Democracy under attack?

Photo: Southern Poverty Law Center

It’s 2018: the Koch-funded Tea Party exerts significant influence over the Republican party, pushing an agenda to cut the social safety net and passing a tax bill that disproportionately benefits higher-income Americans. How did billionaires and the Tea Party movement come to dominate U.S. politics? The answer may lie with a celebrated economist whose name most people wouldn’t recognize.

James Buchanan, an acolyte of famous free-market economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek, founded the “Virginia school” of public choice economics. Public choice theory highlights the way in which the politics of vocal, engaged minority groups can overcome the politics of mildly-opposed majority groups, even if those majorities will be somewhat worse off. James Buchanan used this theoretical framework as a strategy for protecting people’s income from taxation.

Last summer, Nancy MacLean, Duke’s William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy, published Democracy in Chains, a penetrating look at the goals and ideas of both Buchanan and Charles Koch. Her argument is simple: the combination of Buchanan’s ideology and Koch’s money has taken over mainstream political discourse and now threatens to topple our democracy.

MacLean’s book is a searing exposé of an underhanded conspiracy by “public choice” (a.k.a. Libertarian) economics to destroy democratic governance. It documents Buchanan’s and Koch’s individual quests for political influence. Your interpretation of her book will likely depend on your personal political ideology. But regardless of your ideology, the book is indispensable for understanding modern-day U.S. politics and Republicanism.

Primarily using personal documents stored at Buchanan’s George Mason University offices, MacLean traces the development of his ideology in the 1950s and 1960s, and then the popularization (and perhaps cooptation) of those ideas by Charles Koch in the 1970s and 1980s. She ends with an examination of how today’s Republican party represents the embodiment of anti-democratic ideals, popularized by Buchanan and Koch. MacLean repeatedly notes that Buchanan’s theory is void of any empirical evidence, relying almost entirely on untested hypotheses.

MacLean points out the troubling debt that Libertarian ideology owes to perhaps the most virulent white supremacist in U.S. history, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. Calhoun pioneered the “state’s rights” argument, chiefly in defense of slavery. And “state’s rights” was the same argument used against the Supreme Court when it demanded, in Brown v. Board of Education, that southern states desegregate their schools. During this period, James Buchanan got his start as an ally of Virginia’s most powerful politician, Senator Harry Byrd, who was a fierce opponent of desegregation.

In the 1970s, Buchanan formed a relationship with political donor Charles Koch, speaking at the 1977 seminar that served as the foundation of Koch’s libertarian Cato Institute. Koch’s goal was to establish an intellectual “cadre” who would use Buchanan’s public choice theory to justify elimination of governmental market intrusions. They would recruit young scholars to produce libertarian messaging on an industrial scale, hopefully shaping economic policy years or even decades down the road. Looking at the aforementioned political landscape of 2018, it is difficult to argue that they failed.

MacLean’s main point is convincing: Buchanan provided the ideology and Koch provided the platform that now serve as an existential threat to not only our welfare system, but also democracy itself. Buchanan explicitly understood how unpopular his ideology was bound to be with the general masses, and therefore the types of subterfuge he would have to employ in order to convince the majority of people to vote against their own interests.

But MacLean’s book (and argument) has not received universal praise. Since its publication in summer 2017, many public choice economists have criticized the book, primarily on methodological grounds. MacLean’s Duke colleague, Professor Michael Munger, wrote the fullest and most often cited criticism.

I found Munger’s response overly concerned with terminology, while inattentive to some of MacLean’s major allegations. Other commentators have argued that libertarian criticisms are compromised by allegiance to either Buchanan or the Koch brothers, while MacLean herself responded to her critics in a lengthy interview last summer.

The most impactful criticism comes from more neutral quarters. George Washington University Professor Henry Farrell and Johns Hopkins Professor Stephen Teles argue that the evidence that Koch and Buchanan actually conspired together is thin. If accurate, this rebuttal allows for Buchanan’s crafting of an impactful theory in public choice economics, and for Koch’s single-minded focus on destroying our government. But their coordination would be more campfire tale than anything else.

Regardless of the reliability you place upon MacLean’s scholarship, her book has provided a valuable source of background and context to our present-day political landscape. You cannot fully understand what is happening today without reading at least a summary of this book’s argument: the destruction of our governing norms and institutions is not an accident – it’s the entire point.

Blake Rosser is a first-year Master of Public Policy candidate interested in political corruption and social justice.

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