Why do our leaders lie?

Mearsheimer found that if a leader lies to sell a policy that works, people are unlikely to care all that much. If the policy turns out to be a dog, though, they’ll be furious, shocked at the deception. But in no time, they’ll implicitly trust the government anew. “There’s no question that once a president lies, people are then quite jaded in how they look at that president,” he says. “But that quickly wears off. Trust reasserts itself. And then people are vulnerable all over again.”

Mearsheimer spoke to Ideas from his office in Chicago.

IDEAS: Over the course of human history, governments have always lied to their people. Why are we such suckers?

MEARSHEIMER: In large part because most people don’t have much choice but to trust their own government, because their own government its tasked with protecting them.

IDEAS: Because the alternative leaves you with the sense that you’re floating in this void.


IDEAS: So the public will abide a lie so long as the policy works?

MEARSHEIMER: That’s correct. The public, by and large, trusts its leaders not only to tell the truth, but to get the job done. When they don’t get the job done, they get punished, and when they don’t get the job done and it comes out that they lied, they’re in really serious trouble. This is what happened to Johnson and it’s what happened to Bush. If you’re going to tell a lie, make sure the policy works out.

Full interview is here. Mearsheimer’s book is Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics.

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