David R. Henderson  

The Difficulties with Lying

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Co-blogger Bryan Caplan, in his post, "Frank on Phony Credentials," points out a big problem with cheating on credentials. He writes:

[W]hile telling an isolated lie comes easily to human beings, most human beings are bad at living a lie. If you fabricate credentials to get a job, doctoring your resume is the easy part. The challenge: You have to construct an alternate life history, and carefully segregate everyone you're lying to from everyone who knows better for the rest of your career. In short, you need the rare skills of a spy.

That reminded me of "Do the Right Thing," the second-last chapter of David R. Henderson and Charles L. Hooper, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life. A large part of our chapter is devoted to making the case for honesty as the default choice. We admit the obvious cases for dishonesty such as lying to the Nazis about the Jew you are hiding out in your basement, etc. Of course, the vast, vast majority of chances you have to lie are not in this category.

In one section, we write (CLH in parentheses says that it's Charley's story):

Sometimes on business trips, I (CLH) get the pleasure of staying with my brother Stan. When, after these visits, my wife, Lisa, asks me what we did, I remember hiking, listening to music, drumming, talking, eating, and playing with his computer. If I had actually been somewhere else and lied about it, I would still need to produce a "memory" of the evening. So my job would be twice as hard because I would have twice as much to remember: the real evening and the artificial evening. In fact, my job would be more than twice as hard because I would need to construct this artificial evening in the first place. Then I would need to know when to relate the real evening (to my confidant) or the artificial one (to the person I am lying to). Mathematics falls apart here, but we estimate that the liar works four times as hard.

Later in the chapter we write:
The lure of unethical behavior is strong, but it is largely a siren call attracting those who don't really understand how life works. The purchase price of unethical behavior is low, but it is the maintenance costs that will kill you.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

Always tell the truth: it's easier to remember.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steve Sailer,
Actually, Steve, the next line in our book after the Charley story, which I almost put in the blog post is this:
“Always tell the truth; then you don’t have to remember anything.”
--Mark Twain

Tom West writes:

The purchase price of unethical behavior is low, but it is the maintenance costs that will kill you.

Wow, I really love that quote. I'd never heard it before.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
Thanks. Thinking back almost 10 years, I think it was Charley who wrote that line.

Bostonian writes:

If Obama had not spread the "if you like your plan, you can keep your plan" lie, Obamacare likely would not have passed. If FDR had been honest about Social Security being a pay-as-you scheme, it may not have been created. Once government programs are created, even based on lies, they are difficult to repeal. Often lying works.

David R. Henderson writes:

Good points. I think you mean “pay-as-you-go,” right?
Isn’t it interesting that both of your counterexamples are of politicians? And I would agree with you that Obama’s lie and FDR’s lie don’t seem to have hurt them much.

Bostonian writes:

@David R. Henderson

Yes, I meant "pay-as-you-go".

Steve Sailer writes:

"“Always tell the truth; then you don’t have to remember anything.”
--Mark Twain"

Thanks, now I can attribute it to Mark Twain! I heard it from a wise old venture capitalist in 1989, but it's great to learn the original source. (Of course, Twain may have heard it from somebody else, but Twain is good enough for me.)

Tracy W writes:

O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!

Sir Walter Scott, Marmion (1808), Canto VI, st. 17

But when we've practised quite a while
How vastly we improve our style!
J. R. Pope, A Word of Encouragement.

Glen Smith writes:

Prisons and jails are filled with bad liars. The good one are running companies and governments.

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