Politicians' Self-Interest and Dishonesty
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published excerpts of the forthcoming memoirs of Mike Pence. We may suspect that the former vice-president has yielded to the human temptation of making oneself look more endearing rather than less. But even accounting for this, the comparative portrait that emerges of Donald Trump is not exactly flattering. Pence was the former president’s loyal servant during four years. He stopped serving when he would have had to violate the Constitution by refusing to certify the results of the 2020 elections. Among the many notable excerpts:
I told [the President], as I had many times, that I didn’t believe I possessed that power under the Constitution.
“You’re too honest,” he chided. “Hundreds of thousands are gonna hate your guts. . . . People are gonna think you’re stupid.”
The difficulty of reconstituting a verbal exchange being granted, this reflection of Mr. Trump’s image on the still water of the swamp looks as good as a high-resolution photograph. Trump has never been known to take honesty as a virtue. Perhaps he simply does not realize that there exists an external reality distinct from his wishes and words, but I will ignore this possibility as a separate hypothesis. The picture painted by Mr. Pence in the WSJ excerpts is consistent with what other high-level collaborators of Trump described in their own recollections.
One may think that a ruler’s dishonesty is not catastrophic in a constitutional—that is, limited—government, because the system is supposed to be foolproof against that. David Hume represented the (classical) liberal tradition well when he wrote (“On the Independency of Parliament,” in Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, Revised Edition [Liberty Fund, 1994]):
Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. … Without this, say they, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution, and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all.
There are many flaws in the hope that a knave can do no bad at the helm of the state as we know it. The first problem is that contemporary democratic governments have acquired irresistible powers to intervene in most areas of life. As Montesquieu would have said, our governments represent the power of the people, not the liberty of the people. A second problem is that current public opinion does not effectively buttress the values necessary to maintain a free society, a drift that haunted James Buchanan.
Economists generally expect politicians to be self-interested like the rest of us. Politicians are not angels. They probably lie more than ordinary individuals because the cost of lying is lower when you promise to rationally ignorant voters intricate bundles of complex measures with long-term consequences that are impossible to know. Voters are rationally ignorant in the sense that they have no incentives to get information as their individual votes will not count anyway.
But dishonesty and certainly ingrained dishonesty—the habit of cheating in all ways possible to promote one’s self-interest—are something else than mere self-interest within ordinary and perhaps loose moral rules. It may be a matter of degree, but at the top of the political pyramid, especially in a regime of imperial presidency, ingrained dishonesty is likely to be corrosive and dangerous for liberty.