David R. Henderson  

Michael Cohen: Lying is Alright if It Helps You Get Your Way

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Unz Debate Analysis... The Ends Justify the Means: Li...

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In selling the health-care plan that bears his name, President Obama has, according to the fact-checking website Politifact, said at least 34 times that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it." That statement was not completely true, and it's a lie that is today causing the President no end of political headaches.

Still, before we fully castigate the President for his rhetorical flights of fancy, it's important to keep in mind that Obama was--to a large degree telling Americans what they wanted to hear. In fact, he was giving them the type of comforting assurances they insist upon getting before backing any major policy change from Washington.


This is from Michael Cohen, "Behind Obama's Lie, Our Own Immaturity," New York Daily News, November 10.

So Mr. Cohen admits that President Obama lied and that he was engaged in "rhetorical flights of fancy." That seems to seal the deal.

But for Cohen, it doesn't. He blames us. You read that right, dear reader. He blames you and me. Why? Cohen continues:

But doing so [telling the truth] would have opened Obama and his democratic allies up to the charge that Obamacare would lead to widespread dislocations--and made the path to reform that much politically harder to traverse.

It is true that had President Obama not lied and, instead, had told people that if they have individual health insurance, they won't be able to keep it, some of those people who supported ObamaCare would have opposed it. And, given the close vote, with even 34 Democrats in the House of Representatives voting against ObamaCare, that might have made the difference.

So how is that our fault? Because, writes Cohen, "we can't handle the truth." But is the issue that we can't handle the truth? Not really. Cohen's fear is and, apparently, Obama's fear was, that we would have handled the truth. That is, we would have noted the bad consequences of Obama's new wave of regulation of individual health insurance and, on that basis, opposed the law.

It's incredibly corrupt to justify lying because otherwise you won't get your way. Cue a line from Homer Simpson here that I can't remember, but that goes something like this: "Marge, I had to lie or else I wouldn't have got what I wanted."

A good test of Cohen's approach is to take it out of politics and apply it to our lives, say, buying something from a merchant. I recently had my house re-roofed. Imagine the following conversation before I signed the contract:
Roofer: My bid on this is $10,000.
Me: Really? That's great. I've been talking to other roofers and they're quoting me prices of $14,000 to $16,000. Why is yours so much lower?
Roofer: Because we use a special material that's cheaper but just as high-quality and we pay our workers 15 percent below the competition, but they're first-rate workers who like working for me so much that they're willing to work for that much less.

Then fast forward to when the roof is done, and, with the first rain of the season, it leaks. I call up the roofer to confront him:
Me: You told me that the tiles would be just as high-quality. They don't seem to be. And I notice some of the tiles weren't nailed on correctly. That looks like shoddy workmanship to me.
Roofer: Well, I lied, but please don't castigate me. I was telling you what you wanted to hear. I could see that you needed comforting assurance before you hired me. I just sensed that you couldn't handle the truth.

UPDATE: Jon Murphy correctly points out that the Simpson line is not from Homer, but from Bart. It's as follows: "I only lied because it was the easiest way to get what I wanted." It's from Episode 280. Here's the sound.

HT to James Taranto.



COMMENTS (32 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

Apparently Cohen doesn't think there is anything objectively bad about people having their health plans cancelled.

I wonder if he is (a) repeating the secondary lie that their health plans are getting better, or (b) taking the position that you have to break 3% of the eggs to make a health care omelette.

Gene writes:

Well, I'll agree that huge numbers of Americans "want to hear" that every little thing is gonna be alright even though reality does not concur. And, I take a backseat to no one in my lack of confidence in many voters' ability to understand what the hell they're doing in that booth. How that mitigates lying by politicians, though, I do not know. Cohen is arguing via misdirection.

Jon Murphy writes:

I could be wrong, Prof. Henderson, but I think the line you are trying to remember from The Simpsons is:

Homer: "Marge, it takes two to lie: One to lie and one to listen."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Gene,
And, I take a backseat to no one in my lack of confidence in many voters' ability to understand what the hell they're doing in that booth. How that mitigates lying by politicians, though, I do not know. Cohen is arguing via misdirection.
Well said.
@Jon Murphy,
No, that's not it. But thanks for the try.

Motoko writes:

I support lies if they improve public policy.

In the roofer example, it's a problem because you actually get an inferior product. But what if he provided an identical product, and only lied in order to protect some trade secret?

We shouldn't punish people just for lying. We should punish them for lying in bad faith.

Methinks writes:

Fantastic logic.

See, Bush lied about WMDs because he couldn't get his way and stimulate the economy with a war against the middle east instead of martians, sot it's all cool. How many lefties did that mental gymnastics?

I can't wait for the inevitable body count from this OSaviourcare disaster so I can print up "Obama lied, people died" t-shirts.

Methinks writes:

I see your point, Motoko. The best public policy is obviously always inflicted on the unwashed peasants without their consent. The whole representative-republic-limited-government thing is SO 18th century.

