Winning at All Costs? On Value of Honesty

Pierre Jean van der Ouderaa: The Temptation of Eve // Public domain

Have you ever been told you cannot put a price on peace, love, etc.? It’s a lie. Everything has a price, albeit not necessary a monetary one. Failing to understand this usually leads to a failure in securing one’s goals. This is why we need to talk about the price of victory.

How far are you willing to go to win? If the answer is not “all the way”, think again, as there is a good chance your opponent is more determined. Which is more important to you: your integrity or victory?

Let’s imagine a political contest. One side promises a reasonable and viable policy, while the other over-the-top actions, lots of benefits, and spending which economists might know is unfeasible, but voters don’t. The meeker side either outbids the other, or loses – if unable to convince people of the falseness of the other’s promise (thus having a bidding war in trust).

However, by outbidding a false promise, one is prone to losing integrity. This is the brilliance of populists. They managed to accurately gauge the line their opponents are unwilling to cross.

Populists in power rewrite election laws, engage in gerrymandering, fake-news campaigns, intimidation techniques, and hostile takeovers of businesses and the media. Non-populist politicians in power are unwilling to follow suit, and, thus, their position is less secure.

During an election, populists are willing to spread bigger and more ruthless lies, while more moderate candidates are reluctant to go the extra mile, as the benefits of a victory are lesser than its costs.

The principle that those willing to pay more will win won’t change, but there is a silver lining for those who don’t want to pursue populist methods. The value of honesty, or at least perceived honesty, is increasing.

Now, it is taken for granted that politicians lie. So do companies. Look at Volkswagen’s coverup of their emissions data. Or what big tech did to your data. In a time when lying is the baseline, you can stand out by being honest.

However, as the benefits of (perceived) honesty increase, so do the costs of lying. Unfortunately, populists can still often make people believe they are telling the truth, and their willingness to do more for victory is seen as pragmatism. Meanwhile, liberals, with their integrity intact, are perceived as incompetent.

Therefore, liberals have to be willing to pay more for victory. Not by outbidding populists in populism, but by increasing the value of integrity and honesty, and by being better at increasing their reputation as competent, yet truthful, politicians.

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