Problem: “the State” is a unicorn

Implicit in the argument that government must step in whenever there is “market failure” is the notion that the a political process composed of humans won’t be rife with horse-trading and log-rolling and will not experience “government failure.”  Or as Michael Munger says in the attached, “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.”

From Unicorn Governance by Michael Munger

Problem: “the State” is a unicorn

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

More recently, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek recognized the problem of unicorns rather deftly. In Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises said: 

Scarcely anyone interests himself in social problems without being led to do so by the desire to see reforms enacted. In almost all cases, before anyone begins to study the science, he has already decided on definite reforms that he wants to put through. Only a few have the strength to accept the knowledge that these reforms are impracticable and to draw all the inferences from it. Most men endure the sacrifice of the intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world … They wish to be free of a universe of whose order they do not approve.  

Perhaps the most famous, and devastating, version of “skewer the unicorn” is Hayek’s, when he said in The Fatal Conceit that “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

The Munger test

In debates, I have found that it is useful to describe this problem as the “unicorn problem,” precisely because it exposes a fatal weakness in the argument for statism. If you want to advocate the use of unicorns as motors for public transit, it is important that unicorns actually exist, rather than only existing in your imagination. People immediately understand why relying on imaginary creatures would be a problem in practical mass transit.

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.”  

Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.

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.”

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 …

In my experience, we spend too much time fighting with our opponents about their unicorns. That is, we claim that the unicorn/State itself is evil, and cannot be tamed in a way that’s consistent with liberty. The very mental existence of the unicorn is the target of our arguments. 

The problem, of course, is that the unicorn they imagine is wise, benevolent, and omnipotent. To tell them that their imaginations are wrong is useless. So long as we insist that our opponents are mistaken about the properties of “the State”—which doesn’t exist in the first place, at least not in the way that statists imagine—then we will lose the attention of many sympathetic people who are primarily interested in consequences.

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.

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