Strangers in Their Own Land (part 2)

June 19, 2018

Previous | Next

The deep story

Arlie Hochschild defines a deep story as a “feels-as-if-story…the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tell us how things feel.” She tries to grasp the deep story Tea Party conservatives tell themselves and others that explains many of the political positions they take, some of which seem to work against their own economic self-interest.

Hochschild conveys the deep story using the metaphor of a long line leading up a hill. “Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.” If you work hard and live your life responsibly, you should expect to move forward.

You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American Dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are—a badge of honor.

But something has gone wrong in recent decades. While the very front of the line continues to progress, the line has bogged down for the great majority. That’s because gains in income have gone primarily to the richest tenth of the population. (Actually, she could have said the richest 1% or less.) There is still some individual movement forward or backward, of course. But without general advancement for the line as a whole, someone’s movement forward must be offset by someone else’s movement backward. That intensifies competition and puts the aspirations of different groups in conflict.

The people in the back of the line certainly aspire to move up, and liberals say that they deserve to, since most of them were born with fewer advantages than those farther ahead, and many have been unfairly held back for one reason or another. (In a fair race, of course, everyone is supposed to begin at the same starting line and run unimpeded.) On the other hand, people in the middle of the line can make a case for at least keeping the position they have, a position that reflects their hard-earned achievements. They may see the line more as a checkout line, where no one should cut in front of you.

In this context, people can have a strong emotional reaction to government assistance to those in the back of the line. Whether your reaction is sympathetic or resentful depends on whether you are willing to acknowledge the folks back there as underprivileged and disadvantaged, or if you prefer to defend your own position by seeing them as less deserving than you are. In the latter case, you see government assistance not so much remedying an injustice as creating one. As Hochschild’s Tea Partyers saw it, “The free market was the unwavering ally of the good citizens waiting in line for the American Dream. The federal government was on the side of those unjustly ‘cutting in.'”

Race and Southern conservatism

In theory, such attitudes toward economic inequality and the role of government can exist even if all the people in line are the same race. Add America’s sad racial history to the mix, and the emotional stakes get even higher. Hochschild considers race an essential part of the deep story, although her subjects were reluctant to discuss it.

The American South has always been known for its extremes of wealth and poverty, including considerable white poverty.

Compared to life in New England farming villages, there was much more wealth to envy above, and far more misery to gasp at below. Such a system suggested its own metaphoric line waiting for the American Dream—one with little room for the lucky ahead, and much room for the forgotten behind.

Lower-income Southern whites have always been stuck in the middle, having only limited opportunities to move up, but determined to defend their place against the aspirations of the large populations of black people behind them.

Here I would like to add that the voting history of Southern whites shows that they have not always been so hostile to Big Government. Louisiana supported every Democratic presidential candidate from Roosevelt to Kennedy (1932-1960), except when they supported the States Rights Democrat Strom Thurmond in 1948. Only after the national Democratic Party supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did Southern whites turn Republican in large numbers. Now they vote very Republican in national races–Trump won by a 20% margin in Louisiana–although Democrat John Bel Edwards did win the governor’s race in a runoff election in 2016. As part of the Roosevelt coalition, Southern whites had little objection to New Deal programs like the WPA and GI Bill that benefited mostly whites, but they are more critical of anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps that go disproportionately to people of color. In fact-checking her subjects’ opinions, Hochschild found that they tended to exaggerate how much of the federal budget went to safety-net programs, how many people of working age were living on “welfare” instead of working, and what proportion of the poor were getting TANF (today’s main family assistance program), a proportion which was quite low in Louisiana.

Hochschild does not specifically accuse her subjects of racism, settling for the more general statement that “many Americans, north and south, are racist.” What we can say is that Tea Party conservatives oppose government programs designed to help the most disadvantaged Americans; that people of color rely more on such programs because of the legacy of discrimination; and that Southern whites are especially drawn to Tea Party conservatism. Put all that together and it strongly suggests that racial divisions reinforce the status anxieties and resentments of white people in the winner-take-all economy.

