There are lies, damned lies, and then there’s…. politics?
If you look on the internet now, Raeesah Khan’s resignation has prompted two predictable lines of discussion on social media. The first, a host of commentators asking why the resignation came abruptly before a formal investigation, and to what extent the Workers’ Party was responsible for covering up or aiding Khan’s lies (see here and here).
The second, on the other side of the political aisle, has the usual suspects attempting to rescue their political heroine from embarrassment by creating a diversion of the discussion from “An elected MP lied and should face the consequences!” to “But what about sexual assault victims?”. Khan herself attempted this game of whataboutism during her apology (see also last month).
Both lines of conversation are dreadfully uninteresting. Both trains of thought are pointless because there are no lessons of value to glean from pursuing either line of discussion. One side is out for blood, the other to shield themselves from criticism. In other words, business as usual.
More interestingly however, is the bigger picture of why and how political actors often get away so easily with lying.
Is Raeesah Khan an exceptional liar?
In the wake of Khan’s admittance of her lie several weeks ago, I penned a post that provoked the ire of many pro-PAP supporters.
Among those who believed that Khan’s lies were exceptional in local politics, were Singapore’s famed ex-foreign-diplomat Bilhari Kausikan.
Let’s put aside the weird wife-beating analogy for just a second since I wasn’t justifying Khan’s actions (I plainly criticised her in a previous post). This type of thinking smacks of a kind of rose-tinted naivety that I have encountered repeatedly when speaking to pro-PAP folks in my years of following Singapore’s politics. Our politicians have for decades prided themselves on their honesty and fair brokerage after all.
Yet, any serious student of politics knows that politicians of all stripes – even the ones that they favour – can have a… convenient relationship with information.
To justify its policy positions, The PAP routinely plays up the harms of drugs, or the benefits of the death penalty, while downplaying the extraordinary human and economic costs of those policies. Singapore’s abysmal 160th ranking on the World Press Freedom Index is also due to a panoply of restrictive media laws like the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, Broadcasting Act, or POFMA, which allows the government of the day to obfuscate opposing points of view and discipline political conversation within certain boundaries if they so choose. Opposition politicians regularly misrepresent the academic evidence on the minimum wage or capital gains taxes, while the even more fringe non-elected folks routinely cherry-pick statistical evidence to push their anti-immigrant agenda.
‘Lies’ of a different stripe
But aren’t Raeesah Khan’s lies more serious? Surely a fabricated bare-faced lie in Parliament about sexual assault is worse than merely “misleading” factual omissions or exaggerations that politicians engage in?
Yet, it’s puzzling to me why Khan’s detractors think her lies are exceptionally out of the norm for politics because it isn’t uncommon for politicians to lie or participate in disinformation for political purposes. They emphasise certain policy issues over others, downplay politically inconvenient topics, frame debates in distorted and biased ways, exaggerate the magnitude of problems, and on the rare occasion, get caught with a bare-faced lie like Raeesah Khan did.
We know this is true for politicians practically the world over. Yet, even if domestic politicians haven’t often been caught peddling ‘alternative facts’, we know that a selective telling of the facts is not telling the whole truth. Partial truths do not constitute a proper picture of reality.
While we can agree that Khan’s lie was more obvious, it’s unclear to me why selective truth-telling, distortions and exaggerations for political purposes is any less harmful. Both forms of untruth are intentional, lack plausible deniability (which is why politicians globally spend millions on speechwriting) and produce the same outcome: The misdirection of people.
Likewise, they all lead to the same outcome in varying degrees: Obfuscating the truth and misleading the public. But the whole truth matters, because to solve the worst problems of society, whether poverty, abortion or climate change, we first need to have truthful beliefs about our problems, their causes, their solutions and the tradeoffs involved.
Could it be, that the folks who are especially outraged about Khan’s lies, have drawn such a narrow line around what constitutes “lying” here – all of which would be considered as lies in any modern court of law – so they don’t have to examine other politicians in the same way?
For the record, I’m a huge fan of many PAP policies. I published a book this year praising much of it. But while it is charitable to believe that politicians in general behave honestly all the time, it is silly to think so. And it is even sillier to think that the honest ones are exclusively on your side.
‘Lies’ are standard fare in politics
Here’s a point to remember. Prima facie, we can already deduce that half the people in politics are full of shit. A bold claim, I know. There are dozens of contested policy topics in mainstream political discourse, from climate change and foreign policy to gender issues and tax laws.
The minimum wage, for example, is either ultimately good or bad for low wage workers. It cannot be both, since that would be metaphysically impossible. Yet politicians, activists and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum regularly produce conflicting narratives on what they claim minimum wage laws will do for low wage workers. We can logically deduce from this, that half the politicians are perpetuating falsehoods all the time. That’s not controversial.
