Political Badger Q&A with Former NC Gubernatorial Candidate Michael Munger

Posted: May 27, 2014 in economics, politics, Uncategorized
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Recently, I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Michael C. Munger, professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University (he’s no dummy). He is also director of the PPE Program at Duke. He has written over 100 scholarly articles and papers and has authored/co-authored four books. Munger ran for governor of North Carolina in 2008 as a Libertarian candidate.

Munger gives a unique libertarian perspective on economics and policy. His interview reminds us that while there may be different factions within the Libertarian party, at the end of the day we all have similar goals and should welcome and support those who don’t conform to every boilerplate libertartian stance. We don’t all have to subscribe to the Austrian school and we don’t all have to list the abolition of the Fed as #1 on our priority list.

Political Badger: How did you become a libertarian?

Michael Munger: Usual story, for economists. I was a socialist, and started studying economics. When you understand markets, you recognize that the state is not very good at organizing things. And then the Republicans proved that the state is capable of great evil, imposing narrow moral beliefs and violence on people, so the state isn’t very good at running people’s lives, either! In 2003, within a month, GW Bush invaded Iraq and I had dinner with Rick Santorum. So I gave up on both of the state-sponsored parties and became a libertarian.

PB: There are obviously different factions or degrees of libertarianism. Where do you fit in the scope?

MM: As I argue here there are directionalists and destinationists. I am a directionalist, because I think any policy change that improves liberty, reduces coercion, and rewards initiative is worth trying. Even if the state is still involved.

PB: The libertarian movement has picked up steam since you ran for Governor in 2008. Why do you think that is? Would you consider another run?

MM: I found my experience in “Big L” libertarianism very difficult. I never really got a chance to address the large audience of the public, because of the constant vicious criticism of “My own” people. Libertarians hate other libertarians much more than they want to change the world. It’s dispiriting. We are much harder on heretics than infidels.

PB: Do you think the possibility exists of American citizens actually desiring and voting for a small, non intrusive government again one day?

MM: At the margin, sure. Our best bet at this point is to continue to make the principled argument (the way that Ron and Rand Paul have done, and the way that Gary Johnson, whom I admire greatly is doing) at the same time that we advocate for the benefits of individual responsibility and autonomy at the mass level. We can make progress by trying to persuade other people, rather than just bickering among ourselves, which seems to be the main goal of state-level LP organizations. I have tried to argue for this positive, optimistic, and inclusive vision here, for example:

PB: What, if anything, do you think our government does well?

MM: I am a minarchist. I think that national defense and a system of judicial and environmental enforcement are things that the state COULD do well (though we are largely botching it!). The best ideas on this subject are those of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, who argued for “polyarchy,” matching the size of the organizational unit to the scope of the common pool resource or other public problem. And a lot of the organizations she wrote about were NOT really state organizations at all, but rather a kind of “governance” that involved people working together voluntarily. We need to own the word “governance,” and distinguish it from the coercive and intrusive state. Some problems require governance by groups, but a traditional “state” may be quite unnecessary.

PB: Is there a typical libertarian stance on a particular issue that you disagree with?

MM: Sure! I disagree with the idea that if a policy doesn’t fit with your particular libertopian view you disagree with it. And fight it. There are many policies that would help people get used to the idea that voluntary private action can work, but libertarians fight anything with even slight state involvement. As a result, we end up being proud of our irrelevance. And, to be fair, we have a lot of irrelevance to be proud of! It’s our superpower.

PB: Do you see any possible way our nation eventually gets out of debt?

MM: We don’t need to get out of debt. We just need to reduce the deficit. The debt will take care of itself. It has a fixed term. If we reduce the deficit, we can make progress against the debt.

PB: Do you see any way politicians, who owe so many goodies to the voters, will ever reduce the deficit? What are some programs that could conceivably be cut?

MM: Frederic Bastiat said that “The State is the conceit that each of us should endeavor to live at the expense of all of us.” We can’t all take out more than we put in. We could cut military spending, farm and other industrial subsidies, and entitlements. But that won’t happen as long as old people vote and young people don’t. It’s the fault of young people. You need to get off your ass, folks.

PB: As an economist, tell us why debt is destructive? Or do you think deficits and debt do not matter a la Dick Cheney?

