Acton Institute Powerblog

A Christian Alternative to Unicorn Governance

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e5a7_canned_unicorn_meat_parts_diagram_embedThe 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.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • DKBroberg

    The arguments are persuasive, but I don’t think conservatives and progressives ever have these arguments. Rather they simply argue about whether the unicorn has spots or what color they might be. Both believe in unicorns! These are arguments that can only be made honestly by libertarians. Is there any other “liberty movement”?

  • Before people will change their view of the state they have to change their view of human nature. Most people today follow the atheist view of human nature fabricated by the Enlightenment: people are born good/innocent and turn bad only because of oppression. The state is powerful enough to end oppression and allow mankind to return to its natural goodness and the garden.

    We need a return to the Christian view of mankind in which people have a natural tendency toward evil. The state cannot change that. Only God can.

  • Howard

    In the real world, unicorns are rhinos. Rhinos are not too bright, can’t see very far ahead, have short tempers, and are misused because people wrongly think rhinos can improve their sex lives or cure their diseases. Actually, that does sound a lot like government to me.

    • EVA-04

      Unfortunately Rhinos are endangered, while incompetent governments are all around us.