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

If you want to understand American politics, read this book. Professor MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Democracy In Chains was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and was named by The Nation as the most valuable book of the year.

The book is “deep history” because MacLean delves into the relatively obscure career of an American economist named James Buchanan. She shows how Buchanan’s teachings, beginning in the 1950s, were adopted by right-wing ideologues and eventually came to dominate the thinking of wealthy, powerful and well-connected Republicans all over America.

She uses the phrase “radical right” because today’s Republican Party is radically different from the Republican Party of the 1950s. The party’s leaders used to be conservative. Now they’re bound to an ideology that elevates property rights over almost all other considerations.The party’s guiding principal is that any infringement on a person’s right to accumulate wealth is inherently unfair. Human freedom consists in making money and holding on to it. Nothing is more important when it comes to political policy. In fact, taxation is only justified for national defense and otherwise maintaining order. This is not a conservative position. It’s a so-called “libertarian” position that translates into extreme policies unacceptable to most Americans.

There is indeed a “stealth plan”. MacLean shows how this plan was developed,  and how it was paid for by people like the billionaire Charles Koch. Its goal is to make the United States a very different country. She explains how various academics, lawyers and political operatives, often working for right-wing publications, business groups or think tanks, have been working together for decades to move America to the right, while being secretive about their ultimate goal.

Their many public goals are well-known by now. These goals include lower taxes for the wealthy, minimal regulation of business activity, less funding for social programs (the ones that can’t be eliminated entirely), greater influence of money on our politics, and the privatization of as many government services as possible, including schools, prisons and the military. They also support ever-increasing spending on the military budget and fewer restrictions on the police, so that everyone, here and abroad, is kept in line.

Their overarching goal is much less publicized. It’s to interfere with majority rule. The economist James Buchanan argued strongly that the majority cannot be trusted. Most people want the government to do things that benefit the nation as a whole. They like well-funded public schools, well-maintained public roads, government assistance for the poor, decent medical care for the sick, and clean air and water for everyone.

But those things have to be paid for. That means the government has to collect taxes. Taxes, however, are unfair, since they involve taking property (i.e. money) from people who would rather keep it. Therefore, Buchanan and his ilk concluded, the wrong people should not be allowed to vote. And if the majority does vote for “non-libertarian” policies, the courts should rule those policies unconstitutional. Thus, we see voter suppression and gerrymandering, and undemocratic actions like changing the rules so that newly-elected Democrats will have less power when they take office.

At times, the story MacLean tells is hard to believe. But the story is true. I’ll conclude with an example and a summary from Professor MacClean:

Again and again, at every opportunity he had, [Buchanan] told his allies that no “mere changing of the political guard will suffice”, that “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers. And that meant that real change would come “only by Constitutional law”. The project [i.e. the stealth plan] must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule”... [184].

“Who will care for America’s children and the elderly”, [historian Ruth Rosen] asks, now that … “market fundamentalism — the irrational belief that markets solve all problems — has succeeded in dismantling so many federal regulations, services and protections?” But the cause [i.e. the plan] would argue that it has answered that question over and over again: You will. And if you can’t, you should have thought of that before you had kids or before you grew old without adequate savings. The solution to every problem … is for each individual to think, from the time they are sentient, about their possible future needs and prepare for them with their own earnings, or pay the consequences [221].

That is the kind of thinking we, the majority, are up against.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change.

MacClean discusses one case in which the right’s “stealth program” was implemented. The key figure in her book, a Virginia Tech economist named James Buchanan, helped transform Chile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in 1973:

For it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that [Chile’s] capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power….

If Jim Buchanan had qualms about helping to design a constitution for a dictatorship or the process by which [it] was ratified, … he did not commit them to print…

What’s perplexing is how a man whose life’s mission was the promotion of what he … called the free society reconciled himself … to what a military junta was doing to the people of Chile. The new Chile was free for some, … the same kind of people who counted in Virginia in the era when [Buchanan fought desegregation]. It was also, always, a particular kind of freedom the libertarians cared most about. One Chilean [rejoiced] that “the individual freedom to consume, produce, save and invest has been restored”.

