Book Review: Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”

The name James M. Buchanan likely first brings to mind the 15th President of the United States. However, the full name of the former president is actually James Buchanan Jr., not James M. Buchanan. However, the latter is surprisingly a more intriguing if much lesser recognized figure.

James M. Buchanan, who died in 2013, was a Nobel laureate economist touting his specific brand of economic libertarianism while a professor at such schools as University of Virginia, UCLA, Virginia Tech and George Mason University.  But the freedom he promoted was more a bedrock for a minority of powerful elites to abuse and sustain power while wreaking havoc on the middle and lower classes of this country. Buchanan was against voting rights, labor unions, majority rule, public social programs such as Social Security and Medicare, et al, because the free market and the individual person and state triumph all. Segregation, poll taxes, sharecropping, slavery and worse were not of concern to him.  In fact, MacLean notes one of Buchanan’s tenets being people who fail to save for the future are ne’er-do-wells to be treated as inferiors. In his reality, the so-called economic freedom of a few was of utmost importance and federal programs to address the needs of the actual majority were simply an unfair financial imposition on the wealthy.

Buchanan and his ideas eventually became the darling of the Koch Brothers who aided in the funding of various collegiate economics department positions and usually controlled who was hired. He and others (although some became disillusioned with the manipulation of their academic work) provided intellectual ammunition for these wealthy businessmen and any semblance of the war of ideas became subverted.

However, unshackling the rich from the burden of contributing to the well-being of greater society was wildly unpopular both politically and economically. For example, this minority viewed the graduated income tax as “a devouring devil, tantamount to slavery.” Thus the gorilla in living room of this political domain was the inability to win this argument by persuasion. Theoretically standing on ideas and letting the chips fall where they may morphed into the rules needed to be rigged in order to garner further political and economic power. Theories became bastardized, cropped short and sized to fit (thank you to the late Dave Carter) in whatever manner and situation. Creative application of economic analysis became the norm because masses have the unacceptable tendency  to vote for the collective and not for millionaires and billionaires.

It was also necessary to repress the majority socially, politically and economically through such tactics as poll taxes, literacy tests, other voting restrictions and more, including the push for eliminating needs-based scholarships and reducing public and college university budgets, thus making tuition costs skyrocket. All this and more became part and parcel of the on-going push for privatization and deregulation.

MacLean also includes coverage of such historical figures as John C. Calhoun, Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman and David Stockman as related to this topic.

Again, there is more history here that will never be found in school text books.


Other articles of interest on this subject:

“The beliefs of economist James Buchanan conflict with basic democratic norms. Here’s why.” Michael Chwe

“The Architect of the Radical Right” Sam Tanenhaus