To the extent that Southern conservatism is racist, it is rarely the explicit segregationism of Strom Thurmond or the Ku Klux Klan. Hochschild’s subjects didn’t want to talk about black people very much at all, at least in her presence. But they did want to talk about the freeloaders and line-cutters, the people who want to get ahead of them without deserving to. It is hard for such complaints to avoid implicit reference to the people of color who are still at the back of the line, people who have long been demeaned by stereotypes of laziness and irresponsibility.

Many Southern whites are not very far from the back of the line themselves. Yet they have strong motives to distance themselves from the most needy and disdain government dependency, although they do use programs for which they qualify. That emotional distancing helps explain why they “identify up,” voting with the white rich even when the latter are enriching themselves at the expense of the majority. It also explains why they oppose Obamacare, even though it makes health insurance more affordable for millions who are not poor. They did not succeed in stopping the expansion of Medicaid in Louisiana, once it was championed by the new Democratic governor. A recent LSU study concluded that the additional $1.8 billion in federal spending on health care created thousands of jobs and had a $3.5 billion economic impact on the state. In general, poor red states like Louisiana receive more federal dollars than their residents pay in taxes.

Cultural marginalization

In addition to feeling both economically challenged and threatened by less deserving competitors, Tea Party supporters also feel that their cultural norms and values are under attack. Since the 1960s and 70s, the mainstream culture has been moving away from them in several respects.

The government no longer endorses and enforces Christian norms as much as it used to. Gone are official prayers in public schools, laws against contraception and abortion, strict divorce laws, and anti-sodomy statutes. This too has alienated Christian conservatives from their government.

In Lake Charles, religious teachings “focus more on a person’s moral strength to endure than on the will to change the circumstances that called on that strength.” This conservative brand of religion helps explain why even people who personally experience environmental disasters look to God for answers instead of to government. That puts them at odds with most of the environmental movement, although some evangelicals are starting to see good stewardship of the earth as part of their religious obligations.

When women joined the “long parade of the underprivileged” to call for equal rights, it was experienced by many conservative men as another threat to their precarious economic position. It was experienced by many conservative women as a disparagement and rejection of their traditional, and perhaps God-given, role as homemakers. Family variations that liberals see as liberation from a “one-size-fits-all” family system strike conservatives as the “breakdown of the family.”

The 1960s also saw immigration reforms that ended the quotas favoring Europeans, opening the country to more Asians, Africans and Latin Americans. Whereas establishment conservatives have often welcomed the cheap labor, Tea Party conservatives more often see the new immigrants as unwelcome competitors for jobs and as carriers of alien cultures.

All this puts white Christians on the defensive, especially the Southern, white, Christian males who are the primary supporters of right-wing conservatism. The two main political parties used to disagree mainly over economic policy. Since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, they have come to disagree over deeply emotional cultural issues as well.

Political propaganda

Hochschild says that the deep story her subjects tell is “also the Fox News deep story.” She describes a man who supported environmental causes, but also put up lawn signs for a candidate who wanted to cut the EPA. One reason was that “his source of news was limited to Fox News and videos and blogs exchanged by right-wing friends, which placed him in an echo chamber of doubts about the EPA, the federal government, the president, and taxes.”

Right-wing messages appeal to people for many different reasons:

You may assume that powerful right-wing organizers—pursuing their financial interests—“hook” right-wing grassroots adherents by appealing to the bad angels of their nature—their greed, selfishness, racial intolerance, homophobia, and desire to get out of paying taxes that go to the unfortunate. As I saw at the Trump rally in New Orleans, some of that appeal goes on. But that appeal obscures another—to the right wing’s good angels—their patience in waiting in line in scary economic times, their capacity for loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance—qualities of the deep story self.

