Op-Ed: Correcting Hypocrisy

The following is an op-ed published in The Standard-Examiner today.

Not a single legislative session goes by in Utah without accusations from one end of the political spectrum or the other regarding hypocrisy on the part of politicians in our state. While the label of “hypocrite” carries with it a negative connotation, its origin denotes a specific meaning that should be understood in order to be corrected.

The word itself stems from the Greek hypokrites, a descriptive term applied to an actor playing his part on stage. An early example of its use comes from four centuries before Christ, when the Greek orator Demosthenes derided his longtime rival Aeschines as a hypocrite for using his previous employment as an actor to become an untrustworthy politician.

Stage actors during that time usually wore masks, and would modify their voice and actions to imitate the character being represented. Like the sheep in wolf’s clothing, the hypocrite altered himself as needed in order to come across in a preferred way.

Which brings us to politics.

During campaign season, candidates seeking office impregnate their literature with all sorts of politically powerful words to persuade voters into supporting them. Freedom, limited government, free markets, state sovereignty, transparency, low taxes, integrity—these and a host of other common terms are liberally used, and carry specific meaning.

It’s that meaning which far too often turns elected officials into hypocrites. While perhaps well meaning and ignorant to the disconnect between their rhetoric and voting record, many politicians claim to support things on the campaign trail that they later work against once in office.

For example, candidates for state-wide office often emphasize the importance of free markets, but then go on to support business licensure, taxes, and regulations which violate the free market in favor of a centrally-managed one. We hear a lot about welcoming and supporting businesses, but live in a state with government-owned convention centers, golf courses, hotels, theaters, and gas stations, all of which directly compete with privately-owned alternatives.

Many politicians likewise oppose big government policies coming from Washington, D.C. but support them when implemented at a more local level. Cries of socialism and welfare dependency erupt from conservative circles regarding all sorts of federal programs, yet many of these same individuals emphatically support state-based alternatives which are similarly socialistic, costly, and based upon wealth redistribution through taxes.

In truth, we’re all hypocrites to a degree. Rarely do we all unfailingly live up to the standards to which we claim to adhere. We’re an imperfect people, and perfection should be expected of none of us.

This does not excuse being held accountable for our imperfections, of course. To the extent that a politician has promised something worthy of our support but done the opposite once in office, then they should be called out, encouraged to reconsider, and publicly criticized as may be appropriate. As Demosthenes did to Aeschines, so should we do to those in government. Hypocrisy must first be detected before it can be corrected.

But criticism is only part of the process. As one Chinese proverb says, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Utah has plenty of critics, but few voices illuminating a better path. Pointing out hypocrisy is important, but encouraging consistent fidelity to true principles is something that is sorely lacking in our state.

That’s the main reason why I founded Libertas Institute, a new think tank in Utah dedicated to advancing the cause of liberty. Utah needs some modern versions of Demosthenes who are willing and able to point out when politicians are playing the role of stage actor, behaving differently in office than they did on the campaign trail.

More importantly, our state needs a voice calling for a consistent and unwavering protection of individual liberty, private property, and free enterprise. We need somebody to light the candles of freedom and prosperity and illuminate the path ahead. Libertas Institute aims to provide that light.

Mahatma Gandhi once compiled a list of the “seven deadly sins” and included “politics without principle.”  In hopes of correcting such a sin, our own state constitution says: “Frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is essential to the security of individual rights and the perpetuity of free government.”

It is our opinion that for all its accolades and successes, Utah is managed primarily by politics, and not enough by principle. We wish to reverse that trend.

We invite interested Utahns to support our efforts to offer that frequent recurrence to fundamental principles, in order to better protect our individual rights and improve our government.