Bryan Caplan  

All Politicians Lie: The Empirics

High Compliments from Alvin Ra... Pinker on Intelligence, Libera...
My view that politicians are evil does not imply that politicians are liars.  It's logically possible to be candid about one's evil.  Nevertheless, as you'd expect, I combine my grim view of politicians' overall character with an equally grim assessment of their personal honesty.  Imagine my surprise, then, to see PolitiFact confirm my suspicious.  Fact-checker Angie Holan in the NYT:
We don't check absolutely everything a candidate says, but focus on what catches our eye as significant, newsworthy or potentially influential. Our ratings are also not intended to be statistically representative but to show trends over time.


[J]ournalists regularly tell me their media organizations have started highlighting fact-checking in their reporting because so many people click on fact-checking stories after a debate or high-profile news event. Many readers now want fact-checking as part of traditional news stories as well; they will vocally complain to ombudsmen and readers' representatives when they see news stories repeating discredited factual claims.

That's not to say that fact-checking is a cure-all. Partisan audiences will savage fact-checks that contradict their views, and that's true of both the right and the left. But "truthiness" can't survive indefinitely in a fact-free vacuum.

Here's what they find for today's presidential hopefuls, plus Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.


I admire the effort.  Though partisans will predictably cry foul, I trust Politifact more than partisans.  Still, the fact-checking isn't literal enough for my taste.  Example: I checked out Obama's "Pants on Fire" lies.  This one grabbed me:
"What I have done -- and this is unprecedented ... is I've said to each agency ... 'look at regulations that are already on the books and if they don't make sense, let's get rid of them.'"  (Obama, 2011)
Politifact scores this as "Pants on Fire" because Bush I and Clinton also took this "unprecedented" move. 
Dean Baker, a liberal economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, called Obama's comment a "nonsense claim."

"I would question whether President Obama has done more in re-examining existing regulations than prior presidents, and if he has I would ask why he wasted the resources," Baker told us via e-mail. "Whatever it is called, presidents are always reviewing regulations to eliminate ones that impose unnecessary burdens."

In fact, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on July 16, 2007, states that, "Every president since President Carter has directed agencies to evaluate or reconsider existing regulations."
While I agree that Obama's pants are indeed on fire here, it's not because previous presidents have also tried to eliminate the regulations that "don't make sense."  It's because no president has ever earnestly done so.  To eliminate senseless regulations, regulators would have to go through existing regs one-by-one, abolishing everything without a solid argument behind it.  In legalese, regulations would at minimum have to survive "intermediate scrutiny" in order to stay on the books:
In order for a law to pass intermediate scrutiny, it must:
  • Serve an important government objective, and
  • Be substantially related to achieving the objective.

Still, I don't want to make the best the enemy of the good.  Though PolitFact's standards strike me as lax, leading politicians still fall very short of honesty.  And that's a fact.

COMMENTS (26 to date)
E. Harding writes:

Come on. I largely agree with the words of this post, but that chart is as misleading as heck. Martin O'Malley and Bernie don't lie? I agree with you that all politicians lie, but you must admit that PolitiFact must be heavily skewing its investigations of politicians' statements, and that due to this highly selective coverage, conservative Republicans systemically come out worse here than liberal Democrats. No politician's set of statements in PolitiFact is directly comparable to some other's.

"Though partisans will predictably cry foul, I trust Politifact more than partisans."

-I don't.

John Thacker writes:
Though partisans will predictably cry foul, I trust Politifact more than partisans.

Unfortunately, I've looked at too many Politifact ratings to consider them anything other than partisans. Most politicians (and other people, certainly including op-ed writers) make a lot of "technically true, but said in a way that will certainly give many people a false impression." Politifact typically scores this as anywhere between "Mostly False" and "Mostly True," depending upon how their partisan leanings color their view of the underlying issue. A second type of judgment call comes with the "factual statement that is an approximation." Again, when it comes time to decide what is "Mostly" true or false, Politifact has no real guide to what is considered a significant error. (There's a more meta issue of simply what statements they decide to analyze as well.)

It's precisely upon this kind of "truthiness" that the bias comes in; outside of Donald Trump who prefers to go in for simply amazing lies, most politicians stick to statements calculated to be difficult to prove or with saving explanations.

