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Is it OK for Public Officials to Lie About the Ebola Virus?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Schultz
November 14, 2014

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Inevitably, if not already, some American public official is going to lie to us about some aspect of the Ebola virus. The lie will be defended as necessary to avert a public panic.

Lies are not always illegal. However, the government response to the Ebola virus raises a larger question. Is it ever justifiable for public officials to lie to the people to promote the public good? No matter how well intentioned or what the law may say, this type of deception is wrong. The government should never lie to the public.

Let’s be clear about what type of lie is at stake here. It’s not about malicious lies or those done for political gain. These are lies done for opportunistic reasons, to take advantage of a political crisis for partisan gain or to bolster one’s chances of re-election. A lie to take advantage of public panic for personal gain is wrong because it is using others and your personal position for your gain. This is what Governors Cuomo, Christie and other politicians are doing—imposing quarantines or falsely accusing rival political parties or politicians of malfeasance to promote their ambitions. Instead, at issue here are noble lies–those made for well-intentioned reasons.

Noble lies by public officials are justified on two grounds. The first seeks to draw an analogy to lies in private life, pointing out that in many cases deception is defended. Privately we have a category called white lies–supposed untruths that are harmless or which are made for good intentions. Telling a small child that “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” or lying to bolster someone else’s sense of self-esteem may be defended as harmless or at least not as malicious.

Some argue lies are also defended to save a life or to prevent other bad consequences. At one time, many thought it was ethically permissible to lie to a dying or ill patent so as not to make matters worse or crush the spirit of someone struggling for life. Public officials might state these reasons as a basis for why it would be permissible to lie to the public about Ebola.

Second, noble lies are defended on utilitarian grounds. Telling the truth will cause a panic, lying or at least withholding information will avert it. Lying promotes a public good. Neither reason justifies deceiving the public.

Even if lying in private is permitted, lying to the public is different. Lying to the public officials undermines democracy. One of the most basic assumptions about democracy is that the people ultimately get to decide what government should do. This is what consent of the governed means. Lying to the public makes that difficult. When officials lie, it undermines accountability. The official gets to decide whether the lie is justifiable, the public cannot decide because it is being lied to.

Lying reinforces public distrust of government. Polls already suggest little faith in government and many already have conspiracy theories about many aspects of government, perhaps even about Ebola. Lying only makes that worse, creating even more of a credibility problem for government. Deception might actually enhance panic about Ebola as citizens come to think that public officials are lying to downplay the risk of the disease.

Moreover, it’s paternalistic to lie to the public. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in a Few Good Men, it assumes that the public can’t take the truth. Whatever reasons might justify lying to children, one cannot justify lying to adults. They have a right to receive truthful information. Withholding information might actually place them at greater risk of contracting Ebola for example.

Overall, lying simply may not produce the public good in the sense that it undermines democracy, trust and accountability in government and runs the risk of promoting more panic and endangering peoples’ lives. Throughout American history, public officials have routinely deceived Americans. There is little evidence that their lies have worked out well. Let us hope that these lessons guide how the government responds to the Ebola virus.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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