Democracy in Chains
The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
By Nancy MacLean

Democracy in Chains was recommended to me by a Friend from my Quaker Meeting. I found it easy to read, carrying me forward on a wave of MacLean’s documented convictions. The central figure, and villain, is James Buchanan, a Nobel Prize winning economist, whose thoughts can be bundled under the heading of “Public Choice.”

As I understand it, Public Choice thinking is that our elected representatives are making their decisions overly influenced by their desire to be reelected. Therefore government will grow and grow, and debt will grow and grow as the elected feeds the needs of the majority without attention to the needs of the minority. A counterbalance needs to be created that all needs are considered in decision-making, including the need to avoid debt. Rules need to be in place.

I quote from the fly leaf: “In an engrossing narrative, MacLean shows how Buchanan first forged his ideas in Virginia in a last-gasp attempt to preserve the power of the white elite…Right-wing corporate donors and their foundations were only too eager to support his work in teaching others how to divide the citizenry into “makers” and “takers.” When, on his messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, multi-billionaire Charles Koch discovered the utility of Buchanan’s thought, he deployed a vast, many-armed apparatus to carry out a strategy steered by it….MacLean decodes the language and strategic moves Buchanan taught the movement to employ in order to hide its true intentions even from its own base of supporters”.

As I was finishing the book, thinking ahead to my laudatory review, I only had a couple of concerns.

The first was that as a child my education was in the catholic school system, a system we Catholics thought necessary to preserve our ethos. (I suspect the Native American and the Black communities will understand that necessity. They had it worse, no question, but we had it too.) My dad’s anger was that we built a better system (my experience started with public school and I switched to catholic for second grade and spent the year catching up then back to public and spent the year waiting for them to catch up, and then back to catholic and again was behind.) and paid for it ourselves and yet had to pay taxes to support the public system. Where was Public Choice when we needed it? We were a minority needing a hearing. Sister Thomas, dear sweet soul that she was, said to my eighth grade class, “Children, the solution is not bullets. It is babies.” No more insignificant minority for us. Took a while but we got there.

And the second concern was that Dr. MacLean kept getting madder as the book kept going on from one horrible accusation to another. Seemed to me a historian should keep a cooler head.

I thought maybe I should go to Amazon and read their reader reviews before I cast my positive opinion on the waters. So I did.

At that time there were four hundred and ninety-six reviews and growing. Never have I seen so many. Three hundred and ninety-four positive. (One of the negative reviews points out that MacLean asked her friends on Face Book to post reviews. Fair enough, but…) One hundred and two negative reviews. (Few of them bought the book from Amazon. I picture the network buzzing with a “If this makes you mad, go to Amazon and speak your piece” exhortation. Fair enough but…) A real donnybrook going on here.

Positive evaluations tended to be general in tone, such as: “remarkable,” “well footnoted,” “thorough,” “masterpiece.”

The following highlights the positive argument presented by a thoughtful reviewer: “Anyone committed to the belief that intentions and agendas have to be gauged by attention to concrete historical context (not least by a consideration of the audiences and venues for which statements were designed) will find MacLean’s patient, detailed and comprehensive research indispensable.” In other words, challenging that Buchanan never said he was opposed to integration, does not prove he was not so opposed, because his thinking led to theories and tools that could be used to oppose integration. Why else did he do what he did?

Negative evaluations were split between challenging the author’s facts and testimonials from people who knew and personally studied under or worked with Buchanan to the effect that you have badly misjudged the man.

An example of a testimonial for Buchanan: “Finally, (the writer has been writing on his years of positive experience with Buchanan) here are the words of Amartya Sen, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics who certainly is no right winger: ‘The cultivation of the taste for public reasoning in an open-minded way, which James Buchanan has done so much to advance, is one of the features of his greatness for which economists and other social scientists—and indeed the world at large—have much reason to be grateful.’ That doesn’t sound at all like the caricature MacLean presents, but sounds a lot like the Buchanan I studied with.”

Examples of specifics are:

MacLean quotes Buchanan: “If checks and balances were removed, a lot of good could happen.” This is as proof that Buchanan was against checks and balances, but Buchanan’s next sentence reads: “If checks and balances were removed, a lot of bad could happen.” MacLean leaves that out.

She links him to a flagrant Virginia racist, John Calhoun, but one reviewer points out that he never in all his writings wrote a word about Calhoun. Buchanan found Calhoun boring. That’s what he said.

“This book was a great disappointment and a travesty of scholarship. Her main method is insinuation without a shred of evidence. The recent revelation by prof. George Vanberg of Buchanan’s views on segregation and the desirability of integration (recently documented in the Washington Post), from archival material cited by MacLean, but which fully contradicts her central claim, should leave no doubts about her low standards of scholarship.”

One negative reviewer points out that all of the quotes from Buchanan that were presented as a rant against Social Security were cherry picked from a neutral piece Buchanan had written about Social Security. MacLean avoided reporting his positive feelings.

This all leaves me puzzled. It is well above my pay grade and my willingness to work the problem to come to a conclusion. In case you think me wimpy, allow me to quote a perfectly sensible reviewer on Amazon.
“Let’s just calm down, and keep in mind that we’re all engaging in ‘customer reviews.’ These aren’t scholarly reviews in refereed academic journals. Those will appear soon enough, and will have the kind of documentation, citation, and peer vetting that will make for more informed debate…I for one am finished with this particular discussion, and look forward to seeing real scholarly debate on the issue.”

I can’t wait! However on this book, I suggest you wait! Better to read it if it is accepted by other scholars than to read it and discover it has fudged the truth. Absent point-by-point rebuttals of “incorrect” facts I think that the fact that MacLean has fudged the truth is already proven. Has she fudged it so badly that the book fails to make its case? A number of major magazines, “America” and “The Atlantic” for two, have given it very positive reviews and MacLean herself has a straightforward and blistering response to some of the criticism on line. I goggled her by name and came to it. Also ran across NPR somewhat apologizing for having a writer of fiction write their review because she was handy and quick. Just think it was funny. How she and they must have been shocked to find her in the middle of a battle of economists!

A summary of MacLean’s point that I found helpful in keeping me oriented is “that Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan was the architect of a long-term plan to take libertarianism mainstream, raze democratic institutions and keep power in the hands of the wealthy, white few.” MacLean concludes that Buchanan’s academic research program — known as public choice theory — is a (thinly) disguised attempt to achieve this purpose, motivated by racial and class animus. (Sorry I lost the source, but this seemed to say MacLean’s point for me.)

A summary of the a major line of rebuttal comes from Duke Professor George Vanberg via the Washington Post: “To paint his endorsement of constitutional limits on the use of political power as motivated by an anti-democratic desire to institute oligarchical politics is to fundamentally misunderstand Buchanan’s sophisticated, subtle approach to democratic theory, which was committed above all to the idea that political arrangements should redound to the benefit of all members of a community.”

My summary comment is:

In the reviews, the pro and con circles around Buchanan. What would it have been like if the book and the reviews circled around Charles Koch, the major funder of all these institutions, with Buchanan a minor player? Maybe MacLean picked the wrong villain? It makes to me sense that one person might have made something for one purpose and someone else might have funded it for another. To be explicit: If Koch finds Buchanan’s theories useful, it does not prove that Buchanan intended his theories to be useful to such as Koch. This will explain how an intelligent and respected person such as MacLean could go so wrong. And intelligent and respected people such as the Nobel committee should value Buchanan so highly.
(This paragraph as of this date, 3/12/18 is the top critical review of 103 critical reviews on Amazon. Must have made sense to somebody.)