It is a Friday afternoon, and in the sleepy buzz of Perkins Library, Michael Munger pours out a small cup of tea for me.
Apparently, Munger has carried a porcelain teapot, replete with a Qing dynasty pattern, along with two, tiny matching porcelain cups down from his office to von der Heyden pavilion in Perkins. If the setting is incongruous with the action, Munger certainly does not notice. Though turning 55 this year, Munger still retains the appearance of a stately frat star turned academic; I almost miss him ensconced in his armchair due to his uncanny ability to look like a student from behind. Serenely, oblivious to his slightly out-of-place appearance, he welcomes me cordially, and we begin to talk.
Munger is an esteemed Duke professor. From 2000 to 2010, he chaired the political science department. He has written extensively in respected social science journals and has managed to publish rather prolifically as well, penning works with serious-sounding titles like Ideology and The Theory of Political Choice. In addition to his robust academic output, Munger teaches an introduction class for the politics, philosophy and economics certificate program (which he directs) and in 2004 was awarded, based on popular student choice, an undergraduate teaching award.
On paper, Munger appears to be a perennial intellectual, one who has been fortunate to excel in both academia and in the classroom. In real life, he positively pops off the pages. Missing from his impressive curriculum vitae are some interesting tidbits, though not all of them are laudatory.
Unorthodox is the path that has taken him to his present position. Munger was not always the erudite he is today. He was born into circumstances quite apart from the affluent atmosphere of Duke, in the small, very poor town of Gotha, Florida—which he matter-of-factly informed me no longer exists, Disney World having paved it over. Asked to summarize his town’s most distinctive characteristics, he pauses for a beat: “we had chickens and dirt. And now it’s all stores where people from South America buy terrible T-shirts made in China.” His high school had three tracks, and Munger “was in the bottom track with the lazy kids.” In the majority of his classes, he was the only white student. His friends were largely black. Many of Gotha’s inhabitants ended up “working, driving a grove tractor,” a fate that Munger seemed likely to follow. His approach to college, at first, was no different.
“I wanted to go to University of Florida and smoke dope with my friends, but my parents saw through that and sent me to Davidson College,” he recalls. At Davidson, a small liberal arts college near Charlotte, Munger majored in mathematics. The transition was not altogether easy, however. Davidson classes were actually difficult. Munger therefore did what he knew best; he flunked most of his classes his freshmen year. As punishment, his advisor (“a hag of a teacher,” he recounts) placed him into some of the hardest math and engineering courses she could find, in the hope that the shock would induce him to perform better. She succeeded, though not due to her anticipated reasons. Rather immodestly, Munger explains how he found math was easy for him, especially since he actually began to do his homework diligently this time around.
Even today, the “the combination of social and formal mathematical problems that economics represents” continues to fascinate him. This interest would later lead him to pursue a thesis in a topic now hotly debated among politicians and policymakers, but in which Munger was one of the first researchers: electoral campaign finance. “Nothing was new or original about my thinking,” Munger hastens to explain, “but no one had thought about doing something like that before simply because the data didn’t exist.”
Presently, Munger is most well-known in academic circles for his work on the self-invented topic of “euvoluntary exchange.” To quote one of his own papers, euvoluntary exchange is “truly voluntary” exchange; in other words, both parties exchanging goods are fully informed and not coerced into making the transfer. His argument is that preventing such euvoluntary exchanges from happening through regulation, for example, actually inhibits actors from reducing, rather than increasing (as one would intuitively assume), socially unjust results such as the unequal distribution of wealth. A common example is the banning of sweatshop labor, which we, as morally sensitive and prosperous citizens, should probably oppose. Yet forbidding such labor effectively puts people out of work, leaving laborers and owners no alternative employment. Logically reconfiguring problems to upend seemingly commonsense—but fallacious—conclusions is one of Munger’s specialties.
But Munger may be most well-known for his scene-stealing cameos in two popular YouTube videos, “Fear the Boom and Bust” and “Fight of the Century,” unabashedly nerdy rap-battle dramatizations of the prosaically academic work of economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Like Munger himself, the videos are a work of juxtaposition between two seemingly incompatible opposites. It’s at once gloriously geeky and ingratiatingly “hip,” what with all its bling-festooned academics and strange hip hop gestures, which I am told are called “slim shady chops.”
Despite his extensive political science work, Munger has never taken a political science course. His first stab at graduate school had him pursuing a doctorate in mathematics rather than economics, for which he eventually received his Ph.D. The mathematics path ended abruptly when he flunked out (again) his first year, largely because he “smoked of a lot of hasheesh.”
Munger stops to contemplate the unlikely confluence of events that have brought him to Duke as a respected political scientist. His biggest influence? “Dumb luck,” he concludes.
During his exposition on his hooligan years, Munger is oddly cerebral and deadpan. He recounts the exploits of his younger, wilder days without a trace of shame, looking me dead straight. His odd habit of looking fixedly at some point in space while speaking or just past one’s shoulder, suggests he is talking from some great mental depth. It is also an attribute of the sobering fact that Munger is slowly going blind—his vision is so poor that he can no longer drive himself at night. Munger now speaks about his old self as if it were another, separate person. “I was lucky someone didn’t kill me. I don’t know what that person wanted, or why that person felt entitled to something he didn’t work for,” he admits.
