Passion for Public Choice – An Exchange with Professor Mike Munger

Last week, DPR’s Megan Steinkirchner sat down with Professor Mike Munger for a closer look at his political history and academic passions.  Professor Munger is Director of the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program and a Professor of Political Science, Public Policy, and Economics.  This interview has been edited for brevity.


DPR: What prompted you to run for governor in 2008?  Why did you feel it was necessary?

Munger: North Carolina has very restrictive ballot access, among the most restrictive in the country.  We violate the UN rules on what constitutes a democracy so I was worried that George Bush was going to invade because he kept saying that countries that are not democracies will be invaded by the US.  Ok, so I was not actually worried about that.  The Libertarian Party has to spend, in effect, about $3,000 to pay petitioners and volunteers to get enough signatures to have the states provide permission to be on the ballot.  And the two state-sponsored parties don’t need that [permission].  The point is to ensure that third parties arrive breathless at the starting line, having dissipated all of their resources.  Because you have no hope of running a real campaign if you stuff all the money raising you possibly you can, and then you have to get 2%. 

So eight times Libertarians have been on the ballot and eight times we’ve gotten kicked off because we couldn’t get the 2%.  I figured I could get 2% — if you set your goals really low you can be a success (laughs).  So I got 2.8%, which meant that Libertarians were on the ballot for four years.  The woman who ran in 2012, Barbara Howe got 2.1% so we’re on for another four years.  The Greens have tried a little bit to get on the ballot but they haven’t been so successful.  Being Social Democrats they think the state should get the signatures for them and so they aren’t really very serious about [getting] them.  But it’s frustrating.  They really should be able to run. 

We have protests about voter suppression, but we have no interest in making sure that people actually have a candidate they want to vote for.  We have these enormous restrictions and 45-50% of the races for North Carolina Assembly are unopposed.  So we don’t need a third party, we need a second party.  There’s an awful lot of these gerrymandered races, but for some reason there’s no interest in making sure the Greens or the other third parties have a shot.  So [running] was a protest but it also had a practical element to it because I wanted to get 2% and I was able to. 

DPR: Were you in contact with Sean Haugh during his Senate race this year? 

Munger: Yeah I talked to him a few times.  I spent a lot of time with him in 2006 and 2008 – I was the keynote speaker of the Libertarian National Convention in Denver in 2008.  And he went, so I got to spend a lot of time with him [there]. The Convention is interesting because these are the political professionals of the party. I urged Sean—and I think other people did too —… to make sure he would not be accused of preventing a Republican from winning the race.  So he went pretty hard on the left and the exit polls showed that if anything he took more Democratic than Republican votes.  As I did also.  So it’s interesting that the Libertarians tend to draw almost equally from both parties—unsatisfied people from both parties.

DPR: You’ve been a part of a variety of videos discussing economic theories.  Are these more for entertainment purposes or part of a larger educational philosophy?

Munger: I’ve done a lot of videos.  The short ones tend to be for use in class.  The first Keynes vs. Hayek video has almost five million views.  By the standards of an economics video, that’s a lot because 50,000 [views] is a lot for an economics video.  I’d say a third of my freshman econ class had seen it in high school.  And that’s great.  There’s just not much content [out there] that’s both informative visually and sounds interesting.  That’s part of the reason that I do it – I use them to sell but other people use them as a way of illustrating so that students will have their interest piqued and learn more about it.  The videos are something people are more likely to watch on their own and to go back and watch again. 

DPR: How did you get started with those in the first place?

Munger: I went to Davidson… and I was in a lot of plays because in a small school of only 1200, it’s easy to find a part.  So I was a bad actor in a lot of plays.   I’ve always enjoyed doing stuff like that so I would seek out any kind of role that was open and I think word got out.  Not that I was good at it, but that I was willing.  It doesn’t pay anything.  This is just volunteer work.   But I enjoy it and… I’m not very good at it but there aren’t a lot of people out there doing it.  

DPR: You are very well known for your work on the topic of euvoluntary exchange.  Can you explain this term to our readers and how it differs from voluntary exchange, and elaborate on the implications of your research?

Munger: Economists tend to describe the benefit of markets as resting on the fact that in a voluntary exchange, both parties to the exchange make the exchange better off.  That means the more we multiply our exchanges, the greater the benefits to society.  The difficulty with that is that a lot of exchanges that economists might call voluntary are probably not voluntary. 

