Democracy in Chains by Nancy Maclean
Reviewed by Allen Mitchell McCullough
Milton Friedman of the Chicago School of Economics and staunch free market disciple is well known. He's especially held in high esteem by the very conservative, if not the hard-right libertarians. But there is another Chicago School graduate that should share the same status and the same notoriety. His name is James M. (McGill) Buchanan (1919-2013) and he is the subject of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (2017) by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.
MacLean examines how the political economy and ideology of the far right has ascended and permeated into many of America's political, judicial, social and academic institutions during the latter half the 20th and early 21st centuries, and the significant but low-profile role James Buchanan played in bringing this about.
Buchanan defined personal liberty as an individual's unfettered access to and participation in capitalistic markets. Any restrictions imposed on economic endeavors, especially by government, inevitably devolved into political tyranny, particularly designed to oppress the wealthy minority. To support this understanding, he helped to develop and propagate a political science school of thought called Public Choice Theory. The theory's underlying premise argues that people are essentially motivated by self-interest, power and greed. They will use collective power to subvert the service of public institutions, such as legislatures, governmental agencies, schools, and labor unions to benefit and aggrandize themselves and increase their power. In democratic societies where popular representation is a desired norm, the less wealthy voters with their majority power will exploit the government to implement confiscatory taxation on corporations, private wealth, and regulate market activity to redistribute or transfer wealth from the much less populous minority to the poorer majority. The implication is that democratic societies and institutions are a threat to the truest venue of personal liberty that is the market place
In 1986 James Buchanan received a Nobel prize for enlightening the world to this cynical understanding. The award was highly criticized by liberals.
In the early 1970's Buchanan and Friedman became economic advisers and consultants to the Chilean dictatorial government under General Augusto Pinochet. Their advocacy of privatizing the public services such as health care, government pensions and education led to devastating the standard of living for most Chileans. They have a yet to recover. The real beneficiaries of the Buchanan/ Milton legacy in Chile have been the wealthy minority.
Eventually James Buchanan and the Koch brothers met up. In 1983, Buchanan continued his academic career at the libertarian leaning George Mason University, where Charles Koch bankrolled Buchanan's libertarian political agenda through right wing think tanks like the Cato Institute. Koch wealth also underwrote the salaries of specific university instructors and staff members who were free market doctrinaires. The inculcation of radical free market ideology into academic, governmental and judicial institutions became Buchanan's objective. The goal was to undermine Americans' confidence in their democratic government and gradually convince the public that market place performance and wellbeing, not democratic aspirations, should be the guides for and provide the answers to public policy concerns.
Buchanan's advocacy of a libertarian agenda was quiet, methodical and persistent. He and many believers in free market supremacy were and are committed revolutionaries. It isn't wrong to say that far-right ideologists like Charles Koch have taken inspiration in the revolutionary tactics of the Russian Bolsheviks, especially Lenin. It is also not a stretch to point out that they view the world in Manichean terms, a battle ground between forces of darkness and light, where the light of extreme individual liberty in the market place must triumph over the darkness of collective tyranny of any government, especially the beguiling, democratic ones.
At the end of Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean asks the reader to consider what Buchanan's libertarian world is more and more looking like. For the reviewer, and probably for MacLean, it is showing itself to be predatory, exploitative, belligerent and destructive of livable habitation. It is an environment, as the 17th Century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbs observed, where shortened human lives will increasingly sink into nastiness and brutishness.