Scott Sumner  

Worse than a crime, it was a blunder: A pragmatic case for honesty

If I Had it to Do Over Again... Jonathan Gruber's Economics...

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.

So I've been all over the map on this issue, but I'd like to make a few general observations about honesty, in response to recent posts by Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan.

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.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: moral reasoning

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Rick Hull writes:

Brave, insightful, and somewhat confusing in the Obamacare specifics (do Gruber and Supremes belong in the same paragraphs?).

Honesty is, by far, the best policy for posterity's sake, though it can be very dangerous to individuals and reputations in the short term. Dedication to the truth, even when it hurts, is the noblest virtue in my eyes. Deception for the sake of a greater truth may be defensible but should always be avoided as a pitfall - a trap where nobility may be easily perverted.

I applaud the simultaneous bravery and humility of this post, in support of honesty generally and directed inward particularly.

Edogg writes:

The thoughtfulness in your posts certainly keeps me coming back.

David R. Henderson writes:

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.
I assume that by “liberals” you mean statists, not classical liberals. If so, I don’t get how convincing conservatives that a major architect of Obamacare sold it to the public on deeply misleading grounds could help them win.

Andrew_FL writes:

I think he made two distinct statements:

On the one hand, he said, basically, "We exploited the economic ignorance of Americans, and that's great" Because Americans don't understand that taxing insurance companies does not keep them from being the ultimate payers of the tax.

On the other hand, he said, basically "We had to lie to the American people about the mandate being a tax, because they are stupid and don't understand a big tax increase isn't bad for them. That's terrible, I wish they understood this big tax increase would be good for them."

He's talking about two different aspects of the law here, and two different lies, one he's proud of, and glad he was able to make, and another he's not so proud of, but regrets more that the American people are the sort of people he had to lie to.

Some say that lying is okay in time of war. For the prototypical example, imagine you are in Nazi Germany when a Nazi Sergeant comes to your door and asks the whereabouts of your in-laws. (They happen to be hiding below the floor.) Do you give an honest reply, Scott?

I support lying in that example. Further I doubt there is a clear dividing line. I suppose that politics (the exercise of coercion as understood by libertarians) introduces a whole class of circumstances in which I would sympathize with lying, even though I join you Scott in feeling a strong preference for honesty.

If we take a broader view of life, I would argue that we can observe that most highly evolved animals survive by overpowering and eating other living things. We might conclude that the circumstances allowing honesty, circumstances in which some of us organisms can believe that we can be totally honest with certain other organisms, occur only in special cases.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The real question in this (or any other) legislation is:

why can it not be put forward in honest terminology?

If as you say:

"I believe that voters are . . . collectively brilliant . . ."
Andrew_FL writes:

@Richard O. Hammer-

Well, I never thought I'd see the American people expecting to be told the truth by their government compared to a Nazi government thug demanding, at gunpoint essentially, to be told what's not his business in the first place.

The government-especially an illegitimate or evil government-has no right to not be defrauded, especially not if it had no right to the information it received a falsified version of in the first place.

Neither does the government possess the right to commit fraud, which no individual possesses. It does not even possess the right, broadly conceived, to withhold information, except perhaps where doing so is necessary to it's core functions. Passing a law the American people don't want passed is not a core function of the government.

J.V. Dubois writes:

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TravisV writes:

Prof. Sumner,

I'm a huge fan of this blog post. Very frequently, when explaining a concept, I'll exaggerate certain relationships in order to better get the point across.

The hope is that the listener will say "Well, that's a bit exaggerated but his point still holds....."

Perfect example: my analyses in the comments section of this blog post:

I confess: I exaggerated the strength of a lot of relationships in an effort to quickly illustrate the workings of the model in my mind.

Brian Donohue writes:

Top notch.

Scott Sumner writes:

David, You asked:

"I don’t get how convincing conservatives that a major architect of Obamacare sold it to the public on deeply misleading grounds could help them win."

That's their problem. To convince the conservatives that the intent of the law was to have subsidies apply to federal exchanges, they have to convince them that a key supporter of the law used misleading arguments to sell it.

Andrew, You may be right, but my post did not address those comments by Gruber.

Richard, I'm a pragmatist, so obviously I think lying is justified on some occasions. Anything is.

David Friedman writes:

It's worth thinking about honesty in the context of the law and econ analysis of the choice between rules and standards. It's very unlikely that a bright line rule will always give the best possible answer, so a standard applied with perfect wisdom is better. But judges don't have perfect wisdom, and that is one reason why the rule might be better.

In this context, the decision is not up to the judge but the individual deciding whether to tell the truth. Part of the problem is that we are all biased judges in our own case. If I feel free to lie in a good cause, there will frequently be cases where I would like to lie and can convince myself that doing so is justified--although it isn't.

One of the unplanned themes of my second novel is the issue of whether the end justifies the means. An important secondary character behaves very badly—because he reasonably believes a great deal is at stake. Being an honest man, he has earlier said that he will do things he normally disapproves of in such a situation. The conclusion I want the reader to draw is not that he is a bad man but that he is too confident that he is right, willing to use force to make people who know less about one part of the problem than he does but more about another part of it act according to his judgement rather than theirs.

Most people are too confident they are right.

Hazel Meade writes:

I wonder if Robert's line will come back to haunt the court:
"It's not our job to protect people from the consequences of their electoral choices."

Similarly, it's not the courts job to fix legislation just because it has consequences it's supporters did not intend.

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