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General News    H2'ed 4/22/10

Why Public Tolerates Lying Politicians

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If you've ever wondered why the public tolerates politicians who lie to them it's likely that they"don't have a high expectation that they'll tell the truth" in the first place, a noted ethicist says.As a result,explains Michael Josephson, "when they lie we are generally less offended in principle. That doesn't make their lying acceptable; it just explains why there is a high tolerance level for it."

Josephson is one man who should know. He isfounder of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Los Angeles, Calif., and is a well-known radio commentator on the subject. In an interview that appeared in "The Long Term View" magazine published by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, Josephson noted that former Boston Mayor James Michael Curley was re-elected from prison in part because "People's self-interest sometimes is to keep a liar in office if he lies for you as well as against you." Josephson said, "So, I think it's very complex as to whether, even if we hate lying, we're going to tolerate it."

"If it is perfectly acceptable for politicians to lie, and they can do so without fear of recrimination, then why should they tell the truth?" he asks.

Josephson pointed out that in a democracy it is as if "each citizen were in effect a public official," one who requires accurate information otherwise they cannot govern. This is even more true of Congress so that "Democracy is being undermined because people do not know if they can trust the information they're getting."

He gave as an example the Patriot missile system which the public initially was led to believe had a superb on-target average in the first Gulf War but whose percentage of hits was actually much less than advertised. "Now, how can we as a democracy make critical decisions about what defense systems to use and how much money to spend if we can't believe the figures?" Josephson asked.

"Going to the next level, even the military doesn't know what to believe as we find out that defense contractors are lying on their testing data, which is apparently true as well," the ethicist continued. When this happens, "we are in an extraordinarily precarious situation" and "The level of mistrust is extremely high; it is at the point where it is truly dangerous."

Josephson says that "every lie is a kind of land mine" and the majority of lies are not discovered but when they are "the land mine explodes and destroys trust."

He noted that among high school students 70 to 80 percent admit that they cheat, yet less than two percent get caught and of those, only half are punished. "People must decide to treat honesty as such an important value that being dishonest will result in punishment." He also stressed, "We have to reward people for telling the truth."

"In performance reviews, we must evaluate whether or not a person is trusted by his co-workers, customers, clients, etc., as well as whether the person produced good results," Josephson said.

He noted that up to one of every four resumes contain misrepresentations yet only one in five of those workers were fired "and that was only because their bosses weren't satisfied with their work. So who said cheaters never prosper or that honesty is the best policy?" Josephson asked. One reason lying is so potent, he says, is "because it works."

Americans need to create a society where losing is acceptable, otherwise people will do anything, including lying, in order to win, the noted ethicist says. And he warns, "If we get to a point where no one is trusted, it will be very hard, if not impossible, for democracy to succeed." #

The Massachusetts School of Law, publisher of "The Long Term View," was founded in 1988 to provide a quality, affordable legal education to students from minority, immigrant, and low-income backgrounds who would otherwise not be able to obtain a legal education.


(Sherwood Rossis a media consultant to the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. Reach him at

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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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