Politics & Policy

Smarter than Thou

The “stupidity of the American voter” is an article of faith for the Left.

Jonathan Gruber is smart. He is an economist. He teaches at MIT. Do you teach at MIT? Of course you don’t. He is also the architect behind Obamacare. He is really, really smart. Did we mention that?

Of course, when you are as smart as Jonathan Gruber, it is difficult to resist the temptation to pull your light out from under the bushel on occasion; thus every once in a while there comes an embarrassing revelation. The conservative group American Commitment recently unearthed one such moment. During an interview at the University of Pennsylvania in October 2013, Gruber revealed that

this bill [the Affordable Care Act] was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in — you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed. . . . Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass. . . . Look, I wish . . . that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.

One could call it an “admission” or “confession,” but Gruber does not seem particularly conflicted. The ends justified the means. That is something the millions of people who have been forced from their insurance plans would probably dispute, but what do they know? Not as much as Jonathan Gruber.

When a different economist, Thomas Sowell, quipped that “the road to Hell is paved with Ivy League degrees,” he spoke more truth than he realized. Indeed, smart people often have bad policy ideas. But Hell is not about mistakes; it’s about sins. And despite its pragmatic, do-what-works rhetoric, the progressive Left is convinced not only of its own intellectual superiority but of its accompanying moral superiority. Among progressives, stupidity is sin.

Gruber’s comments are a perfect illustration of this belief. The “stupidity of the American voter,” of which he is obviously disdainful, is not an ignorance of facts. If Obamacare proponents had believed that was the case, they would simply have sought to explain the legislation, trusting that more information would be persuasive. The obfuscation in which they engaged would not have been necessary.

No, Obamacare proponents were certain that Americans could not be persuaded, no matter how much information they absorbed. The voters were incapable of recognizing that Obamacare was in their own best interests — or, to put it another way, they were (and remain) morally deficient, a failing impervious to reasoned argument. Their stupidity was a sin, against themselves and each other. Gruber and company were the messiahs they did not know they needed.

Liberals’ disdain for the brainpower of the average American has long been evident. To a supporter who told Adlai Stevenson he would have “the vote of every thinking person,” Stevenson famously replied, “That’s not enough, madam. We need a majority.” Said Senator John Kerry in 2006, if “you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” And in 2009, Gore Vidal, whose estimation of his own intelligence had no limits, proclaimed Barack Obama “too intelligent” for America.

But Gruber’s comments point to a more disturbing reality: To the liberal mind, there is no distinction between academic intelligence and moral intelligence, between what we might call “learnedness” and “wisdom.” In fact, they correspond. The more one learns, the “better” a person one becomes. Since Obama is “perhaps the smartest guy ever to become president” (per presidential historian Michael Beschloss), he must also be virtuous. Since the people who crafted Obamacare had excellent credentials and prestigious tenured positions, Obamacare must be not just smart policy, but good.

This belief is not the product of reason or careful thought. It is an article of faith, and those who would dispute it are not just “stupid”; they are heretics.

That this church of liberalism can, at its most zealous, pose a serious danger to the health of a body politic should be obvious. After all, Lenin was the smartest guy in the room, too.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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