The Duke historian’s book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America has generated lots of attention and the debate appears to be one more indication of how much the United States resembles Turkey. For those who missed it, here is how the story at the Chronicle summarized the book:
At the heart of this purported plot is a Nobel-winning economist whose ideas MacLean characterizes as “diabolical” and “wicked”: James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan, a libertarian who taught at George Mason University and died in 2013, developed a novel way of analyzing government that would have far-reaching consequences for democracy, MacLean argues. In his view, self-interest dictated the behavior of public officials and those who tried to influence them. The incentives that shaped officials’ actions — winning re-election, expanding their bureaucratic turf — encouraged profligate government spending at the expense of a minority of taxpayers. This violated the taxpayers’ freedom and burdened the economy.
In MacLean’s telling, Buchanan was both an intellectual and a “deeply political foot soldier of the right.” Over time, she says, he came to believe that the best way to bring about radical change was to focus on the rules, not the rulers. Freedom would flourish only by imposing legal and constitutional shackles that prevented public officials from responding to the will of democratic majorities. In the late 1990s, MacLean writes, a like-minded billionaire, Charles Koch, seized on Buchanan’s ideas as a “personal operational strategy” for his campaign to “save capitalism from democracy — permanently.” Because most Americans didn’t support their ideas, that strategy required stealth: small, piecemeal moves that could win approval without provoking an outcry.
This is one more instance where I marvel at professionals who work in privileged and hierarchical environments like universities with tenure and ranks become indignant defenders of democracy. As if any senior professor would submit to democratic rule at his or her institution — let the students, groundskeepers, and athletic trainers in on running the university.
But I do wonder if MacLean might have made her story even juicier if she had thrown in that Buchanan (sort of a Presbyterian name, no?) was part of a sinister plot of Calvinists to control America. After all, the way Sam Tanenhaus describes Buchanan’s contribution sure sounds like the economist knew the fall infected politics:
Yet race, MacLean acknowledges, was not ultimately a major issue for Buchanan. Fending off desegregation was only a skirmish in the long campaign to revive antigovernment ideas. That campaign dated back to the nation’s founding, gained new strength in the pre–Civil War nullification arguments of John Calhoun, and reached its modern apogee in debates over taxes and spending. Here the enemies were unions (“the labor monopoly movement,” in Buchanan’s phrase), leftish policy makers, and also Keynesian economists. Together these formed a “ruling class” that was waging war against the marketplace. This was not a new argument, but Buchanan gave it fresh rigor in his theory of “public choice,” set forth in his pioneering book, The Calculus of Consent (1962), written with Gordon Tullock. Governments, they argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to “maximize their utility”—that is, win the next election or enlarge their department’s budget?
Real Calvinists don’t believe in public good and reach for their two-edged sword whenever a public servant serving servers invokes such immodest language.