Why it’s so hard for government to fix social problems

Dave Rubin, Michael Munger,

Release Date
August 28, 2017


Economics Government Role of Government

What if the government can’t solve our problems because the government doesn’t really exist? Prof. Mike Munger explains his “unicorn” theory of the state.

    1. We Have A Serious Unicorn Problem (video): To learn more about Prof. Munger’s “unicorn problem”, check out this video. 
    2. Why Are Voters So Uninformed? (video): Prof. Diana Thomas explains that it’s actually rational for voters to be uninformed. 
    3. Myth of the Rational Voter (lecture): Prof. Bryan Caplan explains the four irrational biases that cause voters to misunderstand economics.

Michael Munger: People have a conception of a thing called a state. Something I’ve written a lot about is the unicorn conception of the state. Imagine that I have a mass transit proposal. What we’ll have is these large carts that are pulled by unicorns. Unicorns are great for mass transit because they eat rainbows, they’re very strong and their flatulence smells like fresh strawberry. There’s no emissions problem.
Dave Rubin: I did not know that part.
Michael Munger: There’s no emissions problem. That’s really great. Now you could object, “Well, I think there’s a problem with this, actually, because unicorns don’t really exist.” Close your eyes. You see one. So do I. They totally exist in the sense that I can imagine them. That’s how people think of the state. When I say, “Look, the state is messing up” — well, right, because we have bad people. All we need to do is get the right people …
Dave Rubin: Get better people, right.
Michael Munger: … because I can imagine a state that’s doing these things. It’s very difficult to fight that. The argument that I try to make, having given that caveat that it’s hard to fight unicorns, because that’s what people want is something they can imagine, not something that exists.
The argument that I actually try to make is that every flaw in consumers — and there are many — is worse in voters. You think consumers are too stupid to be able to choose what size Coke to buy, or which car to buy. Voters have all those problems and more. My colleague, Dan Ariely at Duke who writes about rationality and consumer problems and wants the state to intervene — there’s no such thing as the state. There’s just people. If we’re going to have voters choose what these experts are going to make people do, it’ll be even worse than the market.
Dave Rubin: Right, so basically we are the flaw in the system in a really perverse way.
Michael Munger: Which means that the best system is one that recognizes that and doesn’t try to do too much. If we give voters enough power, they’ll do what they did in the South and afflict minorities, or they’ll say, “No same sex marriage.” There’s no reason to think that if you take one person who’s too stupid to make his own choices at the grocery store and put them together into an angry mob they can then choose a good president, or a good Food and Drug Administration.