Nancy MacLean says before her research she had never heard of the conservative who is front & center in her new book on democracy

Historians in the News
tags: Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean



Author Nancy MacLean has unearthed a stealth ideologue of the American right. Her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, tells the story of one James McGill Buchanan, a Southern political scientist and father of “public choice economics.” MacLean details how this little-known figure has had a massive impact on the ideology of the far right. None other than Charles Koch looked to MacLean’s theories for inspiration. They are libertarian — but with a twist: bluntly, it “entails restrictions on the freedom of the great majority in order to protect property rights and the prerogatives of the most well off.” MacLean shows how this idea can be traced down through the last 60 years of right-wing politics, starting with Brown v. The Board of Education and continuing with the Koch brothers’ empire. And she demonstrates that those followers and those in thrall to the Koch billions are pumping up their fight under the new administration.

Kristin Miller talked with Nancy MacLean about her books and the influence of James McGill Buchanan on our politics both overt and covert. Read an excerpt of Democracy in Chains.

Kristin Miller: Did you know anything about Buchanan before you started your research?

Nancy MacLean: I did not. I had actually never heard of him, probably like most people in the country. I found him in the course of researching something else and I kept finding him in the archives on different important matters that shocked me, and so I began to make him the focus of the research.

KM: Just what is his theory of “public choice economics”?

NM:Buchanan was trained at the University of Chicago and was part of the same milieu as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and others whose names are more well known. What he did that was different from them is take the tools that he learned at the University of Chicago and apply them to public life. So he looked at public actors, including elected officials, as self-interested, as people who were not really seeking the common good, not really trying to advance the public interest, but really serving their own interests.

His theory of the motives of public actors was so cynical as to be utterly corrosive of the norms of a democratic society, as people pointed out along the way, but he would not listen.

So in the case of elected officials, he said that their real interest, their main interest was being re-elected. He was in public finance, so his contribution there was to say that because they were interested in being elected and because they weren’t paying for the things that they were doing from their own pockets, they didn’t care about running up deficits. They would promise one thing to environmentalists, say, and one thing to retirees and another thing to public schools and not care about raising adequate revenue to cover those things. He was not entirely wrong about that. But his theory of the motives of public actors was so cynical as to be utterly corrosive of the norms of a democratic society, as people pointed out along the way, but he would not listen. ...





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