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Why Do We Believe These Pathological Liars? by B.K. Marcus

How do you feel when someone lies to you?

It probably depends on who is doing the lying. A stranger’s fabrications may not phase you, but dishonesty from a friend or lover can end the relationship. The more you feel the liar is supposed to be “on your side,” the more his or her deceptions feel like betrayal — unless, it turns out, the lies come from a politician you support.

When I shared a link on Facebook to Rick Shenkman’s article “Why Are Trump Voters Not Bothered by His Lies?” someone immediately replied by asking, “Why are Hillary voters not bothered by her lies?” Why, in other words, focus on only one mendacious candidate when lying to voters seems like a prerequisite for running for office?

Shenkman, who is the editor of HistoryNewsNetwork.org and the author ofPolitical Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, might respond with his claim that Trump “has told more lies than any other leading political figure probably ever has.” But his article is in fact about neither Trump’s astonishing number of fibs nor his supporters’ astonishing tolerance for them; it is about how widespread both such lying and such tolerance are across party lines and throughout the era of mass-media mass democracy.

Shenkman is writing for a left-leaning readership, thus his headline’s righteous indignation toward a right-wing candidate, but most of the examples he gives are of deliberately deceitful Democrats. He starts with candidate Kennedy’s campaign claim that the Soviets had more nuclear missiles than the United States:

He continued to insist that there was a missile gap to the Soviet’s advantage even after he was briefed by General Earl Wheeler that there wasn’t. After the election his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, told the press on background that a study had found there was no missile gap, leading to blaring headlines the next morning.

JFK’s reaction? He ordered his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to tell the media that there had been no study and that there was a gap. The truth was that JFK himself didn’t take his own rhetoric about the missile gap seriously. At cabinet meetings he cracked on numerous occasions, “Who ever believed in the missile gap” anyway?

Four years later, President Johnson “told the American people that the North Vietnamese were guilty of making repeated unprovoked attacks on [US] naval vessels in the Tonkin Gulf.” As with Kennedy, we know that Johnson was being dishonest, not mistaken. “Hell,” LBJ told an aide, “those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”

Shenkman barely touches on Nixon’s perfidy in Watergate and never mentions Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s 1994 interview, admitting that the war on drugs was not about crime or health but was rather a politically motivated attack on war protestors and American blacks. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” said the president’s former domestic affairs advisor. “Of course we did.”

And while he may have given Ms. Clinton a pass, Shenkman does mention the millions of supporters who refused to believe the allegations against her husband “until prosecutors revealed they possessed [Monica Lewinsky’s] infamous blue dress.”

No one should be shocked by the frequency of politicians’ duplicity, but it is frustrating when a candidate is caught in an undeniable falsehood and his or her supporters never waiver.  Our political culture expects politicians to perjure and prevaricate left and right, but that doesn’t make their deceptions defensible. So where is the outrage?

“Our brains are partisan,” Shenkman writes:

While we are quick to seize on the misstatements of other candidates, we give them a pass when it’s our own. When the social scientist Drew Westen put voters in an MRI machine he discovered that their brains quickly shut off the flow of information contrary to their beliefs about their favorite candidates. The neurons actively involved in the transmission of this information literally went inactive.

It’s not just the political candidates who are lying. So are the voters. “We lie,” Shenkman points out, “about our unwillingness to put up with lies.”

If politicians keep lying and voters keep shrugging it off, isn’t that an indictment of democracy? Aren’t voters supposed to act as a check on the people in power?

In theory, an election is supposed to be more than a popularity contest. Candidates are supposed to represent an approach to policy making, which is in turn supposed to reflect both facts and a theory of cause and effect. What we have instead is a formalized tribalism, us versus them, facts be damned.

Shenkman assures the reader that the liars don’t get away with it forever, but his evidence for that conclusion is questionable. Johnson and Nixon are remembered as liars by both Democrats and Republicans, but the reckoning for Gulf of Tonkin and Watergate are outliers in the steady stream of deception flowing out of DC and the state capitals. Meanwhile, Mssrs Kennedy and Clinton will be remembered more for deceiving their wives than the voters.

