8. How much should politicians lie?

In spite of the above considerations, we should not deceive ourselves: there are many constraints on politicians and they often have very little room for manoeuvre. What is more, there are so many difficulties that arise in daily political work that it has become generally accepted that one of the typical characteristics of a politician is his ability to deceive and lie to the electorate. Is this inevitable? Where are the limits which, from our point of view, a politician should never exceed?

The recognition of the limits and restrictions to which the libertarian politician is subject should never allow him to forget the unavoidable necessity to follow the dual strategy that we explain above. The libertarian politician, therefore, should never lose his point of reference (which is the final goals and their essential theoretical and ethical implications) and, at most, it is acceptable that he should adapt his behaviour to the difficulties and pitfalls that arise at any given moment. Thus, he may be excused if, on certain occasions, he keeps quiet above some of the reforms he intends to carry out when circumstances so permit, or even that he should not mention some of the consequences and implications of his political decisions. Some calculatedly ambiguous lines of action may be accepted, above all in election periods, in order to avoid arguments on issues that, in view of their complexity, may be very tricky to explain to the citizens or leave flanks unnecessarily exposed to the facile demagoguery of the opposition. Finally, it is acceptable that the libertarian politician “knows how to tell the truth” when convenient and should even use a “healthy demagoguery” when, for example, measures which are both popular and have a great libertarian content are defended, like those relative to indiscriminate tax reductions or the abolishment of conscription.(27)

However, the following conducts may in no case be admitted from a libertarian standpoint: a) lying deliberately in relation to any specific aspect of political activity by telling the citizens the exact opposite of what it is intended to do; b) accepting modifications to the program that distort the whole free market ideology; and c) the most serious one, taking measures that lead in the opposite direction to the long-term goals that should be pursued, betraying the essential ethical or theoretical principles of libertarian ideology.

Never exceeding the above limits, we could even accept a “Leninist”-type strategy (28), aimed at obtaining as much support as necessary in order to carry out the libertarian reforms which, depending on the specific scope and circumstances, will require allies to be sought among other social groups or institutions. Moreover, as we have already seen, it is necessary for free market reforms to be consolidated and carried out in such a way that they finally become irreversible. In short, our libertarian strategy should always be directed towards winning support and weakening and inhibiting the interventionist opposition. In addition, with regard to the design and impetus of libertarian reforms, it is better to do too much than too little. There is nothing more regrettable than the frequent case of the politician who gets into power with a free market program and the support of the citizens and, when the crunch comes, due to his lack of tenacity or belief in his own ideas, or to diffidence when putting them into practice, does not come anywhere near the expectations created, losing all his own prestige and, what is worse, the prestige of the libertarian ideals he claims to defend.(29)

However, the actual political result depends on the specific circumstances at any given historical moment, upon which it is not possible to theorize. Notwithstanding, a series of rules of thumb may be drawn up in order to facilitate the politician’s line of action when understanding and trying to handle the relationship between the world of public opinion and the specific field of political action in which he moves. Thus, it may be said that, all other things being equal, the more educated public opinion is, the more radical the libertarian politician’s message may be. And vice versa, the more unschooled public opinion is, the more difficult it is for the libertarian content of the political message to be understood and shared by the citizens. Another rule is that the more traumatic the social starting situation, the more radical the message may be. In fact, it is in situations of real social crisis that the citizens are more willing to accept sacrifices and shock policies (30). Furthermore, ceteris paribus, the more professional politicians there are belonging to the third and fourth groups (made up, we should remember, of the politicians who are best educated in libertarian ideology, with the greatest capacity to get their message across and make it attractive), the more radical the libertarian policy they recommend may be. And vice versa, less educated professional politicians, in other words, those belonging to groups one and two above, will find that their own limitations and lack of the theoretical and ethical knowledge make it impossible for them to correctly express and defend a libertarian message the contents of which they neither know nor share. Finally, in election periods, the more certain somebody may be of winning for ancillary reasons, the less need they have to employ a radical libertarian message. And vice versa, under circumstances where an electoral triumph is more distant, a more radical message against the interventionist status quo may be launched.

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(27) In any case, the interventionist parties should not be allowed to have a monopoly on demagoguery and, although we must acknowledge that it is more difficult for a free market politician to have recourse to it, this does not mean that there do not exist important libertarian recommendations the demagogic content of which may, on occasions, be exploited advantageously.

(28) This is, for example, the name given by S. Butler and P. Germanis to the strategy they propose for libertarian reforms in their article “Achieving Social Security Reform: A Leninist Strategy”, The Cato Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 1983, pp. 547-556. On the most fitting strategy in order to achieve the triumph of freedom, see Murray N. Rothbard’s suggestive remarks on “A Theory of the Struggle for Liberty” in The Ethics of Liberty, op. cit., pp. 253-268.

(29) “When the politician has reflected on the reform he is preparing; when it is agreed that it is opportune and beneficial, then he should throw it out into the world and make it prosper with all his force. Tenacity should be one of the first qualities of the politician. He should never abandon the work he began certain that it was pertinent and useful. He should work earnestly for it; devote all his time and energy to it. If his efforts do not attain the gratification of success, the time will come when his good will be recognized, when all eyes will look towards him to seek his initiatives”. José Martínez Ruiz (Azorín), El político (con un epílogo futurista), Obras completas, Vol. VIII, Rafael Caro Raggio, Editor, Madrid 1919, pp. 194-195.

(30) This is one of the aspects that had the greatest influence on the people’s acceptance of the Liberalization Plan carried out by Erhard in Federal Germany in 1948 which, to the contrary of all the predictions of the occupying powers, gave rise to the wirtschaftswunder or “German economic miracle”.