Libertarian History/Philosophy

Is Libertarianism a 'Stealth Plan' To Destroy America?

Nancy MacLean's conspiracy tract Democracy in Chains grossly misrepresents limited-government philosophy and the work of Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan.


Viking, Amazon

As its title suggests, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Duke historian Nancy MacLean, is filled with all sorts of melodramatic flourishes and revelations of supposed conspiracies. Chains, deep history, radicals, stealth—is this nonfiction or an Oliver Stone film? Even the cover depicts a smoke-filled room filled with ample-chinned, shadowy figures! This book, virtually every page announces, isn't simply about the Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan and his "public choice" theory, which holds in part that public-sector actors are bound by the same self-interest and desire to grow their "market share" as private-sector actors are.

No, MacLean is after much-bigger, more-sinister game, documenting what she believes is

the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance…[and] a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.

The billionaires in question, of course, are Koch brothers Charles and David, who have reached a level of villainy in public discourse last rivaled by Sacco and Vanzetti. (David Koch is a trustee of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website; Reason also receives funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.) Along the way, MacLean advances many sub-arguments, such as the notion that the odious, hypocritical, and archly anti-capitalistic 19th-century slavery apologist John C. Calhoun is the spirit animal of contemporary libertarianism. In fact, Buchanan and the rest of us all are nothing less than "Calhoun's modern understudies."

Such unconvincing claims ("the Marx of the Master Class," as Calhoun was dubbed by Richard Hofstadter, was openly hostile to the industrialism, wage labor, and urbanization that James Buchanan took for granted) are hard to keep track of, partly because of all the rhetorical smoke bombs MacLean is constantly lobbing. In a characteristic example, MacLean early on suggests that libertarianism isn't "merely a social movement" but "the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history":

Could it be—and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully—a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance?

Calling attention to the term's origins to describe Franco's covert, anti-modern allies in the Spanish Civil War, MacLean writes

the term "fifth column" has been applied to stealth supporters of an enemy who assist by engaging in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for its conquest. It is a fraught term among scholars, not least because the specter of a secretive, infiltrative fifth column has been used in instrumental ways by the powerful— such as in the Red Scare of the Cold War era— to conjure fear and lead citizens and government to close ranks against dissent, with grave costs for civil liberties. That, obviously, is not my intent in using the term….

And yet it's the only term up for MacLean's job, since "the concept of a fifth column does seem to be the best one available for capturing what is distinctive in a few key dimensions about this quest to ensure the supremacy of capital." Sure, "fifth column" is a dirty, lowdown, suspect term among historians because using it trades in hysteria at the service of the ruling class rather than rational analysis intended to help the downtrodden. But come on, people, we're in a twilight struggle here, with a movement whose goals have included, among other things, ending censorship; opening the borders to goods and people from around the world; abolishing the draft and reducing militarism; legalizing abortion, drugs, and alternative lifestyles; reforming criminal justice and sentencing; focusing on how existing government operations, especially K-12 schools, have hurt poor and minority Americans; and doing away with occupational licensing and other barriers to entry for business owners, among other things. So much for hesitation on MacLean's part. Fifth column it is! As for carefulness, it's worth noting in passing that MacLean identifies former Attorney General Ed Meese and foreign-policy hawk Bill Kristol as libertarians, which must be as much of a shock to them as it is to, well, actual libertarians.

Clearly this sort of book, published by a major house (Viking) and written by an eminent historian (MacLean is a chaired professor at Duke and author of highly regarded books), is ideological catnip to people who dislike libertarianism and its growing influence in politics and culture. At the increasingly hard-left New Republic, Alex Shephard introduces an interview with MacLean by writing that Democracy in Chains "exposes the frightening intellectual roots of the radical right, as well as its ultimate ambition: to erode American democracy." At NPR, novelist Genevieve Valentine writes

As MacLean lays out in their own words, these men developed a strategy of misinformation and lying about outcomes until they had enough power that the public couldn't retaliate against policies libertarians knew were destructive. (Look no further than Flint, MacLean says, where the Koch-funded Mackinac Center was behind policies that led to the water crisis.)

Let's leave aside the fact that Flint's water supply contamination was due to decades of local mismanagement and a stimulus project gone wrong, hardly the sort of thing that mustache-twirling libertarians espouse. And let's ignore the shibboleth Koch-funded for the time being (go here for a realistic appraisal of the Kochs' influence on the modern libertarian movement). Democracy in Chains is chicken soup for the souls of liberals, progressives, and members of the "resistance" who want to believe that libertarians don't just want to destroy or reform ineffective and inefficient public-sector agencies and institutions, but actually want to kill people or destroy them irreparably. Because really, how else can you make a buck in a free market, right?

If liberals and leftists are uncritically celebrating MacLean's attack, scholars and writers with specific and general knowledge of Buchanan's work and libertarianism are taking a more jaundiced view. Reason will be publishing a review-essay in the coming weeks but in the interim, here's a survey of some of the sharpest rejoinders to date.

