making local government more ethical

F. G. Bailey's The Prevalence of Deceit

Another cause for my last blog entry, on the three lies of government ethics, is that I had just finished F. G. Bailey's book The Prevalence of Deceit (Cornell, 1991). The book is about the close connection between deceit and power. Bailey pictures politics as a contest for power that employs rhetoric. The goal of rhetoric is to persuade (the politician's most important means of manipulation) and, in this case, to persuade possible supporters that the politician is telling the truth. Not a truth, but the truth.

Not only are there two kinds of truth, but there are also two kinds of untruth*. The kind we're most familiar with is defined as saying something that is not the case. But the most common untruth in politics is what Bailey calls the "basic lie," fixing as truth what is ambiguous and arguable. Part of the reason basic lies are so prevalent in politics is that citizens demand truth in public affairs, and they don't mean the first kind of truth, because little in politics is verifiable. What they want is certainties, the truth, which requires basic lies, such as "cutting taxes will make everyone wealthier" or "development will ruin the character of our community." Basic lies are collusive lies.

The goal of basic lies is to set the terms of the culture in which politicians act and in which the rest of us live. And our culture exists in the form of rhetoric. Bailey wrote, "What purports to be a search for truth ... is in reality an effort to dominate by persuasion.  In practice the argument is 'resolved' either when one side succeeds in intimidating the other or when circumstances force a compromise ... Life in society involves power, and power involves persuasion, and persuasion in practical affairs where interests are at stake is not determined ... by logic, but by its false equivalent, rhetoric."

Hand in hand with basic lies is keeping secrets. "One keeps secrets from the people in order to control them, for fear that greater knowledge might diminish the support they give or even make them obstructive." But rhetoric and secrets are not limited to manipulating the citizenry, they are also used to manipulate and wield power against other politicans.

This view of truth-telling fits in well with the government ethics dichotomy of public interest and self-interest. As Bailey wrote, "whatever [political] adversaries assert to be the truth usually turns out to be what they think is in their own interest."

Ethics is central to basic lies. Bailey concluded his book by saying, "Politicians, who are by definition contestants to make one or another value prevail, cannot avoid moral questions.  Even when they take trouble to find the 'facts,' it is only so that they can better impose their own definitions of the right and the good."

According to Bailey, even umpires, such as government ethicists, cannot stand above the fray. "To be effective, [they] must, like any other contestant, strive to make their own definition of the situation, their own basic lie, prevail." I think he's right. We say that an effective, independent ethics program is necessary to make people have trust in government, so that they will participate in it and accept its decisions. This is a basic lie, no matter how much we believe it. And we contend to get people to accept it as the truth.

*I mean two kinds of truth in this particular sense. Untruths come in many forms, including error, deceit, lies, concealment, hypocrisy, convention, propaganda, fiction, and myth.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics

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