Why Politicians are Allowed to Lie
Can we translate a theoretical vision into a political structure?
The toxic state of politics is hard to navigate. Globalization, immigration and economic crisis all play their part in the demise of civil decency. Far-right movements have been gaining attention, if not actual political relevance, and we are witnessing inadmissible displays of bigotry and violence.
We acknowledge the low standards our democracies have become used to. The disillusionment with a model of justice that seems unable to deliver the promises made to hardworking, honest citizens is often blamed on politicians, a mass of empowered individuals who have somehow made their way to the top through lies and deception. Sympathetic as I am with the general frustration over the inability of our representatives to do their job, I don’t believe in the dichotomy us/them, the opposition between honesty and corrupted power.
But what if there were some occasions in which a politician is allowed to lie to the people? While the democratic process is motion, can a politician tell ‘the Noble Lie’?
In book 3 of the Republic, Plato — through Socrates’ mouth — describes the education that would suit the citizens of his ideal state. Towards the end of the book, Socrates narrates a myth about the structure of society and suggests that all citizens be taught the story, known as ‘the Noble Lie.’
The myth tells us that Earth is the mother of all citizens, who are in a way ‘gestated’ within her womb. During the gestation period, every soul gets shaped by a different metal, which indicates the role that individual will have in society. The allocation of social roles is thus not imposed on citizens from above, but stems from a natural, neutral process of gestation.
The myth is a fiction and Socrates himself acknowledges it is false. In other words, it is a lie. Why would Socrates, champion of the Truth, propose such a thing? Why would philosophers, who for Plato should have guided the Republic, feed citizens such lie?
The myth functions as an explanation of the citizens’ natural equality and worthiness. Gestated by the Earth in a sort of pre-societal context, the future citizens are not ranked on the basis of any social preconception but exclusively on their natural tendencies, which coincide with the metal that forms their souls.
However, the nature of the myth is quite contentious. It is true that not all fictional stories can be classified as lies, but whether they are lies or not, they still remain a falsehood. What is the role of fiction in our relation to the world and to ourselves? Lies usually disrupt our understanding and departing from the truth cannot possibly be in the interest of citizens. Or can it?
In Plato’s Republic philosophers are the rulers and the noble lie facilitates their job because it promotes equality it fosters the unity of the people who have all come from the same ‘mother.’ Philosophers might seek the truth above anything else. However, it would be a mistake to think that every element of a philosophical system is itself true. Indeed, there is room for lies in a rational society. The purpose is not deception, but a lie can involve a patient wait for the right moment to disclose the truth.
A political lie need not be a deceiving mechanism that empowers a few. The power that derives from the control of a lie is momentarily deferred to our representatives, it is not given up forever. It’s an act of trust a democratic people embarks on, believing in someone else’s wisdom to administer the truth when the right moment comes.
The moment must come, and citizens will be aware of the lie. But electing someone else to represent my rights and my needs means also to defer my decision on matters that I, part of the ordinary people, humbly know nothing about. What I can do, however, is to trust the little wisdom I have to pick a politician/philosopher whom I believe capable of taking on the burden of the truth.
Is such a political system patronising? It probably is. But how many decisions have we deferred to the state? A liberal state is not a neutral state. It relies from the start on assumptions on what’s good or bad, on individual liberties and rights. Is it truly a mistake to ask those who rule this system on my behalf to help me navigate the world and create a just society, with the help of a little noble lie?
Many would claim that today’s political arena is proof of how deception and lies work against the people. The mistrust towards what is clearly a broken democratic system has paddled along the idea that politicians lie their way to the top. So why legitimize a dangerous power that does not seem to have people’s interest at heart?
Clearly Plato was envisaging a very specific ruling class. One could hardly say that any politician today even vaguely resembles the philosopher-kings he imagined as the head of the State. Does then the ‘noble lie’ have any value at all?
First, there is a line to be drawn between lying in order to manipulate others and lying with the fair intention of eventually disclosing the truth and of improving people’s lives. In ethics, intentions do not always carry much significance in the evaluation of one’s moral behavior, but if they are the root of what one says and does, they should at least be taken into consideration. While deception is indeed malicious, lies are not necessarily wrong .
Surely this would be quite a condescending system, but is it really problematic? Would the ‘noble lie’ disrupt an otherwise righteous order?
We have to come to terms with the fact that Plato’s idea of justice supports the ethical precedence of the collective over the individual. While today we are much focused on individual freedoms, Plato’s cultural context is fundamentally different. For ancient Greek culture, homogeneity and order were the marks of justice. The State embodied these value and it represented the harmonious solution to an unjust world. The individual was assimilated into the community, rather than the community being shaped by the individual. Not being lied to is part of those individual freedoms that are trumped by what Plato considered the means to homogeneity and justice for the community. If the ‘noble lie’ is designed to facilitate the success of the State’s inner workings, it is only apt that the philosopher-kings are given the ethical justification to an otherwise unethical misdeed.
Plato’s State and today’s democracies diverge on another fundamental principle: philosopher-kings are guided by a concept of justice that carries with it a metaphysical significance, which therefore gives the State a self-critical attitude. Today, we cannot make the same assumption and we have no guarantee of politicians’ ultimate ends.
However, if politicians ideally acted in their capacity as elected representatives, there would be no necessary correlation between the ‘noble lie’ and stripping citizens of their individual rights, insofar as the truth is at some point disclosed to the same citizens who have the power to elect representatives from among themselves and remove politicians from office. The authority remains that of the will of the people, which is exercised within the same system that pivots on the existence of political representatives who act on our behalf.
Crucially, this is the description of an ‘ideal’ system that may not realistically come into being, but, in principle, it does not mean we should not shape what it is real on what is ideal. The only real question remains how both philosopher-kings and today’s politicians should translate their theoretical vision into a political structure.