Westen’s research on cognitive dissonance and party politics is troubling, but well before there was any hard data on how voters process unwanted facts, the theory of rational ignorance told us why so many facts are so unwanted: to the individual voter, the cost of acquiring the relevant knowledge far outweighs the practical benefits of knowing the truth when casting a ballot.

In contrast, the benefits of supporting a candidate accrue, not from any actual effect on the electoral outcome, but largely from the signaling that it provides the voter: this is the sort of person I am, and these are the sorts of causes I support. Symbolic affiliation isn’t dependent on the truth of any particular facts, so why should we expect inconvenient falsehoods to change anyone’s political alignment?

As I wrote in “Too Dumb for Democracy?” (Freeman, spring 2015), “getting an issue like the minimum wage terribly wrong takes no work and has the immediate payoff of feeling like you’re on the side of the angels. It also solidifies your standing within your own ideological tribe. Bothering to understand supply and demand … offers no practical reward after you pull the lever in the election booth.”

The lies we care the least to uncover are precisely those for which the cost of caring outweighs the benefits of our vigilance. That describes almost anything we may ever be asked to vote on. But when knowing the truth directly matters to the decisions we make every day — the truth about our jobs, our homes, our families and loved ones — the relative benefits of knowing the truth are far greater, and we therefore penalize the liars in our lives. Cognitive dissonance may be a barrier to accepting hard truths, but even cognitive dissonance is price sensitive.

The more decisions we cede to the political process, the less we should expect anyone to protect our interests. Even we don’t bother to do it, because the rules of the game — majority rules — render our efforts ineffectual. Worse than that: we’re not even rewarded for knowing what policies really are or aren’t in our best interest.

The truth can win out, but it’s a lot less likely in an election.

B.K. MarcusB.K. Marcus

B.K. Marcus is editor of the Freeman.

Does Democracy Lead to Socialism? by B.K. Marcus

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has brought “democratic socialism” out of the shadows of fringe ideologies and into the spotlight of mainstream American politics. Nevertheless, many find Sanders’s self-description perplexing. Is socialism seriously still in play? Didn’t the horrors of the 20th century finally bury that ideological monstrosity?

No, that’s communism you’re thinking of. To quote the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA),

Socialists have been among the harshest critics of authoritarian Communist states. Just because their bureaucratic elites called them “socialist” did not make it so; they also called their regimes “democratic.”

If the communists weren’t really socialists, then what the heck does socialism mean?

The basic definition of socialism, democratic or otherwise, is collective ownership of the means of production. The DSA website says, “We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.”

But the DSA keeps the emphasis on democracy:

Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically — to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.

Socialism, then, as the democratic socialists understand the term, is just the logical consequence of the democratic ideal:

Democracy and socialism go hand in hand. All over the world, wherever the idea of democracy has taken root, the vision ofsocialism has taken root as well.

On this point, at least, many in America’s free-market tradition would agree.

Anti-democratic Anti-socialists

Ludwig von Mises may have been the most radical classical liberal in 20th-century Europe, but when he came to the United States, Mises found himself at odds with American libertarians who felt that his liberalism didn’t go far enough.

Some of these disagreements would strike most of us as highly abstract, such as the question of whether or not the philosophy of freedom is based in natural law or utilitarianism. But at least one practical point of contention was the issue of majoritarian democracy. Mises had defended both capitalism and democracy in his book Liberalism. American libertarians such as R.C. Hoiles and Frank Chodorov shared Mises’s appreciation of the free market but were far less sanguine about majority rule. The harshest language came from Discovery of Freedom author Rose Wilder Lane:

As an American I am of course fundamentally opposed to democracy and to anyone advocating or defending democracy, which in theory and practice is the basis of socialism.

It is precisely democracy which is destroying the American political structure, American law, and the American economy, as Madison said it would, and as Macauley prophesied that it would do in fact in the 20th century. (Letter from Lane to Mises, July 5, 1947; quoted in Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism)

Why would Lane argue that democracy is “the basis of socialism”?

Majority Fools

Voting turns out to be a particularly bad way to make economic decisions. Mancur Olson’s book The Logic of Collective Action wouldn’t appear for another 18 years, but some version of his thesis was probably already familiar to Lane and her radical allies. Olson argues that majority rule separates the benefits and the costs of decision-making.

