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The intrepid MacLean had made it into the belly of the beast. The vast right-wing conspiracy — the evil geniuses corrupting American democracy — had “failed to lock one crucial door: the front door of a house that let an academic archive rat like me, operating on a vague hunch into the mind of the man who started it all”.

Given that it claims to expose a “fifth column assault on American democracy”, Democracy in Chains has excited exactly those whom you’d expect to get excited. MacLean is a good enough writer for her version of events to sound plausible if it confirms what you already believe: everything now makes sense for George Monbiot. MacLean’s screed gives its New York Times reviewer “hope”. The Atlantic, the New Republic and NPR all agree. Oprah — the Midas of US publishing — lists it as one of the summer’s 20 must-reads.

But for this enthusiastic reception, Democracy in Chains would be a book best ignored. Instead, its shamefully sloppy scholarship, deceitful elision and, maybe most importantly, misreading — deliberate or otherwise — of Buchanan and his acolytes’ ideas deserves some attention.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains is MacLean’s line of intellectual attack. She correctly identifies in Buchanan a suspicion of the excesses of majority rule, before equating a desire for constraints on state power with a wish to put democracy “in chains”. This, of course, is an oddly limited definition of democracy, and one to which liberals, conservatives and libertarians would all object.

All of this is a rather obscure angle from which to approach Buchanan’s thinking. His big idea, explained most famously in The Calculus of Consent, which he co-authored with Gordon Tullock, was that traditional political science mistakenly assumed public servants would act in the public interest. Instead, he argued, public servants are just as likely to act in their self-interest as those in the private sector. As a result, government is especially susceptible to being captured by special interests, and, left to its own devices, the state will grow and grow. 

Through selective quotation and idiosyncratic interpretation, MacLean paints this as — first and foremost — a distaste for democracy. She reduces Buchanan’s intellectual project to little more than a cynical attempt to undermine public confidence in government. She gives no thought to whether or not he is right, doing little more than questioning his motives and pointing out the possible blind spots of rich white men.

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