If we can cross the “empathy divide” and relate to conservatives as human beings, we can avoid dismissing them as stupid or evil. They are standing up for what they deeply believe to be right, even if they create or perpetuate problems for other people by doing so.

Having said that, I still worry that political propaganda may be threatening our democratic institutions, as indicated by the success of Fox News and the election of a master propagandist as president. Much of the blame for that goes to the abundance of dark money in politics and the fragmentation of media by cable TV and the internet. Our society makes it awfully easy to promote extremism. But I also suspect that the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, much of which I support, ushered in an era of unusual emotionalism in our politics, making people much too susceptible to emotional appeals unsupported by rational, fact-based arguments. Something is lost if deep stories do indeed remove judgment and fact. Hochschild’s sociology of emotions may reflect the times as well as illuminate them. In a previous post, I expressed some concerns about the extraordinary weight Jonathan Haidt gives to intuitions in The Righteous MindI don’t doubt that people vote their deep feelings, but I think that educators and other responsible leaders should be encouraging people to examine their feelings, not just catering to them.

My next post will deal with Hochschild’s take on the rise of Donald Trump and possible liberal responses to far-right conservatism.



Strangers in Their Own Land

June 18, 2018

Previous | Next

Arlie Russell Hochschild. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press, 2018.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild makes a fine contribution to our understanding of today’s political polarization. Trying to move across what she calls the “empathy divide,” she gets as close as she can to far-right conservatives in one of the reddest parts of the country, the Lake Charles area of southwestern Louisiana.

The book is based primarily on long conversations with forty Tea Party Republicans, supplemented with interviews with twenty other individuals who are knowledgeable of the area and its issues. Although her study is small-scale and exploratory, she does a good job of placing her findings in a larger context with national survey data and statistics.

The “Great Paradox”

Hochschild begins with a paradox observed by others before her. Many of the people who vote conservative could benefit from many of the liberal programs they oppose.

Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states….Red states suffer more in another highly important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution.

This certainly holds true for Louisiana, which ranks among the worst states in the country for poverty rate, educational levels, income inequality, pollution, and many measures of health and well-being. And yet the majority of its citizens seem staunchly opposed to many government efforts to alleviate such conditions. Instead they support low-tax, low-regulation policies that seem to work to the main benefit of a wealthy minority.

Hochschild reviews some of the previous efforts to resolve the paradox and finds them unsatisfying. For example, in What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank suggested that wealthy conservatives trick people into voting conservative by using social issues like abortion and gay marriage as bait. Hochschild thinks it is too simple to regard people as gullible and misled, without considering how their votes express their deep convictions.

For Alec MacGillis in “Who Turned My Blue State Red,” it’s more a matter of who votes. The people who most need government assistance don’t vote enough, while the people who need it less vote against it. Hochschild’s hunch is that the paradox goes deeper. People really do vote against their own self-interest–at least economic self-interest–because of their deep emotional commitments.

Hochschild believed that the way to test her hunch against MacGillis’s was to study an issue that affected everybody in a state, even the affluent, and “to show they don’t want government help for that either.” The issue she needed was all around her in Louisiana, since “Lake Charles had become ground zero for production of American petrochemicals.” Now the paradox took the form of great pollution on the one hand, and great resistance to regulating polluters on the other. Many of the author’s subjects had experienced firsthand the terrible toll that hazardous waste disposal and other environmental problems were taking on their families and communities; yet they continued to support anti-environmentalist candidates.

The paradox went well beyond Louisiana. According to Hochschild’s analysis of survey data:

If, in 2010, you lived in a county with a higher exposure to toxic pollution, we discovered, you are more likely to believe that Americans “worry too much” about the environment and to believe that the United States is doing “more than enough” about it.

Red-state logic

Part of the reason sounds like economic self-interest, although it actually goes deeper than that. It is partly a matter of creating jobs:

The logic was this. The more oil, the more jobs. The more jobs, the more prosperity, and the less need for government aid. And the less the people depend on government —local, state, or federal—the better off they will be.

