The Volokh Conspiracy

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Duke professor Georg Vanberg on 'Democracy in Chains'


Georg Vanberg, professor of political science and law at Duke University and president of the Public Choice Society, asked if I would post his response to his Duke colleague Nancy MacLean's portrayal of James Buchanan's ideas in "Democracy in Chains." Here it is.

Professor Nancy MacLean's book "Democracy in Chains" has received considerable attention since its release a few weeks ago. A recent Inside Higher Ed article reports on the critical reviews and Professor MacLean's allegation that these critiques are part of a coordinated, "right-wing" attack on her work. The book's central thesis—summarized elegantly in the Inside Higher Ed piece—is that Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan "was the architect of a long-term plan to take libertarianism mainstream, raze democratic institutions and keep power in the hands of the wealthy, white few." MacLean concludes that Buchanan's academic research program—known as public choice theory—is a (thinly) disguised attempt to achieve this purpose, motivated by racial and class animus.

As president of the Public Choice Society (the academic organization founded by Buchanan and his colleague Gordon Tullock), I am writing to respond to Professor MacLean's portrayal. Since she believes that critiques of the book are part of a coordinated attack funded by Koch money, let me begin with a disclosure. I have no relationship with the Kochs or the Koch organization. I have never received money from them or their organization, either personally or to support my research. I have not coordinated my response to the book with anyone. I do, however, have a personal connection to Buchanan. My father was a longtime colleague and co-author of Buchanan's. I am also very familiar with Buchanan's academic work, which relates directly to my own research interests. In short, I know Buchanan and his work well, but I am certainly not part of the "dark money" network Professor MacLean is concerned about.

There are many things to be said about Professor MacLean's book. For an intellectual historian, the documentary record constitutes the primary source of evidence that can be offered in support of arguments or interpretations. For this reason, intellectual historians generally apply great care in sifting through this record and presenting it in a way that accurately reflects sources. As numerous scholars have by now shown (see here, and links therein, for an example), Professor MacLean's book unfortunately falls short of these standards. In many instances, quotations are taken out of context or abbreviated in ways that suggest meanings radically at odds with the tenor of the passage or document from which they were taken. Critically, these misleading quotations are often central to establishing Professor MacLean's argument.

But rather than focus on details that others have already commented on, let me respond to the book's overarching, central thesis. I take it that Professor MacLean wants to show that Buchanan's ultimate motivation and aim was to undermine democratic institutions in an effort to preserve (or enhance) the power of a white, wealthy elite at the expenses of marginalized social groups.

Such a portrayal represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Buchanan's intellectual project and is inconsistent with the basic themes that were the foundation of his published work over more than 50 years. Professor MacLean is right that Buchanan advocated for "chains" on "democracy" in the sense that his academic work led him to the conclusion that unrestricted majority rule often constitutes an undesirable method of collective decision-making. This does not, however, imply that Buchanan was anti-democratic, or interested in preserving the power and status of traditional elites. Quite the contrary. The fact that Buchanan favored limits on majority rule originates directly from his deep commitment to democratic principles, including individual autonomy and equality. Let me explain.

The central question in Buchanan's work was the organization of collective decision-making- politics, for short. How should collective decisions be made? What can legitimize particular decisions and the political frameworks within which they are reached? Buchanan approached these questions with a contractarian perspective, built on two fundamental principles that he never wavered from, and that are again and again discussed in his published work over decades.

The first principle is that political and social institutions (and changes in these institutions) are legitimate to the extent that they improve the welfare of all individuals who live under them. Moreover, Buchanan believed that only the evaluations of the individuals concerned (rather than some exogenous standard or expert judgment) are the relevant measures of improvement. These commitments form the basis of his contractarianism: If a social institution improves the welfare of individuals as they see it, it should be possible to secure individuals' agreement to it. Conceptually, at least, unanimity rule therefore becomes the proper criterion for evaluating social institutions. Only those institutions that can secure the agreement of all individuals affected by them are legitimate. As Buchanan put it, "if politics in the large, defined to encompass the whole structure of governance, is modeled as a the cooperative effort of individuals to further or advance their own interests and values, which only they, as individuals, know, it is evident that all persons must be brought into agreement" (Buchanan 1986/2001: 220f.). In short, the very foundation of Buchanan's project is the principle that political arrangements should make all individuals better off, and do so by their own assessment. The notion that Buchanan favored arrangements that allow an elite to extract gain at the expense of others, or to impose their views on the rest of society, is utterly at odds with his fundamental stance.

The principle that social arrangements are legitimized by providing gains to all individuals, and that the only way to assess whether individuals secure such gains is agreement, leads directly to the second key principle of Buchanan's position: a commitment to the equality of all individuals. It is impossible to secure unanimous agreement to political institutions that "deny some persons or groups ex ante access to the political process" (Buchanan 1986/2001: 219). As a result, Buchanan concludes, "political arrangements must be characterized by political equality of all those who are included in the polity's membership, at least in some ultimate ex ante sense … What is required here is that all persons possess equal access to political influence over a whole pattern or sequence of collective choices. In practical terms, this means that the franchise be open to all, that political agents be rotated on some regular basis, and that gross bundling of collective choices be avoided" (1986/2001: 222). To claim that Buchanan was favorably disposed to institutions that institute or perpetuate political inequality, deprive some individuals or groups of political influence or establish an oligarchy, is simply mistaken.

What then, of "chains on democracy"? It is true that Buchanan did not think much of unfettered, majoritarian politics and favored constitutional rules that restrict majority rule. But the foregoing discussion should already make clear that this conclusion was not based on an anti-democratic instinct or a desire to preserve the privilege of a few. Instead, Buchanan's careful analysis, originating in his seminal work with Gordon Tullock, "The Calculus of Consent," led him to the conclusion that in choosing a political framework ("constitution"), all individuals will typically have good reasons to favor some restrictions on majority rule in order to protect against the "tyranny of the majority." As he argued, democracy understood simply as majority rule "may produce consequences desired by no one unless these procedures are limited by constitutional boundaries" (Buchanan 1997/2001: 226). In other words, what justifies "chains on democracy" for Buchanan are his commitment to individual autonomy and equality, and his emphasis on consent as a legitimating principle for political arrangements. To paint his endorsement of constitutional limits on the use of political power as motivated by an anti-democratic desire to institute oligarchical politics is to fundamentally misunderstand Buchanan's sophisticated, subtle approach to democratic theory, which was committed above all to the idea that political arrangements should redound to the benefit of all members of a community.


Buchanan, James M. (1986/2001). "Contractarianism and Democracy." In Choice, Contract, and Constitutions. The Collected Works of James Buchanan, Volume 16. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Buchanan, James M. (1997/2001). "Democracy within Constitutional Limits." In Choice, Contract, and Constitutions. The Collected Works of James Buchanan, Volume 16. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.