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Al Capone’s Vault

By: Jeremy Carl
February 13, 2018

hen people embarrass themselves, I tend to cringe and look away. I turn off talk radio when callers make a stupid point. I feel queasy when a colleague misspeaks in a public forum. And when reading Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, which was one of five finalists for the National Book Award for nonfiction, I felt nauseated. I was embarrassed for the author, embarrassed for Duke University and MacLean’s colleagues in its history department, embarrassed for the liberal reviewers who lauded such obviously shoddy and dishonest work, and most of all embarrassed for the prestigious National Book Award for having given it their imprimatur.

Sharply critical liberals can write insightfully about the rise of libertarian conservatism; Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, for example, was a serious, nuanced, and informative examination of Barry Goldwater and conservatism. In contrast, Democracy in Chains has none of Perlstein’s subtlety. MacLean argues that Nobel Laureate James Buchanan’s critical role in the creation of public choice economics—when combined with the money of billionaire bogeyman Charles Koch—helped give motive force to a bewildering array of organizations whose influence replaced mainstream Republican politics with a radical libertarian vision that has now taken over the party and its agenda. It is a difficult book to review; the author is ignorant of public choice economics and libertarian conservative politics. In his review of Democracy in Chains for the Independent Institute, Michael Munger, former president of Duke’s Public Choice Society and former chair of its political science department, notes that MacLean never contacted him or her Duke colleagues to discuss the book project.

Public choice economics is a broad field, but fundamentally, it analyzes political actors’ motivations through their self-interested economic incentives. While Buchanan is its most important progenitor, liberal economist Kenneth Arrow and political scientist Mancur Olson were important theoretical contributors. MacLean ignores them and numerous others in favor of drawing a thin line between the property rights views of pro-slavery partisan John C. Calhoun and Buchanan, despite little evidence linking the two. Insinuating racism is the heart of MacLean’s strategy.

One can legitimately criticize public choice theory, but MacLean seems ignorant of these critiques. Conservatives, for example, find fault with Buchanan’s understanding of Madison’s views on majoritarianism. Buchanan’s disciples often extend public choice theory too far, by reducing almost all political behaviors into rational-interest models. But MacLean’s unvetted attacks are extreme and ungrounded. She refers to Buchanan’s acolytes as fomenting a possible “fifth column assault on American democratic governance,” before hysterically defining the fifth column as “stealth supporters of an enemy who assist by engaging in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for conquest.”

MacLean has no sense of proportion, and her political biases continually taint her analysis. This is most notable when it comes to Buchanan’s importance: he was a respected but somewhat peripheral figure to the broader libertarian political project. And when discussing Buchanan and Koch’s attacks on public sector unions, MacLean is unwilling to acknowledge any rational reason behind their quest—the possibility that employees are unaccountable or that their excessive pensions are leading states and localities to bankruptcy is never mentioned. For MacLean, challenging public sector workers is ipso facto an attack on the middle class. One can make that argument seriously, but MacLean never admits that there is a counter-argument that needs to be made. Disagreement with MacLean’s view is a sign of support for oligarchy or corruption.

MacLean’s moral vision is strictly situational: Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia (whose political machine she credits with enabling Buchanan’s schemes despite a lack of any evidence they ever met) is blasted for having imported Caribbean “guest workers” to work his land. Yet doubtlessly today, like any good liberal, MacLean would protest any attempt to deport such workers.

The history of Buchanan’s school voucher support is the centerpiece of Democracy in Chains’s early narrative. MacLean helpfully notes that vouchers were adopted by Virginia segregationists in the 1950s. But her understanding of vouchers is myopic—libertarian supporters of truly open vouchers have always encountered resistance from both liberals and conservatives who did not want an influx of lower income students into their schools. Given her focus on segregation, MacLean ought to reflect on liberal New York and Illinois schools’ de facto segregation in contrast with the South’s, which are the U.S.’s most integrated.