Carrying this one step further, the more state government has to spend on incentives and tax breaks for industry to bring in jobs, the less it has to spend on programs to help people or protect the environment. But then again, the hope is that people with jobs can take care of themselves.

The logic makes most sense to the people who actually do get high-paying jobs in the polluting industries, although they are a small percentage of the population. But when all the costs and benefits are added up, the wisdom of relying so heavily on petrochemicals is less clear. One expert Hochschild consulted argued that “the oil industry suppressed other lines of work, drew a third of revenue out [of the state], left pollution, and did nothing to resolved the many problems saddling the state.” The oil boom left the state’s poverty rate essentially unchanged.

The strategy of attracting jobs by offering corporations low taxes, weak regulation, and a low-wage non-unionized workforce has been called a “low-road” strategy. Apparently it isn’t the only strategy, since researchers have found that states with tougher environmental regulations have an even better record of job creation. One question the book does not try to answer is how feasible it would be for Louisiana to stop welcoming the polluters. States that are poor in financial and human capital, including workforces with limited education, have fewer choices. They may be at the mercy of companies that take much and give back little.

What the book does establish is that the red-state logic has become a deeply-held belief system. As one of the author’s interviewees, General Russel Honoré, put it, the people have become “captives of a psychological program.”

Emotional allegiances

Beliefs about jobs and the environment do not exist in isolation from other deeply-held beliefs. Conservatives put more faith in private enterprise to create the good society, while liberals put more faith in democratic government. Southern conservatives see the petrochemical industry as the latest goose to lay the golden eggs, hopefully replacing good jobs lost in the declining textile industry. For them, strict environmental regulation threatens to kill the goose.

Favoring business over government also has a deeper personal meaning. Business is associated with hard work, earnings, self-reliance, personal success and the ability to provide for one’s family. Government is associated with handouts, taxes, dependency, personal failure and family breakdown. Attitudes toward environmental regulation may reflect a much broader anti-government sentiment that goes beyond the alleged trade-off between the environment and jobs.

As a sociologist who has always been interested in the social construction of feelings, Hochschild looks for the deep, emotionally meaningful story that underlies seemingly non-rational behavior. That will be the topic of the next post.


Democracy in Chains (part 3)

July 13, 2017

Previous | Next

Here we turn to some efforts to implement the libertarian views discussed in the last post. Their goal is primarily to protect and expand the freedom of the private sphere by placing limits on collective action in the public sphere. MacLean sees them as potential dangers to democratic governance.

The Chilean connection

The undemocratic potential of this program is best seen in James Buchanan’s support for the Pinochet regime in Chile. In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. Buchanan, along with some other Chicago-trained economists like Milton Friedman, became an advisor to the Pinochet regime. What he had in mind went far beyond narrow economic goals like fighting inflation. He saw an opportunity to enact the kind of broad reforms he wanted for the United States, along the lines of “privatization, deregulation, and the state-induced fragmentation of group power.”

The Pinochet regime banned industry-wide labor unions. It privatized the social insurance system, essentially replacing company contributions and government-guaranteed benefits with the expectation that workers save for their own retirement. It created a school voucher system for primary and secondary education.

The Pinochet plan for higher education sounds exactly like what Buchanan recommended in Academia in Anarchy:

As the nation’s premier public universities were forced to become “self-financing,” and for-profit corporations were freed to launch competitors with little government supervision, the humanities and liberal arts were edged out in favor of utilitarian fields that produced less questioning. Universities with politically troublesome students stood to lose their remaining funding.

Buchanan also advised the regime on how to rewrite the constitution to limit the power of the majority to undo the changes. For example:

A cunning new electoral system, not in use anywhere else in the world and clearly the fruit of Buchanan’s counsel, would permanently overrepresent the right-wing minority party to ensure “a system frozen by elite interests.”…It also barred advocating “class conflict” or “attack[ing] the family.”