… Chile emerged with a set of rules closer to his ideal than any in existence, built to repel future popular pressure for change. [The new constitution] was a “virtually unamendable charter”, … radically skewed by the over-representation of the wealthy, the military and the less popular political parties associated with them. Buchanan had long called for binding rules to protect economic liberty and constrain majority power, and [the constitution] guaranteed these as never before”.

Among the right-wing “reforms” instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship were lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, devastating restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, a less independent judicial system, limits on the government’s ability to issue regulations, school vouchers in place of funding for public education and forcing state universities to become “self-financing”. If this list of “modernizations” sounds familiar, it should. It’s the public agenda of today’s Republican Party.

Since it isn’t good public relations for a political party or government to say it’s against majority rule, however, the right’s intention to install and maintain minority rule isn’t publicly stated. But after seizing power, Pinochet ruled as a dictator for years. In the U.S., the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court have given more political power to corporations and the rich, while undermining the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and Republican politicians in states like Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin have made it less likely that poor people and certain minorities will vote, all the while claiming they are only interested in fighting a phenomenon, voter fraud, which they know is extremely rare.

The good news is that the resurgent Democratic Party is dedicated to making voting easier and more representative. In addition, there are efforts underway in a number of states to eliminate gerrymandering of congressional districts and to make the undemocratic Electoral College irrelevant. Others are calling for the citizens of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be given full voting rights. Changes will come eventually, since the majority still has some power. Meanwhile, if you want to understand our current politics, read Democracy in Chains

Republicans and Liberty, Part 4 (the End?)

When I think of what it means to be a Republican economic libertarian, I think of someone I know — call him “Bob”. He is a very affluent periodontist who lives in an enormous house in a beautiful suburb. Some years ago, Bob expressed his outrage over being forced to pay property taxes in support of the local public schools, since his own children were being educated privately. That’s an attitude that perfectly captures the essence of economic libertarianism:

What’s mine is mine and the rest of you, the damn government, shouldn’t take it away from me for something I don’t care about and isn’t doing me any good!

If Bob had read a certain book by another Bob (the late Robert Nozick), he might have expressed his outrage with a brief argument: 

1) It’s the most fundamental principle of morality that people should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means toward achieving someone else’s goals or for someone else’s benefit.
(2) Taking my property against my will in order to benefit other people is treating me as a means, not an end.
(3) When the local government forces me to pay property taxes to fund the local school district, the government is taking my property against my will.
(4) Therefore, the government should not force me to pay taxes to support public schools.

What’s wrong with this argument?

One serious problem is that it depends on a hidden assumption: namely, that the first sentence is not merely an important principle of morality, but the supreme principle that overrides all other moral principles. That’s a questionable assumption. Life, for both philosophers and normal people, is too rambunctious to fit under a single ethical umbrella. There are always exceptions and additional considerations.

When we were teenagers, for example, didn’t we all joke that the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to masochists (you know, do unto others…)? Similarly, imagine an isolated town in Alaska that’s been hit by a dangerous epidemic. The local pharmacist has a drug that will attack the disease but insists on full payment (or 75% of the price or whatever) before distributing his supply. He’s not a bad person — maybe he needs the money because he’s deeply in debt and on the verge of losing his store.

If the single overriding principle of morality is that we should always treat everyone else as an end, not a means, the town’s residents should accept the situation and either come up with the cash or do a lot of praying. Or are they justified in confiscating the drug, distributing it among themselves and watching the pharmacist go bankrupt? Can we apply principle (1) all by itself to solve this problem? I don’t think so. Principle (1), the philosophical basis for economic libertarianism, doesn’t say whose ends are more important when they conflict.

