsany would be in the opposition today. In Hungary, like in most other new democracies, people want to have their cake and eat it. They wish to maintain the culture of dependency that made them feel comfortable under despotism. At the same time, however, they are tempted by the adventure of freedom with all its dangers and possibilities.
In despotic societies, the people lie to the despot who, when he lies back to them, invites only derision. In democratic societies, voters lie to themselves, forcing their rulers to lie back to them. The difference is that in democratic societies, whenever the need arises, the few can always be blamed for the sins of the many and chased out of power in an election. In despotic systems, however, the vicious circle of lies is seldom broken without violence.