Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
by Nancy MacLean (Viking, $28)
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of James M. Buchanan, said Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic. Though the Tennessee-born economist won a Nobel Prize in 1986, historian Nancy MacLean is surely among the first authors to argue that the career academic, who died in 2013, created the template for the movement conservatives who are now on top in Washington. MacLean’s “undisguised loathing” of Buchanan “will offend some readers.” But she has dug deeply into the writings of this truly original thinker, and her new book convincingly establishes Buchanan’s outsize influence in sowing today’s bitter politics. He won his Nobel for advancing the notion that people in government are like everyone else in that they pursue self-interest, not the common good. Ultimately he decided that the majority of American voters would always seek government growth, too, and that to save free-market capitalism, the will of the majority must be thwarted.
“Is this nonfiction or an Oliver Stone film?” asked Nick Gillespie in Reason.com. Though MacLean has laid out a gripping conspiracy saga, it’s based less on evidence than on serial examples of “intellectual malpractice.” Democracy in Chains is, at heart, “a work of speculative history,” said Michael Munger in IndependentReview.org. MacLean, who teaches at Duke University, regularly cherry-picks evidence and guesses at the hidden intent of Buchanan and his compatriots to argue that they promoted racial segregation by advocating for school choice in the 1950s, helped Augusto Pinochet tear down democracy and establish a plutocracy in 1970s Chile—and aimed to do the same back home, with the help of billionaire activists Charles and David Koch. But no part of that narrative holds up to scrutiny. “It is the story of an alternative past that never actually happened.”
Buchanan, “while a giant in economics,” was “something of a marginal figure” in libertarian politics, said David Bernstein in WashingtonPost.com. He also so opposed rule by the rich that he championed a 100 percent tax on inherited wealth. But connect the dots, as MacLean has, and you’ll recognize in Buchanan’s political program many of the tactics and much of the rhetoric used by Republicans today, including those in the White House, said Genevieve Valentine in NPR.org. Voter suppression. Gerrymandering. Decrying Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. When “nearly every radical belief the Buchanan school ever floated” is being voiced by a Washington pol, it’s unsettling. “If you’re worried about what all this means for America’s future, you should be.”