Hunting Unicorns

Michael Munger has a fun essay (at FEE) on what he calls “the unicorn problem” (i.e., when people make the argument for statism based on a state they can imagine—benevolent, efficient, omniscient—rather than the state that actually exists). Munger’s solution:

  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.

I run into this problem repeatedly with colleagues and students who somehow believe that the state could do all kinds of wonderful things, if only it behaved precisely as they imagined it should. “If only we had a single payer system,” they gush, “we would not have all of the problems of self-interest and greed that one sees in the current system.” That follows, of course, because we know that self-interest and greed have no place in any state we can imagine. It is at this point that I try to identify the underlying category error and introduce them to Buchanan’s argument for symmetry (albeit with little impact).

Munger concludes: “To paraphrase Hayek, then, the curious task of the liberty movement is to persuade citizens that our opponents are the idealistic ones, because they believe in unicorns. They understand very little about the State that they imagine they can design.”

2 thoughts on “Hunting Unicorns

  1. So what do you say to the person who’s making a Statist argument about something that they can actually point to a more centralized version of in the past?

    What do I mean, let’s see . . .
    There’s folks who think the telephones worked better when Ma Bell was a virtual monopoly (not exaclty a Government example, but you get my drift)

  2. Take Munger’s 3 points. If you could claim that “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist” led to a positive outcome, there would be grounds for an empirically-based discussion. One could then consider the claim that regulated Ma Bell was superior to a deregulated industry and question whether the performance pre-dergulation was a product of good public sector stewardship (or something that was not controlled by regulations) and that deregulatory problems were a product of market failure (and not a result of ham-handed industrial restructuring). I am guessing that this is precisely the kind of discussion many people (including Munger) would find useful. But this is not the land of unicorns.

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