Thursday, June 29, 2017

Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’: A Fake History?

By David Bernstein

Duke University historian Nancy MacLean has published a new book, “Democracy in Chains,” that is getting a great deal of favorable attention from progressive media outlets and is selling quite well online. The theme of the book is that Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, a founder of public choice economics and a libertarian fellow-traveler, was the intellectual leader of a cabal ultimately supported by Charles Koch intent on replacing American democracy with an oligarchy based on constitutional protections for property rights.
When I first came across this book and interviews with its author, I was immediately skeptical. For one thing, I’ve been traveling in libertarian intellectual circles for about three decades, and my strong impression is that Buchanan, while a giant in economics, is something of a marginal figure in the broader libertarian and free-market movements. Sure, public choice theory has provided important intellectual support for libertarian views of government, but Buchanan was hardly the only major figure to work on public choice (which is basically applying economic theory to the study of politics). Many other leading public choice economists were decidedly liberal in their political views; consider, for example, Kenneth Arrow, whose foundational work preceded Buchanan’s. Even among the more free-market-oriented early public choice scholars, there is my late colleague Gordon Tullock (co-author of the book that won Buchanan the Nobel Prize; Tullock was stiffed because he was not formally trained in economics), George Stigler, Sam Peltzman, among others. Tullock’s famous article on what came to be called rent-seeking strikes me as more influential on mainstream libertarian thought than the entire corpus of Buchanan’s later work.
Buchanan’s work on constitutional political economy was of great interest to a subset of libertarian-leaning economists, but was sufficiently obscure and idiosyncratic to have had relatively little influence on the broader movement. I’ve met many libertarians who were brought to libertarianism by the likes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Charles Murray, Julian Simon, Randy Barnett and others; I’ve yet to meet anyone who has cited Buchanan as their gateway to libertarianism. Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism,” the best extant history of the libertarian movement, gives Buchanan approximately the attention I’d think he deserves, several very brief cameos, all relating to Buchanan’s foundational work in public choice.
The other reason I was immediately skeptical of MacLean’s take on Buchanan was because her portrayal of Buchanan did not mesh with my personal experience. I only met Buchanan once, at an Institute for Humane Studies gathering for young libertarian academics around 20 years ago. The devil himself (Charles Koch) was there. Buchanan gave the keynote address. What did this arch defender of inequality and wealth talk about? He gave a lengthy  defense of high inheritance taxes, necessary, in his view, to prevent the emergence of a permanent oligarchy. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “Democracy in Chains” fails to note Buchanan’s strong support of inheritance taxes. [Update: He in fact publicly supported a 100% inheritance tax.]
My confidence in the book did not increase when I saw that MacLean tied the rise of the early libertarian movement to 
Read the rest here.

1 comment:

  1. The specific accusations in this book appear to be ridiculous.

    HOWEVER, I will concede that libertarianism is still nursing a bit of a black eye in terms of race relations in the wake of so many prominent ex-libertarians jumping on the Trump Train. So I would expect these types of attacks to continue.