In the previous post in this miniseries I’ve used the example of Brexit referendum to explore how allowing lies to be systematically upheld in public discourse is poisonous for democracy itself. The bleak conclusion was that people voted Brexit on the basis of false information. In Cipolla’s terms, most of the Leave votes were stupid: their real effect will be the opposite of what the voters wanted to achieve.
On the national scale, voters have consistently voted against their best interests (if my analysis is right!), turning Democracy in a farcical caricature of itself. Assuming there is some truth in this, it calls for some serious analysis: how is it even possible? I hope you won’t spot me claiming that this question allows for one single simple explanation, but nevertheless, one claim I do wish to make is that the neo-liberal world-view (the commonly accepted web of lies described in detail in the previous post) is partially responsible:
- It is entrenched in public discourse, so much so that it is isn’t even questioned. For example have a look at these two BBC articles (on Banking and Energy providers) and look for the assumptions they rest upon.
- As demonstrated in the previous post, neo-liberalism rests on a number of wrong assumptions (there are more technical ones: for example, mainstream economic models rely on the fictional idea that consumers act rationally – an idea that has been debunked beyond reasonable doubt by Daniel Kahneman – see Neblo 2003, Aktipis et al. 2004).
We’ll see in the next post what kind of effect this may have on the electorate. For now, I’ll concentrate on the effect it has on policies, politicians and their ability to effectively respond to the challenges posed by an unpredictable world. Before I can continue, I should make it clear that what follows rests on a big assumption of my own .
Assumption: any given world-view, being conceptual, must be somewhat wrong. Thus, one should compare world-views in terms of how fit for a given purpose they are, or, in more general terms, in terms of how well they work when they are adopted for multiple purposes.
I’m mentioning this because the key to understand what is happening lies in recognising that a world-view finds its justification in how it is used. The most important variable is how fit-for-purpose it is, not necessarily how well it describes the actual state of affairs. To clarify, a clear-cut example might help: if you are reading this, it is almost guaranteed that you think astrology is nonsense. As a world-view, it is almost impossible to expect it to closely match the facts: you could say that its truth-content is low enough to approach absolute zero, so why does it even exist? Well, I think it does because, despite its overt purpose of describing the real world, it actually responds to other, deeply seeded needs. For the general punter, it may be soothing, a source of mild amusement, a comfort during troubled time, a way to keep anxiety at bay, and so forth. For a professional astrologer it is the source of livelihood and is closely tied to her own personal identity. Thus, the function of astrology for the general public does not require to subscribe to an astrological outlook: you can regularly glance at the horoscopes page on the newspaper without believing anything you’ll read. At the same time, the primary functions generate a secondary one: for an astrology professional, the world-view is a source of income – to some, a perfectly fit-for-purpose source of income. Thus it’s interesting to note that whether astrology is true or not, or how well it approximates truth, if one considers both the primary and secondary purposes, is mostly irrelevant. The conclusion so far is that not all world-views need to be tightly related to how the world actually is, in order to exist. They can be abysmally wrong and still persist.
The web of lies I’ve described in the previous post belongs to this same category: it paints a fictitious picture of the world, but it is nevertheless described as true. Unfortunately, the primary purpose of this view is to justify policy decisions – as such, it doesn’t need to be true, but it does need to believed by many (unlike astrology). Austerity was justified by the idea that balance sheets of a state work exactly as (or closely enough) those of private entities. Much of the leave vote was justified by the belief that limiting immigration will have a positive effect on the living standards of the bottom half of the population, and so forth. To be fit-for-this-purpose, such a stance needs to be convincing enough, which of course requires to be somewhat linked to reality, in the sense that it needs to appear realistic. More importantly, it needs to be an attractive world-view. People need to find it easy to adopt it, for one reason or the other (something we’ll explore in the next post). For now, what’s important to note is that this particular world-view, given the purpose of justifying policies, needs to have relatively high truth-likeness: very few would approve a public spending round justified by the alignments of the stars, after all.
In turn, the truth-likeness requirement generates an all-important constraint on policy makers. This is a general requirement: to utilise any world-view for policy-justification, its truth-likeness needs to be preserved. Which means that once a politician has publicly upheld a given world-view, and justified his/her policies on this basis, he or she will find it progressively more difficult to suddenly change his/her position. The web of lies can capture enough votes, but by doing so it constrains its proponent degrees of freedom in a roughly proportional way. Empty rhetoric is a double-edged sword.
