Professor Gruber and the Leftist Elite (2015 Jan)

by Barry A. Liebling

Jonathan Gruber was a distinguished member of the leftist elite. He has a PhD from Harvard and is a full professor at MIT. His main focus is public policy related to healthcare, and he is renowned for being one of the chief architects of ObamaCare (and before that RomneyCare in Massachusetts). For more than 20 years his efforts have been instrumental in increasing the power and scope of government in healthcare while reducing the ability of private institutions and individuals to make decisions on their own. His work has been cited, praised, and used to justify leftist policies by President Obama as well as by numerous high ranking Democrats and welfare state enthusiasts.

But this year Professor Gruber has undergone a metamorphosis. Where previously he was famous, he has become infamous. There are several video recordings of the professor explaining how he and his colleagues designed ObamaCare and packaged it so the law would pass. He has become notorious for asserting parts of it were written to deliberately mislead those who would try to interpret it. The professor said, “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.” On another occasion he characterized the selling of ObamaCare as “a very clever, you know, basic exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.”

So Professor Gruber has managed to earn the scorn of two opposing sides. Those who have been against ObamaCare from the beginning take his statements as additional evidence that the law was enacted by nefarious means. Even angrier are ObamaCare supporters who are furious with Gruber for “spilling the beans.” Progressives know that when they employ subterfuge and are caught by outsiders the effectiveness of their leftist efforts is diminished. This explains why the same Democrats who lavishly praised the professor previously are now denying that they know him and insist that he had – at most – only a minor role in creating ObamaCare.

The Gruber story vividly illustrates two leftist themes that apply to much more than ObamaCare.

The first has to do with the virtue of honesty – recognizing and acting in accordance with reality. When someone proposes a change in public policy and is honest (yes, this is possible) he recognizes what is true about it and describes it in a way that is aimed to be understood accurately. Conversely when a partisan is not honest he is counting on the ignorance, gullibility, and lack of attention of his target audience.

In the leftist playbook expanding government power is the overarching objective. Members of the polity must be “persuaded” by any means available to achieve this “noble political goal.” If saying something truthful sways people to accept the progressive agenda, fine. But honesty is an option not a requirement. When a progressive feels that subterfuge will work, go for it. However, it is against the rules to admit publicly you are unscrupulous. And this breach is where the professor irritated his peers.

When Professor Gruber boasted that he was aiming for a lack of transparency he was not only revealing that he intended to trick people. Equally significant, he was suggesting that he thought his arguments for ObamaCare would not hold up to scrutiny. If he believed that truth was on his side he would have exerted his talent, time, and energy on making the features of ObamaCare easier to understand. Ironically, while the professor spoke of the “stupidity” of Americans, it is his estimate of their intelligence – their ability to see the implications of the law – that animated him to be deliberately opaque – to be a trickster.

The second theme relates to leftists’ contempt for personal autonomy. They remark, correctly, that people often use poor judgment and make foolish choices. There is no shortage of examples of individuals deciding to do the wrong thing and suffering the consequences. Members of the ruling leftist elite start with this accurate observation and then sneak in an extraordinary non sequitur – if you are in danger of making a poor decision you forfeit your right to manage you life. And progressives feel they have a noble obligation to boss you around (for your own good).

This is like saying that if I am smarter than you I have the right to tell you what to do. In fact, while I am confident that I have more knowledge about diet and exercise than my next door neighbor it would not occur to me to attempt to force him to do anything. He has legitimate sovereignty over his own life – regardless of how members of the leftist cabal might want “to nudge” him.

Notice how often you hear a committed progressive assert that the government has to step in and manage citizens’ lives. Otherwise many people are bound to act foolishly. Note also that leftists have a blind spot. Where they are always aware that those they intend to rule are fallible, it rarely occurs to them that their own bullying schemes are wrong-headed. When a government-enforced program is exposed as having negative consequences the leftist default defense is that at least it was “well-intentioned” – which is the universal progressive dispensation.

Professor Gruber knows that he has extraordinary intellectual ability. He and his cohorts feel that their mental acuity coupled with their “enlightened political attitudes” give them the right to decide how other people should live their lives. This is the premise that animated much of the professor’s career. It does not occur to committed leftists that they are doing anything wrong when they deliberately violate the sovereignty of others.

The case of Professor Gruber is unlikely to have much impact on people of the left. They are set in their ways and will deny that it has any relevance to the veracity of their ideology. But to those who value honesty and personal autonomy Professor Gruber’s story is an important lesson.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.