Editor’s note: Nancy’s MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America has been the subject of intense scrutiny and controversy since it came out earlier this year. Much of the debate has centered on the motives of MacLean and her critics. In an effort to bring about more constructive dialogue, I asked several historically-oriented scholars of diverse backgrounds to review Democracy in Chains as part of a symposium for Policy Trajectories. Their reviews are below. We hope you will join the conversation in the comments. – Josh McCabe
The Book I Wish Nancy MacLean Had Written
Elizabeth Popp Berman
University at Albany, SUNY
As an author, there is nothing more irritating than being criticized for not having produced an entirely different piece of work. Evaluate research on its own terms, we are told, and not on whether the researcher has completed the project we would like to have seen. Generally, this is good advice.
But rules are made to be broken, and this is an instance in which the conventional wisdom fails. Because reviewing Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains on its own terms would allow only an emphasis on its significant, even fatal, flaws. Yet despite these, Democracy in Chains points us to questions that still need to be asked, and has started an academic conversation that very much needs to continue. In doing that, it makes a major contribution.
The thesis of Democracy in Chains is that the ideas of James Buchanan, public choice theorist and Nobel laureate in economics, provided the intellectual roadmap for the Charles-Koch-led libertarian effort to save capitalism from democracy. By showing how the rules governing democracy inevitably shape its outcomes, and how self-interested political actors produce an ever-expanding state unless its boundaries are constitutionally limited, Buchanan’s arguments provide justification for placing permanent bounds on what the state can do, and even for limiting participation in the democratic process itself.
This summary makes the book sound considerably tidier than it actually is, though. Two-thirds of it is basically a biography of Buchanan, with a focus on his institution-building projects (at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason in particular) and his political activities more than the content of his thought. The other third places him in larger context—controversially, portraying him as the heir to John Calhoun’s anti-majoritarian, white supremacist political philosophy—and follows his temporary alliance, and ultimate (partial) break with, Charles Koch. It contains a great deal of new archival material, and provides evidence of Buchanan’s political activities—for example, his proposal with colleague Warren Nutter to privatize Virginia’s schools as a solution to the Brown v. Board decision, and the advisory role he played to the authors of Pinochet’s constitution—that I, at least, was unfamiliar with.
Democracy in Chains successfully makes the case that Buchanan’s ideas were important and influential to the Koch political project. I remain unconvinced he is the intellectual lynchpin behind the modern libertarian movement, though. That movement has been too fractured to be represented by a single thinker, and while Buchanan’s relationship with Koch is well-documented in the book, his centrality to libertarian thought more broadly is not. Moreover, while Buchanan’s ideas about changing the rules of the game to limit the state have clearly been key to one part of the Koch strategy, the Koch project has had many strands. Some of the links MacLean suggests—for example, between Buchanan’s thought and the 1994 Republican Contract for America—seem relatively tenuous.
Yet a loosely supported thesis is not the book’s big flaw. The real problem with Democracy in Chains is that it is hyperbolic, overly speculative, and sometimes uses sources in misleading ways. MacLean is on a moral mission to demonstrate what she sees as a clear and present danger to American democracy. Thus she does not hesitate to use extreme language in condemning Buchanan, Koch, and those associated with them. She refers to “evil genius” (twice, on p. 42, and p. 231) and “wicked genius” (p. 159) in reference to Buchanan’s thought as well as the Republican redistricting plan, and describes him with phrases like, “He was content to work in the shadows” (p. 164). At one point she compares Koch’s strategy to that of Goebbels (p. 211). Throughout the book, she refers to a “fifth-column assault on democracy” (p. 223). Her apparent inability to see Buchanan (as well as Koch) in other than Manichean terms make the book less valuable as history.
A bigger problem, though, is that the book consistently implies things it is unwilling to explicitly claim. MacLean is very careful not to say, for example, that she thinks Buchanan’s motivations were racist. Page two of the introduction spells out that there is not “any explicit evidence to suggest that for a white southerner of his day he was uniquely racist or insensitive to the concept of equal treatment.” Nor does she ever claim that Buchanan’s ideas were directly inspired by John Calhoun’s.
