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Here’s What Jonathan Gruber Got Right


Under a barrage of rediscovered videos, the world now understands that economics professor Jonathan Gruber said what he meant and meant what he said about imposing federal health care—a rose by any name—on those of us whose “stupidity” means we needed his ilk to do so.

Rarely has a partisan technocrat made it so easy to recognize what their kind gets so wrong. Although the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor told MSNBC he was merely speaking “off the cuff,” the video evidence shows Gruber rehearsing a triumphant performance, not indulging a moment of weakness. “At one of his appearances,” Rich Lowry points out, “his audience can be heard laughing appreciatively.”

With his little ideas festivals of contemptuous elitism, Gruber brought life to many ordinary Americans’ worst political nightmare—rule by the class that laughs about you behind your back. The spectacle is made all the more repulsive for everyday people by the knowledge that they must increasingly depend on the likes of Gruber for the crucial goods and services he took it upon himself to help deliver.

Don’t Start Right-Wing Grievance Mongering

But this ordeal is more complicated than it appears. The rush to put Gruber’s ego on a pike is also in danger of becoming an unflattering spectacle. In some ways, populism can make politics too simple; in others, too complicated. Gruber has become a cartoonish repository for resentment, however misplaced. Bring your grievances, self-styled victims. One size fits all.

Is Gruber a scientist acting politically, or a politician acting scientifically?

At the same time, there are perils in refusing to pass judgment. Some academics have opposed burning Gruber in effigy. The professional data managers of the social science elite want to insist that Gruber, whatever he thinks, is not in the business of producing whatever facts are in demand thanks to one political power play or another.

Other theorists, with less at stake, are also reticent about shearing academic freedom to spite Gruber. Tyler Cowen, for instance—no champion of Gruber or his doctrines—offers a way to hedge. “Criticisms of Gruber are not criticisms of a policy, and it is policy we should focus upon,” he writes; after all, “there is still a great deal of health care policy we need to figure out,” and it’s “hardly news that intellectuals who hold political power, even as advisors, very often do not speak the truth.”

Both lines of defense raise a central question: Is Gruber a scientist acting politically, or a politician acting scientifically? Gruber is no mere “intellectual” or even “advisor.” He is a professor, a person who is supposed to be a teacher, however much time he spends on “research.” Nowadays too many professors have been liberated from the discipline of truth-telling to which true teachers are called. Running free through the halls of power or the fields of public opinion, they “intellectate” or “advise” with lucrative abandon, teaching nothing to no one, and to policymakers least of all. Although this industrialized corruption of education has become “hardly news,” it has been abetted by a corrupt vision of policymaking—one that Gruber shares.

Jonathan Gruber and Progressive Corruption

In this view, elites must redeem the country by sinning against democracy. Since politicians are always at least half the creatures of voter stupidity, they must be ruled by an outside, privileged form of knowledge. That’s where Gruber and company come in. In a superficial sense, they are the humble servants of elected officials, merely advising them as to the most likely consequence of their actions. In a deeper, truer sense, they are the real officials, able to exert decisive influence whether Mitt Romney’s or Barack Obama’s name is attached to a policy.

To grasp why Gruber is wrong, we must grasp what he gets right.

Yet the populist impulse to attack Gruber must be tempered by recognizing he has told us all something we don’t want to hear. If we obscure the significance of Gruber’s remarks in the name of public policy or of social science, we won’t understand how the world that produced him has gone so wrong. To grasp why Gruber is wrong, we must grasp what he gets right.

Although Gruber’s conclusion is unwarranted, his premise is correct: too many Americans are too uneducated, formally and informally, to govern well. Rather than some vague multitude, Gruber suggests two particular kinds of “idiots:” the kind conservatives are more likely to rail against, and the kind liberals are. Both are a problem for anyone who does not subscribe to the kind of abstract faith in democracy that would excuse so much “stupidity.”

Gruber is hardly the first person to distrust the populace and pay for it in bad publicity, as Mitt Romney knows well. In fact, political suspicion of the many is a through-line—practically a lodestar—for western philosophy. In the Christian tradition, for instance, Christ’s salvation of all, not the right of all to political participation, is the good news. Even in the Machiavellian tradition of armed liberty, the dynamic is much the same. The foremost goal is not to achieve democracy but to prevent corruption. Spiritually, the means to that end is redemption. Politically, as a rule, dispersing power is a far better means than concentrating it further.

Repeat: Democracy Has Big Problems

Alone, mass political participation cannot prevent corruption. Not only are there too many ignorant and incurious voters; popular opinion itself is too fickle, too focused on winners and losers. So, as an end in itself, democracy fails, brought down by a hodgepodge of “stupidity” that cannot be effectively criticized on its own terms. To be upset about popular stupidity, you must, as Gruber does, privilege something above the popular will.

The idea that Obamacare was impossible to achieve in a democratic way is not just a knock on voters. It’s a knock on democracy.

But here’s the catch. Gruber knows what’s wrong with democracy, but not what’s right with virtue. The idea that Obamacare was impossible to achieve in a democratic way is not just a knock on voters. It’s a knock on democracy. Gruber understands that democracy tends toward stupidity. For reminding us of this, we should thank him. But Gruber suppresses the full truth: popular stupidity combines with elite knowledge to diminish democracy but increase corruption—in which he, and his work, is implicated. It’s all too easy to blame the readily-mocked American voter, taking the spotlight off his fellow elites’ readily corruptible ambition.

Gruber rightfully rejects a naïve faith in democracy, but he clings to a jaded faith in technocracy. Some professors happily believe that doing social science is the ultimate act of politics. But I think Cowen is on to something when he suggests that Gruber’s noisy cynicism “is perhaps the sign of a soul not at rest.” Rather than educating democracy, technocracy supplants it; rather than ameliorating its worst tendencies, it worsens them. Social science has a guilty conscience.

Alas, politics brings little peace to troubled souls. To a good psychoanalyst, like Freud or Shakespeare, Gruber’s theatrical denigration of the stupid American voter hints that his heart knows something about which he’d rather be blind—the political problem of corruption, and the manner in which it’s exacerbated by the concentration of power. Gruber can’t be corrupt, thinks Gruber; and if he is, well, it certainly isn’t his fault. It’s those damn ignorant voters. I mean, look at them! Cue laughter, applause.

There’s more than contempt behind that mockery. There’s resentment. All those stupid voters are putting pressure on the social science elite. How dumb can democracy get before elites crack—confessing the conviction that they should be in charge regardless of the vote? Elites know that such admissions don’t go over well.

Gruber recalls for us the one ironclad rule that defends democracy. No matter how right elites may be about its follies and failures, their very confidence in their convictions leads them perpetually toward ever-more-resentful abuses of power and privilege—not just as individuals, but as a caste, for whom power and privilege, rather than knowledge, quickly become the ultimate goal.