Fortunately, there are other ethical rules that come into play in situations like this (even though those rules aren’t foolproof or all-encompassing either). The British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, if he were available as an ethical consultant, would probably agree that treating everyone as a means, not an end, is a decent enough moral principle. But only because it tends to support a more important moral principle: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. In other words, we should always do what will ultimately result in the most happiness for the most people (including a town full of sick Alaskans and kids going to public school in New Jersey). 

Here’s another problem with this argument. It’s incredibly self-centered. If it’s valid, the principle that people should be treated as ends, not means, applies to those kids at the public school just as much as it applies to my acquaintance Bob. But how can Bob treat those children as ends? A really excellent way would be to pay the taxes that will help them get an education.

In fact, if Bob refuses to help those kids, he seems to be treating them as means, not ends. Some of them will grow up and take jobs in the community, working in stores, or maintaining roads, or performing heart surgery. Will Bob benefit from their labor? It’s true he might directly pay for their services one day, but he’ll also benefit from living in a community that’s safe and prosperous because of the work performed by people he’ll never bump into.

Consider what his life would be like if the few people selling groceries in his town were the only people selling groceries in the state of New Jersey. His town would still be a great place to live if he could find food on the shelves and didn’t mind checkout lines that were 20 miles long.

There’s also a problem with how this argument seems to identify me with my property. How do people acquire property anyway? The French anarchist Proudhon had an opinion: “Property is theft!” How was the first piece of property acquired? It was a long time ago, so we don’t know. But we do know that not one of us begins life as a clean slate and grows up in perfect isolation. The argument above suggests that taking any of my property against my will is a violation of my humanity regardless of where my property came from. That probably sounds plausible to whoever wrote the sentence I quoted in an earlier post, the one that referred to “the sanctity of private property”.

But are property rights sacred? Are they more sacred than anything else, like kindness or compassion? Are property rights so sacred that the tax collector who takes part of your paycheck against your will — for purposes other than the common defense and the maintenance of a free market — is committing a sin or a crime against humanity? Maybe if you think every penny you earn is solely the result of your God-given wonderfulness and had nothing to do with your genes or your upbringing. Or if you identify yourself with your property.

Like it or not, as everyone knows, we are social animals who grow up and survive in communities. Economic libertarianism, however, is a radically individualistic doctrine. It’s also simplistic and atomistic (in the social sense, not the physical sense). It reeks of adolescence.

A teenager, usually a boy for some reason, trying to figure out how to navigate the world, in the process of breaking away from his parents, looks for words that will explain other people and help him feel good about himself. Maybe he makes the mistake of reading Atlas Shrugged instead of The Lord of the Rings or The Brothers Karamazov: 

“Pleasure is all that really matters.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Poor people are stupid or lazy”.
“If God doesn’t exist, all is permitted.”
“Asking for help shows you’re a loser.”
“When I earn money, I should be able to keep it.”

Taken to its extreme, in fact, economic libertarianism reeks of infancy. We all have to share. That’s what we’re supposed to learn before we get to kindergarten.

Of course, there are probably few economic libertarians who hold the doctrine in its purest form. No doubt there are some who debate the finer points, howeverlike Russian intellectuals who debated the finer points of communism before the revolution. A wonderful person can have libertarian tendencies along with common sense. It’s all a matter of degree. Where on that chart above should people reside? Where does Senator RP reside? Where do you reside? 

I’m not sure, but I’m proud to say I’m not a Republican or an economic libertarian. I’m also not a “social liberal and fiscal conservative”. That’s too often code for comfortable people who enjoy their station in life while consistently supporting right-wing candidates and policies, the kind that “comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted”, not the other way around.  


(Photo courtesy of Philosopher Shaming.)

Republicans and Liberty, Part 3 (It’s Doubled in Size!)

Having pondered the difference between so-called “civil” and “economic” libertarians for a few days now, and having analysed the issue summaries on Senator RP’s website beyond all reason, it’s now time for a few thoughts on the type of libertarians who tend to gravitate toward the Republican Party.