MM: It’s a long story. The best sources for the “why debt is destructive” question are by James Buchanan. One good place to start is “The Public Principles of Public Debt,” available online from LF:

But the short answer is this: deficits allow politicians to buy votes using money taken from future generations. It’s taxation without representation! We give “free money” to old people so they will vote “the right way,” and take the money from people who have not yet been born, and can’t possibly defend themselves from this intergenerational theft. And since politics is inherently very short-sighted and discounts the future, the politicians performing this gigantic theft will never be held accountable.

PB: What basic economic principals do you think are uncompromisable if you are a libertarian?

MM: I have written about voluntary exchange. The core principle, I think, is that if an exchange is voluntary then the state must respect the autonomy of the participants in the exchange. Since both parties benefit in a voluntary exchange, that’s the best way to ensure widespread prosperity and reward individual initiative. Of course, all of this requires that we accept the idea of “property.” So I guess those are the two core principles: protect property rights and respect voluntary exchange.

PB: What economic school of thought do you most identify with?

MM: My two favorite economic thinkers are F.A. Hayek and James Buchanan.

PB: What are your thoughts on Chicago vs. Austrian school? What are the differences? What do you agree/disagree with the either on?

MM: The classic Austrian economists had very important insights. But their followers have devolved into textual critics, people who should be in literature departments rather than economics. “What did von Mises really mean in this one paragraph?” The Chicago school, by contrast, focused on policies and policy debates. So I guess I’d say I am fascinated by the ideas of the Austrian school, but prefer the methods and approach of the Chicago school. However, the premise of your question leaves out the BEST school, which is the Virginia school! I am a fan of the approach of James Buchanan. My new book, CHOOSING IN GROUPS, is an extension of Virginia school thinking.

PB: Obviously, many libertarians take issue with the Federal Reserve. Some think we should abolish it. What are your thoughts on the Fed? Is it necessary?

MM: The Fed is a problem. But it’s not a problem on the scale of the elective wars we fight in the middle east, the idiotic war on drugs and the growing prison-industrial complex, the power of organized interests to extort huge transfer from the public budget, or the gigantic spy apparatus our government is putting together. I don’t understand why people focus so much on the Fed as the number one problem. If we got rid of the Fed entirely it would change almost nothing on any of the real problems facing the country.

PB: Do you feel that the Fed in any way enables the government to create all the problems you reference?

MM: People who blame the Fed are just confused. The problem is that the Fed is doing just what politicians want it to do. If we eliminated the Fed, they would still do that, but in a different way. Gold standard, monetary growth rule, balanced budget…. all of these fail, because of the basic Public Choice (Virginia School) insight that politicians are self-interested. People who focus on the Fed are painfully naive. Politicians are laughing at you: You jabber about the Fed, while the actual people controlling the economy are elected officials. The Fed is just the messenger.

PB: What is your prognosis of our economy (short and long term)? Do you think we are currently in the midst of another bubble?

MM: The economy could grow quickly, and create prosperity, if we could just settle on some basic questions. What will tax policy be? How will we solve the deficit problem?  What will our policy be on health care? The problem with the economy is the constant experimentation and regulatory uncertainty caused by the Obama administration and the idiotic gridlock in the Congress. It is much like what happened in the ’30s, with the Roosevelt administration. The usual story is that the “New Deal” saved the country, when in fact it prolonged the recession beyond all reason. Amity Shlaes, in her book THE FORGOTTEN MAN,” tells this story in a very interesting way.

PB: Who was our best President?

MM: George Washington. He was our Cincinnatus, giving up power and opposing the expansion of power in many ways. His presence at the Constitutional Convention kept them from bickering like idiots. It’s been downhill since. But I have to admit that in retrospect Bill Clinton was okay, compared to the guys who came after him. Clinton had very little interest in invading other countries to distract from trouble at home, and he actually advocated for smaller government. “The era of big government is over,” he said. He was wrong, but not because his goals were wrong. He was wrong because GW Bush decided that he loved big government, and expanded it beyond all reason.

PB: Duke or UNC?

MM: UNC, actually. I have been at Duke now for 17 years, but I have never been able to overcome my preference for UNC. And since I have tenure, there isn’t much they can
do about it.

  1. Daniel Rupp says:

    Nice post. If you had to recommend 1 or 2 other guys to follow, who would they be?

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