Democracy in Chains

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Nancy MacLean. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017

Nancy MacLean is Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. She describes her book as “the true origin story of today’s well-heeled right.” It is the story of how a particular political philosophy joined with a particular source of funding to propel the right-wing movement that has come to dominate the Republican Party.

The political philosophy in this story is the Virginia School of Political Economy, whose founder was James McGill Buchanan. The source of funding was Charles Koch and other conservative millionaires with a rather hostile attitude toward the federal government.

MacLean’s principal source of information is the archive of James Buchanan’s papers at George Mason University. What she found there enabled her to trace the connections between the centers of study Buchanan established at the University of Virginia and later at George Mason, and the think tanks and foundations financed by the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors (such as the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and State Policy Network). What began as a academic program to advance libertarian ideas expanded into a massive national project to train political operatives and legal experts to transform American government.

MacLean sees something rather sinister about this nexus of ideas, money and political action. The movement’s criticism of government goes beyond critiquing particular policies to question the very foundations of democracy, especially majority rule. It places a higher value on capitalism than democracy and is more receptive to rule by the wealthy few than rule by the majority. (Its advocates might contest that oligarchic characterization and argue that they only want a constitutional democracy with protections against the tyranny of the majority.) Another troubling element is the movement’s reliance on stealth to achieve its objectives. Since many of its proposals–such as Social Security and Medicare privatization–lack majority support, its operatives have to gain power without being entirely candid about their true agenda.

Racial origins

MacLean says that “attacks on federal power pitched to nonelites have almost always tapped white racial anxiety, whether overtly or with coded language.” The underlying message is that the government is coming to take what is yours and give it to those people. Hopefully such appeals play a smaller role in right-wing thought and action than they used to. Nevertheless, the movement MacLean is describing has inherited some of its core ideas from southern defenders of slavery and segregation, notably John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun spoke for the wealthiest men in the wealthiest state (South Carolina) at a time when the South’s prosperity built on slave labor made it the wealthiest region in the nation. Slaves were property, he believed, and the acquisition and free use of property was a matter of liberty and unalienable right. (The liberty of the slave was not an issue, since slavery was “ordained by Providence, honored by time, sanctioned by the Gospel….”) The government’s proper role was to protect property rights, not abrogate them. In addition, state’s rights took precedence over federal rights. MacLean notes that Calhoun preferred to concentrate power at the state level, “the level that men like him could most easily control,” going so far as to take powers away from the local level in order to do so.

From this perspective, any attempt by the federal government to restrict or abolish slavery was an infringement upon liberty. In Calhoun’s view, it was the government that created the battle over slavery, and it was the Southern states and their slaveholders who were the victims, not the slaves themselves.

MacLean sees a common oligarchic theme that connects libertarian thought from Calhoun to Buchanan and Koch: “Now, as then, the leaders seek Calhoun-style liberty for the few–the liberty to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness and freedom to the many.”

1950s Virginia: Oligarchy resists desegregation

James Buchanan came to the University of Virginia in 1956, almost 100 years after the end of slavery. But it was only two years after Brown v. Board of Education, when privileged Southerners were employing arguments reminiscent of Calhoun to resist school desegregation.

Virginia was characterized by one student of southern politics as the state most thoroughly controlled by an oligarchy. MacLean describes it as the “veritable fiefdom of Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., the archnemesis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.” The Byrd Organization ran the state primarily for the benefit of a powerful minority, but remained in power by limiting the voting strength of the majority through measures like poll taxes and malapportionment to underrepresent city and suburban voters. Both practices would later be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but not until the 1960s.

The Byrd Organization and its supporters, especially the editor of the Richmond News Leader, James J. Kilpatrick, portrayed the federal desegregation mandate as an unconstitutional violation of states rights and personal liberty.

The Virginia General Assembly responded to the challenge of Brown by ordering the governor to withhold funding from any school that obeyed a federal court order to desegregate. Because representation was so disproportionate, the senators who voted for this action represented fewer citizens than those who voted against it. The majority of Virginians probably wanted to keep their schools open.

Buchanan’s mission

That was the situation in the state when James M. Buchanan proposed creating a new center of study at the University of Virginia. The Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy would focus academic attention on the proper relationship between the government and the economy. Although trained in economics at the University of Chicago, Buchanan did not share Milton Friedman’s enthusiasm for scientific models and testable hypotheses. He was more interested in broad philosophical issues, especially the threat to liberty created by government’s tendency to over-tax, over-spend, and over-regulate. He theorized at length about such issues without always providing much empirical support for his ideas.

In his proposal for the new center, he avowed that it would not be home to any scholar who valued security over liberty, or wanted to “replace the role of the individual and of voluntary association by the coercive powers of the collective order.” “Collective order” was his term for all those who relied on government for their advancement, which made the democratic process itself sound rather socialistic and sinister.

In 1959, Federal and state courts struck down the decision by the Virginia General Assembly to withhold funding from integrating schools. While that would seem to settle the matter, Buchanan had a proposal for a new, less obviously racist, form of resistance. He proposed that the state close all the public schools, using the economic argument that a private market in education would create more competition and better education. Families would receive vouchers to send their children to whatever school they “chose,” [without, of course, worrying about whether the voucher would be enough to get a poor black child into a good school]. A resolution to end the state constitutional guarantee of free public education failed to pass, but one county, Prince Edward, did close its schools to resist integration. A federal court ordered them reopened five years later.

After Buchanan’s Thomas Jefferson Center came under criticism from the university for being too doctrinaire and authoritarian, Buchanan left for UCLA, arriving in the tumultuous year of 1968-69. Apparently shocked by the protest movements he saw there, he published Academia in Anarchy in 1970, with co-author Nicos E. Devletoglou. He did not advocate the complete privatization of higher education, but he did argue for running universities more like businesses. Students should have to pay the entire cost of their education; otherwise they were “parasites” on society. Faculty should stick to providing the product they’ve been hired to provide. Governing boards representing taxpayers and donors should exercise strict control. In this more businesslike atmosphere, students and faculty would then have less reason to waste time protesting, but those who did create disruptions should be punished or thrown out.

Later, when he taught at Virginia Tech, Buchanan recommended to the president a new “reward-punishment structure for faculty” to reduce funding for departments like sociology, literature and history that seemed to produce more dissent. He acknowledged that this would violate “sacrosanct precepts for ‘academic freedom’,” but hey, “this is a rough world.”

If there was one thing that was sacrosanct for Buchanan, it was economic freedom–the right of those who pay the piper to call the tune. Other forms of freedom, like academic freedom or freedom from discrimination, often took a back seat. As we’ll see, this bias would mar his work throughout his career, but at the same time make his ideas all the more attractive to the economically powerful. I’ll delve deeper into Buchanan’s thought in the next post.




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