Review- MacLean, “Democracy In Chains”

Nancy MacLean, “Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” (2017) – Now that the brouhaha around this book has died down a bit, it might be possible to look at it more objectively. The “deep history” and “radical right” the book’s breathless subtitle refers to is the relationship between economist James Buchanan, father of public choice theory, and Charles Koch, billionaire bankroller of the libertarian right. Aspects of public choice theory, which argues that governments should be understood as economic actors looking to maximize their returns through rent-seeking and other bad behaviors, has entered common sense widely in this country and elsewhere, especially among elites. Koch money has played a pivotal role in watering the fields where the assumptions of public choice could grow into policy, buying think tanks and politicians and generally advancing the genuinely unpopular tenets of free market conservatism on the country.

A lot of the brouhaha around this book was, essentially, tone-policing. MacLean writes of the collaboration between right-wing talent and money as a grand plan to destroy democracy. She summons up the ghosts of the Old South and Pinochet’s Chile, delves much further into the present than is usual scholarly practice, and if you believe the detractors, is highly selective with her quotes. The thing is, big picture, she’s not that far off the money. Buchanan and other free market political economists do disdain democracy. There has been a lot of money poured into making their position popular- all of which got, as they say, “owned” by a nativist tv show host with a second-grade vocabulary. Supposedly, Buchanan didn’t support Pinochet at first, but he certainly warmed enough to him later. The fact that a lot of the backlash came from people connected with George Mason, a university the Kochs and Buchanan lifted out of obscurity as an academic font for their ideas, is telling.

Tone is part of what we judge in a book, after all, and I do think the tone — breathless j’accusery — does detract from the argument, and symbolizes at least some of the analytical problems here. “Democracy In Chains” shows the limitations of approaching the history of the late twentieth century from a liberal, even a left-liberal, framework. In short, all this stuff is a lot less shocking if you have a class analysis that shows that this is a ruling class — not just a couple of guys — doing what ruling classes do. It’s not a question of a philosophical battle over the role some reified thing called “the government” — that’s strictly kayfabe, even if libertarian nerds take it seriously. The question is about power, in and out of the state, and who wields it.

If you can get over the shock of it you can do more, analytically, as people who’ve tackled adjacent material like Kim Phillips-Fein and Quinn Slobodian show. Maybe you can say MacLean exchanged sophistication for mass readability. But she gets into some weedsy stuff — especially about Buchanan and co’s emphasis in constitutional design as a way to “encase” (using Slobodian’s terms) the market from democracy — and makes it clear enough. I think she could have done more with stuff like that. That’s why historians are different from journalists. ***’

Review- MacLean, “Democracy In Chains”

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