COVID Quarantine Book Review: Democracy in Chains

by Nancy MacLean

In “Democracy in Chains”, historian Nancy MacLean explores the life work of political economist James M. Buchanan, and his impact on politics in the United States since the 1950’s.

Buchanan was one of the earliest proponents of political economy which valued the ideals of “public choice theory” and individual liberty.

His thought leadership, and work with a network of thinkers helped build a libertarian dynasty. That dynasty has led the United States down a path that we currently find ourselves.

Early Influences

Buchanan, who was born and raised in Murfreesboro, TN, is the grandchild of Tennessee Governor John P. Buchanan, who was elected in 1890 in a wave of worker led populism.

Gov. Buchanan, a Democrat, worked with the populist “hay seeds” and state Republicans to pass laws aimed at helping farmers and labor in the state. His time in office was marred by the Coal Creek War. Laborers went on strike against big coal, and the state, who was using convict labor to undermine collective bargaining.

Gov. Buchanan served one term. He placed third in the 1892 gubernatorial election, running as an independent.

The younger Buchanan couldn’t have been more different. Early on, he developed foundation for ideas that have since severed as the underpinning of libertarian thought. The “Virginia School of Political Economy” was born.

In Buchanan’s view, any taxation or pubic spending without unanimous consent, was theft from the wealthy.

So long as unanimity is violated, was government action legitimate? even if the people’s representatives were duly elected? Might the “confiscation through taxation of goods” from an unwilling person not be seen as “criminal”?

Democracy in Chains, Chapter 9

This radical view of taxation didn’t stop there. It extended itself to the voting franchise as well. In Buchanan’s view, democracy needed to be protected from “too much democracy”. Nothing should infringe on the property of “the makers” without their unanimous consent.

Public Choice education in Virginia

Channeling the nullification ideals set forth by South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, Buchanan’s early work included the thought leadership behind anti-desegregation plans in Virginia.

In 1956 Buchanan was working at the University of Virginia. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education.

In coordination with and at the behest of the President of the University of Virginia, Buchanan set about looking for a solution to the desegregation problem. He sought something that would end public education, which he saw as excessive taxation (aka theft). He also wanted to maintain the “peculiar” social order in Virginia, which is code for racism.

Buchanan’s solution was to privatize the public schools. The State would issue vouchers that would allow students to attend segregated private schools on the public dime. Public schools were not privatized, but the voucher plan was enacted. This helped establish the first segregation academies in the south.

Build a network of allies

Over the course of his career, Buchanan used his ability to raise money as a cudgel to avoid University oversight.

This led to several fights with administrations that he ultimately lost, but these losses were only short-term setbacks. At every turn Buchanan was able to use his status and fundraising ability to land on his feet. Most of the time in a greater position of power.

In the process, he was building a network of allies throughout the field of economics. While luminaries like Milton Friedman took the spotlight, Buchanan preferred to work in the shadows. He quietly trained up an army of political economists, who would eventually, find homes in academia and libertarian think tanks.

This “under the radar” manner of work allowed him a great deal of flexibility. Buchanan controlled graduate program admissions. He controlled curriculum. This single minded control followed him from UVA, to Virginia Tech and George Mason University.

By his death, Buchanan helped built a small army of libertarian economists, attorneys and thought leaders. They continued spreading their message through privately funded centers at universities across the nation.

From “Public choice”, to Pinochet, and ultimately, plutocracy…

While heralding ideas like “public choice”, Buchanan was actually arguing for a kind of plutocracy.

Public choice, after all, meant privatizing public assets for the ultimate good of those who could afford them. The “choice” was largely relegated to the upper classes.

This showed through in his work with the autocratic government of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

In Chile, Buchanan saw an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. He worked with leaders in the Pinochet government to craft a new Constitution. A chief aim was to make the Constitution nearly impossible to amend. Pinochet then unleashed a series of policies that would privatize the vast majority of public assets. This included the nation’s social safety net.

He was outlining a world in which the chronic domination of the wealthiest and most powerful over all others appeared the ultimate desideratum, a state of affairs to be enabled by his understanding of the ideal constitution.

Democracy in Chains, Chapter 9

The resulting constitution left an enduring mark on Chile, even after the fall of the Pinochet regime.

Fifth column assault on democracy

American economist James Buchanan won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics – via Atlas Network

By the time Buchanan arrived at George Mason University, he had enshrined himself in an elite group of economists.

In 1985 the Institute for Humane Studies, a libertarian non-profit, funded through the largess Charles Koch, moved to George Mason. The University became home base for the thought leadership for the Koch political network.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his work on public choice theory.

Now, it seemed, all the political stars were in line. The Virginia School, which sought to de-legitimize public spending on social services, was ascendant. Privatization, once a fringe idea, was mainstream. It was changing politics as we knew it.

Many liberals then and since have tended to miss this strategic use of privatization to enchain democracy, at worst seeing the proposals as coming simply from dogma that preferred the private sector to the public. Those driving the train knew otherwise. Privatization was a key element of the crab walk to the final, albeit gradual, revolution – the ends justify the means approach that allowed for using disingenuous claims to take terrain that would make the ultimate project possible

Democracy in Chains, Chapter 9

But despite rhetorical gains, and growing acceptance of privatization, there remained a roadblock. Social Welfare programs like Medicare and Social Security were very popular.

…the enduring impediment to the enactment of their political vision was the ability of the American people, through the power of their numbers, to reject the program.

Democracy in Chains, Chapter 12

Koch, armed with the rhetoric and cadre of thinkers needed to change minds, set his money to market the plan.

Decades of spending and court decisions have led us to our current high dollar, high stakes political climate.


Democracy in Chains fills in many of the gaps in the history of the American conservative movement.

While the funding is well known, the evolution of thought leadership is not.

We assume libertarian thought is expressing a self-interest in saving property from taxation. Consolidating power in the hands of a few elites is where it currently sits. The whole time it has been a vehicle for the wealthy to maintain dominance over the general populous.

This yearning for yesteryear, especially one that involves the subjugation of minorities and working class is not a coincidence. Segregation is where Buchanan’s thought experiments began.

Its hard to believe, despite the intervening years, that the aims of “public choice” hasn’t strayed from the original target.

I read this book online, through the Memphis Public Library online book portal. This is my first time using it. I’m pretty satisfied with the way it worked.

It weighed in at about 400 pages of well spaced text, along with 300 more of reference and index.

I had a hard time putting it down. Engaging and insightful, this book helped me understand how and why our politics have changed. It illustrated the decades long focus that lead us here, and the Herculean effort it will take to get back on track.

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