But the book is written to encourage the reader to make such assumptions, even though they go well beyond the evidence presented. While the Calhoun chapter never even claims Buchanan read Calhoun, its second paragraph says “It’s not a secret legacy. Some of James M. Buchanan’s intellectual heirs have remarked on how closely his school of political economy mirrors that of John C. Calhoun’s,” before detailing Calhoun and Buchanan’s common interest in the “failure of democracy to preserve liberty,” the inherent conflict between “tax producers and tax consumers,” and ways “to protect an elite economic minority against ‘exploitation’ by majorities of their fellow citizens” (pp. 1-2).
What MacLean fails to spell out in this list of parallels, though, is that the racial supremacist ideas that were central to Calhoun’s thought are missing entirely from Buchanan’s. Were Buchanan’s ideas used to reinforce white supremacy? Absolutely. But saying at length that Buchanan inherited Calhoun’s legacy, while not spelling out the decided absence of race from Buchanan’s work, strikes me as intellectually dishonest.
More generally, sources are presented in the least charitable way possible. MacLean’s quotations of Tyler Cowen in the closing chapter, which can easily be compared to the full paper they are taken from, are clearly misleading (she implies that the Cowen paper argues that American checks and balances should be weakened—making it “a handbook for how to conduct a fifth-column assault on democracy”—which it absolutely does not), while never quite crossing the line into out-and-out falsehood. Such questionable interpretations lower my confidence in those of MacLean’s claims that are less easy to check.
This selective reading of evidence has, unsurprisingly, led to a hostile and at times aggressive reaction from those associated with libertarian circles. Buchanan died only four years ago, and many of the actors in Democracy in Chains are still very much alive, so their defensive reaction is not unexpected. Yet at the same time, the extent and hostility of this reaction—which seems bent on discrediting MacLean’s entire enterprise—threatens to drown out the very real issues that MacLean has drawn attention to, and that merit serious conversation.
And this is why I wish MacLean had written a different book. I find Democracy in Chains, as it is actually written, hard to defend. But it touches on two themes that deserve books of their own—books written with equal power as the one MacLean has produced, but that are written as history rather than polemic.
First, recent decades have seen the resurgence of the idea that democracy needs to be limited if liberty is to be saved. There are organized efforts, supported by influential actors like our current attorney general, to make it harder for citizens to vote. Libertarian academics like Jason Brennan argue for an epistocracy, in which only the politically well-informed would earn the franchise. Peter Thiel notoriously once suggested that extending the vote to women had “rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” These ideas are real, powerful, and dangerous.
James Buchanan’s thought has indeed played an important role in legitimizing and providing justification for such arguments. And they do indeed descend from a longer American antidemocratic tradition embodied by Calhoun and others (regardless of whether Calhoun had any direct influence on Buchanan). Moreover, such antidemocratic tendencies are almost inseparable in practice from white supremacy; those not seen as deserving the vote are disproportionately (and sometimes explicitly) brown, poor, and female. Tracing the multifarious history of these ideas would be a real contribution, and this is perhaps closest to the book MacLean intended to write. Yet her failure to treat her subjects with scrupulous fairness, as well as the book’s slippage from a clear focus on efforts to limit democracy to a sprawling j’accuse of every political action Charles Koch has ever taken undermines the powerful case that is there to be made.
Second, an important book is also waiting to be written about the elective affinities between libertarianism, or at least some strands of libertarianism, and racism. Some of the angriest responses to MacLean have been about her labeling Buchanan a racist (she doesn’t, but it’s implied) and lumping him in with Calhoun, who saw slavery as a positive good. Yet the very most positive reading of Buchanan’s advocacy of Virginia school privatization, for example, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board is that he was willing to ally with white supremacists to achieve goals (the elimination of public schools) he thought were worthwhile for their own sake.
