"An explosive expose of the right's relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution. "Perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government." --Booklist (starred review) Behind today's headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect--the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan--and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority. In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite's power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In response to the widening of American democracy, he developed a brilliant, if diabolical, plan to undermine the ability of the majority to use its numbers to level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the rest of us. Corporate donors and their right-wing foundations were only too eager to support Buchanan's work in teaching others how to divide America into "makers" and "takers." And when a multibillionaire on a messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, Charles Koch, discovered Buchanan, he created a vast, relentless, and multi-armed machine to carry out Buchanan's strategy. Without Buchanan's ideas and Koch's money, the libertarian right would not have succeeded in its stealth takeover of the Republican Party as a delivery mechanism. Now, with Mike Pence as Vice President, the cause has a longtime loyalist in the White House, not to mention a phalanx of Republicans in the House, the Senate, a majority of state governments, and the courts, all carrying out the plan. That plan includes harsher laws to undermine unions, privatizing everything from schools to health care and Social Security, and keeping as many of us as possible from voting. Based on ten years of unique research, Democracy in Chains tells a chilling story of right-wing academics and big money run amok. This revelatory work of scholarship is also a call to arms to protect the achievements of twentieth-century American self-government"--
story of american buchanan herbert hoover, taft, well healed radical right
What is the context that has produced this book and controversy? Trump holds the presidency—an unprecedented failure of the immune system of our federal government. The Koch brothers plan to put $400 million into the 2018 election cycle. They’re so over-the-top that they got a millionaire’s tax pulled off the Massachusetts ballot—even though they have nothing to do with Massachusetts. Wealth inequality is at all-time highs in the United States; the United Nations did a study of the US and found 9 million houseless Americans, an embarrassment that will haunt our nation for centuries to come. Egged on by Russia, as well as libertarian funders at home, polarization has brought both the House and the Senate, as well as political discourse at large, to a halt. Belief in climate change peaked in the US somewhere around 2009. So is it any wonder that we’d have people looking to connect the dots?
There are other ways to explain how we’ve ended up here, but it’s not that much of a stretch to posit that James Buchanan, a 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, had something to do with it. Buchanan died in 2013, and this book documents his career in a field called public choice theory. Buchanan and the Kochs are both looking to maximize “liberty” and minimize democracy. To some liberal Americans, this might sound striking, but the United States is actually one of the least democratic democracies, and is a great proving grounds for libertarian social policies.
The most memorable quote in the book is from Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and pop blogger, about the libertarian vision for the liquidation of labor, and the US resembling the tent villages of Rio de Janeiro, where environmental legislation is lax enough to destroy access to potable drinking water.
The last section of this book slows down, but overall it’s riveting. My next area of research: public choice theory.
James Buchanan, a future Nobel in economics, and Charles Koch, and gives
a good background to each. I knew about KocH, but I ha d no idea about the economist.
McLean has assembled some solid building blocks here in terms of an intellectual backdrop to contemporary anti-government political/economic theory: the work of scholars who had an underlying distrust of government and how they came to become an influential wing of thought. We have followers of Hayek and the Austrian School, the outsized influence of Charles Koch, and so on.
Despite that, the book doesn't quite gel as it should, for multiple reasons. McLean is not an economist. She doesn't really understand public choice theory. I am far from an expert, but I would not have understood its basic foundation if I hadn't done some extra research. She highlights particular examples of Buchanan's thought, such as his report into school segregation or his work in Chile, without giving the big picture in enough detail. She also doesn't give much of the theoretical basis of other influential economists and thinkers beyond a fundamental distrust of governmental institutions and belief in the market, preferring to emphasize practical policy prescriptions.
Her claim that Buchanan was crucial to the modern economic-libertarian movement is not fully supported by the text. While he was far from unimportant, McLean never fully demonstrates his direct influence. This is in part because the book is too short. The text of the book is only 234 pages, which gives you the sense of getting the highlight reel instead of seeing the entire game. McLean is also prone to using very short, out of context quotes, which makes me curious about their context. What's additionally frustrating about this book is that there is more material she could have used and did not. Several followers of this school of thought have outright suggested that the franchise be restricted, because the uninformed masses make poor choices.
There's also an air of "conspiracy!" that, again, isn't quite supported. The right wing plan may have been stealthy at one point, but it's been quite apparent for some time. More care could have been taken to draw together the applications of that movement, rather than brief paragraphs about labor and schools.
Somewhere, a great book is waiting to be written about libertarian economics and their practical application and misapplication. Sadly, this isn't it.