The Hot-Air Barrier: A Major Reason for the Infeasibility of Representative Government

Between the would-be, public office-holder on the one hand and the citizen in general and voter in particular on the other, lies a huge barrier that precludes the establishment of any rational connection. Think of genuine “representative government” on anything other than a very small scale as a practical impossibility. Many reasons explain the existence of this barrier, including the logical impossibility of an agent’s accurately representing each member of a group of principals who do not agree among themselves, but certainly one of the most fundamental factors is that the office seekers often lie to the public, or at least obfuscate and hedge about their statements in a way that makes them de facto lies.

Thus, Mr. Blowhard promises that if you elect him, he will do X. After he is elected, however, he does not do X, but offers an endless litany of excuses for his misfeasance or malfeasance in office. In any case, the essential reality is that no one can hold the successful office seeker to account for his infidelity in carrying out his promises. Everyone is stuck with him until the next election, in anticipation of which he will spew out another ridiculous series of lies and worthless promises.

The office-seekers’ lies cover pretty much the whole ground of their speech. Of course, they are not forthcoming about past defalcations, de jure and de facto bribe takings, and personal peccadilloes. They almost invariably misrepresent their true reasons for seeking office, putting the shiniest possible public-service gloss on their raw ambition and lust for power. And they rarely if ever reveal truthfully the actual coterie to which they will be ultimately beholden, normally the largest and most influential supporters in their electoral campaign. Instead, they ludicrously declare that they will invariably “serve all the people.”

In policy matters, they lie about everything, although some of their lies may actually spring at least in part from their ignorance of how the world works and from their ideological blindness, rather than from deliberate, knowing attempts to misrepresent themselves and situations they will have to deal with in office. The lies about domestic policy are perhaps somewhat less blatant because many members of the public have personal acquaintance or contact with various aspects of such government action, which limits how big a whopper a politician can hope to get away with, whereas in defense and foreign-policy policy the office-seekers, regardless of their personal preferences or knowledge, can always rely on the general public’s near-complete ignorance of foreign lands and the political, social, and economic conditions that prevail there, and hence there is no practical limit to the enormousness—and the enormity—of the lies they can tell in regard to these types of issues.

In the case of past presidents seeking reelection, it is a simple and oft-performed exercise to document the lies they told to gain reelection, usually by representing themselves in some fashion as “peace candidates,” even while in some cases they were actively maneuvering to involve the United States in foreign quarrels that might well have been avoided if the office-seekers/office-holders had been concerned with the nation’s genuine security and well-being, as opposed to their place in the history books as “great presidents” or “world saviors.” These cases are illustrative, too, of the uselessness of elections as checks on office-holders’ departures from their campaign promises. Voters who cast their ballots for Woodrow Wilson in 1916, for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, and for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 in a quest to help elect the self-represented “peace candidate” must have been sorely disappointed by the actions these men took immediately after their reelections, but what could the voters do once so much fat was in the fire? By the time the next election came around, the world had been utterly transformed—and millions of lives had been lost, as well.

So, what possible intelligence can voters exercise in casting their ballots? They can vote in accordance with the appeal a particular candidate’s promises hold for them, but relying on candidates to carry out their promises would be childishly foolish. Anyone who pays the slightest attention to politics knows that politicians are inveterate liars; many would sooner lie than speak truthfully even if the truth did not thwart their purposes, because lying would be more congenial to their true, dishonest character. Thus, voters can do nothing more than throw ideological darts, casting their ballots for the candidate who makes the most appealing noises, has the handsomest face, or displays peacock-like the most fabulous partisan posturing.

To perceive any fixed and reliable link between what the candidates promise and what they deliver in office would be wildly counterfactual. Politicians have no more backbone than an earthworm. Even if they could not be bought—and most obviously can be—they are constantly at auction for rent, and the bidding never ceases. Thus, we can count on them with complete confidence in only one regard: their mendacious shilly-shallying.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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