Public Choice

What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong About James Buchanan

Democracy in Chains mangles the facts beyond recognition. But the book still has something to teach us.


The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so: School segregation is just as wrong when it is imposed democratically as it is when it is imposed by suppressing the black vote.

So the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains—a book that contains many, many strange claims—may be how its author, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean, treats Brown. On one hand, she believes that those who want to bind majorities with preset constitutional rules are up to something sinister. Her chief villain on this score is James Buchanan, an economist and political philosopher who argued that government actors ought to be subject to built-in structural constraints. On the other hand, MacLean clearly thinks Brown was correctly decided. Indeed, she accuses Buchanan of working to undermine the ruling.

MacLean seems not to notice Brown is itself an example of the phenomenon MacLean is denouncing: a Constitution being used to overrule a democratic outcome in the name of protecting a minority.

It's an awkward start for a baroque conspiracy story, and it signals what a mess the book will be. The historian has little to no evidence for her history. She invents some when necessary, and will at times just make assertions to suit her narrative, mustering neither real nor phony evidence to back them up. Many of her factual and interpretive errors have already been covered elsewhere, in venues ranging from Vox to The Washington Post. Rather than get lost in the weeds of covering every false statement or misleadingly gerrymandered quotation in this book, I want to focus here on the core claims that it gets wrong:

MacLean fundamentally misunderstands Buchanan's intellectual project, treating his theories about politics as an apologia for the wealthy and powerful. This gives short shrift to a serious body of thought, and it fails to see that his arguments can indict the wealthy as much as anyone else.

She tries to tie Buchanan's work to the segregationist order in the South, even implying that his ideas arose from a desire to preserve it. She essentially invents links along the way.

She paints Buchanan as an important influence on Augusto Pinochet's repressive dictatorship in Chile. Not only does her evidence fail to support this, but she misses an important piece of counterevidence: a 1981 speech, delivered in Chile, in which Buchanan condemned dictatorial rule.

And finally, though Buchanan was neither an orthodox libertarian nor a central influence on the libertarian movement, she puts him at the heart of a Charles Koch–driven conspiracy to impose a radical libertarian agenda on the United States. In the process, she manages to misread both Buchanan and Koch in telling ways.

Public Choice, Private Greed?

Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his role in founding the "public choice" school of economics. This school's key idea, to quote the Nobel committee, was to seek "explanations for political behavior that resemble those used to analyze behavior on markets." The result was a body of work in which politicians and bureaucrats, no less than entrepreneurs and investors, often "act out of self-interest," driven not just by a vision of the common good but by a desire for votes or bigger budgets.

MacLean, by contrast, treats public choice as little more than an effort to question the good-heartedness of public servants. Its conclusions, she insists, have "no true research—no facts—to support them" and are rooted in "projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing." She takes it for granted that when public choice economists complain that special-interest groups profit from government, they're aiming to protect the rich from the poor; it never seems to occur to her that the interests who play this game successfully are much more likely to look like Boeing, General Electric, or Archer Daniels Midland than, say, the National Welfare Rights Organization.

Her accusation that there is "no research" in public choice also falls flat. While Buchanan's own work tended more toward pure philosophy, the tradition he launched in fact has produced decades of empirical work, much of it in the journal Public Choice.

The Nobel committee also pointed to Buchanan's "principle of unanimity," which led him to try to imagine the constitutional rules that all citizens could, should, or would unanimously agree to. Rather than marking him as a tool of moneyed interests, this makes him resemble the man who may be the most influential political philosopher among modern liberals, John Rawls. Needless to say, Rawls and Buchanan differed on what rules would lead to a just, universally agreed-upon constitutional structure. But the two men recognized that they were working on similar projects, and they debated their differences collegially and without imputations of villainy.

None of this comes through in MacLean's critique. Whenever she seems to be condemning Buchanan's method, she is actually attacking his policy conclusions. That's how she's able to both praise Brown and condemn restrictions on majoritarianism without any glimmer that Brown itself restricts majority rule.

Vouchers and Segregation

There are, to be clear, good reasons to criticize some segments of the libertarian community for how they acted in the aftermath of Brown. Consider (as MacLean does for many pages) the Richmond-based conservative journalist James Kilpatrick, who tried to justify segregation after Brown by arguing that the states should have power to "interpose" (that is, nullify) the ruling. It is true, and shameful, that the Volker Fund—a foundation that supported libertarian organizations and scholars, including Buchanan—also promoted and distributed The Sovereign States, Kilpatrick's racist 1957 book on the topic. When the libertarian magazine The Freeman covered Kilpatrick's book, its reviewer endorsed his arguments about federalism while pretty much ignoring any questions about black citizens' rights to equal treatment.

