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Every Regime Gets the Lie It Deserves

On my European excursions I’ve made it a habit of flipping through newspapers from Germany, Britain, and the good old U.S. of A. Lately and maybe belatedly, I’ve been struck by the sheer mendacity of politics on both sides of the pond. I don’t mean nasty little lies, fed by ambition (“I didn’t wipe my server; it’s the cleaning girl’s fault”), nor any of the stuff that earns you Pinocchios in the Washington Post. I mean deliberate falsehoods that are central to the operation of government—the “regime,” as Straussians are wont to say.

Every regime gets the lie it deserves. Stalinism was the Big Lie: it strutted its “working class rule” even as the actual workers rotted in the Gulag. Turns out, though, that advanced democracies have a lie of their own: money for nothing—and the chicks for free. And education for “free.” And health care for “free.” Bernie Sanders isn’t really running for President; his idea of the office boils down to chairmanship over the Committee for the Free Lunch. In fairness, though, it’s not just Senator Sanders. No politician of any standing dissents from the universal consensus that underpins our politics: let’s have a gigantic transfer state, and not pay for it. The notion that you can run a country like that is a delusion. And when everyone knows it to be a delusion and still peddles it, it becomes a lie.

European countries live that same lie, and another: the idea of a post-nationalist, postmodern, technocratic European Union. The project has failed in nearly every respect; it’s become one big, bold lie. The Greeks famously lied their way into the Euro; they got away with it because the powers-that-be wanted them to lie. Greece is now on its third bailout, engineered under treaties with a supposedly ironclad anti-bailout clause. Everyone knows that this won’t be the last bailout; the country will become a permanent ward of the EU. The politicians know that that voters know that they’re lying when they pretend otherwise; but still they pretend. We must, must have an “ever closer union”; there is no political question to which that is not the answer. EU governments can’t track the whereabouts of known terrorists and hordes of refugees and asylum seekers roam the continent—but national borders? That’s so nineteenth century.

Europe was never very big on forthrightness. The EU in particular is built on obfuscation, lest those pesky voters torpedo the project or mess with the technocrats who are doing such a fine job administering Greece, immigration, and other things. It’s a bit more distressing to witness this sort of politics stateside: we’re not supposed to have it. The authors of the Declaration of Independence professed “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” and accordingly explained what they were doing, and why. The Federalist practically oozes candor, even on matters where you’d expect reassuring mumbling. (“This Constitution means a central government with virtually unlimited powers to tax. Do you want that?”) And the Constitution tries to institutionalize a candid politics. Checks and balances and the separation of powers are information-disclosing devices, among other things. It’s hard for politicians to conspire when they are given the means and the motives to rat on each other.

Our contemporary politics, in contrast, is decidedly un-candid. Witness a presidential campaign that teems with promises of more “free” stuff. That kind of politics is not just unsustainable. It is dishonorable, and it is dangerous: it breeds crackpots and demagogues—and they don’t tell the truth, either. It’s easy to say that we deserve better. But do we?

Reader Discussion

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on August 27, 2015 at 11:53:28 am

I don't blame the modern politicians for lying, that's what most politicians do. They tax the productive and then give some people something for nothing and,in exchange,garner these same people's votes. This is how demagogues throughout history have attained power. Its all about power. They promise people to solve the problems the people should solve themselves. They cater to the envious,the greedy,the lazy and the mediocrity of a nation. With that said, it is not the politicians I worry about. It is the people that vote for these politicians that are the problem. Once the Western World attained democracy and a voting majority realized that they could vote away the property rights of the productive then that world was doomed to bankruptcy. In America,and in much of the Western World,a voting majority consists mainly of government employees,retired government employees and a vast array of voters who are riding on the government gravy train. Once the voting balance tipped toward the basically non-productive than America was doomed as a free republic and was consigned,like ancient Rome, to the dustbin of history. This is,as the Founding Fathers warned,the fate of a nation that has lost its moral compass.

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libertarian jerry
on August 27, 2015 at 12:43:01 pm

Rather timely given Jeb Baby's promise of free college with refunds for those who do not complete it - now that is taking free lunch to another level - you do not even have to finish the sandwich to get your money!

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gabe
on August 27, 2015 at 16:35:22 pm

This picture reminds me of Michael Lewis's description of the subprime mortgage market circa 2006. Investors will keep buying and selling bonds, and mortgage originators (think state and local governments) keep handing out mortgages (grants, pensions and other goodies) that people can't pay for, because the mortgages are rated AAA (think lies about state and local debt, or Greece's actual deficit), and underwritten by investment banks and credit default swaps (think federal grants and exemptions) that insulate them from their own moral hazard-at least until the lie comes tumbling down. Meanwhile, misaligned incentives and institutional self-interest requires everyone involved to believe in the scheme. And as the lie becomes more and more obvious (house prices will keep rising, the federal government will never default on its bonds), people's self-interest, and their corresponding will to believe in the lie, becomes evermore pronounced and absurd, until the edifice collapses.

I am not saying the government is about to collapse, or that the analogy is perfect, but I am concerned that the people that most readily criticize the financial industry's stupidity are not at all concerned about the Government's ledger. I am also not saying that Bernie Sanders is the new Bear Stearns. All I am saying is that I find the comparison troublesome. I will happily listen to anyone that wants to tell me the analogy is wrong.

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Jimmy C
on August 28, 2015 at 09:42:46 am

"And as the lie becomes more and more obvious (house prices will keep rising, the federal government will never default on its bonds), people’s self-interest, and their corresponding will to believe in the lie, becomes evermore pronounced and absurd, until the edifice collapses." Sounds intuitively on, to me. And the deluded self-interest is a very effective receptor...how do we intervene?

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aez
on August 30, 2015 at 18:40:34 pm

You can't. If I had the money I would buy credit default swaps on local government debt.

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Jimmy C

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