Michael Munger: The "State" As A Unicorn

Michael Munger has one of the most useful articles I have read in a very long time.  As illustrated by the Venn diagram I posted a while back showing the heavy overlap between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, we have much more concurrence in the diagnosis of problems than in the prescriptions for solutions.   Munger gets at the heart of why many people go wrong in these prescriptions

When I am discussing the state with my colleagues at Duke, it's not long before I realize that, for them, almost without exception, the State is a unicorn. I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. 

But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of "the State." That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.

Then I realized that they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it. When I finally realized that we were talking past each other, I felt kind of dumb. Because essentially this very realization—that people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world—has been a core part of the argument made by classical liberals for at least three hundred years....

He follows with this useful test

But they may not immediately see why "the State" that they can imagine is a unicorn. So, to help them, I propose what I (immodestly) call "the Munger test."  

  1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
  2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said "the State" delete that phrase and replace it with "politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist."
  3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, "The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power," ask them to take out the unicorn ("The State") and replace it with George W. Bush. How do you like it now?

If someone says, "The State should be able to choose subsidies and taxes to change the incentives people face in deciding what energy sources to use," ask them to remove "The State" and replace it with "senators from states that rely on coal, oil, or corn ethanol for income." Still sound like a good idea?

How about, "The State should make rules for regulating sales of high performance electric cars." Now, the switch: "Representatives from Michigan and other states that produce parts for internal combustion engines should be in charge of regulating Tesla Motors."  Gosh, maybe not …

Hat tip:  Don Boudreaux

I spent most of the Bush years asking Conservatives a similar question -- you may be fine when "your guy" has this power, but would you be happy if Al Gore or Nancy Pelosi had it.  And of course I have spent most of the Obama years asking Liberals whether they would be comfortable if George Bush or Rick Perry had similar powers to what Obama has claimed for himself.  Because they will.

I said something similar here, though less elegantly.  I concluded in part:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.


  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    It makes sense, the same people seem to think that we can power our homes and industries and run our financial systems on unicorn farts.

  2. me:

    My number one corollary to the unicorn theory of power is this: the more libertarian side of the political spectrum is strongly in favor of asking the "politicians currently in charge" to vote themselves out of (some) power. I still need someone to explain to me how this is going to practically work.

  3. Onlooker from Troy:

    Another home run.

  4. Nehemiah:

    well done

  5. demockracy:

    This is a very interesting take on the state. Everyone knows states can only make toxic waste! Why the beatified CEO class is who will do things correctly and without corruption (please ignore Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia, Silverado S&L, Credit Mobilier and the South Sea Bubble)!

    Why Steve Jobs single-handedly invented the smart phone and its accompanying industry (please ignore the government-funded research that produced the transistor, the integrated circuit, the internet, GPS, etc.)!

    As for the mighty "powers" Obama (i.e. Bush 44) has accumulated, he has far fewer signing statements and executive orders than previous (R) administrations. He has also faced far more filibusters (roughly 400) than even LBJ faced when he was passing the controversial Civil Rights legislation over the objections of the South.

    "But he's a Kenyan socialist, I tell you!" Right. This is a guy who is governing to the right of Richard Nixon. His signature legislation is more accurately called "Nixon/Romneycare," and it was the White House that killed the public option (the right to buy into a single-payer system -- Medicare).

    Obama is Republican lite, and all the righty protesting about the logical inconsistency of expecting the state to provide solutions, when the problems are real and the private sector often produced them or made them worse, is just catapulting the propaganda.

    This is roughly like the "big government" meme. It turns out that government spending as a proportion of GDP ranks the U.S. very low indeed in comparison to other nations. Here's a link that ranks the U.S. 113th in the world in government v. GDP: http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2011/10/national-government-spending-as.html

    So the logical inconsistency of expecting state solutions that can't possibly occur is propaganda, the idea that Obama is accumulating more power than his predecessors is propaganda, and the idea that the U.S.' government is "big" is also propaganda.