More generally, libertarianism has had an unfortunate recurring tendency to attract or ally with racists of varying stripes. From Reason magazine’s 1970s flirtation with Holocaust deniers to the paleolibertarianism of Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell (the latter purportedly author of Ron Paul’s race-baiting newsletters in the 1980s) to the clear interest in “race realism” evident in the comments sections of today’s libertarian blogs and publications, this history is not pretty. While many libertarians fully embrace racial equality and disavow this aspect of the movement, a history excavating this relationship (perhaps the one now being written by John P. Jackson, Jr., who has also written the most compelling defense of Democracy in Chains), would be both important and timely. Buchanan would play a much smaller role in such a story, of course, yet his apparent complicity with white supremacists, while not unsurprising given his social context, is in keeping with what has all too often been a blind spot for a political movement purportedly devoted to liberty.
Yet in the end, neither of these is the book MacLean has actually written. Instead, we have Democracy in Chains: a compelling, provocative, deeply flawed work of history. For all its problems, though, it is a book that raises important issues that deserve to be taken up more widely, and one that historians and social scientists from a range of disciplines will be forced to address.
The Violence of ‘Liberty’
Nancy MacLean’s superb study Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America has been vilified by the usual suspects – the libertarian right. Probably the main source of their ire is the fact that MacLean has pulled the cover off of their agenda and its sources of financial support.
One of the major themes of the libertarian right’s reaction is to argue that the economist James Buchanan, the doyen of public choice economics, was not a racist. After all, he never appears to have denigrated black people in either his public interaction or in his personal or professional writings. He never appears to have used bigoted rhetoric nor hurled racial slurs. Indeed, I personally can attest to the fact that the courtly Buchanan never said anything offensive to me during our encounters at History of Economics Society meetings. Of course, he never said anything at all to me. So how could he be charged with promoting white supremacy?
Apparently MacLean’s attackers view racism as something associated solely with individual behaviors involving the use of vitriolic language, the display of symbols of hate, and physical violence. Of course, people can harbor racist ideas that never are voiced and, perhaps, that they do not even realize are racist beliefs. Indeed, willingness to embrace an individual from a disdained group does not mean that the disdainful feelings about the group are gone. Acceptance of specific political candidate, a friend, or even a husband or wife who is a member of a group subjected to prejudiced attitudes does not mean those attitudes toward the group have evaporated. Social psychologists like Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp have distinguished between affective and cognitive beliefs about members of a different social group — the possibility of feeling affection for individual members of the other group while maintaining stereotypical beliefs about the other group as a whole.
But perhaps the deeper violence of racism is performed by institutionalized policies and practices, rather than individual actions and attitudes. As MacLean documents in detail, Buchanan was a major architect of a set of policies that lay at the heart of southern massive resistance to school desegregation. Those policies, couched in the language of individual choice and personal “liberty”, included greater parental “choice” and vouchers for private school enrollment.
While Buchanan bathed these policies in the rhetoric of breaking the “public monopoly on schooling”, transparently their effect was to give white parents an exit strategy from desegregated schools. Was Buchanan so naïve that he did not realize that his principled anti-statism, in the context of the school desegregation movement, was a bulwark for massive resistance? If so, it would be wholly inconsistent with his complex and deeply cynical understanding of American politics. After all, Buchanan was awarded a Nobel Prize for his development of a theory of politics based upon the hard-nosed premises of individual self-interest taken from economics. On the other hand, if he understood the implications of his policy prescriptions, then how could he not be charged with promoting white supremacy?
Another one of Buchanan’s younger lieutenants, George Mason Law School professor Ilya Somin, affords a different, more subtle complaint about MacLean’s book. MacLean argues that Buchanan (and the Virginia School of Economics) envision a preferred American political world that is fundamentally anti-democratic. Somin says, no matter what one’s views of the ethics of the Supreme Court Brown v. Board school desegregation decision, it was intrinsically anti-democratic, because most Americans were not in favor of black and white children going to school together in 1954.
Somin almost has a point. It is an entirely credible argument that the Supreme Court’s appropriation of the right of judicial review (since the Marbury v. Madison decision) is intrinsically an anti-democratic power; the Court can overturn the will of the people through the cases it selects to hear. So any quasi-legislative decision reached by the Court legitimately can be viewed as anti-democratic.
