In politics, does the end justify the means?

Does the end justify the means? It’s an interesting question to apply to any moral issue, and one on which MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber has no qualms answering in the affirmative.

Gruber, an architect of the now unpopular Obamacare legislation (aka the Affordable Care Act), cuts to the point:

“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure [the Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. OK, 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 … we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”

In the last few days, it has become clear that Gruber has leaned heavily on this “American stupidity” theme over and over again. And while it may be insulting—and, well, stupid—he has a point. Economic illiteracy in America is a problem, and unless the media does their job to cut through the smoke and mirrors, the public can’t form an educated opinion.  But was it right to pull such a bait-and-switch on the American public?

Many who support the law would sympathize with the notion that, hey, sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. Any war general or chess champion understands that game. And despite the president’s lofty campaign promises to change Washington, it seems politics as usual is still just politics as usual.

Though I did not support the law, I might agree with one aspect of Gruber’s statement. I accept it as a general principle of politics that most people have no interest in—as the old saying goes—how sausage gets made, and insisting on complete transparency would make a lot of legitimate, worthwhile bills impossible. It’s obviously a controversial principle, but one I must recognize nonetheless as a kind of necessity in government.

But principles are far less concrete than the word suggests, and it seems that in this case Democrats overestimated the degree to which they could stretch what Aristotle might call a “noble lie.” With a supermajority in Congress, they failed to employ checks and balances within their own ranks and pushed through a law that few had actually read, but almost everyone had a piece in writing. It was a horrible, convoluted plan, but short-term political advantages were too good to pass up. Americans who were dissatisfied with the healthcare system could accept that the law fundamentally and drastically changed it, but even many of the law’s advocates had to acknowledge that it was a poorly executed bill full of problems that continue to surface to this day.

The “lack of transparency” about what the law actually was and how it would work was strategically advantageous at a time when Democrats enjoyed a brief two-year window in which they could pass almost any legislation they could imagine—and they did. They determined that it would be easier to pass a horrible law and fix it later than to waste time getting it right and risk losing power in 2010—which they did.

Republicans claimed repeatedly that Obama and his Party were lying, and they were right. They were outraged at the media’s failure to investigate the law and hold Democrats in Congress accountable, and they were right. The Tea Party protests were characterized as a racist backwoods mob, but their concerns were legitimate. And here we are four years later, with a new Republican majority in both the House and Senate. Democrats won the battle, but lost the war.

In my line of work, I create a lot of advertising. Despite what people believe, advertising is not about lying to sell a product; it’s about finding the connection between needs and solutions, framing an argument with plausible substance. There’s an honesty line you don’t want to cross, because people will eventually find you out, and when they do you lose big. If you want short-term gains, then lying, cheating, and stealing might pay back quick returns. But the only way to really win in the long-term is to operate within a certain sphere of authenticity. The late Democratic majority failed to see that the same rule applies to politics—one might even call it a principle.

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