Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dictators and Democracies: More in Common Than You Might Hope

Izmir Agora in Turkey
In ancient Greece, the Agora was the center of public life.  A market as well as a place where citizens could gather to hear politicians and leaders speak on subjects of importance to public life.  Socrates was condemned in a public forum, likely attached to the Athens Agora.

Centuries later, the Romans transformed the Agora into their equivalent, the Forum.  Like the Agora, the Forum was a center of public life.  It's where trade was carried out, and government and religious functions (the same thing to the Romans) were conducted.  Lawyers and tradespeople rubbed elbows with senators and slaves.  It was a lively place!

In both Greece and Rome, the dictators and tyrants told the people what they wanted to hear.  From Pericles to Caesar, lying seemed a fundamental tenant of government.  But they were tyrants. Surely in a democracy (and in the democracy's close cousin, the republic), where We the People run the government, lying would not be tolerated.

Today, we have many centers of public life,  and not just physical ones.  We have hundreds, thousands of them from Facebook to Twitter to Blogs and the like.  But we're still subject to the same human failings: we can't seem to get our politicians to tell us the truth.

In Der Angriff The Financial Times today, professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and author of “The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East” claims "both sides do it." And by both sides, she means democracies and dictatorships.  They both tell lies to their people in ways that ultimately erode their credibility and undermine their authority to govern.  And her analysis rings quite true.
How do dictators survive? They tell lies. Muammer Gaddafi was one of the biggest liars of all time. He claimed that his people loved him.

So why are democracies failing at the same time? The simple answer: democracies have also been telling lies.
Democracies that created the Euro told big lies about how separating monetary and fiscal policy would be a good thing and that how Eurozone members would be held to strict rules about fiscal spending.  That didn't work out so well.

Leaders in America lie to the people too.  This is a normal recession, they say.  Things are better, just over the horizon; Recovery is just around the corner they say.  Just around the corner, though, is another corner, and another, and another.  Each corner turned leads to greater disillusionment by the populace.  And to a populace that will simply disengage from the public square.
But no American politician dares to utter the word “sacrifice”. Painful truths cannot be told. And there is an even more fundamental reason why they cannot tell the truth. In theory, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” in America. In practice this is a big lie. Take the US budget process as exhibit A. In theory, the government collects taxes to deliver public goods to the population. In practice, the US budget has been hijacked by all kinds of special interest groups. This is why the US stimulus plan failed. A small portion of it went to help create jobs. Most of it was absorbed by various special interests.
Special interests like tax cuts that produce nothing.

Lying in a democracy should produce consequences for the liars.  But we've seen time and time again that it does not.  The liars continue to serve in public office and continue to lie to us, to our faces, and we don't seem to care.  As Plato admonished us 2500 years ago,

“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

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