Deep History Or Just Conspiracy?

Built on misreadings and deceptive elisions, Nancy MacLean's Democracy In Chains reframes the colourful tale of the American Right as a dank, dark conspiracy

Oliver Wiseman

The rise of America’s radical Right is one of the most underappreciated stories of the last 50 years of American history.

You’ve doubtless read about the counter-cultural Left, the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock, but are you familiar with, say, the Young Americans for Freedom and their 1969 convention, where an angry young libertarian burned his draft card, starting a brawl with the meeting’s more conservative delegates and opening up a lasting split on the American Right? If you want to understand the US today, these shenanigans are just as important as Pete Seeger protest songs.

The Right’s revolutions and fissions also make for a colourful tale, featuring bold ideas — some good, others abominable — and an irresistible cast of iconoclasts, zealots, scoundrels and heroes. 

That, however, is not how Nancy MacLean, Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke Univeristy, sees it. To read Democracy in Chains is to see what should be an ensemble play put on as a one-man show. That man is James M. Buchanan, the Nobel prize-winning architect of public choice theory. According to MacLean, to recount Buchanan’s career is to tell the “utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance”. 

Given the importance she gives to Buchanan, MacLean starts with a surprising confession: before she started work on Democracy in Chains she hadn’t heard of the famous economist. Should we admire her honesty or be appalled at her ignorance? That an expert on public policy had never heard of one of the 20th century’s most influential theorists of how and why public servants do the things they do is hardly a good start. But when his name kept cropping up in Milton Friedman’s footnotes, MacLean was intrigued. “He seemed to be someone with big ideas,” she writes. Her curiosity takes her to the “unlisted” Buchanan archives at George Mason University, Virginia, where he once taught. We are treated to an account of her trip to the “deserted” clapboard mansion: “There were file cabinets everywhere — even, I soon learned, in a closet under a stairwell.” In the over-excited language of an airport thriller writer, she describes Buchanan’s old study and her discovery there of confidential letters from the Koch brothers, the billionaire backers of Buchanan and numerous right-wing causes and, in the eyes of the Left, the essence of all that is wrong with American politics: “Catching my breath, I pulled up an empty chair and set to work.”

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.

In fact, race is the means by which MacLean tries to land her lowest blows on Buchanan, particularly when discussing Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation decision. When, rightly, the court imposed desegregation on the states (a constitutional restriction on the will of the majority that MacLean seems much more relaxed about), the responses of numerous small-state conservatives were dripping with racism. One of the tools the segregationists tried to use to stop the inevitable was school vouchers, which Buchanan and free-marketeers like him supported. Of a report on school vouchers co-authored by Buchanan, MacLean writes, “The economists made their case in the race-neutral, value-free language of their discipline, offering what they depicted as a strictly economic argument — on ‘matters of fact, not values’.”

The implication is that Buchanan’s real motivation was opposition to black and white children being educated side by side. But MacLean offers no evidence whatsoever to suggest this. Probably because there isn’t any.

Why look for an ulterior motive for Buchanan’s support for a policy entirely in keeping with his beliefs? In order to traduce a decent (and dead) man, painting him as a racist mouthpiece for plutocrats. Any inconvenient details that muddle this caricature — such as Buchanan’s support for a 100 per cent inheritance tax — are omitted. This, remember, from a professor of history at a leading university.

What would MacLean make of one her student’s essays if they engaged in the kind of out-of-context quotation she goes in for? Take, for example, this study in academic rigour: she quotes Buchanan’s protégé and leading economist Tyler Cowen as writing: “The weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome.” It sounds damning and Cowen did indeed write those words in that order. But here is the full sentence: “While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” Hardly A+ work.

There is an amusing coda to the story of Democracy in Chains. When more sceptical reviewers pointed out some of MacLean’s mistakes and deceptions, the professor took to social media, rallying the troops to counter what she called a Koch-funded smear campaign.

At which point it is probably worth pointing out that MacLean received $50,000 in taxpayers’ money, via the National Endowment for the Humanities, for her attack on a thinker who laid bare how and why government is as bloated as it is. Who, really, is smearing whom?

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