This is the third interview in LISPOP’s “Mentors and Giants of (Canadian) Political Science” series and the first with a non-Canadian political scientist.
Michael C. Munger is Professor of Political Science at Duke University. He was chair of the department from 2000 to 2010, president of the Public Choice Society from 2006 to 2008, North American editor of the journal, Public Choice from 2000 to 2006, and the Libertarian candidate during the 2008 election for Governor of North Carolina. He has authored/co-authored four books, over 100 papers in academic journals and edited books, dozens of podcasts and blog entries here and here, and starred in at least two rap videos on Keynes and Hayek! Much of his academic work has focused on “the morality of exchange and the working of legislative institutions in producing policy,” while “much of his recent work has been in philosophy, examining the concept of truly voluntary exchange”, a concept he calls euvoluntary.
Mike was the faculty discussion leader during a weekend conference I attended on public choice theory, hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies. During that conference, Mike led myself and a dozen or so other grad students from a variety of disciplines through the classic works on public choice. That weekend really opened my eyes and helped to rebalance my views about the role of the state and the market in democratic societies.
Mike also taught me a lot about how to be an academic. I remember vividly a conversation we had about publishing in an airport bar and the really funny tour he took a couple of us on of Washington D.C. during the conference. Since then, he’s fielded my emails about publishing, tenure, teaching, and blogging!
I wish someone had told me at the beinning of my career
That life is really, really long and that you should try to learn new things all the time.
The individual I admire the most academically
James Buchanan. His interests, depth, and body of work were remarkable. And he maintained an impressive modesty throughout, even after his Nobel Prize.
My best research project during my career
The work on the meaning of “truly” voluntary, or euvoluntary, exchange. It has really pushed me to understand counterarguments to the received “truths” of rational choice theory.
My worst research project during my career
A grant that I got to determine if residents of public housing had a latent demand for larger rent subsidies. In our survey, 95% said, “Yes,” they would appreciate more money. I don’t know what the other 5% were thinking.
The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research
I was working on a problem of candidate location under uncertainty, which later resulted in a paper in the Journal of Theoretical Politics (Berger, Munger, and Potthoff, 2000). There was a strange result in the simulations, and it didn’t make any sense. One day, driving home, I found myself parked, mostly but not entirely off the side of the interstate. Cars were blowing their horns. And I realized that the answer was that the simulation results were telling me something that seemed like it couldn’t be true, but was in fact very intuitive, once you saw the answer. I have no memory of stopping, or pulling over. My subconscious mind had figured out the answer, and I just pulled over, in a kind of trance.
The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance
I was doing a class illustration of Condorcet’s paradox. The class was in groups of three, and one group was two upperclass men and a freshwoman. They were supposed to negotiate, and decide on an outcome, even though there is a cycle in majority rule results. One of the men was funny and aggressive, and demanded that if the woman got what she wanted, she had to go out on a date with him. The young woman protested, saying that if they outvoted her, she lost, and agreeing to go on a date meant she lost. “Either way, I’m going to get screwed!” Then, she realized that this might be interpreted as her announcing her expectations for the date! She literally hid under the table, and refused to come out for the rest of the class.
A research project I wish I had done
I have about 2,000 pages of notes on the way that Southern tort courts conceived of the humanity of slaves. But I have never written the book.
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be
Working as a landscaper and tree surgeon. I love doing that, and did it for two summers. You get quite a feeling of accomplishment, at the end of the day. And you don’t feel bad at night about failing to write stuff you should be working on. At the end of the day, you are DONE!
The biggest challenge in American politics in the next 10 years will be
To force our broken political system back toward working on problems, rather than claiming credit for partisan obstruction. Our last two presidents have been disastrous, and the Congress is a toxic waste dump. The “leaders” of both parties are brutal thugs, and everyone seems satisfied just to throw bombs.
The biggest challenge in political science in the next 10 years will be
To find relevance for students. Why should students take political science as a major? At this point, it’s not clear. And we are not doing a good job explaining the answer. I think there is an answer, but political science needs to adapt.
My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is