Philo writes:

The defense will be that Obama lied not just to get *what he wanted*, but to get *what was good for the country*, though the voters were too stupid or ignorant or corrupt to see that, had they been given accurate information.

TMC writes:

Motoko, we not only got an inferior product, but the worst part is the damage done. David's example is complete if the roofer leave a big hole where there was none before. Tell those being thrown out of their existing policies that lies don't do damage.

Jon Murphy writes:

I found it!

I only lied because it was the easiest way to get what I wanted.
- Bart Simpson

Episode 280: "The Bart Wants What It Wants"

Yancey Ward writes:

Shorter Cohen-

The ends justifies the means.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jon Murphy,
Thanks so much. My mistake in my Google search was looking for Homer rather than Bart. I really must watch "The Simpsons" more.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Methinks- Regard Bush, one needs to know what one is saying is untrue to lie. But your point is well taken nonetheless, in that there is clearly a double standard there.

Troy Camplin writes:

What we are seeing here is in fact an ancient tactic, coined by Plato as the Noble Lie. This is just a particular instance of it. It is a fundamentally aristocratic world view. The Noble Lie is told to the people because the people do not understand what is best for them, while the leader does. However, the ruler needs the assent of the ruled to maintain power -- thus, the Noble Lie is necessary if the ruler is going to pass things the ruled won't like, due to their misinformed state.

This is in fact what we are dealing with. This is a particular instance of the defense of Plato's Noble Lie.

Sam Grove writes:

Any justification for a lie will justify any lie.

It's that much harder for voters to be well informed if politicians lie to them.

There's a reason why politicians have a low rating on the trust scale.

Ross Levatter writes:

The ethical schizophrenia here is priceless.

Democracy is important. It would be WRONG to just impose edicts on people who hadn't consented to them.

But, to GET them to consent, lying, exaggerating the benefits, hiding the costs, crudely confounding the rubes, mendaciously repeating known untruths until they become mantras, all of this and MORE is perfectly acceptable.

Methinks writes:

"Democracy is important"

Democracy is super important to a Communist state. It's already inferior to the constitutionally limited government this country once had, which in itself was already inferior to no central government at all. What's one more step toward totalitarianism? Welcome to your new reality, Americans. This is just your first big step in your decent into tyranny. From now on the lies get bigger and any of you who protest will be faced with increasingly tougher methods of re-education. It'll be an American version, of course, but it will happen.

Chris Wegener writes:

This entire conversations misses a fundamental point. The policies being canceled are not health insurance policies the are Insurance Company enrichment plans.
How is a $54 monthly health plan that covers nothing any different from the example of the faulty roof?
All of the follow up I have seen from stories of people who have had policies canceled all show that they will either qualify for subsidies or plans that are comparable in cost to their current plan while actually delivering genuine health coverage.
Obviously Obama and his staff underestimated the market for fraudulent health plans in America, but no individual should pay money for an insurance plan that does not actually insure them.
(Of course 'death panels', 'job killing' health plan, 'deficit exploding', government takeover of health care are not lies at all are they?)

Blakeney writes:

Politics is the art of hiding the costs. The only peculiarity in this case is the president's utter lack of subtlety.

tom writes:

So instead of "the beatings will continue until moral improves" we get "the lying will continue until you trust us".

Also the best Simpsons related lying quote was

Marge [to Homer]: Why do you have so many bowling balls?
Homer: Ah, I'm not gonna lie to you, Marge. So long. [leaves]

Gorgasal writes:

@Chris Wegener: I don't think anyone has a plan that covers *nothing*. People may have low-cost plans that only cover catastrophic medical bills, preferring to pay a lot of routine check-ups, vaccinations and so forth out of pocket. Why shouldn't they be allowed to do so?

Do look at Warren Meyer's Coyote Blog, e.g., this entry. He claims to have investigated a lot of options and chosen a high-deductible low-cost plan. Which was cancelled because of the ACA. This does not sound like an "Insurance Company enrichment plan".

Or look at this post. Excerpt: "for most people, dental insurance is just pre-paid care. All it does is add cost. ... I have happily paid my kids' dental costs out of pocket their entire life and have saved a fortune over what 18 years of pediatric dental care would have cost."

Pajser writes:

I think US should copy Cuban health system, but only if majority supports it. Lie is not justified, and politician and his party should be punished.

Arthur_500 writes:

The key lie all along has been free healthcare. The idea that you would have to actually buy a plan and then pay a deductible has been glossed over ad nausea.

Now that we actually have to buy the plans people are getting upset. But it is too late!

Are you people really posting that it is all right to lie? I can't believe what I am reading.

Hmmm, maybe I should write a paper on the excellent success of Keynes' theories. Who cares if there are insufficient facts. After all, the end goal of supporting the theories trumps any actual truth, correct?

