Politics & Policy

The Real Price of Lies

(Chris Jackson/Getty)
There can be no free society without trust.

‘Can I trust what the president says? That’s a yes-or-no question.” So inquired U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in response to having been lied to by the Obama administration. The administration wants to use a presidential decree to enact an amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants; half of the states have rallied behind Texas in arguing that this is unconstitutional, that the president is arrogating to himself a legislative power that is properly Congress’s. Lawyers for the Justice Department, led by Kathleen Hartnett, assured the court that no action on DAPA — Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents — would be taken until Judge Hanen had made a ruling on whether to issue an injunction against it.

“Like an idiot, I believed that,” the judge says.

The Obama administration, being what it is, ignored its promise to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas and began handing out reprieves as fast as it could, issuing more than 100,000 of them. When the annoyed judge demanded to know why the Department of Justice had lied to a federal court, Hartnett argued that the reprieves were being handed out under a different set of guidelines. The judge was not buying it. Among other things, the administration is offering three-year grants of immunity, which are not authorized by the earlier authority under which it purports to be operating.

#related#It is easy to understand why the administration is in a hurry to sign up as many people for its illegal amnesty as it can: The more beneficiaries there are, the more difficult it becomes to revoke the amnesty, even when it is confirmed as being illegal and unconstitutional. Judge Hanen already has sided with the states on a substantial issue, handing down that injunction he had been considering.

That Barack Obama and those he holds near have a funny way with the truth is not news. The president famously claimed in a speech in 2007 that the great civil-rights march in Selma, Ala., led to his conception: “There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama.” He was in fact born years before that march happened — his parents were divorced by the time of the march — but one can see how such mythology would appeal to a man with Barack Obama’s messianic pretensions. (It was fitting that he chose as his first chief of staff a man named “Emanuel.”) About the many more substantive deceptions of his underlings — at the State Department, at the EPA, at the IRS — there is not much new to say.

The moral offense of misleading a federal judge about an enormously consequential matter — and the insult that it carries — should be duly noted, and Judge Hanen is considering sanctions against the DOJ. Let us hope that those sanctions are robust.

But there is a practical matter to consider, too: Effective systems of government require trust, the lifeblood of a liberal, democratic society. Trust is the lubricant that enables widespread social cooperation. Without it, government action — including government action dear to the hearts of progressives, such as welfare programs — become clunky, inefficient, and difficult or impossible to implement.

Consider a private-sector example: In finance, trades can happen instantaneously because there is a high level of trust among trading partners. If every trade had to go through the corporate legal departments on both sides of the deal, it would take weeks or months to make a trade, rather than seconds. This trust can be abused, of course: It occasionally happens that a party who has made a particularly unprofitable trade disavows knowledge of the agreement. (Oliver Stone’s Wall Street taught the children of the 1980s to call this a “DK” — “Don’t know.”) To maliciously renege on a trade is considered a lowlife thing to do, to such an extent that miscreants taking that cowardly route are shunned. (When you are so low that Wall Street doesn’t want to do business with you . . .) And shunning works. If a business develops a bad reputation among its partners or customers, it suffers.

We all experience this in everyday life: If Deli X keeps shorting the pastrami on your sandwich — we are in the midst of the Great Pastrami Drought of 2015 — then you take your business somewhere else. If a used-car dealer misleads your friend about the transmission on that 1985 Ford Escort, you don’t buy a car from that dealer.

But when it comes to government, you cannot simply change providers, unless you are Tina Turner or a Facebook gazillionaire. And though a federal judge may hand down sanctions, our ability as citizens to impose discipline on the president of the United States and his minions is limited: There’s a presidential election every four years, there’s impeachment, and that’s pretty much that. The presidency is the ultimate package deal, like a cable-Internet-telephone bundle that cannot be undone. You get a choice between this guy and that guy, and if this guy has misled you — “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it” — that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to choose that guy instead.

Which is why presidents can get away with lying to us — and worse.

At the micro level, these things become vicious circles: If people abuse welfare programs, then public support for those programs declines. When support declines, government has less reason to offer resources and incentives to ensure that those programs are operated with honesty and transparency. This invites more abuse, further deterioration in support, and on and on. (There are some illiberal human realities at work there, too: People are more inclined to trust in and cooperate with people who are like them, which is thought to be one of the reasons why the welfare states of Scandinavia, which were until quite recently very homogeneous countries, were relatively successful for so long, and why welfare reform is always a racial issue in the United States.) When there is a sense that the system is corrupt, it is easier to justify taking advantage oneself.

The serial dishonesty of the Obama administration in the near term involves a question about whether we can have honest government. In the long term, the question is whether we can have effective government at all.

“Can I trust what the president says?”

The terrifying answer is: “No.”

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