The economy did grow rapidly, at least for a time, but economic inequality and poverty got worse. “A nation that once stood out as a middle-class beacon in Latin America now has the worst economic inequality it has seen since the 1930s.” While voices on the right continue to hail Chile as an economic success story, MacLean and other critics see Pinochet’s main accomplishment as greater wealth and freedom for the few at the expense of the many. After being voted out of office, he would go on to be indicted on many counts of human rights abuses (thousands were tortured or killed), embezzlement and tax evasion. (He died before he could be convicted, however.)

As for the new retirement system, it:

proved so disastrous that after the dictatorship ended, a nearly universal consensus emerged on bringing back key elements of social insurance. The system of individual accounts proved a huge boon to the financial corporations that received the automatic deductions from workers’ paychecks. The companies exploited that access mercilessly, achieving an average annual profit rate of more than 50 percent over a five-year period, thanks, not least, to their taking between a quarter and a third of workers’ contributions as fees.

MacLean links these failures directly to the bias in Buchanan’s philosophy. The problem was that “he valued economic liberty so much more than political freedom that he simply did not care about the invitation to abuse inherent in giving nearly unchecked power to an alliance of capital and the armed forces.” To this day, many conservatives regard Chile as a model of freedom for other countries to emulate.

I cannot resist adding that we now have a U.S. president who also professes great admiration for an authoritarian foreign leader associated with a wealthy oligarchy. How few of today’s Republicans have a problem with that is troubling.

Organizing at home

The web of connections that has developed between the Virginia School of Political Economy and a host of far-right organizations is very elaborate, and I can only hit some of the highlights here.

During the 1970s, Buchanan and his close associates began building relationships with conservative politicians, especially then California Governor Ronald Reagan. They worked with Ed Meese, Reagan’s chief of staff and later U.S. Attorney General, to start the Institute for Contemporary Studies to connect academics, politicians and businessmen. The ICS in turn worked closely with Henry G. Manne’s Law and Economics Center at the University of Miami, which conducted summer workshops to train legal experts from all over the country in libertarian legal thought. Private foundation money was available to fund academic positions for right-thinking scholars. Some law schools, the University of Virginia being one of the first, became “bastions of Manne’s approach to the law.”

One of the financial contributors to this effort was Charles Koch. He had inherited a successful business at the age of 32 and grown it into America’s second-largest privately held company. Like his father, who was a cofounder of the John Birch Society, Charles Koch held views far to the right of other conservatives of his time. He regarded thinkers like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan as sellouts because they wanted, in his words, “to make government work more efficiently when the true libertarian should be tearing it out at the root.”

Koch set up his own Charles Koch Foundation in 1974, from which came the Cato Institute in 1976. According to MacLean, the arguments put forth by this libertarian think tank followed closely those of James Buchanan and his associates.

Buchanan at George Mason

In 1981, Buchanan moved to George Mason University, where his presence attracted millions of dollars in funding. He created the new Center for the Study of Public Choice, helping the university gain a reputation as “the Pentagon of conservative academia,” in the words of one Wall Street Journal writer. George Mason was in Fairfax County, Virginia, in convenient proximity to Washington, where Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President the same year.

Libertarians had high hopes that the Reagan administration would dismantle the “collective order,” but they were largely disappointed. Reagan did cut taxes and roll back some government regulations, but he did not seriously take on the many constituencies that relied on public programs. Without politically impossible cuts in domestic spending, Reagan’s tax cuts and higher military spending dramatically increased the federal deficit.  Many libertarians concluded that if they wanted to put an end to popular programs like Social Security, they would have to proceed cautiously and quietly, without publicizing their real objectives. They could, for example, undermine support for Social Security by questioning its long-term financial stability and by setting one group against another: tell the young that they are paying in more than they will ever get out, and tell higher earners that their taxes will have to be raised to support lower earners.

