by Dusty Sklar
Discussed in this essay: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean. Viking, 2017, 366 pages.
JANE MAYER’S book, Dark Money, taught us that billionaires like the Koch brothers are able to influence how we think and vote. Now a worthy successor, Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean, professor of history and public policy at Duke University, reveals that our democracy began to be undermined soon after World War II.
One of the people largely responsible, according to MacLean, was a man you’ve probably never heard of, named James McGill Buchanan. He was a Nobel prize-winning economist (1986) who played a major role in creating what is today’s radical billionaire right, whose ultimate goal is to permanently save capitalism from democracy.
MacLean discovered Buchanan’s importance quite by chance while examining the work of the economist Milton Friedman. She soon learned that Buchanan, whose ideas were quite different from Friedman’s, had started a program at the University of Virginia in 1956, funded by the Koch brothers and their wealthy associates, including the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and other groups.
As the new chair of the UV economics department, Buchanan introduced a mission statement for his program, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy, which declared that anyone who valued security above liberty and would “replace the role of the individual and of voluntary association by the coercive powers of the collective order” would not be allowed to participate. The Center’s purpose was to fight against what it called “social engineering.” Most Americans at that time trusted their government, which caused Buchanan to admit that”our purpose was indeed subversive.”
Buchanan had received his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1948, where he came under the influence of the economist Friedrich A. Hayek, who, in a backlash against New Deal policies, was helping to shape a new “pro-market” economics. Hayek brought Buchanan into the Mont Pelerin Society, a select group of intellectuals who came together to plan libertarian doctrine.
By 1956, conservatives championing states’ rights were pushing hard against the growing federal government and other enemies. One was what Buchanan called “the labor monopoly movement,” that is, unions. Another enemy, apart from the federal government, was the have-nots who, in Buchanan’s view, used majority rule and were spurred by labor leaders and pandering politicians to prey on the well-to-do. Buchananism holds that because the democratic majority is not to be trusted, empowered minorities must protect their liberty and, if necessary, use drastic measures, like shutting down the government, defaulting on the national debt, or refusing to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. This may seem heartless, but as Buchanan once wrote, “misguided Good Samaritanism is far worse.” By helping the unlucky, he believed, we shield them from the consequences of their bad actions.
BY 1973, Buchanan was urging allies to “create, support, and activate an effective counterintelligentsia” that would change “the way people think about government.”
In 1981, Charles Koch’s Cato Institute reached out to Buchanan to help them make the privatization of Social Security a reality. Buchanan told them that “those who seek to undermine the existing structure” must make people doubt the efficacy of Social Security, which he referred to as a “Ponzi scheme.” Yet he knew that opposing it would alienate most voters. He therefore came up with a circuitous, devious and deceptive angle. First, they must alter beneficiaries’ views of Social Security, to “make abandonment of the system look more attractive.” Next, apply a classic strategy of divide and conquer: Tell high earners that they would be taxed at higher rates than others to receive benefits, and remind younger workers that their payroll deductions were funding “a tremendous welfare subsidy” to the aged.
Buchanan put forth the idea that our government was overinvested in public services, and that the majority was all too willing to tax the wealthy minority to pay for these programs. “Despotism,” he wrote in his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty, “may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” And so he championed “curbing the appetites of majority coalitions” by making strict rules to remove their power. He stealthily set about undermining their trust in public institutions. The aim was to get voters angry at these institutions and take their attention away from growing wealth inequality. Sound familiar?
American democracy, it seemed, was unprepared to defend itself against the agenda of Buchanan and conservative benefactors. We now live in the country he helped bring into being. Charles and David Koch and their friends have invested enormous sums in organizations that have changed the national debate about the proper role of government in the economy. The result: our politically polarized and increasingly paralyzed government institutions.
Still, Democracy in Chains leaves me with the hope that perhaps, as books like MacLean’s continue to shine a light on important truths, Americans will begin to realize they need to pay more attention and not succumb to the cynical view that known liars make the best leaders.
MacLean has laid bare the “true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right.”