by Jay Johansen | Jul 23, 2019
Lately I've seen a number of suggestions that there should be laws against politicians lying to the people. The details vary -- if the writer gives details -- but the general idea is that if a politician is caught lying, he should lose his office or face some sort of criminal penalty.
On the surface that sounds great. I don't know anyone saying that it's a good thing for politicians to lie. (Even the politicians who lie aren't going to admit it, right?)
These proposals run aground, though, on the simple question, How would such a law be enforced? If the law could magically enforce itself with perfect honesty and fairness, that would be great. I'd be all for it. But in real life, if such a law was passed, who would decide what the truth is, evaluate politicians' statements against this, and make judgements?
Let's suppose we create some sort of "Truth Commission". Then this commission would have the authority to evaluate any statement made by any politician, and have the politician removed from office or fined or jailed or whatever if they determined that his statement was false.
One proposal I saw was thoughtful enough to make an exception for classified information. One could quibble that a politician might make a false statement by mistake, and not as an attempt at a deliberate lie. Could a mis-remembered statistic or a slip of the tongue put you in jail? But such issues are really the least of the problems.
Lots of political debates involve disputes about the facts. Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? Is solar power a realistic energy source? Did President Trump collude with Russia? Did Brett Kavanaugh sexually assault a woman 30 years ago? Under these proposals, it would be up to the Truth Commission to decide the truth of such controversial questions. Then once they make a decision, any politician who expresses a different view is breaking the law and can be fined or imprisoned. All political debate is stopped. Once the Truth Commission decides which side is right on any controversial issue, anyone who publicly disagrees with them is silenced.
Many political debates center around predictions. Someone proposes a change to business regulation and says that it will stimulate the economy and create thousands of jobs. Opponents say that it will hurt most Americans and only benefit a few fat cats who donated big bucks to the Congressman's campaign. (I don't even have a specific bill in mind when I say that. It could apply to dozens of proposals over the last few years.)
I had a conversation with one proponent who explained that of course this would apply only to provably false statements, not opinions or controversial questions. He gave the example that if a politician said that increasing the sales tax would hurt economic growth, that would be an opinion and a prediction and not something he could be arrested for. But if he said that the sales tax was 10% for one race and 5% for another when really it is the same for everyone, that would be provably false and he could be charged with a crime.
But, umm, who would decide what is "provably false" and what is opinion? It would have to be the Truth Commission itself. If they declare that a statement is provably false, even if that assertion is debatable or patently ridiculous, if anyone says they're wrong he goes to jail.
What if the Truth Commission gets taken over by a bunch of partisan hacks, who declare that all sorts of statements that the opposing party makes are lies and has any influential opposition leader thrown in jail? Even if they don't blatantly lie themselves, they could come down hard on the other party for the most trivial false statements while giving their own side a pass. You say that the population of the country is 326 million? That's a lie! The latest statistics say it's 327 million! Our guy says that Israel was behind the World Trade Center bombing? While, sure, really it was the Taliban, but close enough. And of course if they were partisan enough they could declare debatable questions settled. Or they could declare that obvious lies are truth and vice versa. If they have the power to declare what is "legally a lie", they can lie all they want.
Even if the Truth Commission acts with total fairness and integrity, what happens if they make a mistake? Suppose they consider some complex scientific question but the experts they rely on are wrong. If anyone tries to point this out, they have committed a crime and can go to jail.
I've been talking about a "Truth Commission", but of course it doesn't matter whether some new group is formed to make these decisions and what they are called, or if we rely on some existing institution, like the courts or the Congressional Budget Office or whomever.
You might say that the problem could be solved by providing for an appeal from decisions of the Truth Commission. But that just pushes the problem back. That just makes the Truth Appeals Commission the final authority. Ultimately somebody has to be the highest authority.
The Truth Commission would quickly become the real government. If no one is allowed to publicly disagree with the Truth Commission, then they ultimately make all political decisions. Anyone who disagrees with them is thrown in jail, so the only politicians left are those who agree with the Truth Commission ... or are smart enough to keep their mouths shut.
You could, of course, write on a piece of paper that the Truth Commission will be non-partisan and unbiased. Now tell me how you will actually make that happen. Both parties and all factions within parties would struggle to control the Truth Commission. Whether members are elected or appointed by the president or however, there would be incredible jockeying for power.
This isn't all hypothetical. We've seen the beginnings of the Truth Commission. Several state attorneys general have brought a lawsuit against Exxon/Mobil charging the company with "securities fraud" because, they say, they lied to investors by understating the cost of global warming to the company's business. See, e.g. Fossil Fuels on Trial: Where the Major Climate Change Lawsuits Stand Today and Judge Rejects Exxon Challenges to New York’s Climate Fraud Suit. The lawsuit says that Exxon/Mobil knew that man-made global warming was real but lied when it publicly questioned the claims of global warming activists about it.
So now scientific truth is to be determined by a court, and if you disagree with what a judge concludes is the truth about global warming, you pay huge fines or even go to jail. This is, of course, so much cheaper and simpler than the old-fashioned way we used to do science, where you performed experiments and observed the results, and where debates between scientists could go on for decades or even centuries. Now we just get a judge to decide what scientific results are more advantageous to his political party and put any scientists who dispute his conclusions in jail.
If you're thinking that this lawsuit is a good idea because Exxon/Mobil was wrong and they were told over and over that they were wrong and they deserve to be penalized for spreading this lie that global warming is debatable ... just ask yourself, what if it went the other way? What if someone who claimed that global warming is not real sued an environmentalist group for claiming it was, and demanded that the leaders of the environmental group be jailed. Well, you say, they could never win such a suit, because obviously global warming is real and no judge would say otherwise unless he was a fool or was bought off. Maybe so. Are you confidant that no judge could possibly be a fool or be bought off?
It's not that I think politicians should be allowed to lie. It's that I don't trust anyone with the power to be the ultimate arbiter of truth.
© 2019 by Jay Johansen
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