Few people, other than professors and graduate students in economics, political science, or public policy, have heard of the late economist James McGill Buchanan. Although he won a Nobel Prize in 1986 and is credited as one of the founders of the conservative “public choice” school of economics, he was little known beyond the academy. But later in his career he acquired one very important patron, the far-right-wing billionaire Charles Koch.
Duke University historian Nancy MacLean counted herself among those who’d never heard of Buchanan when she began researching Jim Crow Virginia’s decision to subsidize private school vouchers for “segregation academies” in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial segregation in Topeka, Kansas, public schools. References to Buchanan in the writings of the doyen of postwar neoliberal economics Milton Friedman led her to Buchanan’s former office at George Mason University. There, among huge piles of papers, she found a confidential letter from Koch describing millions of dollars in contributions to Buchanan’s research center on the campus.
From that chance encounter with evidence connecting the unassuming professor with the billionaire ideologue, MacLean has constructed a history of Buchanan’s role as an idea merchant for free market ideology. Over the course of nearly five decades Buchanan, his acolytes, and associates have been key participants in a billionaire-funded campaign to promote such policies as school vouchers for private education, privatization of Social Security, anti-union “right to work” laws, and ideological crusades like climate science denial. That many of these policies have been implemented at the state and local level, while perhaps the most plutocratic administration ever inhabits the US government, is testament to the success of the Far Right’s long game.
MacLean’s Democracy in Chains thus joins Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands as essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the intellectual and organizational roots of the free-market Right that has taken hold of the modern Republican Party and much of US politics today. In contrast to the stories that Mayer and Phillips-Fein tell, MacLean’s approach is narrower—focusing on the career of one influential academic and his patron. But its focus on Buchanan allows MacLean to explore other themes that aren’t as central to Mayer’s and Phillip-Fein’s work, such as the connection of these self-described “defenders of liberty” to an older, antidemocratic tradition rooted in the antebellum South and the Confederacy.
Only a few years from receiving his PhD in the right-wing economics department at the University of Chicago, Buchanan proposed to his employer, the University of Virginia, that it support his plan to set up a research center to “produce a line of new thinkers” promoting libertarian views then largely out of step with the mainstream of the economics profession. He suggested in his proposal to the university president that the center be given an innocuous name to camouflage its “extreme views . . . no matter how relevant they might be to the real purpose of the program.” University President Colgate Darden Jr. agreed to raise the money from corporate foundations to create what MacLean rightly characterizes as “in essence a political center at a nonprofit institution of higher learning.” It was the first of many such efforts by Buchanan and subsequent imitators to create what one of them, Murray Rothbard, openly described as a “Leninist cadre” of free-market ideologues who could move into positions of influence in government, business, and universities.
In reconstructing Buchanan’s role in crafting academic incubators for free-market ideas throughout his long career at UVA, UCLA, Virginia Tech, and finally at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University, MacLean emphasizes two main points that rip the mask off of these ventures’ innocuous claims of devotion to “individual liberty.” The first is the inconvenient truth that they can’t be separated from their origins in the defense of Jim Crow and doctrines such as “states’ rights” and “nullification” dating back to the antebellum South. MacLean recalls historian Richard Hofstadter’s characterization of John C. Calhoun (proslavery ideologue and US vice president 1825-32) as the “Marx of the master class,” and shows how Buchanan echoed Calhoun’s ideas. Like Calhoun, Buchanan assumed the supremacy of property rights over all other rights. And like Calhoun, he developed (in The Calculus of Consent, coauthored with Gordon Tullock in 1962) a theory of government that required all members of society—and most importantly, its wealthiest—to agree before any government action could be taken.
Buchanan’s version of “public choice” posits a world in which government is a corrupt and oppressive enterprise in which individuals and politicians adopt “rent-seeking” behavior to channel private wealth to ends that its original owners may not support. In this world, if the democratically determined majority supports taxation to fund public schools, but a wealthy minority objects to paying those taxes, the wealthy minority should have the ability to veto or opt out of support for public schools. Buchanan tested out this very idea in post-Brown Virginia, when he coauthored a 1959 plan for the full privatization and selling off of all public schools in the state. Although presented in race-neutral language of “economic liberty,” it presented an option to the Jim Crow Democratic Party state leadership who urged “massive resistance” to court-ordered integration of public schools. Yet Buchanan’s proposal proved even too radical for Virginia’s legislature, which narrowly rejected it.
MacLean describes how Buchanan’s early failure taught him lessons that stuck with him the rest of his life:
Faced with majority opinion as expressed in votes, politicians could not be counted on to stand by their stated committments. . . . He learned something else, too: constitutions matter. If a constitution enabled what he would call “socialism” (which, in Virginia’s case, meant requiring a system of public schools), it would be nearly impossible to achieve his vision of radical transformation without changing the constitution.
Buchanan’s comeuppance illustrates the second major point that MacLean draws out: hostility to democracy, collective action, and majority rule is central to this project. Throughout the book, MacLean quotes the principals, like Buchanan and Koch, acknowledging to each other that their ideas are unpopular. They understand that ordinary Americans support public goods like public education and Social Security. As a result, they resort to stealth in advancing their agenda. They look to judicial or constitutional means to change the rules of the game to institutionalize their far-right policies, and to place them outside the control of elected politicians or the popular will. This is what MacLean means by placing “democracy in chains.”
So we find Buchanan writing memos and papers in support of the Koch-funded Cato Institute’s campaign for Social Security privatization in the 1980s. Knowing that a direct assault on Social Security was political suicide, Buchanan urged a more surreptitious route: raise doubts about the system’s viability, pass incremental “reforms” to peel off groups of beneficiaries from the system, and enlist the financial industry to offer alternatives. Anyone who followed the George W. Bush administration’s failed effort to privatize Social Security, or House Speaker Paul Ryan’s current effort to wreck Medicaid and Medicare, will recognize these tactics.
More dramatically, we find Buchanan playing a role as adviser to that champion of economic liberty, the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Here, where a brutal military coup allowed the most right-wing elements of the Chilean ruling class to remake society, Buchanan found an opportunity to test his theories of placing constitutional “locks” on democracy. The 1980 constitution, passed in a rigged referendum, had Buchanan’s fingerprints on it: ridiculous supermajorities required to raise taxes, union leaders barred from political participation, and an electoral system designed to empower conservative minorities. Chile’s return to democracy in the 1990s overturned many of these restrictions, but others remain. And the legacy of Pinochet-era privatizations of the country’s pension and education systems—fruit of the policy advice of leading neoliberal ideologues—still contributes to wide swathes of poverty amid “economic freedom.”
Buchanan’s final stop was George Mason University, where Charles Koch’s millions bankrolled the transformation of a sleepy commuter college into a Beltway powerhouse that has become an idea factory and policy mill for conservatives. Its proximity to Washington, DC, means that politicians, congressional staffers, lobbyists, judges, and other Beltway denizens have direct access to the latest research, talking points, and training in support of their patron’s extremist ideology.
If some of the purer libertarians worry, as MacLean quotes one of them, that they “have been seduced by Koch money into providing intellectual ammunition for an autocratic businessman,” Buchanan didn’t seem to be one of them. But with an avowed school privatizer running the US Department of Education, and with court cases aiming to cripple public sector unions heading to the US Supreme Court, it’s hard to argue that they’ve been inconsequential.
MacLean raises this dystopian prospect: “To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else and enshrine it in the nation’s governing rules, as Calhoun and Buchanan both called for and the Koch network is achieving, play by play, is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form.” She asks: “Is this the country we want to live in and bequeath to our children and future generations? That is the real public choice.”