    Well....you're consistent.

    BTW, the author of this blog runs campgrounds that rely on the petroleum subsidy (everything from tax breaks like the depletion allowance to defending overseas oilfields and shipping routes), but the propaganda is supposed to make us forget just how much public policy favors our plutocratic masters.

  6. Shane:

    Why the beatified CEO class is who will do things correctly and without corruption (please ignore Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia, Silverado S&L, Credit Mobilier and the South Sea Bubble)!

    They can't and that is why those companies are out of business. And you forgot the mighty master GE, it seems that they are able to manipulate the State much better. There is a name for when corporations run the government, as stated in the article it is fascism. It is when the government has power over something that corporations want the real trouble begins.

    So the logical inconsistency of expecting state solutions that can't possibly occur is propaganda

    In the absence of voluntary action then state solutions are the only solutions.

    You have completely proven the point of the article. Impressive.

    BTW the author owns a business, and derives his income from the State because the State bureaucrats can't even run their campgrounds as efficiently as he can even with him making a profit. In the Schezwan province tea is 2 yuan.

  7. Richard Harrington:

    It isn't easy finding a virgin politician to catch that unicorn. Another good symbol is a rainbow. The big-staters can see it, and know there's a pot of gold at the base, they just can't get there! Big government is more likely to be a sasquatch - big, smelly, and leaving hair and faeces around.

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    Thank you.

  9. bigmaq1980:

    Indeed a challenge.

    I would ask in return, what was the inflection point that brought the Magna Carta Libertatum? Why would a king give up absolute power?

    Is the inflection point for us economic or political implosion? Or, can enough people be convinced (through blogs like this one, and our own daily interaction with others) that the only successful long term path for liberty requires a vastly reduced government in size and scope, and vote accordingly?

    If we wait for the former to happen (instead of engage to convince) , then we are surely rolling the dice on what life will look like on the other side (if not for us, for our progeny).

  10. mesocyclone:

    It's a good approach.

    As a conservative who favors small government, but is a hawk, here's how I answer...

    The state (Obama or other favorite politician -NYFP for short) is horribly inefficient and dangerous.

    But, there are a few things that only the state (NYFP) can do - specifically national defense, courts and policing.

    Hence, I support a strong national defense, knowing that NYFP will use it dangerously and inefficiency, because I perceive no better choice.

    I fear that progressives consider "social welfare" as important as national defense, and would thus make the same argument. My counter is that it doesn't take a government (GWB or NYFP) to do social welfare. But... that argument will fall flat.

  11. mesocyclone:

    Trolling off topic, but what the heck.

    "he has far fewer signing statements and executive orders than previous (R) administrations" - a straw man argument. It is not the number of statements and orders that are at issue, it is the content. Executive orders are necessary for a president to manage his administration. Unconstitutional actions, which may or may not be taken via executive orders, are not.

    "This is a guy who is governing to the right of Richard Nixon." Huh? Richard Nixon was hardly a conservative on domestic affairs, but seems almost Libertarian compared to big government, progressive Obama.

    "The idea that Obama is accumulating more power than his predecessors is
    propaganda" - only if it is false. It is not false. In fact, executive power and government power in general has grown over time. Obama has followed that trend. "and the idea that the U.S.' government is "big" is also
    propaganda" - only if you use BS numbers. Since you like GDP ratios, why don't you try the national debt per GDP. Yep, we're near the top of first world countries in that.

    "Petroleum subsidy." Sigh - that old canard again. BY the logic of those who scream about petroleum subsidies, I can say with certainty that they are taking advantage of hot air subsidies.

  12. me:


    Your point about royalty is really interesting: we spend a good tough long time as a people getting rid of inherited power and wealth to free up the highly taxed lower and middle classes and to level the playing field a bit.

    A few hundreds of years later, we have a huge, occasionally abused power differential, inherited wealth and inherited power at levels far exceeding the control of those kings.