It's much easier to simply state something true, leave out countervailing facts, and let voters' natural bias do the work for you.

John Thacker writes:

Another typical politician statement is to say something that is true, but doesn't necessarily imply the conclusion that people will naturally draw from it. One case of this is in stating various numbers; without context, it is difficult to say whether numbers are large or small, good or bad. Comparing absolute numbers to percentages of a current distribution to growth rates, etc.

I sympathize with Politifact in that these rhetorical tricks are used to mislead, but when Politifact uses this understandable judgment to say that "this number cited is 100% correct, but since it's largely irrelevant to the bigger issue, we're going to rate this statement Mostly False" you can see the difficulty.

Brett Champion writes:

All people lie. All politicians are people. Therefore, all politicians lie.

Hugh writes:

Bill Clinton's "didn't inhale" is obviously truthy enough for Politifacts, and Monica's dress was most probably lying too.

Seriously, he's the most truthful pol? Please tell me this is all a bad dream.

Freddie Fanduel writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment and your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Jon Murphy writes:

Interesting stuff. It'd be interesting to see these stats complied among multiple fact-checkers. See if there is some kind of pattern.

Daublin writes:

I've had the same reaction as John Thacker. I've looked at politifact 2-3 times and it's always been heavily skewed to the left. Aggregating up this data to an overall percentage isn't going to fix it. Garbage in, garbage out.

The one that really turned me off was "You didn't build that". If you read Obama's speech, he was clearly discrediting the role of business owners. Romney disagreed; he said that the individual business owners are quite important and should be cherished. Somehow this turned into Romney "lying" about what Obama meant.

If you look at the text of the speech, the rest of it supports the same general idea, and it really is a defining position of Obama more broadly than this one speech. Here are five separate quotes from thespeech in question.

- "You didn’t get there on your own."

- "I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there."

- "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help."

- "If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen."

- "The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."

Obama's perspective is a popular one on the left. He really seems to feel that CEOs and other economic leaders are replaceable, that if you remove a CEO and replace them by just about anyone else, the replacement will also do very well.

(It's also a popular view on the left that one's own boss is incompetent and should be replaced. But I digress.)

So what is it that Romney was "False" about? Here's an example, straight from Politifact, of what Romney was "False" about:

"In one fundraising e-mail, Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, decried Obama’s 'naïve view that government, and not the hard work, talent, and initiative of people, is the center of society and the economy.' In another campaign e-mail, Amanda Henneberg, a Romney spokeswoman, said Obama had 'denigrated Americans who built their own businesses.'"

How is that not true? How is "There are a lot of smart people" anything but denigrating?

Sieben writes:

I don't know. Politifact has a strong incentive to find "lies" because it makes their product more entertaining to consume. You can imagine a lot of liberals were very happy to see Trump at the top.

It is extremely easy to find "lies" if you apply a strict definition of "truth". Obama's quote is clearly rhetoric and outside of the "unprecedented" part, impossible to falsify. Many many statements have these properties. Is the "World's Strongest Man" competition false advertising? Except there's no public interest in ranking the veracity of advertising campaigns. People just want to see political drama, and "fact checking" provides this function.

Phil writes:
To eliminate senseless regulations, regulators would have to go through existing regs one-by-one, abolishing everything without a solid argument behind it. In legalese, regulations would at minimum have to survive "intermediate scrutiny" in order to stay on the books

I fail to see the logic of using a constitutional standard for laws that discriminate when evaluating whether a regulation "makes sense." But if you think those standards are appropriate, then the rational basis test is the bar for simply making sense:

"The government has no legitimate interest in the law or policy; or there is no reasonable, rational link between that interest and the challenged law."

anomdebus writes:

Next, can you prove that all politicians are human?

danyzn writes:

Don't blame me. I voted for Kodos.

Richard writes:
Though partisans will predictably cry foul, I trust Politifact more than partisans.

You don't find it suspicious that all Democrats are treated as more truthful as all Republicans, with the exception of Jeb Bush, who ties Biden?

Here's an interesting one I found on black-on-black crime.