In 1985, George Mason University acquired a law school and brought in Henry Manne to serve as its dean. It soon became known for its advocacy of unregulated corporate capitalism and its criticism of environmental and consumer regulations in particular. By 1990, over 40% of federal judges had received Manne’s summer training in how to apply free-market principles to legal decisions.

In 1997, Charles Koch pledged $10 million to support a new James Buchanan Center for Political Economy, formed by merging the Center for the Study of Public Choice with another conservative center, the Center for the Study of Market Processes. The governing board of the new center was co-chaired by Koch and Buchanan. In later years, even Buchanan became concerned about how much partisan political activity the center was engaging in–technically it could lose its status as a non-profit charity if it went too far in that direction–but his complaints to the university administration were to no avail. He eventually lost control of the center that bore his name and retired.

As I write this, the New York Times is reporting that the Senate is considering the nomination of Neomi Rao to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, “placing her at the heart of President Trump’s politically contentious agenda to overhaul government rules and regulations.” Rao is currently a law professor at George Mason, which recently received another $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, one condition being that the university name the law school after Antonin Scalia, which it did. The article mentions that foundations affiliated with Koch have donated at least $50 million to George Mason in the past decade. Many faculty and students are troubled that a rich donor with a political agenda can so strongly shape the curriculum of a public university. Advocates of free markets ought to ask themselves if they want a university to be a free market in ideas, with each set of ideas evaluated on its merits, or whether they want certain ideas to prevail over others because they are better funded. That is just one aspect of the larger question of whether we want an open, democratic society or an oligarchy where might makes right.

The ascendancy of the far right

MacLean ends her book with a number of examples of how radical-right operatives backed by big money are making their mark on American government. All of the organizations mentioned below have been well funded with Koch donations.

The State Policy Network is a collection of state-level think tanks, of which Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the largest. It was the Mackinac Center that pushed for legislation allowing the governor to appoint emergency managers for financial troubled cities like Detroit, Benton Harbor and Flint. “The powers of these unelected managers to impose austerity measures would be vast, including the authority to unilaterally abrogate collective bargaining agreements, outsource services, sell off local resources to private companies, and change suppliers at will.” Flint’s emergency manager made the decision to save money by switching the city’s water supply to a source that was not protected from lead contamination.

The State Policy Network has also pushed for spending cuts for public education. One example is MacLean’s own state and mine. “North Carolina, which during the twentieth century, through wise investments in public education, had climbed from the poorest of southern states to one of the best-off, now ranks beneath Mississippi in per-pupil spending.”

The Cato Institute and other libertarian think tanks carried out a “misinformation campaign” to deny the scientific consensus on climate change, while the Club for Growth funded primary challenges against any Republican who failed to go along. “By 2014, only 8 of 278 Republicans in Congress were willing to acknowledge that man-made climate change is real.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council writes model laws for adoption by the states. Between 2010 and 2012, legislators backed by ALEC introduced over 180 bills putting new restrictions on voting. Republican legislators have also been passing “preemption laws” that stop cities from passing laws that businesses don’t like, such as measures to provide broadband internet access, raise the minimum wage, combat gay or transgender discrimination, or restrict fracking.

The Reason Foundation promotes the privatization of prisons, with funding from both Charles Koch and the Corrections Corporation of America. The CCA stands to profit from the construction of new private prisons and from tough sentencing laws to keep them full.

In The Limits of Liberty, James Buchanan expressed his dismay that public employees like teachers or social workers could benefit from promoting the programs from which they derived their income. Libertarians seem much less bothered by such feedback loops when they involve private enterprises. Once they are unmasked by public choice analysis, public institutions are exposed as sinister schemes for personal gain at public expense. But privatized institutions like for-profit prisons, or for-profit colleges receiving most of their revenue from student loans are okay, even if they are explicitly set up for private gain at public expense. Somehow their freedom to promote their own interest with money is more legitimate than the freedom of a public employee union to promote public services by organizing to influence public opinon. What’s “public” is really just for private good, but what’s “private” is really for the public good. This convoluted reasoning explains why someone like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos can be both unsupportive of public education and complacent about students being ripped off by private, for-profit colleges. She is currently being sued for failing to implement regulations to protect such students.

