Postmodern Conservative

A Wikipedia Entry for “Gruberism”

“Gruberism” is the eponymous doctrine first enunciated by MIT economics Professor Jonathan Gruber (1965–) that holds that the mass of people in advanced democratic societies are functionally incapable of ascertaining their own interest, and that the public good is accordingly best achieved by a process in which a credentialed elite devises the best policies and then seeks to achieve public support for them by deception and lies. Since the accepted standard of legitimacy in modern democracy rests on the view that major decisions should be undertaken in conjunction with open debate (see “public reason” and “Jürgen Habermas”), Gruberism has been seen as challenging that system’s foundation by its political counsel to deploy a “lack of transparency” while apparently publicly professing the opposite.

Claims of the originality of Gruberism have been disputed. Some trace its roots back to the classical idea of the noble lie, originally presented by Plato in his Republic, under which the many are governed by myths fashioned for them by the philosophic few, who alone are capable of seeing the truth. While similarities between Platonism and Gruberism cannot be dismissed, the main purpose of the former was to protect the philosophic enterprise, whereas the latter aims at assisting the many by a grubristic ambition to transform of society.

Others see in Gruberism little more than a version of sophistry that offers to supply to aspiring politicians the techniques by which they can achieve power and build for themselves an enduring legacy. Sophistry in our day will necessarily combine the technical expertise for devising elaborate social policies and the knowledge of how to persuade people to adopt them. Gruberism uniquely offers instruction in both of these sciences. As with the first sophists, the rewards for the teacher or consultant are prestige, especially with one’s academic peers, and wealth, to be achieved without openly appearing as a money-gruber.

The most recent interpretations of Gruberism adopt a slightly different approach and set the challenge of persuasion in the context of late progressivism. The original progressive project at the beginning of the twentieth century envisaged a relationship between social science experts and the public that was fully compatible with genuine democracy. Experts would be empowered to engage in social planning, enjoying a vast playground for practicing their skills, but only under the direction of a leader chosen for his ability to win over the public by high-minded argument and upright inspiration. Governing would take place without ruse or deception. While retaining the same vast goals of original progressivism, Gruberism has broken with it by insisting that there is an unbridgeable gap between its means and its ends. Progressivism can triumph only by a form of enlightened despotism that governs by means of rhetorical fraud. This understanding represents the effective truth of contemporary progressivism.

There is a final interpretation of the meaning of Gruberism that ignores the official doctrine and focuses instead on the events surrounding its presentation. By this account the essence of Gruberism is associated with the foolishness of its originator, Jonathan Gruber. If Gruberism was to make the inroads that Grubber hoped for, its teachings should only have been revealed in secret. Yet whether from ignorance of the first lessons of politics or from the vanity of soliciting adulation from academic audiences, Gruber publicly spelled out every aspect of the doctrine. The inevitable result was that all of the followers of the doctrine, including the Gruber in chief, were compelled to disown it.

James Ceaser — Mr. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976.

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