A few months ago, I posted the chart below, which was borrowed without permission from some political scientists who have studied the political ideologies of American voters.

Voters (the little dots) in the two rectangles on the left side of the chart are left-wingers on economic issues, e.g., in favor of increasing the minimum wage. Voters in the rectangles on the right side, however, are right-wingers on those issues, e.g., against increasing the minimum wage.

Going in the other direction, voters in the top rectangles are right-wingers on social issues, e.g. most likely against gay marriage. Those in the bottom two boxes are left-wingers on those issues, e.g. favoring gay marriage. (It’s a known fact that life is much simpler if you diagram it using x and y coordinates.)

Dems and Reps pops yellow

Now, however, the chart has some color to represent people who tend to vote for Democrats and those who tend to vote for Republicans. (Another interruption: did whoever picked blue for Democratic states pick that color instead of red — the traditional color of the left — because red would have suggested Democrats are a bunch of commies?)

Since we’ve only got two big political parties, the populists and libertarians who want to participate in elections often end up choosing between Democratic and Republican candidates. As a rule, the populists and libertarians to the right of the yellow line will vote for Republicans, while the populists and libertarians to the left of the yellow line will tend to vote for Democrats. In similar fashion, people who run for public office will generally join the Democratic or Republican party, depending on the relative strength of their various social and economic beliefs (putting aside any tactical reasons for running in one party or the other).

To use the standard terminology, the left-of-the-yellow-line libertarians tend to be “civil” libertarians (maybe even members of the ACLU), while the right-of-the-yellow-line libertarians tend to be “economic” libertarians (maybe they donate to the Cato Institute). 

Unfortunately, aside from allowing me to play with this great chart, the only point of this discussion so far is to emphasize that there are degrees of commitment to the four political ideologies the chart represents. Someone like Senator RP, for example, who is known for his libertarian tendencies, decided at some point to identify himself as a Republican, apparently because his left-wing, social, civil libertarian views (of which he seems to have some) were weaker than his right-wing, economic libertarian views (of which he definitely has some).

All of which serves, finally, as preface to some general remarks about Republican-leaning economic libertarians (which I’ve reorganized as Part 4, because Part 3 doubled in size, even corrected for inflation).

Republicans and Liberty, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I asked whether libertarian Republicans support the work of the American Civil Liberties Union and decided that they generally don’t. That’s because libertarian Republicans are generally “economic” libertarians, not “civil” libertarians.

One way to understand the difference is to consider controversies like the recent one in Arizona. Should business people be allowed to refuse service because of a customer’s sexual orientation? A strict economic libertarian would say yes, arguing that the government shouldn’t compel one group of people to associate with any other group, while a civil libertarian would argue that everyone has an equal right to purchase goods and services regardless of their sexual orientation.

To better understand what economic libertarianism amounts to in practice, I visited the official website of Senator RP, today’s most famous Republican libertarian and a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Some of RP’s positions are simple platitudes. For example, he thinks we should only go to war if it’s necessary and the tax system should be simplified. The Senator may have interesting libertarian views on these subjects, but doesn’t mention them.   

Some of his other positions are clearly consistent with libertarian principles, although any economic libertarianism is muted. As expected, he thinks the federal government is too big (he also claims the federal government has doubled in size in the past decade — a statement that is ridiculously untrue; the real numbers are provided in a note at the bottom of this post).

In addition, he thinks the government has become too powerful and intrusive (apparently since 9/11). This opinion is the only one included under the category “Civil Liberties”. Lastly, he says the Affordable Care Act is bad because it expands the role of government. He doesn’t mention an alternative, although an economic libertarian would presumably prefer a completely private system in which healthcare is just another product, either freely donated or sold to people who could afford it. 

