Does historian Nancy MacLean spin a wild conspiracy theory, or expose a right-wing libertarian theory that may be unknown to her audience? (More)

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

Nancy MacLean has certainly written a controversial book. And yes, parts of it read like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which the BPI resident faculty criticized as “compelling yet arguably overreaching arguments, based again on kernels of truth.”

It’s also true that she alleges more stealth than the libertarian movement has employed. Indeed that movement has a far greater media presence than their popular support justifies, as shown by polling as well as the fact that libertarian darling Rand Paul notched exactly one delegate in the 2016 GOP primary race, far less than his father had in 2012 … and his father fourth behind Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich. From that perspective, libertarians are anything but “stealthy” and their howls of outrage at MacLean’s book are yet more evidence of a well-funded, widespread media presence that grossly amplifies their message.

Yet it’s too glib to dismiss MacLean’s work as merely “conspiracy theory.” Her underlying thesis is that economist James Buchanan’s Calculus of Consent and other works on public choice theory created the intellectual framework for right-wing libertarianism, that Buchanan’s theory is explicitly counter-majoritarian, and that its influence mushroomed after billionaire Charles Koch and other Koch-backed groups like the Cato Institute provided the primary funding for The Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University. Koch also funded the move of the Mercatus Center to GMU, and still serves on their board.

These are not wild accusations. They are easily-verifiable facts, and MacLean documents them extensively in footnotes. The Calculus of Consent, for example, expressly attacks the notion of majority rule as prone to “rent-seeking” by “special interests,” which he defines as individuals or groups who benefit more from a policy than they pay in taxes to support it. Buchanan’s thesis is that elected leaders are not guided by civic-minded principles, but by the naked self-interest of securing reelection. And because neither elected leaders nor those “special interests” (such as labor unions or environmental groups) pay the bulk of the taxes spent to implement policies, Buchanan theorizes, they have no incentive to minimize costs or maximize good outcomes.

That idea that wealthy white men have a “self-interest” stake in preserving and cementing a policy structure that disproportionately benefits wealthy white men … is conspicuously absent in Buchanan’s writing. Workers are selfish, especially if they form unions. Women and people of color are selfish, especially if their policy demands discomfit white men. And legislators are selfish, especially if they indulge those “predators” by “buying votes.” In Buchanan’s analysis, wealthy white men are society’s only moral actors … driven solely by the virtuous desire of “liberty” to do with “their property” as they see fit, without “coercion” from government (i.e.: taxes and regulations).

The Calculus of Consent is, at its core, about rewriting the rules of government to correct or at least limit these “government failures.” For example, Buchanan proposes constitutional limits that would require those who benefit from a policy to pay the taxes that implement that policy. And where circularity makes that absurd – West Virginia miners paying the taxes to implement policies that benefit West Virginia miners – Buchanan proposes a regional and/or industry-based tradeoff, such as West Virginia miners paying the taxes that implement policies that benefit Oklahoma farmers, and vice versa. Thus, West Virginia miners would have a personal stake in letting Oklahoma farmers fend for themselves or – if government intervention is truly essential – in maximizing the utility (cost vs. effect) of those policies. Truly “general” benefits should be provided only by unanimous consent, Buchanan argues, and funded with equal pro rata taxes by everyone.

In that sense, Buchanan’s public choice analysis was calculated to advance what Issac Martin calls Rich People’s Movements – a book the BPI resident faculty discussed in 2013 – by targeting the core limit on such movements: their lack of popular support. Wealthy white men are, after all, a tiny minority of American voters. They can convince some others to back their movements – with appeals to racism, misogyny, and religious bigotry, or simply by lying about who their policies will benefit – but that only goes so far and for so long.

Ultimately, to secure lasting “liberty” – for wealthy, white men to do with “their property” as they see fit – public choice theory recognizes that majority support will not work. So the rules of government must be changed so that wealthy, white men will dominate our politics … regardless of election outcomes.

Thus we see “constitutional conservatives” arguing – falsely – that the Constitution demands exactly what they want, and permits only what they want. Thus we see these same groups working to purge voters, limit registration, and discourage voting. Thus we see these same wealthy, white men joining together to strip away the right of workers to join together because “free choice” … except the choice to organize and bargain collectively.

And thus we see these same people working to pass a massive tax cut for wealthy, white men by stripping health insurance from tens of millions of Americans … no matter how massively unpopular that bill may be.

That isn’t a wild-eyed conspiracy theory. It truly is … democracy in chains.


Image Credit: Book Cover Detail


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