Once more, the example of Brexit elucidates my point perfectly: Cameron called the referendum, probably because he was convinced that the leave side will easily win. We know he was wrong, but we should also assume that he is neither an idiot nor that he lacked the means to evaluate the relevant facts. Nevertheless, his decision now looks stupid, a gross miscalculation, a mistake. Why did he get it so wrong? I think there are two concurrent explanations, with the first one being almost certainly relevant, while the second is more speculative.
Reason 1: he didn’t factor the self-inflicted constraints that his publicly held world-view would impose. Having had a track record of being able to successfully convince the British public of whatever suited him best, he probably thought that he’ll be able to pull the same trick once more, without much trouble. What I don’t think he realised is that maintaining the truth-likeness of his web of lies had a relevant cost: one that would significantly hinder his ability to make a convincing argument in favour of remaining in the EU.
Let’s look at a few examples: since the 2008 crash, standards of living have decreased or flatlined for the vast majority of the British electorate. The Brexit camp could easily blame uncontrolled immigration, lack of sovereignty and EU red-tape, exploiting the real situation of the country to spin up the current web of lies, they could simply build on the already established one. However, Cameron, being tied to the official government narrative, could not: in defending the status quo, his options were limited, the only possible strategy was to explain how the current situation was not as bad as the alternative. Of course, he could not go out and simply tell the truth: “look guys, our policies are causing your distress, the EU is not responsible, or it is only marginally so“. To avoid a guaranteed political suicide, he simply had to uphold his own web of lies and find a way to spin it in his favour. The trick may have worked in the past, but this time the world didn’t comply: the lies of the leave campaign had more appeal and fitted better in the existing web. In other words, Cameron got caught in his own web. If you are not convinced, take a look a how Cameron answers a question posed by one of his electors: he doesn’t answer at all, does he? Why? Because he did blame immigration for falling living standards, he got elected (also) because of this stance, and therefore he found himself unable to keep his new narrative attractive. Given the choice of sacrificing truth-likeness or attractiveness, he could only sacrifice the latter, because sacrificing the first would inevitably kill also the second.
The mechanism is generalisable: once a politician starts justifying his policies on the basis of wrong assumptions (by mistake or deliberate deception, it doesn’t really matter), the democratic constraints (or the need of fostering enough popular consensus in general, something which is necessary to hold onto political power in all cases, not only in democracies) starts eroding his or her degrees of freedom – since the purpose is to retain enough credibility, the web of lies will inevitably constrain what our politician can say or do. Give a lying politician enough time in power (or the in the public’s attention), and he/she will find herself with less and less viable choices, ending up being effectively forced into an uncontrollable roll of the events. From actor on the political arena, s/he will become a mere puppet, forced to play a part with little or no freedom to choose what to do next.
Reason 2: what if Cameron believed his own lies? Preposterous, I know! For argument’s sake, let’s temporarily answer “yes”, and see how it plays out. Perhaps he did believe everything he said to justify his own policies. Perhaps he did think that brutal austerity was needed and beneficial, and that immigration is bad for poor people. Perhaps his answer to the question linked above was sincere, he felt that leaving the EU was merely too risky. If that’s the case, it would be self-evident that he was even more constricted by his own web of lies. He would have calculated that failing to uphold it would destroy his credibility and would also have felt that sticking to [what he believed is] the truth could also give him a strategic advantage (because not having to lie through your teeth ought to be easier!). Unfortunately, this hypothesis is unsubstantiated and impossible to verify empirically: how can we reliably find out if politicians believe in what they say?
Be as it may, if Cameron actually believed his own lies, it means that his world-view is positively disjointed from reality in the important aspects that shape his own policies; in such a case, Cameron would be officially incompetent, making the explanation of his miscalculation trivial.