I’m obviously no expert on economic libertarianism, but his other positions seem questionable from that perspective: 

Life begins at conception, so abortion is unconstitutional – Even if we grant for the sake of argument that a fertilized egg is a person with constitutional rights, this would still be a case in which one individual’s single right take precedence over another individual’s various rights (without, of course, the latter’s consent). It’s certainly arguable that in this case, RP wants to impose his religious views on pregnant women, regardless of their own beliefs.

Our schools are suffering from too much government spending and interference – Some economic libertarians think mandatory public education is wrong. RP merely favors spending less money and exerting more local control. It isn’t clear in this context whether RP thinks school-age children have any rights at all, for example, the equal right to an education that will allow them to properly compete in the free market. 

We should increase domestic energy production even more than we already have – Encouraging energy efficiency (that would be government interference in the marketplace) and discouraging pollution (which affects us all, not just polluters) aren’t mentioned.

Illegal immigration is a threat to our national security – It isn’t explained why it’s dangerous for foreigners to participate in our free market. Some economic libertarians favor immigrant rights, apparently holding that people should be able to live and work where they want without government interference.

There should be no restrictions on gun ownership, except by irresponsible people and criminals – In practice, this means there should be very few restrictions and conflicts with other people’s right to be protected from violence (the main reason we have a government, according to economic libertarians).

Social Security covers more people than in the past and they’re living longer – No policy position is stated, although it’s implied that something is wrong. In particular, there is no mention of reducing benefits or cutting Social Security taxes, which would seem to be the obvious economic libertarian position.

Nobody should be allowed to serve in the Senate or the House for more than 12 years – This is despite the obvious fact that term limits infringe upon an individual’s fundamental right to engage in a law-abiding career of his or her choice for as long as he or she chooses.

Veterans should be given special assistance – It isn’t clear whether this means veterans should receive benefits beyond what was promised when they freely chose to enlist.

Based on the above, Senator RP’s libertarianism seems rather limited, perhaps because taking stronger libertarian positions would scare away voters. Cutting Social Security benefits and allowing more foreigners into the country aren’t popular positions. Legalizing drugs, which isn’t mentioned, is controversial, especially among Republicans. On the other hand, most Republicans favor forcing pregnant women to give birth, term limits and special benefits for veterans, none of which are clear libertarian positions.  

So, the impression I get from RP’s website is that he has some libertarian tendencies, but is just another right-wing politician. He’s found a home in the Republican Party even though Republicans tend to favor things like prayer and creationism in public schools, a worldwide military presence, government surveillance, harsh drug laws, farm subsidies and vote suppression, despite the fact that those positions seem to conflict with libertarianism of any kind.

I was planning to include some general thoughts on economic libertarianism today, but for now I’ll end with a related observation (author unknown) and that promised footnote):

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


That promised (long) footnote: Has the federal government doubled in size in the past decade, as RP’s website claims?

The precise decade isn’t specified, but that’s not important, since the numbers are clear whichever recent 10-year period we choose. For example, starting in 2002 and ignoring inflation, total federal spending was 2.0 trillion dollars. In 2012, it was 3.5 trillion, a truly large increase of 75% (although less than 100%). However, corrected for inflation (using constant 2005 dollars), total spending went from 2.0 trillion to 3.0 trillion, an increase of 50% (well, it was a rough decade, what with the wars and the free-market financial crisis and the resulting unemployment).

Alternatively, as a percentage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (a measure commonly used by economists, because it reflects the nation’s increasing economic activity), federal spending rose from 19% of GDP in 2002 to 24% of GDP in 2012, an increase of 26%.

Finally, there were 4.15 million people working for the federal government in 2002. In 2012, there were 4.31 million, an increase of only 3%.

So much for the size of the federal government doubling in the last decade. 

By the way, the other statistic cited to help us understand this supposed astonishing growth of more than 100% is an increase of roughly 40%. Quote: “To put this in perspective, the federal government spends more than $10,280 per person, over $3,000 more per individual than what we were spending in 2001”.