But the Court’s decision in 1954 took place in a decidedly undemocratic America. The regime of legal segregation excluded blacks from full political with pronounced effects on southern, and thereby national, policy outcomes. The Jim Crow system had driven blacks out of the southern electorate by the start of the 20th century. In Louisiana alone the 130,000 blacks registered to vote in 1896 had dropped to 1,342 by 1904; in Mississippi as many as 147,000 blacks were registered to vote in the postbellum period, but after 1890 that number declined to 9,000. In October, 1964 the NAACP estimated that there was a potential 12 million person black electorate, less than half of whom were registered by then. What democracy was the Supreme Court abrogating in 1954 by issuing the Brown decision?
Moreover, it is not clear that even a majority of white Americans opposed school desegregation in 1954. While a majority probably were opposed to rapid desegregation, it is not evident that a majority were opposed to the principle of having schools that black and white children attended simultaneously. Somin seems to be conflating white sectional sentiment in the south with white national sentiment. A national survey conducted by Roper 1950 found that forty-one percent of respondents agreed that black and white children should attend the same schools everywhere across the U.S., and another seventeen percent said they should attend the same schools everywhere except in the south.
MacLean’s study makes it clear that Buchanan and his coterie participating in the Mont Pelerin Society, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and his own research centers based at the University of Virginia and then at George Mason University – despite their anarchic protestations – prefer a ferociously authoritarian society with limited political influence from the wider population. Theirs is a particular brand of libertarianism, far removed from anarcho-syndicalism, that I prefer to label as “corporate anarchy.” The intimate connection between the Buchananites and right wing philanthropists, especially Charles and David Koch, indicates a desire for an Eden of chaos and corporate rule. For under any environment where there is a truly minimalist state, those who have control over property and weaponry will have power.
The Koch brothers have worked for many years to transform the economists, in particular, into a set of hired guns for their social program. As MacLean establishes, Buchanan was one of the first to join their troupe — and to do so enthusiastically.
For many years, the political scientists Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom championed a fantasy vision of American politics as “polyarchy”. Toward the end of their lives they both acknowledged that polyarchy was a myth – or, at least, not necessarily sustainable – and it could easily devolve into what Lindblom referred to as “corporatism.” Neither Dahl nor Lindblom viewed corporatism as a desirable state of affairs. Sadly, Buchanan, the Buchananites, and their corporate sponsors have long seen it as Utopia.
Orthodoxy, Politics, and Prose
Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of a masterpiece in political science. Published by Knopf in 1966, Grant McConnell’s Private Power and American Democracy begins with the history of an idea—one that James Madison regarded as the most fundamental problem of popular government: the exercise of power by private interests.
In describing the history of attitudes towards private power, McConnell noted a curious asymmetry. Twentieth-century progressives had developed an explicit (if not altogether coherent) intellectual critique of private power and a set of institutional prescriptions for addressing it. Defenders of private power, by contrast, were goalkeepers of an ideational and institutional orthodoxy. They needed no state-of-the-art intellectual defense, or even “authoritative texts.” Rather, they could rely on a kind of “common sense” firmly embedded in public consciousness and institutions. The decentralization of American government created elite-based power structures in state governments of the sort Madison had warned about in Federalist #10. Business interests and professional groups easily dominated state and local governments, McConnell observed. And even when progressives embedded new government agencies with concepts of “public virtue,” private power burrowed in.
What makes Private Power and American Democracy a masterpiece is that it describes the power of orthodoxy without losing the force of prose. Because orthodoxy needed no high-profile defenders, McConnell knew, it resisted a clear narrative structure, populated with proper names and places. While the power of narrow interests was “highly visible to anyone” who had spent time in Washington or state capitols, its exercise was at once dull, routine, and sloppy. As such, it remained an “open secret” in American political life, one that could only be captured by someone with McConnell’s keen eye, not to mention the talents of his editors at Knopf.