More broadly, many Southerners of the era who thought of themselves as staunch enemies of big government were also racist, or at the very least didn't consider blacks' civil rights a particularly important issue. MacLean doesn't mention it, but many Southerners who supported big government were also racist, or at the very least didn't consider blacks' civil rights a particularly important issue. Segregationist politicians were often staunch New Dealers, a fact that does not mean the New Deal was racist at its roots or that anyone who advocates New Deal–style programs is tainted with this original sin. Some intellectual traditions are deeply rooted in racism; others have elements that absorbed some of the racist atmosphere that everyone was moving in. If you're writing intellectual history set in Jim Crow–era America, you need to be able to distinguish one from the other.

Instead, MacLean more or less invents the idea that Buchanan derived his constitutional ideas from bigots, notably the 19th century Vice President John Calhoun. Both Buchanan and Calhoun, after all, believed that majoritarian rule should be constitutionally restricted, and she attributed to both the motive of wanting to protect the propertied from the huddled masses. But considering the long list of other people who have argued for a republic restricted in its powers, it is difficult to avoid the idea that MacLean zeroed in on Calhoun—someone who Buchanan literally never once mentioned in any of his voluminous writings—as the supposed founder of Buchanan's constitutionalist tradition solely because Calhoun was a notorious white supremacist.

Similarly, in a single short passage in his memoir, Buchanan mentions the Southern Agrarian writers as fellow appreciators of a yeoman farmer's life, even while acknowledging that this personal preference was somewhat at odds with his admiration for the market order. MacLean thinks this sufficient evidence to declare that one of the Agrarians, Donald Davidson—a man never mentioned in anything Buchanan wrote—"seemed most decisive in Buchanan's intellectual system," linking him to a vision that, in MacLean's words, "was racially exclusive" and dedicated to "the highly strategic demeaning of African-Americans."

Given the absence of references to Calhoun in Buchanan's own work, it borders on historical malpractice to make him and segregation the launching point of her story, taking up around the first 76 pages of her book. Some of MacLean's defenders have slyly stressed that Democracy in Chains includes no sentence explicitly declaring that racism drove James Buchanan to develop his limited-government vision. But the implications are clear.

We may be sure MacLean told us every racially insensitive thing she found in Buchanan's writing. If we choose to trust her interpretation of documents that the reader can't inspect—not necessarily a wise approach, since she is manifestly unreliable with many documents that the reader can—she has found a few things that would harm the reputation of anyone who said or wrote them today. These include a letter from Buchanan to a colleague that claims a college with "very few blacks in evidence" was "more orderly" than one with more.

Buchanan may well have picked up some of the prejudices common among Virginia whites of his generation. But there are also reasons to think he may have shed them, or at least that they did not determine his political positions. In 1965, when segregationist sentiments were still strong in his state, he brought to the University of Virginia as a guest lecturer W.H. Hutt, a prominent critic of South African apartheid who pointed out the similarities between apartheid and Southern treatment of blacks.

At any rate, given that it takes up a third of her book, MacLean seems to think that how Buchanan participated in the 1950s segregation debate is of formational importance to his intellectual project. She reports that he avoided a full-throated public attack on Jim Crow and that he showed no signs of being specifically concerned with its injustices. Instead, he co-wrote a 1959 academic paper (which was excerpted in Virginia newspapers) advocating education vouchers.

That essay does not directly address race, aside from a pro forma statement that the authors were against both forced segregation and forced integration. As a believer in the merits and powers of free markets, Buchanan and his co-author wrote that they saw a system of state-funded but privately provided education as one that would give "every parent…a vote in the market place and have it count," which they thought would lead private providers to "try to make better schools."

In 1960 a voucher-like system was adopted in Virginia's Prince Edward County, after the authorities there decided to stop operating any schools at all rather than run integrated ones. Instead they would offer kids tuition grants, theoretically without regard to race. According to a 2003 Indiana Law Review article, "In order to provide education for the white children, the Prince Edward School Foundation was formed. The Foundation built its own school and started operation when the public schools were closed. While an offer was made to set up private schools for the black school children, this was rejected by the African-American community which preferred litigation."

For MacLean, this suggests that small-government ideas such as education vouchers are little more than stealth support for segregation. She writes that Buchanan "remained mute" about the period when blacks in Prince Edward essentially received no publicly funded education.

Was Buchanan happy to see black students get no formal schooling? Or did he think—in line with his overarching belief that free markets would tend to meet most human needs, especially with demand financed by state tuition grants—that black children would ultimately get better service as paying customers of new private schools than as a class considered a contemptible nuisance in the old public ones? Or did he not consider the question at all?

