Honesty is STILL the Best Policy

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To this avid observer of the political battle that’s been raging in Washington since the passage of the Affordable Care Act a few years ago, it seems that President Obama was less than fully truthful with the American people about important aspects of law.

Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying: “Honesty is the best policy.” But the adage had been around for a long time before Lincoln proclaimed it during an election campaign. In fact, many American statesmen have repeated the axiom, including Benjamin Franklin, who touted it in an edition of his newspaper Poor Richard’s Almanac. George Washington, in a letter to Benjamin Harrison, quoted it to stress the importance to a person’s integrity of being just as honest in public statements as in private affairs. Authors and playwrights from the time of ancient Rome to William Shakespeare to Mark Twain have also echoed this timeless message that most believe first appeared in an Aesop Fable. The message is straightforward and clear: among all the many other reasons for being honest, there’s practical value in telling the truth. In the end, unpleasant consequences almost always ensue when one is less than forthright. So when all is considered, it’s simply good policy to be honest.

To this avid observer of the political battle that’s been raging in Washington since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) a few years ago, it’s become all too clear that President Obama served neither himself nor the noble cause that prompted his landmark legislation very well when he appeared to have been less than fully truthful with the American people about important aspects of law. As a result, he’s been taking a political beating at the hands of just about every major media outlet, most especially for repeating the mantra: “If you like your existing health care plan, you can keep it” during his re-election campaign. That campaign was seen in large measure as a referendum on the ACA, which many are now saying with good reason was “sold” under false pretense.

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During the last election, many candidates ran on the platform that the ACA was a disastrous piece of legislation, narrowly and unfairly shoved through Congress (in fact, barely passing part of a budget “reconciliation” bill). These candidates also argued that as written, the ACA not only wouldn’t save the taxpayers money but also wouldn’t protect the rights of folks to keep the doctors and insurance plans with which they may have been happy. They campaigned on the platform that the plan should be repealed and significantly revised or replaced. The president ardently insisted his critics were wrong and campaigned on the promise that the ACA would not only provide healthcare to millions who were not able to access it before, but also would save money in the long run, while posing no threat to those who already had plans and doctors they liked. Many think the president won the election (and that his party retained control of the Senate) because the electorate believed his assurances. Now that it appears the president was knowingly less than fully truthful, and with the multi-million dollar website established to implement the program (known both affectionately and unaffectionately as “Obamacare”) being such a debacle, he is under more fire than he’s ever been and his public approval ratings have sunk to an all-time low.

If ever there were a need for an honest discussion of an issue, it would be the issue of healthcare in America. A great debate has been going on for some time about whether the “general welfare” of our citizens, cited in the preamble of our constitution as a rightful purview of government, should include easily accessible, affordable, healthcare for all (i.e. healthcare should be seen as an inherent right for any citizen as opposed to just another “commodity” someone is free to purchase in the marketplace but is not necessarily entitled to). This debate has been raging alongside another longstanding, unresolved debate about whether health insurance (as distinguished from other types of insurance, and which has morphed over the years from a vehicle of protection for rare but catastrophic events to a third-party payer system for a wide variety of services) should rightfully continue as a “for profit” enterprise. The record shows the president has a position on these issues, and it’s a position he’s actually had for some time. But he’s only been fully honest about that position when speaking at relatively low-profile events and to groups already strongly aligned with his position.

The president believes that all citizens are not only entitled to accessible, affordable healthcare but also that reimbursement for medical services should come from a third-party payer who is not in the business of profit (ideally, the government). He has been unwilling to advocate for that position firmly and openly. He’s let his true sentiments be known in a few not so public forums. For example, he told attendees at an A.F.L-C.I.O. convention a few years back that he actually favors a “single payer” system. But he knew it would be nearly impossible from a political standpoint to secure it if he were to advocate for it openly and directly. He also knew that both the congress and the powerful insurance lobbies would be more likely to buy into a plan much like the one Hillary Clinton first proposed some years ago and Governor Mitt Romney implemented in Massachusetts wherein insurance companies would compete in a marketplace of policies (called “exchanges”) from which citizens could choose. So at a later convention, he told the A.F.L-C.I.O he would pursue that course. While such a system was not the ideal, he knew it was a way to get that all important foot in the door of eventual universal single-payer healthcare by including a “government option” among the various plans in the healthcare exchange. Suspecting that the single-payer objective was the president’s real but hidden agenda, the political opposition raised such a ruckus that the “government option” was eventually dropped from the ACA before it passed under reconciliation.

Most of the deception involved in the healthcare debate involves what the key parties haven’t said (i.e., lying by omission). There are other ways to be deceptive, like saying things that are mostly but not completely true. For example, when the president said people who were happy with their current plans and doctors would be able to keep them, he wasn’t completely lying. He knew that 80% of workers get their insurance through their employers and that most of those plans are underwritten by big companies with large pools of insureds and who could absorb the cost of many of the new mandates of the ACA (such as accepting members with pre-existing conditions, paying a variety of preventative care services, etc.). He also knew though, that many insurance companies writing smaller policies would not be able to incorporate the new ACA mandates cost effectively and would probably cancel many of their insured’s plans and attempt to re-write them under different terms (most likely with higher premiums and co-pays). In the end, a lot of folks, even those happy with their current plans, were not going to be able to keep them. The president recently apologized for not being more fully forthcoming about all of this. By then the damage to his credibility had already been done.

There are no noble players in this whole healthcare charade. Some believe the insurance companies (whose experts and lobbyists help draft the ACA) have always had hidden agendas of their own. They knew from the beginning that the government was likely to fail to make good on its promises of better care for lower cost because it was counting too heavily on heavy enrollment by young, healthy, low-risk individuals heeding the mandate to purchase a plan as opposed to paying the relatively the less costly penalty for not doing so. Perhaps they even thought that as the promises of affordability and accessibility did not materialize as promised, public disillusionment with the ACA would grow to the point that they could one day return to business as usual. Whatever the case, it appears that each party to the healthcare mess has had its own hidden agendas, so it’s entirely possible that neither side really wanted things to work out all that well — at least not in the manner the plan was advertised.

Aesop, Shakespeare, Paine, Washington, Hamilton, Franklin and Lincoln were all right on the money. Honesty is, and will always be the best of all possible policies. It takes both conviction and courage to honor and advance such a policy. In the political realm, especially in a democracy, it takes the courage to trust the people’s judgment about the soundness of position you advocate as well as the humility and willingness to abide by their will. A politician of integrity states his or her position, makes the very best case for it, and then lets the people decide. A noble concept, indeed. Too bad nobody seems to believe in it anymore. Instead, what we have is an attitude of “we already have an idea of what’s best for you and it’s our job to figure out how to make you go for it even if we have to use every manipulation tactic in the book to convince you.” (I discuss the tactics of lying by omission and distortion and other manipulation techniques in my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) as well as in a series of articles on this site.)

Most readers of my work know I believe we live in an age of relatively pervasive character dysfunction. As I assert in Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I also believe that dysfunction lies at the heart of many of our sociocultural ills. But there is hope. History teaches that when people have had their fill of the consequences of deception, distortion and all the other shenanigans folks typically pull to get the things they want, a backlash almost always ensues to hold folks more accountable once again. Although hidden agendas, misrepresentation, and slick maneuvering are nothing new to the political arena, the time for such nonsense is coming quickly to an end. Too many of our problems are simply too big and too urgent for such things and people have grown weary from all the aimless and seemingly endless political infighting. Now, more than ever, the time is ripe for an open and honest debate on the important issues we face. Let’s just hope there are still a few potential leaders out there with the character necessary to rise to the challenge.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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