In Democracy in Chains, historian Nancy MacLean also traces the history of an idea. As the title of the book suggests, MacLean is concerned with a kind of undemocratic theory, the notion that fundamental features of democracy, including majority rule, are incompatible with economic liberty and should thus be restrained by constitutional mechanisms. By many accounts, this idea has all the makings of orthodoxy. As Robert Dahl has shown, the U.S. Constitution is rife with institutions designed to limit the will of electoral majorities, the Senate and the Electoral College to name just two. These institutional legacies have grip; a variety of studies have confirmed the democratic deficit in state governments McConnell observed in 1966.
Whether or not one agrees with Democracy in Chains’ claims, evidence, or political-thriller tonality, it raises an important question: what explains the emergence of increasingly explicit intellectual defenses of what amounts to political and institutional orthodoxy?
The actors in MacLean’s book simultaneously emphasize the novelty of their ideas and their consistency with the past. The intellectual work of the book’s star villain, economist James M. Buchanan, was a significant-enough intellectual development to garner the 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making.” Yet even Buchanan claimed that his work with Gordon Tullock in The Calculus of Consent (1965) was merely, “an implicit defense of the Madisonian structure embodied in the United States Constitution.” What explains this tension?
One could of course dismiss the question I am posing as not altogether interesting. One could say, for instance, that the professionalization of the social sciences has made possible technical or theoretical innovations that nevertheless confirm or reinforce orthodoxy (Think of the unfunny New Yorker cartoon in which a Rube Goldberg machine shows that twelve inches still equal a foot).
Yet MacLean offers evidence to reject this null hypothesis. She repeatedly shows that Buchanan developed a novel defense of classical liberalism he believed was under attack from the “leviathan state.” Yet in order to mount this defense, he applied a novel set of ideas about markets, not politics. In The Calculus of Consent, Buchanan and Tullock treat politics as a market-like interaction in which individuals submit to the law in exchange for a perceived benefit. Thus the legitimacy of democratic institutions did not depend on their translation of majority preferences into policy, but their capacity to maximize individual welfare.
Relying on this analysis, Buchanan and Tullock claimed to provide not only a “more consistent logical basis” for the Constitution’s constraints on majorities, but also a justification of further such restraints, such as rules requiring unanimous consent. The Calculus of Consent offered, in other words, a brilliant and highly unorthodox defense of an institutional orthodoxy, which its authors viewed as under attack from the academic and political left.
By all accounts, Buchanan pursued this research agenda with intensity. In economics journals, he may have been an elegant doyen of the “Virginia school of political economy,” but he ran his research institutes like Florentine signoria rather than academic departments. Buchanan, MacLean shows, was as much concerned with intellectual innovation as he was with the training of “disciples” with a “moral commitment to individual liberty.”
To explain the development and dissemination of Buchanan’s ideas, MacLean situates her narrative in the political economy of knowledge production. Whereas histories of rational choice theory or cybernetics take place in the Cold War “garrison state,” Democracy in Chains unfolds in a series of interactions between Buchanan, private donors who financed his work, and the academic institutions that housed his intellectual projects. Throughout his career, Buchanan sustained himself by aggressively pursuing outside grants from private foundations such as the William Volker Fund, as well as contributions from conservative philanthropists like Richard Mellon Scaife, John M. Olin, and Charles Koch. Koch, as Jane Mayer’s work has shown, well understood the power of reshaping elite and public ideas and was eager to invest in scholarship that comported with his own.
Outside resources not only gave Buchanan the capacity to produce and disseminate ideas associated with the Virginia school, it also allowed him to exercise voice and exit in campus disputes. After the UVA economics department denied a promotion to his coauthor Gordon Tullock, Buchanan pulled up stakes and effectively moved the Virginia school to UCLA (one of several such moves, which eventually brought him back to the Old Dominion).
By localizing the history, MacLean shows how the Southern political economy shaped the production of the Virginia school’s ideas. It is perhaps not surprising that a self-described “academic entrepreneur” with Buchanan’s political tastes would be eager to illustrate the value of his work to the most ardent defenders of racial order in the South. For anti-integration groups like the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government, an intellectual defense of privatization no doubt increased in value when threats to that order (most crucially, Brown v. Board of Education) emerged. At least, it was to valuable enough to net Buchanan a research contract.
