The concept that it is proper for rulers to lie and deceive those they rule for the ultimate better good has a long and respected heritage. Plato, in his description of the perfect civil society in the Republic, concluded “It’s likely that our rulers will have to use a throng of lies and deceptions for the benefit of the ruled.” One example was Plato’s intention to deceive the Guardians into believing their opportunity to procreate would be decided by random lottery when, in order to breed an ideal race, it would actually be decided by the rulers “using subtle [deceptive] lots [that] must be fabricated so that the ordinary man will blame chance rather than the rulers for each union.” [i] Plato’s Republic was anything but a republic, however. The unfortunate citizens had little freedom and no role in choosing their rulers.
This is the exact opposite of American constitutional government, where the president and legislators are chosen by popular vote. Majority rule is the underlying foundation of our form of government. In order for the majority to vote properly, and thus choose the best rulers, voters must know the truth. Colonial America was a Biblical culture where the foundational principles were: “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”[ii] Damnation was threatened for those who lied: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.[iii] In fact the Law given to Moses, that great divine decree intended to govern all human relations with deity and with each other, demanded: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.[iv] These biblical principles are the opposite of Plato’s belief that elite rulers should deceive the public into doing what was best for them but was, in fact, merely best for the elite.
The President of the United States has great, potentially fearful, power. He has the power to veto laws passed by the popularly elected Congress, which veto can only be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses—a situation that rarely exists. He controls all of the machinery of government and can order harassment and even prosecution of those he disfavors with little oversight from Congress, particularly when his party controls one house of Congress. In many cases the law permits the President to grant exceptions to laws, a potentially tyrannical power.[v] In the worst case, the President could willfully choose not to enforce properly enacted laws, thus undermining the entire constitutional plan. Because of this, it is to be expected, even essential, that the president be someone who is trustworthy and truthful.
President Nixon’s involuntary resignation as president, faced as he was with certain impeachment, was due to his dishonesty. He had used the agencies of government to commit petty crimes in a paranoid attempt to enhance his chances for re-election. But that was not the cause of his impending impeachment. The cause was his deliberately lying to the American people, claiming he had no role in, or knowledge, of those crimes.[vi] Americans knew, at a most basic political level that, despite Nixon’s success in getting America out of the Vietnam War and re-opening diplomatic relations with China, they could not tolerate a dishonest, criminal, president.
Admittedly this is a far higher standard demanded of the president than for most. In a country where free speech is the first of the specifically named freedoms that the federal government must protect, it is unavoidable that there will be many liars pronouncing many lies. The law provides almost no protection to political figures against such lies.[vii] The normal presumption we, perhaps unconsciously, give to flat out statements made by others—that they are true or at least believed to be true by the speaker—is dangerously wrong in judging political debate.
Not every falsehood is a “lie” as that term is used herein. All of us have our own opinions and all of us base our beliefs on what we believe are facts, although admittedly everyone’s knowledge is limited. All of us are forgetful and misremember. All of us make mistakes. A real lie arises from none of these human frailties. A real lie is when someone deliberately intends others to rely on their statements to take a particular course of action when the liar know those statements are false. The liar knows were the recipients of the falsehood to know, as the purveyor of the lie knows, that the statement is false then it would cause a different action. That is a lie. A real lie can consist of not just making a false statement, but also of withholding essential additional information. For a seller to truthfully tell a potential buyer that the house is in beautiful condition, but withhold the information that the property in on a right-of-way for a new highway, is a lie. The present condition of the house becomes irrelevant were all of the facts to be disclosed.
Over time, lies are frequently revealed. Deliberate falsehoods become obvious when true facts are revealed—particularly the fact that the liar knew of the falsity. A key, even essential, quality for the elected leaders of the country is that they not be liars. Liars undermine the foundation of democracy—well informed voters. In judging presidential candidates, judge their truthfulness. It is certain all will be accused of not telling the truth so, as a voter, you will be required to judge not only the candidates but also their accusers. The Founding Fathers were convinced that a majority would be able to make such judgments correctly. Don’t trust the country to a liar.
[i] Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, second edition, Harper Co Williams publishers, 1968, Book VI, p 459;
[ii] John 8:32
[iii] Revelations 21:18
[iv] Exodus 20:16
[v] See “Tyranny by Exception”, posted November 21, 2011 truthtofreedom.com.