Must We Say It Yet Again?

Despite the contempt expressed for honest people by modern campaign managers, foreign policy experts, and the heads of national intelligence services, honesty is not a form of mental retardation. People who tell the truth as they see it aren’t stupid. They’re very well aware that in the short run, lying can be effective in getting you something you want, or in keeping something you don’t want at a distance, and they know as well as anyone does that the commercial and political advantages accruing to adept practitioners of the dark arts of modern advertising and propaganda are real enough. So why do they still continue to believe, against all the accumulated evidence, that honesty is the best policy?

The answer, it seems to me, is based on a principle that you might call the diminishing marginal utility of cleverness. If one lie succeeds in its purpose, a clever person is probably justified in thinking that a second lie will work just as well. A truly sophisticated clever person, equipped with the all the latest sociological and neuroscientific research, and in control of a major media outlet or two, might well conclude that he can make a lie serve as well as the truth for the majority of those he wishes to influence to his own benefit. As it turns out, however, lying doesn’t scale as well as the research predicts.

Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Maybe not, but given the tools available these days, there seems to be no shortage of clever people willing to give it a try. The jury is still out on whether or not their innovations will ultimately prove to be successful, at least in the terms which matter to them. What we do know is that a society which reaches the point at which everyone lies about everything all the time is more likely to experience a terminal exhaustion than a resurgence of interest in the truth. The late, unlamented Soviet Union is probably the best example we have of what happens when the substitution of systematic lying for honest discourse reaches its apogee.

The much-quoted witticism about the Soviet economy: They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work, sums up the consequences very nicely. We may lack the power to unmask the liar, or refute his lies, but we can certainly succumb to paranoia, cognitive dissonance, apathy and finally, a general collapse of trust. Just how smart, I have to wonder, is anyone eager to contribute to such an outcome? Whatever the answer, to remain honest seems to me a more attractive ambition for anyone with a concern for his immortal soul, even if it means that the smart money will always be invested with someone else.