Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of the Jonathan Gruber Story

The children of this world are wiser in this generation than the children of light.

Luke 16:8

Once upon a time everyone who was serious about politics was reading Reinhold Niebuhr. Today it is hard to find anyone who knows who he is. That is too bad, because his insights are at least as relevant now as they were when he was alive and at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.

Niebuhr was one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, but his greatest contributions were in the area of political philosophy. He took the deepest insights of Christian theology and applied them to the practice of politics.

The people who worry about “mixing religion and politics” need to go read Niebuhr. And the people who want to impose their own (highly selective) literal reading of the Bible also need to go read Niebuhr.

Niebuhr’s best book on politics, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness” ought to be required reading for anyone who aspires to public service. The book is inspired by that verse from Luke's Gospel. His basic insight was simple and undeniably true: the “children of light” do more harm through their naïve ineptitude than the “children of darkness” do on purpose.

“It must be understood,” Niebuhr wrote, “that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” The children of light have a naïve understanding of the world around them and are unrealistic in their assessment of the human capacity for evil. But they are also naïve about their own mixed motives.

The strange case of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber is just the latest evidence of the truth of Niebuhr’s insights. He was so taken with his own cleverness, and had such a great need to talk about that cleverness with other clever people that he had no sense of the harm he might do.

When he was first confronted with a video of himself talking about “the stupidity of the American people” and how that figured into the marketing of the Affordable Care Act, he said that it was just an “off the cuff” remark at an informal conference. But it turns out there are many video recordings of him making approximately the same statements at many conferences over several years.

The irony, to use one of Niebuhr’s favorite concepts, is astonishing. How is it possible for anyone, let alone an economist at MIT, to be that stupid?

In this instance there is plenty of irony to go around.

Bill O’Reilly spoke piously about Gruber insulting the American people, but his program has a regular segment in which a young staffer is sent out to cities and college campuses to ask people questions they can’t answer and then make fun of their stupidity. And after the last presidential election there were many references to the stupidity of the American voters who did not understand the issues.

Seriously, the stupidity of the American people is one of the few things on which commentators from both ends of the political spectrum seem to agree. Of course one side thought the 2012 voters were stupid, while the other side thought the 2014 voters were the stupid ones.

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