I am mentioning this (unverifiable) hypothesis because the nature of the political game itself makes it surprisingly convincing: lying systematically is hard. The more you lie, the harder it becomes to avoid contradicting yourself. Moreover, each word you utter comes at an increasing cognitive cost: all the time you need to remember the details of your own fiction, just to make sure you won’t destroy your credibility without even realising it. It must be exceedingly hard. On the other hand, we know that lies used to promote consent need to be credible, after all many people need to believe in them in order to fulfil their purpose. Thus, in the political arena, those who actually believe in a greater proportion of what they say in public will have at least a marginal advantage (decreased cognitive cost). Moreover, in order to lower the cost of incremental lies, it could also be beneficial to retrospectively convince yourself of your own lies. This mechanism is (anecdotally) visible in extreme cases such as Berlusconi: I have little doubt that he eventually managed to fool even himself…
Furthermore, being always immersed in an environment where everyone publicly upholds the same web of lies, adds peer pressure to the mix: if everyone you consider an ally seems to believe that X, perhaps X might even be true, after all . If this (unverifiable) mechanism does actually happen, it means that politicians who wilfully chose to lie to the public are actively setting themselves on a path that leads to increasing incompetence (you’ll excuse me if I think this last remark makes this speculative part instantaneously more convincing).
Before looking at the ill effects that a web of lies has on the people buying into the fiction (in the following post), let’s wrap up the argument so far. In the first part, we’ve seen how Brexit provides an example of the institutional damage made by systematically lying to the public. If a large proportion of the electorate actually believes in a given web of lies, democracy itself simply ceases to exist. It remains as a facade, but the substance is different. Democracy becomes a system to allow the powers that be to control the population, subverting its main purpose in one single move. Instead of electors, you have useful idiots. Moreover, the same mechanism affects politicians just as much, it constrains them into ever decreasing degrees of freedom – from puppeteers, they become puppets of their own narrative. This is utterly dangerous: if things turn out well, the politicians in question will eventually be forced out of office (cfr. Cameron himself, Clegg just before, as well Blair and Brown). If, on the contrary, stuff goes wrong, the only route that remains open is a descent towards authoritarian rule, as exemplified by far too many examples (Putin himself, Berlusconi to some extent, Erdoğan more recently, or Mussolini in the not-so-distant past).
“Yes”, you may say, “lying is bad. So what?” Well, systematically lying to the electorate is worse. Moreover, basing policy on systematic lies is downright dangerous. Therefore, we should all do our best to always challenge the web of lies spun by politicians, and perhaps more importantly, make all possible efforts to make sure we don’t buy any of it, regardless of our own political inclinations. After all, both left and right have identical incentives to manufacture their own version of the truth.
Notes and bibliography.
 I derive the “web of lies” expression directly from Quine and Ullian “Web of Beliefs” (1970 & 1978). The original concept applies to scientific knowledge, but is relevant in this context because of the emphasis on coherence. A web of beliefs can support knowledge and knowledge creation when the various parts are interconnected in mutually validating ways. In our case, a web of lies can justify policies only if to appears coherent both internally (between various components) and externally (with respect to the perceivable world). Failing to appear coherent would make it hard for people to buy into the fiction, reducing the web of lies to ineffectiveness.
 The official rhetoric forgets a simple fact: we want our money to sit safely in a convenient place, we need our bank accounts for practical reasons. We also want electricity and gas to reliably arrive in our homes. What nobody wants is having to constantly check whether we’re being ripped off, and frequently go through considerable discomfort in order to get the best possible deal. In such “markets” everyone is willing to pay a price in exchange of not having to think about energy providers or bank accounts. Thus, these are “markets” where by definition there is an upper-bound to competition, and a very low one as well. Going to the supermarket is different: we need to do it regularly: picking one chain or the other doesn’t necessarily increase the cost for us (in terms of effort). Once we are there, picking one or the other brand also doesn’t require a massive difference in effort. Thus, supermarkets can operate as functional markets, banks and utility companies simply can’t.
 Moreover, even if the practical examples I’m using come from the neo-liberal, conservative side, it is important to note that what I’m saying also applies to lies promulgated by the left, in exactly the same ways. I’ll stick to the right wing lies because my own biases allow me to see them more clearly and also because they are the more recent ones, fresh in my mind and presumably my readers’ memories.
Neblo, M. (2003). Choices, Values, and Frames, edited by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, New York: Cambridge University Press Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 22 (3), 491-493 DOI: 10.1002/pam.10145