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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
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