By Tyler Cowen
When should you place a higher penalty on transparently false outright repeated lies, and when should you be more upset by hypocrisy, namely a mix of altruism and self-interest and greed and defensiveness, bundled with self-deception and pawned off to everyone including yourself as sheer goodness? In recent times the question has taken on further import.
For purposes of illumination, say you treat this as a principal-agent problem. You sometimes prefer if your children lie to you transparently than if they are more deviously hypocritical, even if the lies in the former case are greater. The former case establishes a precedent that you can see through their claims, and they will not try so hard to disguise the fraud. So transparent lies about taking out the garbage are excused if you know you can see through the later claims about drugs and drink and prepping for the SAT.
You are more worried about the hypocrite when you see bigger decisions and announcements down the road than what is being faced now. You are more worried about the hypocrite when you fear disappointment, and have experienced disappointment repeatedly in the past. You are more worried about the hypocrite when you fear it is all lies anyway. Lies, in a way, give you a chance to try out “the liar relationship,” whereas hypocrisy does not. You thus fear that hypocrisy may lead to a worse outcome down the road or at the very least more anxiety along the way.
But note: for a more institutional and distanced principal-agent relationship, it is often incorrect, and indeed dangerous, to rely on your intuitions from personalized principal-agent problems.
When it comes to how the agent speaks to allies and enemies, you almost always should prefer hypocrisy to bald-faced lies. The history and practice of diplomacy show this. Allies and enemies, especially from other cultures, don’t know how to process the lies the way you can process the blatant lies of your children, friends, and spouse. They will think some of these lies are mere hypocrisy and that can greatly increase uncertainty and maybe lead to open conflict. North Korea aside, the prevailing international equilibrium is “hypocrisy only,” and those are the signals everyone has decades of experience in reading.
Josh Barro tweeted:
International society too.
There is such a hullaballoo in my Twitter feed every day about the lies. “It is now time to expose the lies!” I feel sad when I read this because many of the American people already are putting up with the lies or even welcoming them. I do not see that as a correct course of action, as it is confusing personal morality with the abstract rules and principles that underlie social order (which is what voters almost always do, by the way). We need continuing hypocrisy in the international order, and thus from our distanced political agents, even if we don’t want more of it in our personal lives.
The Need of Hayekian Stress
I do not see enough people trying to understand lies vs. hypocrisy. In fact, it is tough for many people to make this leap, because doing so requires a Hayekian stress on the distinction between the personal and the abstract political and rules-based order. That distinction does not always come easily to the non-Hayekians who comprise most of my Twitter feed. They are very quick to invoke their own personal morality to attempt to settle political disputes.
Note also that if citizens care more about hypocrisy than lies, the media will in turn be harsher with hypocrisy than outright lies. Some foundations will be covered (and criticized) more than others, even if the less-covered foundation has done more wrong and in a more blatant manner. Covering hypocrisy also usually involves a longer story with more successive revelations and more twists and turns and narrative suspense and room for ambiguity and competing interpretations.
The Agents of Hypocrisy and Lies
Furthermore, in this equilibrium the defenders of the morality of the hypocritical agent will in fact make things worse for that agent. The hypocrisy will become not just a personal hypocrisy of the agent, but rather a broader, almost conspiratorial hypocrisy of greater society. So the more you think one (hypocritical) agent is getting unfair press coverage, and the more you defend that agent, the worse you make it for that agent.
Talking about the lies of the lying agent may help that agent win popularity, by turning voter attention to the “lies vs. hypocrisy” framing rather than “experience vs. incompetence.” The lying agent has at least some chance in the former battle, but not much in the latter.
I wonder if earnest Millennials have a special dislike of hypocrisy.
Think about it. Or if not, at least pretend you will.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and at the Center for the Study of Public Choice.
Featured Image Source: Unsplash