The Buchanan-MacLean Controversy
The book, Democracy in Chains (with an even more lurid subtitle) by Nancy MacLean, a respected (until now) historian at Duke University makes a strong argument that the late James M. Buchanan of UVa, VaTech, and George Mason was the crucial link between the ancient states right racism of John C. Calhoun and the current Trump administration. From Calhoun, incredibly inaccurately labeled a “libertarian,” through the Agrarian Populist literary movement that was popular at Vanderbilt where Jim wanted to go but did not (he went to Middle Tennessee State, a poor boy claiming to be a “socialist,”), Buchanan becomes supposedly an effective supporter of racial segregation in Virginia in the 1950s, and then becomes the inspiration for all of later Austrian libertarianism, having attended the opening meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 (where they chose to be called “neoliberals”), and then after founding the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy at the University of Virginia, and then running to VA Tech in the early 70s, and then to George Mason in the early 80s, well, then he had a connection with the Koch Brothers, although this fell apart in the late 90s, but nevertheless he is the main link proving that Trump is a racist enemy of democracy.
This account has brought forth a massive counterattack from many current libertarians, much of it looking to me to be justified, involving many serious factual errors. I am not going to list them but note these sources for discussions of such matters: Munger, Horwitz, which includes other sources. I shall try to deal with matters not covered by them, noting that I largely agree with their critiques. The hard bottom line is that this may be a left version of rightist climate change denial: those reading this book need to be aware of how deeply flawed and erroneous it is, although it makes some valid points.
So what is valid? There is a very hard point that was not a main point in the book and has largely not been discussed, with most of the attention being on the deeply flawed account of Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter’s role in the matter of 1950s Virginia school desegregation (more on that later). The hard point is Buchanan’s role in Chile. MacLean is right that while there has been much been more publicity about the roles of Hayek and Friedman in Pinochet’s regime in Chile, Buchanan’s role there, nailed in by a crucial visit in 1980, may have been far more influential in forming the eventual constitution, although this happened well after the original coup by Pinochet in 1973. He played a key role in developing their constitution, which MacLean claims has anti-democratic elements that have in place defenses for the rights of capitalists that can only be overcome by two rounds of legislative votes. Yes, does put a pro-capitalist tilt in there, but two rounds of the legislature to overturn it? In fact it was accepted by a referendum and has been amended numerous times since and reestablished a parliamentary democracy. Does not exactly look like Stalin or Hitler or Mao or Kim Il Sung or something deserving the label “democracy in chains.”. But it is not pretty, given all the blood Pinochet spilled, and just like Hayek and Friedman, Buchanan has this matter on his late conscience, and it is notable that he never published anything on this, and aside from a meeting in Palo Alto right after he did it, he never publicly bragged about it or acknowledged it, although apparently he did so at that meeting. But maybe he realized that it was the stain on his career that it is, and he was in the end embarrassed about it and wished to cover it up.
The second matter is the most controversial, and indeed is the centerpiece of MacLean’s book. This is the matter of his role with Nutter in 1959 in the school desegregation issue in Virginia, the one point regarding which an actual professional economist has come out for MacLean, namely Brad DeLong. This is a much murkier matter, and after looking at it I see it as unclear with MacLean leaving out crucial details, quite aside from ignoring crucial exculpatory evidence, even as she has some case. This has to do with a report Buchanan and Nutter wrote to a specially appointed commission to deal with the school desegregation issue in 1959, in the context of Prince Edward County going for massive resistance against the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education SCOTUS ruling that led to the racial integration of public schools. I think Buchanan should have signed the petition of VA academics supporting that ruling, but he did not. His proposal with Nutter suggested allowing vouchers for private schools along with public schools, and MacLean and DeLong claim that this supported the effort to close down public schools in Prince Edward County. MacLean is right that at the time this did effectively support that movement, although the Buchanan-Nutter proposal did not call for ending public education, and Buchanan has been in many places on record supporting the existence of public education, if with private school competition in the form of vouchers.
This is the central part of the book’s argument, and it is the most heatedly debated, and I do not have the bottom line on it, although it looks to me that MacLean has overstated her argument. A crucial issue has to do with race, obviously. MacLean herself accepts that there is zero evidence that Buchanan was himself a racist and that all of this was just part of his supposedly libertarian/Koch/Trump view of the world. As it is, I think that whatever was really going on in 1959, the bottom line on Buchanan’s views is given on p. 56 of her book where she grants that he supported “voluntary” and “local” desegregation based on local conditions, which she then effectively dismisses with a remark that he did not know what was going on in Arkansas and elsewhere, a comment that looks to me to be seriously stupid, to be very blunt. Bottom line here is that Buchanan and Nutter may have effectively played a role in supporting the pro-segregationists in Virginia in 1959, but that was not their position.
What about major problems with MacLean’s arguments? I shall note three, starting with one noted by others and effectively granted by MacLean herself. This is the claim she makes in the final chapter that Tyler Cowen supports suppressing democracy. This is based on a quote she supplies that was definitely taken out of context, a context where it was clear that the content of the isolated quote was contradicted by what immediately followed it. Even those who have supported MacLean’s book on Facebook such as Gary Mongiovi have agreed that MacLean was simply out to lunch on this matter, although while she has recognized that the quote is problematic, she has not fully retracted her argument related to it. This is almost certainly tied to Cowen being director of the largely Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason, with this being sort of the final piece de resistance of her book and argument, supposedly from racist anti-democratic John C. Calhoun to supposedly anti-democratic and implicitly racist Koch-funded libertarians at George Mason and Donald Trump.
A second problem reflects that MacLean is not an economist and seems to seriously misunderstand public choice theory, with her views on rent seeking being a strong example. In discussing rent seeking, a concept originated by Buchanan’s important coauthor, the late Gordon Tullock, and labeled by the centrist liberal development economist, Anne Krueger, she consistently identifies the supposed rent seekers as politicians seeking voting support from activist liberal groups such a unions and civil rights groups, especially the latter, whom the the supposedly anti-democratic tendencies of Buchanan are directed against. But in fact in public choice theory the rent seekers are priviate interest groups that use government to create artificial monopolies, which generate the rents these groups are seeking. It is really a quasi-Marxist view that sees capitalists using the government to enhance their corrupt profits. It is ironic that I have seen public choice economists show up at URPE social gatherings at meetings to discuss how they have this in common with the radical left URPE folks, opposition to corrupt use of the government by rent seeking private interests. I am not sure the URPE people were all that open when I saw this, but there is no doubt that MacLean simply is completely wrong here and totally misrepresents public choice theory on this point, although the strongly pro-free market stance of both Buchanan and Tullock can easily mislead people on this.