How fair a description?

In calling attention to the ascendancy of radical views within today’s Republican Party, MacLean does not make subtle distinctions among diverse perspectives. Not everyone in the academic centers or think tanks she mentions thinks the same. There is always the danger of coloring too many people with the same brush and exaggerating the extent of a far-right conspiracy. For example, MacLean has been accused of making Tyler Cowen, “the man who succeeded Buchanan and now directs the cause’s base camp at George Mason, the Mercatus Center,” sound more extreme than he is, by taking quotations from his work out of context.

Nevertheless, I think that the book gives us fair warning about a dangerous combination of great wealth and radical political thought. I agree with MacLean that this combination has moved the Republican Party farther to the right than at any time since the early 1900s. I believe that under conditions of great inequality, one group or institution’s excessive liberty can come at the expense of another’s liberation. And excessive hostility toward government can easily become hostility to the democratic majority who depend on government to protect their fundamental human rights and expand their opportunities.

In the end, MacLean convinces me of her central point. The same core ideas that supported oligarchy in the ante-bellum South and in 1950s Virginia can do so in the nation as a whole:

The United States is now at one of those historic forks in the road whose outcome will prove as fateful as those of the 1860s, the 1930s, and the 1960s. To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else and enshrine it in the nation’s governing rules, as Calhoun and Buchanan both called for and the Koch network is achieving, play by play, is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form.



Democracy in Chains (part 2)

July 12, 2017

Previous | Next

Nancy MacLean argues that James M. Buchanan’s theory of political economy has provided the primary intellectual foundation for a right-wing movement that now threatens American democracy. I’ll describe that foundation here, and then in the next post go on to discuss how big donors liked Charles Koch helped translate it into political action.

The myth of the public good

In 1962, Buchanan published The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, with co-author Gordon Tullock.

Buchanan refused to take at face value concepts like the “public good” or the “general welfare.” He wanted to know how government decisions are actually made. Who makes them? Who influences the decision-makers? Who wins; who loses? How do public decisions affect people with different economic interests? Do they really advance the cause of freedom?

These are all legitimate questions, and Buchanan’s work on “public choice” theory would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986. However, underlying his theoretical interests was a strong ideological hostility to the public sector and a deep-seated conviction that government was becoming an increasing threat to the free-market economy.

Buchanan noticed that popular support for increased government spending remained high not only in bad times, when a stronger economic case could be made for it, but in good times as well. As MacLean summarizes his concern, “simple majority voting thus ‘tend[ed] to result in overinvestment in the public sector….There are no effective limits’ in the current rules to the resources that might be steered to public coffers, even when those monies would be ‘more productive if left in the private sector of the economy.'”

Buchanan believed that the political system failed to place adequate constitutional limits on the majority’s ability to claim more and more benefits for themselves at the expense of economic liberty and economic growth. He looked back with some appreciation to the “Lochner era” of constitutional law, the forty-year period from 1897 to 1937. Then the Supreme Court had interpreted the Constitution as precluding the federal government from doing things like regulating wages and work hours.

The coercive state

In 1975, Buchanan published The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan. The main premise was reasonable enough, that human liberty depended on finding some middle ground between completely unbridled self-interest and government-imposed order. Without any government rules and protections, people could just take what they wanted instead of earning it by their labor. Too much government, and people wouldn’t be free to achieve and to enjoy the fruits of their success.

A strong anti-government bias may have prevented Buchanan from reaching a happy medium. He was most intent on limiting the power of government, since he viewed state power as inherently coercive. The economy, on the other hand, was the realm of voluntary exchange, which for the sake of liberty needed to be left alone as much as possible.

