yesterday, The Wall Street Journal Excerpts from Mike Pence’s upcoming memoir have been released. We can suspect that the former vice-president has succumbed to the temptation to make himself appear more lovable rather than less. But even accounting for this, the comparative portrait that emerges of Donald Trump is not exactly flattering. Pence was a loyal servant of the former president for four years. He stopped serving when he had to violate the constitution by refusing to certify the 2020 election results. Among the many notable quotes:
I said [the President]As I have said many times, I did not believe I had that power under the Constitution.
“You are too honest,” he chided. “Hundreds of thousands will hate your courage. . . . People will think you’re stupid.”
Granting the difficulty of reconstructing a verbal exchange, this reflection of Mr. Trump’s figure in the still water of the marsh looks about as good as a high-resolution photograph. Trump has never taken honesty as a virtue. Perhaps he does not realize that there is an external reality separate from his wishes and words, but I will disregard this possibility as a separate hypothesis. The picture is drawn by Mr. Pence WSJ The quotes are consistent with what other high-level Trump aides have described in their own recollections.
One might think that the dishonesty of a ruler is not disastrous in a constitutional—that is, limited—government, because the system is supposed to be foolhardy against it. David Hume represented the (classical) liberal tradition well when he wrote (“On the Liberty of Parliament”) Essays: Moral, Political and Literaryrevised version [Liberty Fund, 1994]):
Political writers have established it as a maxim that, in forming any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed. knave, and all his actions have no other end than personal gain. … Without it, they say, we shall boast in vain of the advantages of any constitution, and find at last, that we have no security of liberty or property, without the goodwill of our rulers; That means we will have no security.
There are many flaws in the hope that a knife can’t go bad in state leadership as we know it. The first problem is that contemporary democratic governments have acquired overwhelming powers to intervene in most aspects of life. As Montesquieu used to say, our governments represent the power of the people, not the freedom of the people. A second problem is that current public opinion does not effectively emphasize the values necessary to maintain a free society, a trend that plagued James Buchanan.
Economists generally expect politicians to be selfish like the rest of us. Politicians are not angels. They probably lie more than the average person because lying costs less when you promise an arguably ignorant electorate a bundle of complex actions with long-term consequences that are impossible to know. Voters are logically ignorant in the sense that they have no incentive to obtain information because their individual votes will not count anyway.
But dishonesty and certainly underlying dishonesty—the practice of cheating by any means possible to promote one’s own interests—is anything but mere self-interest within ordinary and perhaps lax moral codes. At the top of the political pyramid, especially under the regime of an imperial presidency, dishonesty can be detrimental and dangerous to liberty.