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February 05, 2014 4:22 PM Epistemic Closure in Action

By Ed Kilgore

The kerfuffle over CBO’s estimates for the Affordable Care Act’s “risk corridors” program—which undermined a fast-moving Republican campaign to make repealing “insurance companies subsidies” a central demand (and perhaps even the chief demand made in conjunction with a debt limit increase)—may tell us more about conservatives than about Obamacare. Why, after all, did they so avidly embrace a crusade based on a claim that might be so easily refuted? Jonathan Chait had a good explanation yesterday:

Conservatives have assumed that of course risk corridors will pay out more to insurers, because of course the exchanges in Obamacare are failing to attract healthy customers and must be propped up. The quietest news in the CBO forecast is that there’s no evidence this is happening. Yes, the bungled health-care launch lost two months of valuable outreach time, and implanted plenty of skepticism about the new law among consumers who knew little about it beside the failed website. Right-wing intellectuals spent last fall arguing not whether Obamacare was collapsing, but whether the entire liberal project was collapsing. (Yuval Levin last November: “it looks as though we may be witnessing a failure of the administrative state on a level unimagined even by its staunchest critics.”) Only a couple weeks ago, I futilely attempted to rebut two conservatives claiming the law was already “beyond repair.”
Today’s report projects that the bungled launch will mean enrollment in the exchanges will collapse all the way from seven million people to … six million people. Now, the number of people in the plan isn’t the only or best measure of its success, but it is a measure critics have seized upon. The existence of the nefarious Obamacare Bailout was a second reason - as the House Republican hearing asks, why the need for a bailout, if not to save a doomed law? There’s no reason why the lack of an Obamacare bailout should prevent conservatives from feeling anger at it anyway.

This is a pretty good example of the “epistemic closure” conservatives have been accused of—sometimes by fellow conservatives—in the last few years. Obamacare is by definition doomed to failure, so the least shred of evidence consistent with that failure proves it for all time, along with all the corollaries you can draw from that failure. It’s humanly understandable, of course: once you stack several major partisan talking points atop an ideologically convenient assumption, doubting it when the facts start coming in is very difficult and painful. So it’s easier to ignore the conflicting information, or reinterpret it, or just change the subject, and keep on keeping on.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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