Presidential Lies and Political Ownership


When President Obama lied about the Affordable Care Act, he substituted his own self-governance and self-constitution for that of the American people.

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“If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan. Period.”

We now know, I believe, with something approaching moral certainty, that this was a lie. Perhaps it was not the president’s lie; while one additional claim of ignorance on his part would seem to confound belief, stranger things have happened. But he was uncorrected, and no doubt encouraged by aides who certainly knew its falsity, and if he has no responsibility himself, then he was simply an agent for the false assertion of others. That there was a lie is something it seems impossible to doubt.

Moreover, it was a lie of a particular sort, a lie in service of what was considered to be a worthy political end. We could call it a lie for a politically good cause. Could it have been justified because its end was noble?

I have argued before in Public Discourse that the most fundamental wrong of a lie is not its injustice, but its deliberate violation of the goods of integrity and sociality. So even if the end were good, and even if there were no injustice, this lie would have been wrong, and wrong for the same reason that every lie is.

But that is not to say that justice has no role to play in explaining the wrongness of lies. For while all lies violate those two basic goods, most lies are also unjust. Seeing why lies are unjust helps us to see why this lie in particular—the lie that made our president’s “signature legislative achievement” feasible—is so significantly wrong and why it is such a grave violation of our civic order.

In order for a person to be the author of his own actions in the fullest sense, he should have all the information necessary to know his options and evaluate their features, both good and bad. If you are deciding upon a career, for instance, knowing the nature of your own talents and being aware of the educational opportunities available to you will certainly make a great difference in your professional success or failure later in life.

But it is just as important to see that this knowledge also makes a difference to your authorship of that choice, for a choice made in ignorance often does not reflect who you were or wished to be. Similarly, our deliberations will be stunted and our final choices will not be fully our own if we have been ill-educated concerning the forms of evaluation that must be brought to bear on our options. So we can say that truth is essential to our own self-governance and self-constitution.

Of course, complete information is not possible. Human beings are limited in many ways, and will never be able to gain access to all the information that might possibly be relevant to their deliberations. In some cases the limitation is moral: if the only way one could obtain some information were through wrongdoing (such as the illicit revelation of a secret), then absence of this information would simply be a further way in which humans live within a framework of limitation. “Full” or “complete” information for self-governance is no more realistic a goal than “full” health.

There is a difference, however, between being limited in knowledge of truth that one might otherwise have wanted, and being provided with falsity in the guise of truth. The natural response to what is asserted as true is belief, all other things being equal, and in coming to believe, one also comes to think that what was otherwise a gap in one’s awareness has now been filled. One will now take the new belief as an appropriate starting point in one’s deliberations. But in so doing, one will, if the intention to provide falsity was successful, be positively led astray.

In a lie, the falsity is deliberately introduced by another. It is thus the case that this other person is deliberately responsible for creating an informational limitation on the part of the recipient. The liar diminishes the recipient’s self-governance in a way that is different from practical or moral necessity and from anything self-imposed by the agent in question. By co-opting the agent’s practical capacities, the liar becomes the author, in those respects, of that which the agent does on the basis of the false information. Therefore, lying does not simply diminish but actively offends the agent’s self-governing capacities. This seems, in most cases, to constitute an injustice to the dupe whose autonomy has been violated.

An important point to make is that this injustice exists apart from whatever other obligations there were to tell or not to tell the truth. Consider the difference between the following two cases. First, you are denied information you seek by someone who has an obligation not to provide that information one day. Second, you are lied to by a similar agent on another day.

In both cases, there is an information deficit, but in the first case, whatever you choose to do or believe in the absence of the desired information is done or believed in full awareness of the ways in which your situation is deficient. The other agent does not in any way substitute his agency for yours in your decision-making process. You thus remain as fully the author of your choices, actions, and beliefs as is possible under the circumstances. In the second case, however, you are ignorant of your deficiencies, and to the extent that you rely on the lie, it is a choice of the liar that is crucially responsible for some aspects—or perhaps the entire outcome—of your deliberations, choices, actions, and beliefs. You are not the author of your own self, as it emerges from such choices, to the extent that you rely on the lie.

Just as it is for individuals, so it is for polities. Self-governance and self-constitution are important, even essential, goods. They are especially central for those polities that consider themselves democratic. And just as for individuals, self-governance and self-constitution are manifested in a central and paradigmatic sense in free choice of a plan or proposal for action, so too in polities. But there, the plan or proposal that is adopted has the name of law, which is binding on everyone, even if they have not personally chosen or endorsed the proposal in question. Nevertheless, even those who would vote against a proposal for legislation can rightly think of themselves as sharing authorship of the legislation inasmuch as it comes from the common deliberation of us, as a people, and is endorsed and chosen under conditions in which all are given adequate representation.

This shared authorship also demands conditions in which all are given adequate information. Of course, sometimes such information is lacking as a result of our human limitations. We are no more omniscient in politics than we are in personal life. But there is a hugely significant difference between information that is not available or is not revealed (for a state must be expected to have and keep secrets) and falsehood that is deliberately put forward in service of a legislative goal.

That kind of false information does not simply reduce our capacity for self-governance and constitution as a people in the way that other information gaps do. Rather, it substitutes the liar’s self-governance and self-constitution for our own.

It is common to say, given the extraordinarily partisan division over the Affordable Care Act, that the Democrats “own” Obamacare. That is itself a problem; whether legislation of such extensive scope and significance should be passed in such a divided fashion is an important question for those concerned with the unity of the nation. But it is secondary to the point I am making here. To the extent that the choice of the ACA, in the votes that were responsible for its passage, was made as a result of deliberation guided by lies, no one owns Obamacare except those who lied, or were in on the lie from the outset.

This is a very grave state of affairs. For our country is founded on the hope that “we, the people” could, within the acknowledged limits of human frailty and ignorance, be the authors of our own political destiny. Where the Affordable Care Act is concerned, by contrast, the narrative has been written by another, and in a way that has not merely reduced, but violated, the people’s capacity and right to self-governance.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His book Lying and Christian Ethics is forthcoming in March from Cambridge University Press.

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