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413. Work on what has been spoiled (VIII)

Lies are an attempt to avoid punishment, and this attempt to avoid punishment is also laziness; the hope that a negative outcome can be indefinitely deferred—yet, as with all laziness, the effort expended to prevent a negative outcome leads, in the long-term, to a greater energy expenditure. So a lie is ultimately a false economy. The punishment is not necessarily literal; in childhood, the lie seeks to avoid literal punishment—the child steals biscuits from the cupboard and the parent makes an enquiry; the lie defers the punishment for a few minutes at most; so the child either learns to steal in a more subtle way or stops altogether.

Yet the model applies in other ways: the side gate to your house becomes rotten and splinters—you lie to yourself and pretend that the rot is not important. There is no parent to administer a punishment, but there is a thief who pushes through the rotten gate when you are out and robs your house. The lie you told yourself was laziness: you convinced yourself the gate did not matter and saved yourself the energy expenditure required to replace the gate; but now you have to repair the house as well. So it is in this sense that lies are punished; the lie is a deviation from reality and sooner or later reality catches up with you and punishes you.

Humans expend the minimum energy required to achieve a goal. So the lie is irrational and not parsimonious; the lie wastes energy. The liar has to expend energy to get people to buy their story; the story has to be sold, whereas the truth can be as simple as “Yes.” The calculation the liar makes—this is their laziness—is the idea that the lie, though it requires energy, will require less energy than the immediate punishment. So while the lie is irrational, the calculation is that it might save energy in the long-term if it works. Even if you only lie to yourself it takes energy; and this is how cognitive dissonance comes about—it happens when a person has to expend effort to assert a lie over overwhelming reality, though the reality is so total that no amount of mental energy can change it.

Usually, lies are a false economy. The situation is the same as when you buy a Chinese winter coat on Amazon; it is a bargain relative to other coats, except it barely lasts the season and in the end you pay twice what you would have done to acquire a durable coat. It is better to take many small punishments than to avoid punishment; to take the small punishments builds strength—to defer punishments builds a fragile system that will totally collapse when punishment is unavoidable.

The USSR provides a good real-life example: for seventy years or so the USSR was based on lies; the lies changed somewhat, but the lies were always very pervasive. Eventually, Gorbachev decided to experiment with a little truth and the result was that the entire bill came due all at once; the 1990s, very brutal on Russia, were basically the deferred punishment Russia had to endure for seventy years where lies were pervasive. If reality is a metaphor for God, then it is in this sense that God punishes people—the lies of the fathers (the Old Bolsheviks) were revisited on their children and grandchildren in the 1990s. Contrary to expectations, Satan is positive; Satan has stories, whereas as God is negative—an anti-deception force that creates by absence.

There is one way in which a lie is a good economy: when confronted with someone who seeks to hurt you with lies. Yet a defensive lie requires no deep investment, since it is a provisional measure; it protects you against reality’s malevolent aspect—it does not deny reality. The conman on the street has his spiel, but you say, “I’m too busy.” It is a short lie, whereas his goes on and on…


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