There are numerous smaller errors that reveal both bias and ignorance. She singles out three Republicans who resisted the “radical right”—Arlen Specter, who ended his Senate career as a Democrat; “Reagan Republican” Orrin Hatch, a moderate who is distinguished by being one of two remaining GOP Senators whose careers preceded Reagan’s White House tenure; and John Boehner, who is notorious for his closeness to lobbyists. She attacks Jack Kemp for being part of the extremist, racism-rooted, cabal—but few worked harder than Kemp to bring minorities into the GOP.

Other basic factual errors include referring to Ron Paul, a Republican with a 20-year party tenure, as a “Libertarian Party” member of Congress. A discussion of Communist Angela Davis’ firing (while Davis and Buchanan were on the UCLA faculty) and Buchanan’s approval thereof makes no mention of Davis’ subsequent deep involvement with the “Soledad brothers,” who killed Judge Harold Haley with weapons Davis procured, leading to her placement on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list before she was caught, tried, and (dubiously) acquitted. MacLean also refers to the “common knowledge” that the secretary to a billionaire will often pay a higher tax rate than her boss, despite the U.S.’s progressive income tax which is the highest in the OECD. While billionaires occasionally pay lower tax rates in some areas than multi-millionaires, only a very unusual—and very highly paid—secretary would pay higher taxes than her billionaire boss.

The book is also rife with inaccurate sources. I checked one particularly implausible citation myself: MacLean claims that in 2014, only 8 of 278 Republicans in congress “acknowledged that man-made climate change is real.” Her cited source made no reference to anything of this sort. When looking at another of the paragraph’s sources, I found a reference to a Paul Krugman column linking to a PolitiFact piece alleging this “fact.” Yet in early 2015, 15 Senate Republicans voted on the record that human activity was having an effect on climate. And in the House, there are now 30 GOP members of the climate solutions caucus. If this is the level of MacLean’s fact-checking, no wonder her conclusions are so shoddy.

Beyond factual errors, MacLean glosses over the dagger aimed at the heart of her argument: Donald Trump’s election. Whatever thin support MacLean’s thesis might have mustered in the Tea Party era collapses in the wake of Trump’s decisive victory over the Libertarian right. Trump won, contra MacLean, precisely because he vowed not to touch the middle-class entitlement benefits Libertarian conservatives wish to reform. MacLean seems to have confused political rhetoric for policy.

While some Republicans may campaign on the libertarian agenda, precious few are willing to actually govern that way. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee are a politically marginal minority within an establishment-GOP dominated caucus. ObamaCare wasn’t repealed after seven years of promises. While Trump’s victory was certainly a surprise to many, the defeat of MacLean’s libertarian paper tiger was not. The federal budget has more than doubled since Reagan, and almost quintupled since Goldwater’s candidacy. The Buchanan/Koch conspiracy, if it had ever existed, would have been one of the most incompetent in history.

Like many committed leftists, MacLean overstates money’s political importance. Extensive political science literature shows that money’s electoral influence is vastly overrated, as the evidence from the GOP primaries bears witness. Jeb Bush spent $150 Million to win just 286,000 votes, while Trump, who was significantly outspent by all of his major opponents, won more than 14 million votes despite never fundraising at all.

Throughout Democracy in Chains I kept waiting for the big reveal that would show the secret details of Buchanan and Koch’s far right takeover—and was left disappointed. The book is the historian’s equivalent of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault.

Before reading MacLean’s book, I assumed “Democracy in Chains” was a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s quote that “in questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Jefferson, more than any of our founding fathers, had faith in the average “man on the street,” but even he recognized that avoiding mere majoritarianism and accepting the Constitution’s chains were vital in protecting America’s fragile freedoms, especially for those holding minority and unpopular views.

Yet this reference to Jefferson appears nowhere in the book—one must assume MacLean devised her title coincidentally. But perhaps Jefferson is too reactionary for someone of MacLean’s modern sympathies. She may prefer a later political philosopher who promised the world’s workers that they had “nothing to lose but their chains,” and who, like MacLean, sold people on a single bogeyman at the heart of the world’s evils.