The surprising honesty of politicians

JDN 2457509

The stereotype that politicians are dishonest is so strong that many people use “honest politician” as an example of an oxymoron. There is a sense that politicians never keep their campaign promises, so what they say is basically just meaningless noise.

This impression could scarcely be further from the truth. Politicians are quite honest, and they usually try to keep their campaign promises. On average, about 2/3 of campaign promises are kept. Most of those that aren’t are largely given up under heavy opposition, not simply ignored because they weren’t real objectives. Politicians are distrusted, while clergy are trusted—despite the fact that clergy quite literally make their entire career out of selling beliefs that are demonstrably false and in most cases outright absurd.

Along similar lines, most people seem to have an impression that democracy is largely a show, and powerful oligarchs make most of the real decisions behind the scenes—even Jimmy Carter has been saying this recently. While there is evidence that the rich have disproportionate power over politicians, this is largely only true of Republicans; and furthermore the theory that democracy is meaningless can’t explain two rather important facts:

1. Economic prosperity is strongly correlated with democracy—more strongly correlated than most economists believed until quite recently. Even the “Miracle of Chile” didn’t actually occur when Pinochet reformed the economy—it occurred in the 1990s, after Pinochet ceded power to a democratic government. Stronger democracy is also strongly linked to better education, though surprisingly has little correlation with inequality.

2. Democratic states almost never go to war with one another. Democracies go to war with non-democracies, and non-democracies go to war with one another; but with a few exceptions (and largely limited to young, unstable democracies), democracies do not go to war with other democracies.

If democracy meant nothing, and were all just a sideshow that the elites use to manipulate us, these results would simply be impossible. If voting did not actually shape policy in some fashion, policy outcomes for democracies and non-democracies would have to be identical. In fact they are wildly different, so different it’s actually kind of hard to explain. Apparently similar policies simply seem to work better when they are implemented by democracies—perhaps because in order to be passed in the first place they must have a certain amount of buy-in from the population.

In fact, politicians are more honest than we’d expect them to be based on the incentives provided by elections—they seem to either be acting out of genuine altruism or to advance their reputation in other ways.

Neoclassical economic theory actually has trouble explaining why politicians are so honest—which may have something to do with the fact that politicians who were trained as neoclassical economists are more likely to be corrupt. A similar effect holds for undergraduate students in experiments. Teaching people that human beings are infinite identical psychopaths seems to make them behave a bit more like psychopaths! (Though some of this may also be selection bias: Psychopaths may find economics appealing either because the ideology justifies their behavior or because it’s a pretty lucrative field.)

Part of this false impression clearly comes from the media, and from politicians slandering each other. Hillary Clinton has an almost impeccable fact-check rating—comparable to or arguably even better than Bernie Sanders and John Kasich, both of whom have majority “Mostly True” or “True” ratings. All three are miles ahead of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom are over 60% “Mostly False”, “False”, or “Pants on Fire” (the latter is 18% of what Donald Trump says). And yet, Hillary Clinton is widely perceived as dishonest and Donald Trump is widely perceived as “speaking his mind”. Maybe people think Trump is honest because he keeps saying he is. Or maybe it’s because he’s honest about his horrible motivations, even though he gets most of the facts wrong.

These facts should give us hope! Our votes are not meaningless, and our voices do make a difference. We are right to be obsessed with keeping our politicians honest—but it’s time we recognize that it’s working. We are doing something right. If we can figure out what it is, maybe we can do even better.The last thing we want to do right now is throw up our hands and give up.


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