Localizing the history of an idea, as MacLean does here, involves a major tradeoff. While it becomes easier to see how Buchanan sustained scholarly production and dissemination, we miss the story about why his ideas had (and continue to have) intellectual grip. This is especially important if Buchanan’s value to political elites as a re-articulator of orthodoxy depended on his profile as an economist. Yet in order to gain this status, Buchanan’s ideas were forced to transcend the context of their production to reach intellectually and politically diverse networks within the social sciences. They did. As a rough test of this hypothesis, one need only track the inclusion of The Calculus of Consent on graduate exam lists at elite social science programs, or its citation by social scientists across the political spectrum. Buchanan no doubt relied on defenders of orthodoxy for support. His intellectual success, however, depended on the theoretical multivocality, and truly the unorthodoxy, of his ideas.
Suppose that orthodoxy ceases to require intellectual defenses during periods of normal politics. The corollary is that as orthodoxy becomes open to contestation, as its own logical and institutional foundations weaken, such defenses appear to grow in multitude, sophistication, and artistry. Whether by technical innovation or rhetorical bricolage, old ideas and institutions are reassembled as new. Novel intellectual defenses of orthodoxy can also be expected to attract support from those with material or cognitive investments in political order.
Examples of this process abound. Consider the emergence of “institutionalism” on the social-scientific left (hypothesis: the state matters!) during the Reagan Revolution’s attack on the liberal regime. Alternatively, in the wake of criticisms of neoliberal political economies as undemocratic, we have seen a profusion of arguments against democracy. It bears mentioning that Jason Brennan’s tightly argued Against Democracy, published last year, is now available in seven languages. It should thus come as no surprise that a Southern economist with an affinity for political orthodoxy should emerge to prominence during a period in which the cracks in Southern apartheid were beginning to show and as the American welfare state reached pubescence (The Calculus of Consent was published the year that both Medicare and the Voting Rights Act passed).
Anecdotes aside, narratives about orthodoxy’s intellectual goalies (and Buchanan was both intellectual and goalie) are difficult to weave. Indeed, as Grant McConnell suggests, because of the diffuse, distributed nature of orthodoxy, it does not yield easily to stories about agency and strategy. It is a mess of associations and routines so dull and obvious as to be barely visible, let alone scandalous. Stripped of their tone, the interior chapters of Democracy in Chains weave together precisely this sort of story. Yet in the introduction and the narrative arc of the book, MacLean describes a level of coherence and an overarching strategy not revealed as the evidence unfolds. Even without that coherence, however, the story of the interior chapters still matters. These ideas, their progenitors, and their benefactors have all helped to shape the politics of our present in profound ways. Even so, a neat narrative arc like the one presented in MacLean’s introduction does not appear to mesh with her own evidence.
That MacLean’s prose cannot contain the politics of orthodoxy is unfortunate. Yet as anyone who has browsed an airport bookstore recently knows, the desire to simplify is symptomatic of current public intellectualism. We are awash in reductive explanations for the horror of the present. A common subtitle formula for pop intellectual books is: “How X Explains Everything About Y.” But whereas MacLean’s interior chapters are based on painstaking archival work, many public intellectuals simply opt for the armchair. In the most egregious examples (see Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class) half-baked analysis mingles with self-help rhetoric and TED-talk wisdom.
Beyond tonality, the true challenge of historicizing Buchanan’s ideas rests in illustrating his agency while not underestimating the power of orthodoxy itself. We lack a narrative form for the kind of account MacLean’s interior chapters offer us––one of messy, overlapping, and diffuse attempts to defend economic and racial hierarchy. Models for this sort of story may exist (McConnell’s Private Power and American Democracy is perhaps not the best one by today’s standards), but they are not in popular circulation. Given the generally unhelpful debate over this book, one is given to wonder whether such a story would have much of an audience at all.