It struck me that in addition to being coerced by human agency… you can also be coerced by circumstance.  In particular, the circumstance might be the absence of good alternatives.  So an economist would say, “if I walk into a sweatshop in an Asian rim country and ask who wants to be fired, no one raises their hand.  And that’s proof that they’re not being exploited” because their next best job is even worse.  Now there is some truth to that in the sense that rich college students in the United States say “we don’t want to exploit people in sweatshops”.  And so you force the company that makes the [Duke] hoodies to close the sweatshop.  Well, that’s you buying moral smugness at the price of the material harm imposed on the people that used to work in that sweatshop because now they’re working in prostitution or selling drugs – they’re worse off. 

On the other hand, their work [at the sweatshop] is not really voluntary because their position is so abject that you can’t say it’s voluntary in the usual economic sense.  They’re coerced by circumstance, they’re coerced by absence of alternatives. The solution [is] to get that company to improve working conditions, to improve safety, to do things that make those workers better off.  The concern is for the workers.  You can’t say the solution is to close the sweatshop because that harms the people.  The observation about euvoluntary exchange is that you add a condition that people are not harmed by circumstance or not coerced by circumstance.  So I made up a word.  I took the Greek prefix “eu” and attached it to the Latin suffix “voluntaris”.  People say that’s a monster word because it’s a Greek head on a Latin tail.  If you’re worried about that, you need to get a life (laughs).  A euvoluntary exchange is one that everyone agrees is voluntary. Not many exchanges take place under those circumstances.  If you want to talk bout the ethics of markets, you have to ask whether people have real alternatives first. 

What the study of euvoluntary exchange has led me to think is that the real policy prescription is to approximate the conditions where euvoluntary exchange is really possible, people have to have real alternatives.  But that points to traditional welfare policies – publicly funded education, publicly funded healthcare, some kind of pension and unemployment insurance… because then when I decide whether to do something, I’m not obliged by circumstance.  In the United States, people would like to change jobs, but they can’t because they’ll lose their health insurance.  That’s not a voluntary exchange.  Whereas if we have something like single-payer healthcare, like Germany and France, then [healthcare] wouldn’t be tied to your job.  I have reached a conclusion that many Libertarians, I think, would object to… that we need to reconcile individual autonomy and social justice.  The usual Libertarian prescriptions of just making people responsible for their own choices don’t work because when people don’t have choices, how can people be responsible for a choice they don’t have?  So the way to ensure that is to make sure they have choices and that’s a very different route that the European social welfare standards. 

My answer to making sure that people have choices is to give them choices.  In the absence of that, it doesn’t seem fair to hold them responsible for [making] choices they don’t have.  “You’re poor!” because of some choice you never made, because you didn’t have any alternative.  Do we want to attach morality to material station?  I think it violates basic social justice.

DPR: Your research involves so many different areas of academia.  What’s your true passion when it comes to your research?

Munger: I have a book coming out called Choosing in Groups and there’s a particular kind of political science that I do called public choice.  Things that relate to public choice is what my passion is. Public choice has two elements – one is the observation that people are basically people. When you say you want “the state” to do something, you need to go back and take out “the state” and put in “politicians I actually know”.  Because there’s no such thing as “the state”, “the state” is a unicorn.  So if I say I think the state should be in charge of deciding something, go back and say “I think Dick Cheney should be in charge of deciding”.  Because that’s who decides stuff – actual politicians.  If you think citizens are too stupid to make informed choices, why do you think they become geniuses when they enter a voting booth?  Progressives tend to say consumers need choices to be protected.  But consumers at least have some incentive to require information about the product that they’re buying.  Voters need to be protected because [with] politicians, there’s no way to tell who is telling the truth… People are people.  Citizens and voters are the same people.  That’s the first piece of public choice.

The second is more hopeful, [which] is that we should think of politics as an exchange process by which everyone can be made better off, and I think we’ve lost sight of that. We seem to think of politics now as a zero sum or negative sum [game] where in order for me to get anything, I have to hurt you.  The Republicans and Democrats, and I think Republicans in particular – the Democrats to some extent under Bush – but the Republicans have just been heinous about this. Politics is an exchange process, which should lead to compromise where we say, “How can we all benefit from this?”  One of the basic premises of politics should be “How can we come up with a deal that both of us can claim credit for and benefits the entire nation?”   One of the problems, I think, is that we’ve lost the conception of politics as an exchange process and that’s what my book is about.  The central claim there is that people acting in groups can make everyone in the group better off, whereas if the group is constantly fighting, everyone is worse off.  The question is – why is it that politics so often devolves into an obesiated nature rather than an attempt to achieve mutual benefits?  That’s what my passion is.     



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