Chris Wegener writes:

@Gorgasal
Well high deductible low cost plans continue to exist in the exchange. The issue is plans that contain lifetime caps on spending and no limit on out of pocket expenses are no longer available.
Sure it's fun to mention pediatric dental care for middle age applicants but the point is it is insurance. Everybody pays for everybody.
Most of the ineligible high deductible low cost plans restrict hospital care to one instance per year or a paltry payment that doesn't begin to cover the cost of a hospital stay. Further since there is a cap on payments with a serious aliment they are a one way trip to bankruptcy. (Half of all US bankruptcies are caused by medical problems.) Often because those with high deductible plans wait too long to get medical attention. Then when they finally go for care the underlying problem is much more serious and harder (read expensive) to treat.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Chris Wegener:
There's a difference between "Half of all US bankruptcies are caused by medical problems." and "Half of all US bankrupt people owe some money to a medical provider."

You're quoting the first, but the reality of the statistics is the second quote. By your logic, more than half of all US bankruptcies are caused by owning a home? And then another more than half are caused by credit card borrowing? And then another more than half are caused by car loans?

How many halves do you get by this logic?

High deductible plans are real insurance. Pay-for-everything is not, it's a prepaid plan that's a bad deal which gets even worse when many of us end up pre-paying other people's care in addition to our own.

Motoko writes:

@Methinks

Did you have a counterargument, or were you just outraged by the suggestion that it might be okay to lie (even to the masses)? The problem is that Obamacare is just plain bad, not that he lied about it. Lying just made it easier for him to do a bad thing. Microphones and stickers also made it easier for him to get elected. Where's the outrage over stickers?

@TMC

Whether lies do damage is contextual. See the stickers argument above.

clay writes:

@methinks, a falsehood is only a lie if it was known to be false. Bush and all the Democrats who voted for war received intelligence about WMD, so it's quite plausible that they believed that. Obama knew that ACA would change people's health care plans since that was its intended purpose.

Methinks writes:

Motoko,

No, it is not okay to lie unless your wife is asking you how she looks. Otherwise, no lie is acceptable whether it comes from a libertarian or a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist. And, frankly, I don't allow my husband to lie about the size of my bum either.

Why you think it's alright for a politician with his own self-interested agenda to lie to you in order to impose his preferred policies on you by force but take issue with a private company lying about its product to entice you to buy it (a choice you can refuse to make a second time) is beyond me. Fraud is never okay. Never.

Clay,

I know. I'm making fun of the media and Bush's opposition. I thought that was obvious from the bit about starting a war with he middle east instead of martians (hello, Krugman) to stimulate the economy. I guess my humour is too dry for a lot of people. I wrote another bit in response to Andrew in the voice of stereotypical OWS protestor, complete with talking points, but Lauren took it down because it wasn't obvious enough that it was pure satire from the first word to the last.

Max writes:
The ethical schizophrenia here is priceless.

Democracy is important. It would be WRONG to just impose edicts on people who hadn't consented to them.

But, to GET them to consent, lying, exaggerating the benefits, hiding the costs, crudely confounding the rubes, mendaciously repeating known untruths until they become mantras, all of this and MORE is perfectly acceptable.

Or, in other words: http://radishmag.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/democracy-and-the-intellectuals/

Max writes:
No, it is not okay to lie unless your wife is asking you how she looks. Otherwise, no lie is acceptable whether it comes from a libertarian or a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist. And, frankly, I don't allow my husband to lie about the size of my bum either.

Deontology is by far the worst -ology ever to muddle the minds of men.

Jay writes:

@Chris Wegener

"Well high deductible low cost plans continue to exist in the exchange"

You're using "low" pretty carelessly here. For the exact changes introduced by the law you specified, no caps, out of pocket limits, in addition to a large number of required coverage someone may or may not need, the plans can be described as anything but "low cost" when compared to their pre-law counterparts and that is why there is an uproar over this (the lying part as well).

Chris Wegener writes:

@Jay
I am very specific when I use low cost. It is the cost to the individual that allows a high deductible and also a lower premium.
Unless you want the insurance industry to continue selling "low-cost" plans that do not actually provide any meaningful insurance.
"You may not always get what you pay for but you always pay for what you get."
As in the original straw man presented in the blog, that of a cheap shoddy roofer, you apparently want people to pay premiums until they find out that the insurance plan they are paying for doesn't provide any real insurance. Just as the person who pays the shoddy roofer discovers when it rains.
Insurance is insurance only if everyone pays for everything. And yes, most people end up paying more than they may ultimately consume in health care costs. That is the nature of the beast.
You pay more in Homeowners insurance than you receive under most circumstances so that if your house does burn you will be reimbursed.
Everyone here is arguing for insurance that costs them less than they will consume in health care costs and calling any other reality a "lie." The lie is that such an insurance policy does not and never has existed unless you have a serious chronic long term illness. And you would not wish that on your worst enemy.

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