The documentary record that I've seen doesn't settle this issue. But it's telling that MacLean doesn't for a moment consider that a staunch free market economist might have genuinely believed a free market might work to meet black children's educational needs in the long run, as he precisely stated in his 1959 paper, even if that view proved naïve in the specific short-term realities of Prince Edward County. She's more dedicated to indicting Buchanan than to understanding the implications of his ideas from his own perspective. (Her readers would also likely be surprised to learn that Buchanan believed government has an obligation to fund children's education, set standards for schools, and compel attendance at them.)

Dictating Freedom

One of this book's central contentions is that libertarians want to enchain democracy because they know they could never pass their policies democratically. Hence, MacLean's interest in Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile, which embraced both violent repression and a degree of market-oriented economic reforms. MacLean thinks she has found Buchanan's fingerprints on some ugly parts of the constitution the country adopted in 1980, about midway through Pinochet's reign.

The evidence here is some correspondence between Buchanan and Chileans regarding five meetings he had that year with that nation's minister of finance and representatives from a Chilean business school. MacLean does an interesting, if confusing, sleight of hand here. She discusses the usual Buchananite free market ideas that he suggested the Chileans consider for their new constitution. (Some of these—a balanced-budget requirement, de jure independence for the central bank—did make it in.) She then segues to aspects of the eventual constitution that cemented Pinochet's power and tyrannically restricted political participation, without giving proof that Buchanan suggested any of them. (There is no reason to believe he did.)

MacLean's book was doubtless finished before she could digest the lengthy account of Buchanan's dealings with Chile that Andrew Farrant and Vlad Tarko presented at a March 2017 meeting of the Public Choice Society, but readers who care to understand the meaning of Buchanan's actions in Chile should be interested in it. The two economists analyzed a speech about democracy that Buchanan gave at a 1981 Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Viña del Mar—a speech that had never been published in English.

Farrant and Tarko found that "Buchanan publicly upbraided those [Mont Pelerin] colleagues who appeared to favor military dictatorship" in Chile. The newspaper El Mercurio reported that Buchanan had spoken at the meeting about "the moral obligation that we have as people who love freedom to look for ways of improving democracy without falling into the naive belief that dictatorships are the only or the best way of establishing a free economy." Analyzing his speech within the context of Buchanan's views about how social decisions are best made, Farrant and Tarko show that he advocated universal suffrage in Chile and opposed, in Buchanan's own words, "any form of government by an elite, whether…an aristocracy…hereditary monarchy…ruling class, or ruling committee."

Buchanan's opinion of dictatorship, expressed publicly on a dictatorship's own soil, turns out to be the exact reverse of MacLean's contention.

Uncovering the Imaginary Conspiracy

MacLean conjures false drama from how, while researching the history of vouchers in Virginia but barely having heard of Buchanan, she entered the economist's office after his death. She riffled through his papers, she writes, "catching my breath" at "the historical trail" that libertarian conspirators "left unguarded" by failing to "lock one crucial door."

That shivery sense of drama doesn't pay off. Very little in MacLean's story derives from that archive. At one point, she describes a 1973 memo Buchanan wrote skylarking about a "Third Century Project" that would "create, support, and activate an effective counterintelligentsia" for free market ideas. As far as any available evidence shows, the sole effect of this document was a single meeting at Buchanan's mountain cabin; beyond that, I've seen no reason to believe the project ever actually existed.

Neither, apparently, has MacLean. She devotes seven pages to it anyway, because it buttresses her sense that prominent public intellectuals' decades-long work for smaller government can better be seen as a secret conspiracy.

But her most highly contestable conspiracy claim is the portrait of Buchanan as the hidden inspiration for a policy machine managed by the billionaire oil industrialist Charles Koch, beginning in the 1990s.

There's a lot wrong with this story. Buchanan's political stances weren't always the same as most modern libertarians'. (One example, which complicates MacLean's picture of him as a handmaiden to plutocrats, is that he believed in a confiscatory inheritance tax for large fortunes.) He's also way down the list of thinkers to have a direct influence on most libertarian activists, having produced no work specifically aimed at, or even easily digestible by, people outside his fields. If anything, he's likely to have inspired libertarian-leaning academics in economics or political philosophy, not politicos.

Koch money did indeed support institutions and programs that Buchanan was involved in (as it has many thinkers and institutions that push libertarian ideas, including—full disclosure—Reason). But to justify the pretense that Buchanan has some heretofore unrevealed significance that MacLean alone has uncovered, she leaps way beyond that rather unremarkable connection. In the 1990s, she claims, Buchanan's ideas shifted Koch's entire approach to activism. But the story she tells at length about the two men does not support this conclusion. Indeed, it actively undermines it.

In 1998, Koch money helped set up at a consolidated center for various pre-existing free market groups at George Mason University, where Buchanan had already been teaching for many years. This new institution was dubbed the James Buchanan Center for Political Economy. Buchanan, in MacLean's telling, quickly became annoyed with the center's fundraising style, which he apparently saw as overly political. After butting heads with other figures in the Koch orbit, he walked away from the project, and the "alliance" fell apart almost instantly.