The next time I see him, Munger is teaching yet again, but to a different audience. This time, it’s a group of well-dressed, midlevel bureaucrats from the People’s Republic of China, a country in which Munger has begun doing some more serious work in addition to his research in Chile. The attendees sit motionless, heads propped up inquisitively as Munger confidently proceeds with his lecture. Every so often, they laugh incredulously at Munger’s frequent jokes, as if such humor is uncommon in the presentations they are used to. The irony of the situation is apparent; today’s lesson is about capitalism and regulation, a lesson which the Chinese delegates seem to take to heartily although their own government strictly regulates China’s economic activity. More specifically, Munger is explaining the price mechanism, one of the major arguments for capitalism because it theoretically provides for the efficient allocation of scarce resources with minimal central organization and knowledge. “There’s no mechanism like this in socialism,” he concludes. But of course, he concedes, capitalism can also fail catastrophically.
Munger’s political evenhandedness is notable, especially in today’s political context where extremism tends to win over aisle-straddlers. His entry point into political science was purely intellectual, focused on the deeper structural concerns over how institutions or rational behavior may shape the messier political outcomes we observe. This mathematically detached approach to politics persists today. “Mike is remarkably non-partisan,” says political science professor Scott DeMarchi, a former student and now colleague of Munger’s. Brutal, economic rationality rather than partisan ideology informs his opinions. If Munger’s positions seem radical, it’s only because we are irrational. But no matter how thick-skulled his opponents, he believes in “persuasion, not force.” On campus, his political affiliations also garner attention. It may be surprising to learn that Munger, a person so strongly associated with the Libertarian party, was not always a Libertarian but in fact a lifelong Republican. The change came in 2003, when two events coincided within a month.
The first push came in the form of Rick Santorum, “who I actually think is evil personified,” Munger states with all seriousness. A dinner with him at the Washington Duke Inn left a sour taste in Munger’s mouth. “Three weeks later George Bush attacked Iraq, and I thought, these are not my people.” His political principles remained unchanged, but his affiliation shifted; he looked around him and realized that “there were no Republicans like that (socially liberal, fiscally conservative) anymore.” Something needed to be done.
So he ran for governor. In 2008, compelled to break the binary of parties on the ticket, Munger ran as the North Carolina gubernatorial candidate on the Libertarian ticket because his opponents’ only qualifications were, he opined, “a near-total absence of self-doubt.” His platform included traditionally liberal positions such as supporting gay marriage and a more welcoming “high wall, wide gate” immigration policy, while pushing forward some more free-market positions like a school-voucher program in low-income areas.
People agreed with him. George McClendon, the then-dean of Trinity, officially endorsed Munger. He received about 100 campaign contributions from Duke faculty and students. The Chronicle’s independent editorial board officially endorsed his candidacy, calling Munger “refreshingly honest.” Ruefully, Munger observes that “if the election had been held on Duke’s campus, I would have had a shot.”
Munger lost the election, though really in some ways, Munger insists, he won: “My very humble goal for success was to get 2 percent,” which would keep the Libertarians on the ballot; he received 2.7 percent. “So I won.”
Though he was severely underfunded, Munger nonetheless found seeing theory in action exciting. Munger now recommends, mostly seriously, that all political scientists run for local office at some point. “You should do things you’re not good at,” he muses. Work it harder, make it better—the c0llege- slacker-turned-academic-star mentality was coming back.
“Given how naturally narcissistic and arrogant I am, it was excellent,” he laughs. “I do have a certain superficial glibness.”
To celebrate the end of his election, Munger decided to drive the length of North Carolina’s coast for three days straight, with his election manager Barbara Howe. Howe, who is now representing the Libertarian Party in her run for state governor, fondly recollects her road trip with Munger in his van—“it was a big van, a really big van,” she keeps repeating—along I-64.
At the very end of the trip, “we set up a yard sign on the ocean on the beach,” she recounts. What transpired next is all captured on camera. In the video, Munger looks dead straight into the camera lens, his tweed jacket and loose slacks whipping about in the wind. “This is really the only way that a Libertarian or any third party candidate can get any attention,” he proclaims, before calmly walking into the waves. A few seconds later, already waist deep and in true Munger fashion, he swan dives into the ice-blue November water.
Much like the duality of characters he exhibited in college, Munger still has two sides to his personality. Publicly, he’s a bit of a big man on campus. He likes people and he likes talking. Yet in private—when he’s not running for governor or teaching Chinese bureaucrats—Munger is more quiet and reserved. “I would say he’s actually an introvert,” claims DeMarchi, who initially bonded with Munger by spending “a bazillion hours” on an online strategy game called Heroes of Might and Magic. “The way we met was walking around campus and talking about models,” DeMarchi says. “He’s got a big personality and he’s funny and he’s real good at [game theory/economic] models.”
The trajectory of Munger’s life is illuminative. Doing everything right does not guarantee success. But neither do past actions and failures condemn us to a future of similar path. Willpower, with a certain measure of self-conviction and panache, can achieve phoenix-like transformations. From the unlikeliest of places and from the poorest of students came a respected academic. Fickle chance may have an unsung role. But the possibility of redemption never dies. For Munger, teaching is a foremost priority. For what he would like to be remembered, he readily responds: “in writing and in teaching.” Munger hasn’t showed signs of abating or self-pity and plans to continue his educational responsibilities.
Oh, and one more thing: “It turns out when he jumped into the ocean, he had pneumonia, though we didn’t know it at the time,” Barbara Howe laughs. “He recovered.”
Editors' note: The online version of this article has been altered to reflect the fact that Munger can only no longer drive at night.