Is the defense of Gruber – politicians of all stripes use deception to get their way – a teachable moment for public-choice economics? So asks Veronique de Rugy:
Given our shared understanding the government isn’t always benevolent, we can all stop pretending that the debates that take place in Washington are always honest and based on objective scoring of laws and policies. We can all admit that Washington is a place where ideologues on both sides meet and try to advance their preferences because they think it is better or simply because they know it will benefit them. Acknowledging the existence of deception doesn’t make it okay, but it will hopefully help people be more skeptical about government expansions than they have been in the past.
And to my liberal friends, I will say, now that you clearly understand the first lesson of public-choice economics, you can move to Phase Two of the lesson. Here it comes: The institutions of government are inherently incapable of performing certain tasks well, even if our most visible elected officials were smart, compassionate and well-intentioned (unlike the architects of Obamacare). An unseen army of self-interested bureaucrats and administrative agencies are just as self-interested as the worst of the politicians that we elect; but considerably less accountable. An honorable politician who wanted to truly do the right thing would find him or herself battling with the bureaucratic structure that supposedly serves the public but in reality serves themselves. This means that most government expansions are bound to fail from the start independently of who is in charge.
One last word of advice. Those out there who are defending Gruber’s deceptions should stop telling us that politicians have no choice but to deceive people because people are “too stupid” to know what is good for them or because they don’t know what they want, and hence, they should let the elites of the world decide for them. In his Nobel Prize lecture in 1974, economist F.A. Hayek warned his profession against the dangers of what he called “the pretense of knowledge.” He might as well have been addressing Gruber and his ilk directly. He urged economists and social scientists to maintain humility about the limits of their own knowledge and to reject the impulse to blind themselves with the heady authority of “expertise” by experimenting with and controlling the populations that they believed needed their guidance. He said:
The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.
Besides, if it is the case that the public often wants things that are inconsistent with one another (like wanting loads of government services and low taxes, or in the case of the Affordable Care Act, free health care but also Cadillac coverage), the deception isn’t going to help them form better judgment about what they want in the future.