Of course, Buchanan's ideas can still influence Koch even if the two aren't getting along. But MacLean provides no specific analysis showing that some idea uniquely attributable to the economist—as opposed to ordinary free market libertarianism—suddenly appeared in Koch-funded organizations around this time. Her actual evidence for Buchanan's supposedly central role is wafer thin. It consists entirely of some things Koch said in "Creating a Science of Liberty," a speech he gave at a 1997 Institute for Humane Studies research colloquium.

For MacLean, this talk proves that Koch found in Buchanan's work "the set of ideas he had been seeking for at least a quarter century…the missing tool he had been searching for, the one that would produce 'real world' results." Summarizing the speech, MacLean writes: "James Buchanan's theory and implementation strategies were the right 'technology,' to use Koch's favored phrase. But the professor's team had not employed the tools forcefully enough to 'create winning strategies.'"

The full speech makes it abundantly clear that Koch did not say or even imply what MacLean has him saying. The "technology" to "create winning strategies" that Koch spoke of is not public choice or anything else related to Buchanan. It was "market-based management," Koch's philosophy of applying incentives and knowledge-seeking processes to his business and philanthropic endeavors.

Indeed, the speech that supposedly marks Koch's adoption of Buchanan as his guru reveals that the actual fresh influence moving Koch in the late '90s was Michael Polanyi, a scientist and social philosopher whose ideas are beyond the scope of this review except to note that he (a) isn't James Buchanan and (b) isn't mentioned by MacLean at all.

Buchanan's name comes up exactly twice in the speech, once because he had spoken the previous day at the same colloquium, neither even hinting that Koch had suddenly embraced Buchananism as his new tool. That whole key part of MacLean's narrative, her connection of Buchanan with everything the Koch network has been doing in the 21st century, is pure invention.

With the same casual disregard for scholarly integrity, she uses this same speech to suggest that Koch had decided that "the American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes, using a covert strategy." Those 22 words are MacLean's gloss—in her word, a "translation"—of this line from Koch's speech: "The failure to use our superior technology ensures failure."

Nothing in either that quote or its unquoted context makes her summation in any way a "translation" of what Koch said. He was telling his colleagues to use market-based management and the "science of liberty" to more effectively create social change. It had zero to do with a "covert strategy," or with Buchanan.

The Libertarian Lesson

To sum up: In this curious book, MacLean's emphases are often irrelevant to her ostensible topic, and they frequently serve only to smear. Her reading of her sources is hostile and tendentious to the point of pure error. The historical story she claims to have uncovered—that Buchanan and his ideas are the secret, conspiratorial core of Charles Koch's political activity—is a product of her imagination. She is a startlingly bad historian.

But her book still has an important lesson to tell. Remember that MacLean's critique of using the Constitution to "enchain" majorities is purely situational: She's happy to endorse a ruling like Brown, where constitutional limits lead to an outcome she likes. Once you realize this, it becomes clear that what alienates her from Buchanan is something that unambiguously can be found in his work: ideas that might "reduce the authority and reach of government" and "diminish the power and standing of those calling on government…to provide for them in one way or another." This is anathema to MacLean, and in that way she represents a significant swath of progressive opinion, which sees libertarians' opposition to the redistributive state as a sin that condemns them as enemies of the people.

How big is MacLean's constituency? Look at the positive reception her book has received in many pop outlets of the left. Despite its abundant flaws of interpretation and storytelling, Democracy in Chains has had been lauded in quarters that don't know much about Buchanan or libertarianism, from National Public Radio to Oprah Winfrey's O magazine.

For this portion of the progressive milieu, it hardly matters that libertarians frequently fight for public policies that would largely benefit minorities and the poor, including criminal justice reform, occupational licensing reform, ending the drug war, easing up on immigration enforcement, stopping corporate welfare, and curbing overseas wars. Those battles play no part in MacLean's story. She insists instead that libertarianism is little more than a conspiracy seeking "a return to oligarchy…in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few."

For progressives of the MacLean school, it's not enough even to embrace the mild redistributionism that mixes libertarian policies with a limited welfare state. A range of figures have done that, and one of them—what do you know?—was James Buchanan, who was satisfied with government wealth transfers as long as they operated by general rules and treated everyone equally. For MacLean, he's still an enemy of the people for daring to call for limiting the government's ability to do the things she'd like the government to do. At which point anything, apparently, is fair game in attacking him.

If you too want to put such limits on state power, you owe MacLean and her enthusiasts a strange debt of gratitude. They've shown you your position in the public discourse with unnerving clarity.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, Viking, 334 pages, $28