Harry TargWhat we are seeing today is a new iteration of that very old impulse in America: the quest of some of the propertied (always, it bears noting, a particularly ideologically extreme-and some would say greedy-subsection of the propertied) to restrict the promise of democracy for the many, acting in the knowledge that the majority would choose other policies if it could. (Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, New York, Random House, 2017, 5).
“Democracy in Chains”: Multiple Themes
Friends of mine insisted I read Nancy MacLean’s recent book, Democracy in Chains. Their enthusiasm for the book was so great that I finally picked it up. I found it profound as to how it addressed issues of political theory, consciousness, and political practice.
First, the book is a narrative biography of one scholar of political economy, James Buchanan, who has had a significant impact on the development of “public choice” theory in political science, sociology, and economics. In addition, the text uses his biography to develop larger theoretical, historical, and political themes.Second, it is a book about what used to be called the “sociology of knowledge”; that is how ideas are developed, disseminated, institutionalized, and become dominant ways in which academic disciplines address the subject matter they study.
Third, Democracy in Chains addresses the development of democratic theory, relating contemporary ideas about public participation in decision-making to eighteenth and nineteenth century American political theory. Significantly, it addresses Professor Buchanan’s attraction to Southern anti-federalist John C. Calhoun.Fourth, the book provides a rich description of the theory of “free markets” developed by the Austrian school of economics founded by Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich Hayek and institutionalized by the economics department at the University of Chicago.
Fifth, the book describes in some detail how scholars such as James Buchanan and wealthy advocates of “free market” philosophies have worked to influence higher education and public policy, not only at the national level but through the states and local government. The book describes how enormously wealthy free marketeers led by Charles and David Koch, their association, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and hundreds of think tanks, lobby groups, and funded politicians have been implementing their policy agenda.Each of these themes richly developed by MacLean deserves detailed examination and evaluation. As my exuberant friends suggested to me, the MacLean book is a major work of political theory and policy analysis that should significantly energize those progressives who see democracy in the United States as an endangered species.
The Threat to DemocracyBut for starters, it is critical in 2018 to address one of the central themes developed in her book, the contradiction between democracy and capitalism.
MacLean analyzes central premises of the so-called Austrian school of economics. Nineteenth and twentieth century luminaries from this tradition, particularly Van Mises and Hayek, articulated the view that the main priority of any society, but particularly democracies, is the extent to which markets are allowed to flourish, unencumbered by governments.According to this view in a truly free society markets remain supreme. In fact, “liberty” exists in a society to the extent economic actors are able to act in the market place. Virtually all limitations on economic liberty so defined constitute a threat to “real” democracy. Governments exist only to maintain domestic order (the police power) and to defend the nation from external aggression (defense of national security). Governments provide police protection and armies. And that should be all. In sum, as President Ronald Reagan expressed the market vision: “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.”
To further illustrate, MacLean describes the brutal dictatorship that overthrew the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Allende, a socialist, was elected by a plurality in the 1970 presidential election in that country and in the spring, 1973 in municipal elections held across the country, Allende’s coalition of parties drew even more votes for their candidates than did Allende in 1970. The United States, based on directives from President Nixon, had already moved to make the Chilean economy “scream” and had initiated contacts with Chilean generals who would be prepared to carry out a military coup against the popular government. The military coup, ousting Allende from power, was launched, ironically on September 11, 1973.As MacLean points out, in the aftermath of the coup, General Augusto Pinochet rounded up and killed thousands of Allende supporters, destroyed the long tradition of electoral politics, abolished trade unions, and began the process of ending government involvement in the economy and public institutions. Social security and education were privatized. Policies of nationalization of key industries were reversed. All of the shifts to what the Austrian school called economic liberty were imposed on the Chilean people with the advice of University of Chicago economists, such as Milton Friedman, and later, George Mason University economist, James Buchanan, who was instrumental in recommending “reforms” to the Chilean constitution making return to democracy more difficult. Subsequently only a few other dictatorships in Latin America showed any sympathy for the Pinochet regime with most of the world condemning its domestic brutality. But as MacLean reports, Milton Friedman and his colleagues never condemned the Chilean regime and Buchanan regarded it as a paradigmatic case of economic liberty, a model which the world should emulate.
Although the Chilean case represents an extreme example of dictatorship and free market capitalism, she uses it to illustrate a central point. In most societies, and the United States is no exception, majorities of people endorse government policies that can and often do serve the people. As a rule citizens support public transportation, schools, highways, libraries, retirement guarantees, some publicly provided health care, rules and regulations to protect the environment, as well as police and military protection. The problem for Buchanan and his colleagues is that each one of these government programs. except for the police and military, constrains the “liberty” of entrepreneurs to pursue profit.To put it simply, if citizens of the United States were asked if they support public programs, majorities would say “yes.” Although there have been extraordinary constraints on majority rule, even enshrined in the US constitution, the history of the United States can be seen as a history of struggle to improve and achieve majoritarian democracy. Demands for voting rights for women, African/Americans, non-propertied and low-income workers and others have been basic to the American experience. The great anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century all across the globe were premised on the vision of individual and collective sovereignty of the people. If economic liberty is conceptualized as inversely related to majoritarian democracy, then capitalism and democracy are incompatible.
Nancy MacLean, based on this fundamental contradiction, develops a narrative of efforts by celebrants of economic liberty, the Koch brothers and their allies, to build campaigns in virtually every state and locale to disenfranchise people. ALEC affiliates in state legislatures over the last decade have promoted legislation to suppress the right to vote, eliminate the rights of workers to unionize, disempower city councils, eliminate the right of local governments to make fiscal decisions, and to enshrine in curricula in K to 12 education systems and the universities ideologies about the virtues of economic freedom. There are powerful political pressures to privatize every existing public institution. Again, the best government is no government (except for the maintenance of police force to squelch demands for change and military power to protect the nation at home and abroad).So Democracy in Chains is as rich in analysis and warning as my friends have suggested. Much more needs to be disaggregated and discussed. But for starters Nancy MacLean is warning us that there is a powerful drive, based on wealth and power, in the United States to destroy democracy. This democracy, while flawed, has been fought for since the founding of the United States. Its continuation, leaving aside its need for improvement, is under fundamental threat.