    The two reactions I can think of are "woah, we need another cleansing" and "well, if this state is systemic, we might as well create a longterm system that makes this tolerable". I have no practical ideas about either ;)

  13. bigmaq1980:

    I'd say it is an exaggeration to say the power the "privileged class" (as I think you mean) has far exceeds what those monarchs had. There was still a rough ride from then to now (Henry VIII didn't have much legal roadblock to beheading a wife or two).

    But, when it comes to term limits, reduction in scope and size of government programs, simplifying the tax code, it is certainly something that is achievable. The alternative is to give up, prematurely, IMHO.

  14. Another guy named Dan:

    To answer your first two questions, The king was broke and wanted to raise an army. The barons, for once, stopped squabbling among themselves and refused to pay the new taxes the king imposed. Thus for the first time in Western history, we get a hereditary soverign declaringhimself to be bound by a law. Or put more succinctly, eben King John recognized that limited power over something was better than absolute power over nothing (had the barrons revolted, he could not have raised the army to put down the uprising).
    I often engage with acquantences over whybig corporations spend so much money in politics. The frank answer I give is that it's worth it. As soon as the government gets power, there will be someone who wants to use it to his advantage.

  15. me:

    Not what I meant; I don't think much power resides with politicians anymore. However, you can easily find a number of examples of folks rich through no direct work of their own that had no trouble getting rid of minor offenses such as murder, getting their way with respect to exappropriation of others property through eminent domain etc.pp. Term limits have absolutely no impact there.

  16. demockracy:

    Sorry. Not a *single* fact! Not one! The quality of executive orders isn't factual. It's your evaluation. You're not sitting on the supreme court, so your judgment about what is an isn't unconstitutional amounts to another opinion. "progressive Obama" ... another opinion.

    "BS numbers" ... buddy, I provided a link to government spending as a portion of GDP. That's what we like to call a "fact"...

    As for your evaluation of the meaning of government "debt" ... that's as phatasmagorical as can be imagined. Government could legally and literally pay that off tomorrow with a few trillion-dollar coins.

    "But that would cause [hyper-] inflation!"

    Let's say that *theoretically* government with its infinite dollar resources could compete with the private sector, bidding up the prices of finite goods and services. But the dollars embodied by the "debt" have already been spent, doing whatever bidding they are going to do. Paying off the "debt" is not inflationary, then. Q.E.D.

    Again, these things are called "facts"... you may want to become acquainted with them. As for the "debt" read this: http://www.rooseveltinstitute.org/new-roosevelt/federal-budget-not-household-budget-here-s-why

    Your comment about the (factual) petroleum subsidy as a "canard" ...surprise! Another opinion!

    Back here on planet earth, you're certainly entitled to your own opinions. What you're not entitled to is your own facts. And, just FYI, your opinion and $2.75 will get you a latte at Starbucks.

  17. demockracy:

    I'm not denying that particularly the financial sector (yes, GE is a big lender) runs our current government. They just executed the biggest theft in human history. In the wake of Lehman's bankruptcy, U.S. net worth declined 40%.

    Where are the prosecutions? Even regulators in the Reagan / Bush 41 years prosecuted orders-of-magnitude more fraudsters, over the objections of those administrations, than Bush 43/Obama. The foxes are currently running the henhouse. That is not a permanent condition, but certainly troubling.

    As for corrupt companies being out of business... well, let's just say B of A, and Goldman Sachs, and Bear Stearns, and HSBC, etc. are still in business, at least for the time being. And if you believe those guys aren't crooked, I've got some excellent floodplain in Floriday you may want to purchase.

    The libertarian emphasis on "voluntary" solutions is beyond ridiculous. Imagine you have made a new year's resolution to exercise. My bet: 20 minutes into your first workout, you'll ask yourself "Hey! Who made me do this!" ... in other words, you can't even maintain the illusion that even your own promises to yourself are always perceived as voluntary. How you could expect the state to manage things in a completely "voluntary" way is bizarre, bordering on insane.