It's a fascinating case of bias. They're fact checking the claim that "In the 513 days between Trayvon dying, and today’s verdict, 11,106 African-Americans have been murdered by other African-Americans." It's rated as "mostly false" because it's "actually something of a rough guess based on back-of-the envelope math" and it lacks "important context."

The whole point of the quote, of course, is to show how much more common black-on-black crime is than white-on-black killing. So they decided to "fact check" in the narrowest way possible, in order to arrive at the conclusion they want. Let's see if the number 11,106 holds up!

The "fact checkers" get to choose what facts are worthy of being checked, how to frame the question, and what the relevant context is. Amazingly, a liberal press finds that liberals lie less!

Jay writes:

I agree with others, how could you not see this list as anything but partisan? I'm willing to accept that some lie more than others but do we really think one side lies by a 4 to 1 margin than ALL the other side?

Richard writes:

Let me add that it's not just the partisan split, it's that the biggest liars are all the people disliked by the media the most: Trump, Cruz, Carson, Cheney, Santorum. Then come Republicans the media finds more palatable, followed by the Democrats.

This is just a way to slander people the media does not like. And think of any story that you know personally and was also reported in the media. Was there a strong connection between what the media says and what actually happened? For everything that I was involved with personally and later saw a media report, there was only a very vague relationship between the facts and what was reported.

Martin writes:

I'm surprised that no one has yet pointed out how politifact might appear to have objective results but how selection bias may indeed be driving partisan results. First question is how many times each politician has been fact checked? Second question: is one party fact checked more often? While not an infallible test, I think that would either raise or eliminate much doubt.

SFG writes:

Serious question: how would we test this?

I mean, nobody here has the time to fact-check every statement in Politifact's database. (Or does someone?) And there are so many judgment calls (Mostly True? Mostly False?), as people here have pointed out, it's hard to say.

Thomas Sewell writes:

It appears the blog commentators rating for Politifact's Falsehood Face-Off chart is "Pants on Fire".

They're a known highly partisan opinion source. Go talk to Dr. Robert S. Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason, or just google it...

I trust Politifact more than partisans.
The obvious rejoinder is that since Politifact is partisan, this statement makes no logical sense. :)
Levi Russell writes:

"Though partisans will predictably cry foul, I trust Politifact more than partisans."

You've made a category error.

Rick Hull writes:

Isn't there an important distinction between a broken promise and an outright lie? It's one thing to promise to take out the trash and then neglect to, perhaps due to unforeseen pressing matters. It's another to claim a task has been performed when it actually hasn't.

lib-boy writes:


What if politifact is partisan? I'd prefer to see a scientific study.

John Fembup writes:

I winced when I saw the table headings "mostly false" and "half false, half true".

There is good reason court witnesses are sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". Because a statement that is "half false, half true" falls short of the truth, and can be a lie.

Recently Mrs. Clinton was interviewed by George Stephanopolous who mentioned her Benghazi Congressional testimony. She claimed "I answered all the questions."

Yes she did answer all the questions. But did she answer with the whole truth?

I wonder how PolitiFact scored Mrs Clinton's claim.

I also wonder why so many people accept "half false, half true" as simply politics as usual?

Perhaps it's because so much of what appears in our media is half false, half truth and most people can no longer tell the difference.

(Caplan): "... politicians are evil ..."

Compared to what? You have to compare something to something.

Libertarians are moralistic, posturing, delusional children.

Humans are social animals. They form dominance hierarchies. Experts beat amateurs. The word "politician" denotes someone who makes a career of ascent of a dominance hierarchy. Human dominance hierarchies will persist until the human line ends. You may as well decry gravity.

PS. Politicians pay Brian Caplan's salary.

btw, politicians in a mass democracy must address a wide audience. --You-- try explain any disputed issue of public import to an audience that spans 1st graders to PhDs in the topic.

Most people want to be useful. Perhaps robbers and thieves reduce cognitive dissonance by convincing themselves that their victims deserve victimization. Something similar, perhaps, applies to welfare recipients' and public sector workers' (looking at --you--, NEA) disdain for capitalism. Do Austrian economists differ systematically, by sector (private versus government university), in their attacks on politicians. Do Austrians at government schools spend more words attacking politicians than do Austrians at private schools?

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