Worse than a crime, it was a blunder: A pragmatic case for honesty
By Scott Sumner
Let me get my biases out of the way right up front:
1. I strongly disagree with Gruber’s views on health economics, for reasons discussed by Bryan Caplan in a recent post.
2. I opposed Obamacare, albeit not quite as strongly as most conservatives. It was a missed opportunity to move us in the direction of a Singapore-style system.
3. When a tape surfaced where Jonathan Gruber said that without state exchanges people would not get subsidies, he said it was a “speak-o” and I defended him, despite the fact that I disagree with him on health care.
4. When a second tape emerged showing he made the same statement elsewhere, I began to have doubts. He claims he kept making the same slip of the tongue over and over again, whereas conservatives argue he was telling the truth back then. I suspect a third possibility, he was knowingly using a misleading argument to try to sell people on setting up state exchanges, and is now expressing his true feelings about the law. But who really knows what the truth is? I doubt Gruber even knows.
There are degrees of dishonesty. When I say I support policy X, I actually do support that policy. I could pass a lie detector test. But when I first started blogging I would occasionally use arguments or data that I knew was slightly misleading. Not false, but slightly questionable. Or data that could be interpreted in another way. For a worthy cause–the greater truth. I had been doing this my entire life in face-to-face discussions, and almost always got away with it. But the blogging world was different. Within a few months I discovered that I almost never got away with it. So I stopped doing it, or at least stopped as much as I could. (I’m sure I still err now and then.) I did not stop because I am a highly moral person. I stopped because it was counterproductive. I was getting hammered in comment sections, and had to repeatedly backtrack. Ever since 2009, whenever I write a post I try to make my argument defensible, if people were to challenge the accuracy or relevance of my supporting evidence. I see other bloggers who also do this, and some that don’t. If you are famous and don’t respond to commenters then you can get away with cutting lots of corners. But in the long run I believe that honesty is the best policy.
And I think the Gruber case is a perfect example. Consider the Supreme Court case coming up. I’d probably vote with the liberals, but it would be a tough call. I’d argue that Gruber was cutting corners with the truth in his earlier statements, because I really believe that. But pragmatically it’s also my only argument, as I know full well the conservatives would never believe that he made repeated slips of the tongue.
We all know that conservatives and liberals often line up predictably on highly political cases, even where the split seems to have little to do with judicial philosophy (consider the 2000 election.) But neither liberal nor conservative justices want to feel that they are personally corrupt. They wouldn’t want to see themselves as purely partisan actors engaging in hardball politics. They’d like to think that they have principles. And this is why the Gruber “mistake” is so damaging. The only way the liberals can win is to convince the conservatives that a major architect of Obamacare sold it to the public on deeply misleading grounds. That gives the conservatives the moral high ground. They can tell themselves that “given the sleazy way this was done, and given the language of the bill, we can in good conscience send it back to the Congress for clarification.” That’s not how I’d vote, but:
1. It’s how I expect them to vote. And I believe they’ll sleep well at night afterwards.
2. It might lead to a slightly better bill after it goes through Congress again.
PS. Gruber was also criticized for calling voters stupid. I believe that voters are individually stupid and collectively brilliant, which is why the world’s most democratic country is also the best-governed country.
PPS. Here’s a tougher moral issue. Do I have an obligation to cover all the “to be sure” points that give support to the other side of the issue? Sometimes I include the “to be sure,” and then the counterargument, if I’m too tired to joust in the comment section. At other times after I’ve been dealing with Boston drivers, I might intentionally leave out a “to be sure” where I know there is a decisive counterargument, just so I can later hammer some arrogant critic in the comment section. (Of course that’s at MoneyIllusion–the commenters over here are polite.)
As I said, I’m far from perfect.