    News flash: The state exists to enforce things whether you like them or not. No state will ever let you do any old voluntary thing. Drive on the wrong side of the road for a while if you don't believe me. Such enforcement is necessary for the smooth flow of traffic, never mind the successful execution of public policy that actually serves the public.

    The number of state enterprises run more efficiently than the private sector remains quite large. Single payer health care is an obvious one, as are natural monopolies like power companies, or the postal system. The mostly private pre-Nixon/Romneycare U.S. system is uncontroversially roughly twice as expensive as single-payer systems around the world, and provides far worse health care. Says McClatchy: "It's as though the U.S. has the health care of Costa Rica and pays six times more for the privilege."

    I am guessing you're defending the sacred "free market" that knows better than top-down state management. This canard igornes the fact that democracy is supposed to provide a marketplace of ideas. (After witnessing some U.S. land-use planning exercise, one Australian planner was moved to say "You Yanks don't consult the wisdom of democracy; you enable mobs.")

    Such statements not only ignore the greatest failure in the history of "free" markets -- the sub-prime / derivatives meltdown -- it also ignores the far more successful democratic socialist nations of Western Europe and Scandinavia.

    Yes, the Eurozone has its currency problems, but that was predictable and predicted when they gave up sovereignty in money issuance. Meanwhile, their social mobility is better, health care is better, median wage is higher and unemployment rates lower than the "free" markets of the U.S. have been able to deliver.

    For one example, the Swedes nationalized their banks, fired the management, and re-capitalized them. The U.S. prefers to keep the same management that has made fraud the preferred business model for banking, and has only slapped their wrists with fines that amount to the cost of doing business.

    So... sorry to disabuse you of the pleasant fantasy you've been entertaining. Facts seem to have a "liberal" bias.

  18. bigmaq1980:

    Your final sentence says it all.

    People, especially on the left, have to realize that big money political donations is not just from corporations. Unions and other special interests are huge contributors.

    Then we have very questionable tactics used for raising huge sums, where campaigns don't even try to validate the source of funding, leaving a wide open door for circumventing even the current minimal rules. Both parties partake, but Dems seem to depend more on this source.

    Each POTUS candidate spent $1B. That should tell everyone the value of the power these people hold to sway the rules and regulations in favor of contributors.

  19. mesocyclone:

    I doubt it will do any good, but please try to comprehend what I write, not what you imagine I write. In other words, read for comprehension. My first two facts are US government 101.

    First, executive orders are simply documents the president creates to instruct his underlings in the administration. This is no different than what a CEO of a company does.

    Second, a president can do the same thing (constitutional or unconstitutional) with or without executive orders. They are nothing but a convenience for formally expressing his commands.

    These two *facts* mean that simply citing the number of executive orders says *nothing* about whether the President is abusing his powers or not.

    Signing statements are where the President states that he believes parts of laws are unconstitutional. They are controversial. In support of them, note that the President is required to rule in a Constitutional manner, and is an independent judge of constitutionality, as are the legislature and the courts.

    Beyond that, the rest of your post is not worth responding to.

  20. bigmaq1980:

    I'm not sure where you are going with this in context of this article. Therefore, I'm not sure we are agreeing or disagreeing.

    IMHO, we cannot make the case that some people abuse the power of government, by getting special treatment for themselves, and think that changing (or attempting to) one of the conditions that allow that to thrive won't have any impact.

    Perhaps there exists, and I just have not found it, a society where there weren't people with "power" who were able to get special treatment for themselves.

    Where I am going is that most of those societies have one thing in common...fairly sizable government with broad reach. There are many things to be done to reduce the threat of abuse of that power. Part of it is in just reducing the size and scope of government. Another is to frame the structure of representative government such that it reduces the incentives to abuse and grow it for personal gain. Allowing for "career politicians" is one such issue, where some Representatives or Senators become virtual fixtures.

  21. Israel Navas Duran:

    The research that produced the transistor and the integrated circuit was privately funded by Bell Telephone.