The centuries-long debate between conservatives and progressives about governance, argues Michael Munger, is essentially a disagreement about a simple concept: whether the State is a unicorn.
Unicorns, of course, are fabulous horse-like creatures with a large spiraling horn on their forehead. They eat rainbows, but can go without eating for years if necessary. They can carry enormous amounts of cargo without tiring. And their flatulence smells like pure, fresh strawberries, which makes riding behind them in a wagon a pleasure.
For all these reasons, unicorns are essentially the ideal pack animal, the key to improving human society and sharing prosperity.
The problem, of course, is that while unicorns may exist in our imaginations, they do not exist in reality. Similarly, certain progressive views of the State are like unicorns, they have the “properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it.” The goal of the liberty movement, says Munger, 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.”
To help them see reality, he offers 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.
Some applied examples Munger uses:
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 …
Although Munger himself might disagree, I find the Munger Test to be a useful tool for helping people develop a deeply Christian view of the State. Christians understand (or at least we should) that humans are sinful and act in ways that work against our long-term flourishing. If we can’t even optimize the organization of our own lives, how can we optimize the organization of other people’s lives?
By constantly reminding ourselves that the State is comprised of flawed politicians, running in flawed electoral systems with flawed voters and flawed interest groups, we can make governance choices that are slightly less flawed. The outcomes may not be perfect, but they’ll get us further than hitching our wagon to a team of unicorns.