role as a public administrator is usually beset by conflicts. These conflicts, as in all organizations, stem from the vested interests of various individuals with their own agendas meeting personal objectives while working in a public institution. In private companies, performance stems from imperatives to meet fiscal objectives; generating revenue and having the ability to borrow more money to finance new projects. No such natural restraint exists in the public sector, where monetary success elevates one leader while destroying another. One method of getting ahead, in any situation, is to tell blatant lies about another. This is the subject of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.
Lying is sometimes appropriate in one's role as a public administrator. This is because the life of a public institution, as well as its funding, depends on political patronage. It is always critical that public administrators maintain that the public institution is viable, lest they jeopardize their positions of employment. We face the prisoner's dilemma: because lies exist, they must be considered as an option, even if mutual honesty is preferable to the possibility of mutual deceit.
According to Bok, ruling out all lying is ludicrous. He gives the following example: "A captain of a ship transporting fugitives from Nazi Germany, if asked by a patrolling vessel whether there were any Jews on board would, for Kant's critics, have been justified in answering No." (Pg. 40) Here we see an example where it is one's moral obligation to lie, so as to protect human lives. He goes on to explain, "If to use force in self-defense or in defending those at risk of murder is right, why then should a lie in self-defense be ruled out?" (Pg. 41) Sometimes such lies are institutionalized due to the nature of the law, especially when the laws are obscure, culturally antiquated, or indefensible. In the state of Pennsylvania, it is illegal for a man and a women (or any two or more people) to engage in oral sex. However, one would expect an officer of the law to fail to report having overheard accounts that such acts had transpired.
Bok reviews reasons that public officials might lie independently of self-preservation. He recounts the example of Plato's noble lie: that of the existence of class distinctions. He notes that sometimes the rule of law is underscored by the ruler's ability to lie: "Rulers, but temporal and spiritual, have seen their deceits in the benign light of such social purposes [as the noble lie.] They have propagated and maintained myths, played on the gullibility of the ignorant and sought stability in shared beliefs." (Pg. 168) He is quick to note that many in public office lie in order to serve perceived noble ends but end up serving themselves exclusively. Here he notes that "we can not take for granted either the altruism or the good judgement of those who lie to us, no matter how much they intend to benefit us." (Pg. 169) He notes that if exceptions are allowed but not according to a specified process, government leaders "will have free rein to manipulate and distort the facts and thus escape accountability to the public." Here a contemporary example might be found in the Iraq conflict. The government had no real knowledge that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, and yet it used them as an excuse to invade. This resulted in a slight recovery in the markets, but distanced the United States politically from its continental European allies.
Bok notes the plight of the civil servant who at once wants to retain his job and to implement effective changes. "Civil servants may lie to members of Congress in order to protect programs they judge important, or to guard secrets they have been ordered not to divulge." (Pg. 174) The text gives a beautiful example: that of a mayor that plans to remove rent controls after his election but knows that his constituency will not support this. Here we see a public servant acting according to free market interests; a move that could be said to be ideological. This is not an uncommon event in American history: it is claimed by some that both the Constitution and the 14th Amendment that freed the slaves were not properly ratified. To admit that either of these was an open lie would be to undermine the basis for the law.
Of course, to be caught in a lie is to severely compromise one's credibility. From this perspective it is important to note the long-term cost of a deficiency in credibility vs. The immediate gain of telling a lie. For instance, by falsifying financial documents, Ray Kroc of McDonalds was better able to pitch his hamburger idea so successful; he paid back his investors many, many times. In such a case, lying could be said to be part of a more comprehensive agenda. The scandalous Board of Directors of Enron, however, was only trying to buy time with the lies they told investors. Several of them eventually found themselves in jail and one committed suicide over the affair.
Despite the noble intentions of the Mayor, his kind have rendered political platforms almost irrelevant. When George H.W. Bush introduced no taxes after having told everyone to read his lips as he said 'no new taxes,' he sealed his political fate. Bok notes that many refuse to vote under these circumstances whereas others look to superficial clues to gauge the potential of a new president. With respect to the civil service, its seeming immortality has allowed it to justify its budget to congress without much of a hassle. However, it can be said that the existence of many civil service people has been one of constant guarded behavior towards pay or staff cuts, which can be rebuked with a lie in the form of a statistic that shows an agencies' effects.
The text treats public behavior as a recursive process by which a relationship that is predicated on mutual trust disintegrates into one of distrust. We are given the impression that honest people owe their honesty both to religious and moral imperatives, and to the ability to see personal interaction as a long-term process in which trust is a valued commodity. Liars, however, either lack moral behavior or bypass moral concerns with justifications, usually with false hopes that they will be able to sustain lies indefinitely and with a better effect than telling the truth.
The author excoriates politicians who lie:
Political lies, so often assumed to be trivial by those who tell them, rarely are. They cannot be trivial when they affect so many people and when they are so peculiarly likely to be imitated, used to retaliate, and spread from a few to many. When political representatives or entire governments arrogate to themselves the right to lie, they take power from the public that would not have been given up voluntarily. (Pg. 175)
And what of self-interest? Surely examples exist where lying provides a beneficial outcome to at least one party, otherwise there would be no reason to lie.
In that the politician takes his own agenda into account first, this shift in power from the individual to the politician is a victory for the later. If an institutional culture exists where every politician and civil servant is expected to be a liar, politicians may lie with impunity and experience personal dominion over those that they purport to govern.
Bok makes an exception for central bank managers wishing to exert monetary controls. It is interesting that he is willing to advocate an activist monetary policy, as it is an invalidation of money as an objective store of value.
Bok's concept of a code of ethics is one that discourages lying rather than placing a moratorium on it.…