I think MacLean puts her finger on the essential problem with this reasoning when she says that “libertarians steadfastly refused to acknowledge wealth as a form of power.” As a sociologist, I would argue that power exists in some form in every social institution. It can take the form of legitimate authority if it is used on behalf of others, as when parents exert power for the good of their children; but it can take the form of domination if it is used against others. Often it is both: authority over an in-group for the purpose of more effectively dominating an out-group, as in wartime.

From that perspective, to regard public power as inherently coercive while regarding private economic power as benign is arbitrary and one-sided. Concentrating political power through voting can lead to domination, but so can concentrating economic power through corporate organization. If a business pollutes the air or water, doesn’t that force people to breathe dirty air or drink dirty water? If it discriminates against a class of workers, doesn’t that force those workers into a restricted labor market with fewer economic opportunities. If it pays subsistence wages, doesn’t that force families to go without health insurance? The economically powerful have always wanted to claim that what is good for them is good for all. By treating the power of the slave-owner as benign (since it was blessed by Providence), Calhoun could conclude that “slavery is…favorable to personal and national liberty.” Libertarians like Buchanan want to treat the power of corporations as benign (since it is blessed by the free market), and thus conclude that corporate power is favorable to personal and national liberty, no matter how concentrated and unregulated that power may be. Nowadays some multinational corporations command more resources than some national governments, but in Buchanan’s view only government is the Leviathan to be feared.

Buchanan singled out the Great Depression as the turning point when government began to infringe on liberty by over-managing the economy and allocating too much of the wealth. While many economists praise the post-New Deal era as a “golden age” when the middle-class expanded and equality increased, Buchanan praises the pre-Depression period of greater inequality as the peak of economic liberty. MacLean notes that Buchanan ignores the possibility that the extreme inequality and lack of economic regulation of those pre-Depression years might have had something to do with the severity of the Depression itself.

The threat of majority rule

One of the worst crimes of the coercive state, in Buchanan’s view, is taxing the wealthy at a higher rate than the middle class or the poor. As far as he was concerned, that is just the majority using its collective power to take something from a wealthy person who prefers not to pay for whatever the state wants to spend money on. He could see no difference between that and “the thug who takes his wallet in Central Park.”

I would say that this argument too is reminiscent of Calhoun in its portrayal of the wealthy as the real victims of social conflict. Their power is a benign expression of freedom, but the state’s attempt to curb that power in order to enhance some larger group’s freedom is coercive and unjust.

Buchanan also wrote an essay called “The Samaritan’s Dilemma,” in which he questioned any transfer from the haves to the have-nots, even for charitable purposes. The danger was that the recipients would take advantage of the givers’ good intentions by doing less for themselves than they otherwise would. “By this logic, what seemed to be the ethical thing to do–help someone in need–was not, after all, the correct thing to do, because the assistance would encourage the recipient to ‘exploit’ the giver rather than to solve his own problems.”

We have probably all heard some conservatives attributing this country’s high rate of poverty to overly generous welfare programs that encourage “welfare dependency.” If that were true, we would expect countries that provide more public assistance than we do to have even more persistent poverty. Instead, they usually have greater equality and less poverty. In my recent discussion of Viking Economics, I discussed how Nordic countries make benefits such as health insurance universal, and thus avoid giving people incentives to remain poor or unemployed. They achieve better results than we do with more generous government, not less.

Buchanan worried that the American political order had already moved so far in the direction of majority power that the changes were irreversible. Why would the majority now give up all the benefits they have voted for themselves? “How can the rich man (or the libertarian philosopher) expect the poor man to accept any new constitutional order that severely restricts the scope for fiscal transfers among groups?” he asked. He concluded his book on a pessimistic note: “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” So the critic of government coercion ends up hinting that coercion may be the only way to save the democratic state from itself.

By 1975, when Buchanan published that, he was already working with Charles Koch and other wealthy donors for political changes that would curb the power of the democratic state. They would soon be achieving at least some of the results they craved.



Democracy in Chains

July 11, 2017

Previous | Next

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.