Historian Phillip W. Magness, trained at Buchanan's former perch of George Mason University, takes particular issue with MacLean's linking of Buchanan to characters such as Calhoun and the poet Donald Davidson, the leader of the self-styled Fugitives and Agrarians in the 20th-century South. Like Calhoun, the Agrarians treated capitalism and modernity with contempt, as a sort of mirror image of an equally soulless and totalitarian communism. MacLean asserts that Davidson, who railed against an increasingly centralized "Leviathan" state, was central to Buchanan's worldview. But Magness notes that Buchanan never studied with him nor ever quoted him in his collected works. As with her non-hesitant, careless use of "fifth column," MacLean's real purpose in linking Buchanan with Davidson is to smear the former. Writes Magness:

MacLean has a very specific reason for making this claim, and she returns to it at multiple points in her book. The Agrarians, in addition to spawning a southern literary revival (the novelist Robert Penn Warren was one of their members), were also segregationists. By connecting them to Buchanan, she bolsters one of the primary charges of her book: an attempt to link Buchanan's economic theories to a claimed resentment over Brown v. Board and the subsequent defeat of racial segregation in 1960s Virginia.

In another post, Magness notes when MacLean tries to link Buchanan to Calhoun, she instead starts citing work by Murray Rothbard, who actually was harshly critical of Buchanan. This sort of slippery maneuver permeates Democracy in Chains, as Case Western's Jonathan Adler documents at the Volokh Conspiracy blog in The Washington Post. At Medium, Russ Roberts writes about MacLean's treatment of George Mason economist Tyler Cowen, who also directs the Koch-funded Mercatus Center. MacLean suggests that Cowen welcomes the weakening of governmental checks and balances because doing so supports her thesis that libertarians want to take over the government by "stealth." As Roberts points out, MacLean is guilty of intellectual malpractice:

MacLean left out the word "While" that begins Cowen's sentence. Then she left off the key qualifier that completes the sentence?—?the point that the downside risk of weakening checks and balances is substantial. There is nothing here suggesting Cowen is in favor of weakening democracy or the Constitution. By quoting only a piece of Cowen's sentence, MacLean reverses his meaning.

Unfortunately, MacLean does not just quote Cowen out of context. She ignores anything in Cowen's essay that conflicts with her portrayal of Cowen as a sinister enemy of American institutions and democracy.

MacLean's Duke colleague, the political scientist Michael Munger, has authored the most exhaustive and harshly critical review of Democracy in Chains to date. Writing for the Independent Institute, Munger damningly characterizes the book as

a work of speculative historical fiction. There is considerable research underpinning the speculation, and since MacLean is careful about footnoting only things that actually did happen she cannot be charged with fabricating facts. But most of the book, and all of its substantive conclusions, are idiosyncratic interpretations of the facts that she selects from a much larger record, as is common in the speculative-history genre. There is nothing wrong about speculation, of course, but there is nothing persuasive about it either, in terms of drawing reliable conclusions about history.

The entire essay comes as close to required reading as any libertarian would decree. Munger is not simply scoring points or picking apart the argument made by someone from a different tribe or camp; he's actually laying bare how ideologically motivated texts paper over gaps in evidence and logic by focusing on small details to the exclusion of actually giving an accurate view of the larger picture. In the grip of a thesis she wants to be true, MacLean simply sifts through huge amounts of data and evidence, keeping only small chips of bones and fossils that she can use to construct a skeleton with which to scare people who already agree with her.

The contribution of Democracy in Chains…is to do two things…: Identify James Buchanan as the focal point of the revolution, and identify the content of Public Choice research and teaching as anti-Constitutional and anti-democratic…. Buchanan did not believe in unlimited majority rule. But then, as Buchanan often rightly said, nobody believes in unlimited majority rule. Democracy is and must be a balancing of, on the one hand, the rights of minorities, and, on the other, the ability of the majority to have its way within the domain established as "political" by the constitution. That's another thing that is remarkable about Democracy in Chains: MacLean does not assign Buchanan a straw man position. She (correctly) gives Buchanan's position as being the mainstream view, the one that everyone actually agrees with. And then she tries to defend the straw man position, the one that no one actually believes. Remarkable. The position she assigns Buchanan is this: He thought that democracy should be limited, to protect minorities. Um…okay. Yes, that's right. We all believe that.

Which isn't to say that Munger finds no value in the book:

Democracy in Chains is well-written, and the research it contains is both interesting and in many cases illuminating. But as an actual history, as a reliable account of the centrality of the work of James Buchanan in a gigantic conspiracy designed to end democracy in America, it turns far away from its mark. It is the story of an alternative past that never actually happened.

Despite its central failings, I too found the book interesting, if mostly as a way of understanding the ways in which libertarian thought is considered by those hostile to it. Ultimately, Democracy in Chains reveals less about a not-so-shadowy group of people who, as a t-shirt puts it, are "diligently plotting to take over the World and leave you alone" and more about progressives and liberals who choose to live in a dream world.

Other takes worth a read include ones by Jonah Goldberg, David Bernstein, David Henderson, Steve Horwitz, and Jason Brennan.