Therefore, selective truth-telling, more bluntly known as ‘Lying’ is a feature of democratic politics, not a bug. To win elections, politicians need to win over millions of voters. To win voters, they need to be talked about. To be talked about, they need to engage the public with easy narratives and soundbites that are digestible by the average voter. And to do that, they need to emphasise issues that are politically strategic, and downplay or ignore issues that alienate allies or risk offending an important voter bloc.
Most importantly, politicians need to be seen as ‘solving problems’, even when there are none, or when the problems do not merit drastic political solutions. Nobody votes for an optimistic politician that campaigns on an “All is well” slogan. Panic sells. Voters pay attention to politicians spouting doomsday narratives about environmental harm, who engage their sense of moral urgency when talking about exploited workers, and who promise them economic benefits in the form of tax cuts or welfare spending or protection against “foreign cultures”.
Enter ‘Public Choice’ economics
The economist-philosopher James Buchanan won a Nobel Prize in 1986 for making this point. Buchanan and his colleagues pioneered a field of scholarship in political science and economics known as Public Choice that studies the self-interested behaviours of political actors and how they choose in groups.
From a Public Choice perspective, everyone who participates in politics is in it for themselves. Politicians campaign the way they do to win elections, corporations lobby politicians to increase their own revenues, and voters vote for leaders they think will dispense the most socioeconomic benefits to them. Politics, in short, is nothing more than an economic mode of exchange. Do A for me, and I’ll do B for you. No matter how much politics in Singapore is framed as a sacrifice in service of the nation, which it certainly is, the idea that politicians are only altruistic angels out to serve the public good is as ludicrous as the idea that corporations are not profit-driven, but rather, are interested in serving consumers out of the goodness of their hearts.
Our political actions depend on the incentive structures of our political institutions i.e., the rules of the game.
For example, the first-past-the-post voting system that Singapore inherited from British colonialism grants the party with the majority of votes all the seats in that constituency, as opposed to a proportional voting system that allocates seats to even minority voting blocs (making every vote matter more). This incentivises parties to focus their political investments or field popular candidates in districts of more strategic importance to them.
Another example: It is common knowledge that the PAP candidate will win in a three-way contested constituency because the already smaller bloc of Opposition voters in that district are being diluted into two Opposition voting parties. This creates two immediate incentives:
- Non-PAP voters in a 3-way constituency have less of an incentive to take their vote seriously
- PAP will field their less politically popular candidates in such a constituency so as not to “waste” them in a fight already won
Incentives are everywhere. What Public Choice teaches us, is that since political actors behave self-interestedly, we should design political institutions that are robust against predatory and opportunistic actors.
As Buchanan often put it, Public Choice cautions us to view politics without romance. This is the cardinal sin of many pro-PAP supporters that I know, who tend to romanticise the incumbent government a bit too much. Before Public Choice, intellectuals saw democracy through a rose-tinted lens where policymakers and voters were altruistic and self-serving. From a Public Choice perspective however, a serious analysis must consider that politics is full of ‘predatory’ actors that will exploit these rules to their benefit if they can, and we should view all state interventions within that paradigm while considering:
- How will the law be exploited by politicians and corporations today?
- How might a law passed today be exploited by different politicians ten years from now?
- When that happens, will the law be difficult to remove?
A Public Choice analysis of ‘lying’ in politics
So why do politicians lie all the time? And how do they get away with lying so much?
The simple answer is because they can. The rules of democracy make it so that we rarely have to bear the consequences of our actions individually.
Globally, millions of policymakers, pundits, activists and voters support, condemn and vote for a range of different issues on a daily basis. When bad policies get passed, it is hard to say that the resulting policy failure is the fault of any particular entity or person, due to the nature of collective decision-making in politics. The buck stops with Parliament, not the politicians that pushed for lopsided policy.
This is unlike in market environments, where there is private ownership of the consequences of bad decision-making. If McDonald’s produces a contaminated Big Mac, we can say that McDonald’s should bear the responsibility of that decision. Blame is concentrated in one entity, and the consequences of bad decisions can be traced back to one decision-maker. There is a serious cost to making bad decisions.
In political democracy, however, blame is distributed making talk cheap, and cheap talk come in high supply. Political environments lack the immediate, consequential feedback and disciplinary mechanisms that markets have, like property rights and profit signals (for more, see here). While elections are one such feedback loop, they only serve their function once every few years, and even then, they mute the accounting of individual policy decisions by aggregating them with a whole term’s worth of decisions. Bad decisions are often buried and unaccounted for.
That is why politicians and political actors frequently get away with lying.
It is only on ultra-rare occasions that someone like Khan, who has the audacity (or ignorance) to repeat a demonstrably false lie in Parliament more than twice, gets caught. At the same time, other misdirections, half-truths and lies continue to be churned out in the media daily, yet nobody loses their minds.
Donovan Choy is the coauthor of Liberalism Unveiled, a classical liberal analysis of Singapore’s public policy.
This is an invited opinion piece. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not of Regardless. If you would like to have your work featured on Regardless, please write to us at [email protected]