Last week, Britain had a referendum to decide whether or not to replace its current “first past the post” electoral system with the alternative vote system (AV). During the campaign, the No to AV campaign claimed that changing to AV could cost £250 million, in part because voting machines would be introduced with it. Yes campaigner and member of parliament, Simon Hughes claimed that this was false and that the No campaigners knew it was. He asked the electoral commission to stop the No campaigners from lying.
Similar appeals are often made by other frustrated political disputants. But the idea that electioneering politicians should be allowed to say, and voters to hear, only what the electoral commission deems to be true and honestly believed is outrageous. It would make election outcomes depend on the judgement, not of the voters, but of the electoral commissioners.
The proposal is also unnecessary. As anyone who has argued with blowhards will know, there is an easy way of showing that someone does not really believe what he says. Challenge him to a wager. Demand that he put his money where his mouth is.
If the No campaigners really believe that changing to AV would cost £250 million, they will be willing to bet on it. By offering the wager, and having it declined, Mr Hughes would expose their insincerity. Equally, Mr Hughes’ failure to suggest the wager may tell us something about his own alleged certainty on the matter.
Politicians should generally be obliged to bet on the outcomes their various claims. This would discourage their lying which, incredible as it may sound, is even more widespread than people working with the standard definition of lying realise.
Lying is not a matter of saying something you do not really believe. This is because, on matters subject to doubt, we believe “both sides of the debate”. For example, I believe that Osama Bin Laden is dead. But I am not certain of it. Or, in other words, I believe, to a small degree, that Bin Laden is alive. So, if I said “Bin Laden Lives!”, though I would be lying, this would not be because I do not believe it; I do believe it a little. I would be lying because I believe it with less confidence than my assertion suggests.
Once you see lying as misrepresenting your degree of belief, it is clear that politicians lie incessantly. They pretend to a level of confidence that they cannot really feel. Forcing them to bet material sums of money on their claims would encourage them to reveal their true confidence.
For example, Tony Blair said that Saddam Hussein almost certainly possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) despite the available evidence making the proposition far from certain. If someone had bet him £100,000 at odds of 5:1 – surely attractive to someone of Mr Blair’s professed certainty – he would have lost £500,000 when the WMD failed to appear. Or, had he refused to wager at these odds, we would have known what to think of his certainty.
Or consider the politicians who bailed out Greek sovereign bond holders on the ground that this would prevent “contagion” and further European sovereign debt crises. This was an implausible idea. What odds do you think those who so enthusiastically peddled it would have taken on a €100,000 bet that there would be no more euro bailouts within two years? What odds would Mervin King, Governor of the Bank of England, take on a bet that inflation will be below 3% in a year? What odds would Donald Trump have taken a month ago on President Obama’s place of birth?
Of course, compulsory betting is an imperfect path to honesty. Much of the nonsense that politicians talk is not amenable to verification and so cannot be bet on. How will we know, for example, if Britain really has become “fair” under the influence of our government’s social mobility policies? And politicians may sometimes be willing to take the betting losses caused by their misrepresentations. Indeed, they could do deals that mean they do not have to. The holders of Greek government debt would surely be glad to cover the gambling losses of the European politicians who gave them taxpayers’ money.
Imperfect but not worthless. If a politician were a long-run loser in his compulsory betting, we would know that he was either a well funded liar or a fool. Knowing which may be required to make a moral judgement about him. But not to know whether we should take him seriously.