Elections aren’t just a poll of everyone’s opinion; they are organized campaigns by different groups fighting for their interests. A voter doesn’t go into the booth having studied the controversy in question. He or she brings to the polls an impression of an issue based on how different organized groups have presented their cause during massive advocacy campaigns prior to Election Day. Every such campaign is a case of a special-interest minority trying to persuade a voting majority.

And it’s not a level playing field, to borrow one of the political left’s favorite metaphors. Olson explains how the incentive for group action decreases as the size of a group increases, meaning that bigger groups are less able to act in their common interest than smaller ones. Small groups can gain concentrated benefitswhile the rest of us face diffuse costs.

The textbook example is sugar tariffs (“or what amounts to the same thing in the form of quota restrictions against imports of sugar,” as former Freeman editor Paul Poirot put it). Why is Coke sweetened with corn syrup in the United States and with sugar everywhere else in the world? Because sugar is cheaper everywhere else, while the US government keeps sugar artificially expensive for Americans. The protections responsible are a huge benefit to a small group of domestic sugar producers (and, as it turns out, also to corn growers) and a burden on the rest of us.

Ignore the corn-syrup issue for a moment and pretend that Coke is still made with sugar. Let’s imagine that government price supports make each can of Coke, say, 5¢ more than it otherwise would be. That difference adds up, but at the moment you’re buying the can of soda, it’s an irritation, not a hardship. Even if you bother to figure out how much extra money you have to spend on sweet drinks each year, the figure probably won’t be enough to stir you to petition the legislature to repeal the sugar lobby’s protections. In fact, the loss isn’t even enough to prompt you to learn the cause of the higher price.

That’s what economists mean when they talk about diffuse costs. (And the Coke drinker’s very reasonable cluelessness about the cause of his lost nickel is what economists call “rational ignorance.” See “Too Dumb for Democracy?” Freeman, Spring 2015.)

On the other hand, the sugar producers will make billions from lobbying and campaigning to explain why their favorite barriers are good for the economy.

Take this example and multiply it by all the special interests seeking government favors. Even if you do understand what’s going on, even if you know how this hurts the economy and consumers and yourself, it’s not like there’s ever one plebiscite, a big thumbs-up or thumbs-down for free trade in sugar. Every issue is addressed separately, and every issue faces the same logic of collective action we see in the case of the sugar. (And as with the case of sugar, where the corn industry has its own interests in promoting higher sugar prices, many issues have multiple special-interest groups with their own reasons for supporting socially harmful policies.)

Now replace agribusiness in this example with teachers unions or the AARP or anyone else who benefits from a government program, even if that program hurts the rest of us.

The democratic system is rigged from the outset to favor ever more interference from ever-bigger government. From this perspective, Rose Wilder Lane doesn’t seem quite so polemical for equating democracy and socialism.

Democratic Socialists for Crony Capitalism

But is big government the same thing as socialism? The DSA denies it. They insist that they prefer local and decentralized socialism wherever possible. How long an elected socialist would keep his hands off the bludgeon of central power is a reasonable question, and a chilling one, as is the question of how long asocialist democracy would honor the civil liberties that the DSA claims to support.

But even if we reject the DSA’s claims as either naive or fraudulent, there is still a compelling reason to reject the equation of big government and socialism.

Government doesn’t grow to serve the poor or the proletariat. Democracy spawns special interests, and special-interest campaigns require deep pockets. None come deeper than the pockets of established business interests.

Real-world capitalists, despite the rhetoric of the socialists, rarely support capitalism — at least not in the sense of free trade and free markets. What they too often support is government protection and largess for themselves and their cronies, and if that means having to share some of the spoils with organized labor, or green energy, or the welfare industry, that’s not a problem. Corporate welfare flows left and right with equal ease.

“Democratic socialists,” according to the DSA, “do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either.”

If that’s true, then democratic socialists should aim to reduce both the size of government and the scope of democratic decisions. Unfortunately, they’re headed in the opposite direction — and trying to drag the rest of us with them.

B.K. MarcusB.K. Marcus

B.K. Marcus is editor of the Freeman.