The Incoherent Nature of Nancy MacLean’s Narrative
Nancy MacLean is a professor of history at Duke University and she has written a book titled, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. The book purports to be about a “stealth” plan of how to overthrow democracy of the United States and the grand master of this diabolical plan was none other than the Nobel Prize winning economic James McGill Buchanan, one of the founders of the Public Choice theory subfield of economics.
In her book MacLean makes a number of extraordinary claims. The one that will not surprise many is that the entire conspiracy has been funded by Charles Koch. Yes conspiracy is the word I used because that is what MacLean’s narrative is about a “stealth plan” by “fifth columnists” who are seeking to overthrow democracy in the U.S. for their plutocrat masters. Some of her other claims are that Buchanan was greatly influenced by Donald Davidson, a Southern Agrarian. Southern Agrarians were a group of writers and poets in Tennessee that held that working the land and segregation were the ideal. The other was that Buchanan was also heavily influenced by John C. Calhoun (link, link). Calhoun, aside from being Vice President of the United States was also a political philosopher and an apologist slavery. The only problem is that there is no evidence that Buchanan was influenced by either of these men. Buchanan’s influences were in fact far more banal. These influences included Frank H. Knight, Knut Wicksell, Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, John Rawls, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, amongst others. But not one single reference to John C. Calhoun nor Donald Davidson.
In addition to attacking the late James Buchanan, MacLean also trains her sights on Tyler Cowen another economist at George Mason University. MacLean quotes Tyler Cowen as saying the following in this essay on why freedom waxes and wanes,
If American political institutions render market-oriented reforms too difficult to achieve, then perhaps those institutions should be changed.
The problem is this is a classic example of selective quoting. A more complete quotation of Cowen is given by,
Many individuals have suggested procedural or constitutional reform could lead to freer economies for the United States and Europe. Of American political institutions render market-oriented reforms too difficult to achieve, then perhaps those institutions should be changed. Nonetheless, the available evidence suggests that unambiguously beneficial procedural changes are difficult to come by.
From this we can see that MacLean’s quote of Cowen is quite different than what she implies. Cowen is not suggesting that we change such institutions, but that many people have suggested such changes. And Cown then offers a warning that such changes are problematic in that there is no assurance that such changes will be unambiguously good.
However, MacLean does not stop there. She goes on to quote Cowen,
“The weakening of the checks and balances” in the American system, Cowen suggested, “would increase the chance of a very good outcome.”
But what does a more comprehensive quote show us?
Given the instability of the Westminster parliamentary system, as discussed above, it is unlikely that the United States would be better off moving in that direction. While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome. Furthermore, the widely perceived legitimacy of the US Constitution suggests that such a change would involve disastrous transition costs.
That is rather different. First off, Cowen is putting the discussion in terms of the parlimentary system in the U.K. and he is clearly warning about making changes that would weaken the checks and balances in the U.S. system.
In fact, Russ Roberts called Nancy MacLean on this. Roberts noted the mangling and mincing of quotes by MacLean to dramatically change the meaning of the quoted passages to suit her narrative.
Now what I found interesting was MacLean’s response to Russ Roberts. MacLean writes the following (see the link above),
You may think that the material you cite definitely shows Cowen as not eager to pursue non-democratic alternatives. I read it differently and I stand by my interpretation. To say that nondemocratic forms of government can have unfavorable outcomes and that “I explicitly favor more democratic forms,” is not the same as saying that I support and would not be involved in any attempt to overturn the American democratic system of majority rule.
As important, many of Cowen’s actions depict a man who has not just flirted with the idea of shackling majority rule, but helped powerful actors think about how to make it happen. I am referring specifically to:
1. His decision to inform his funding source for the report in question (Charles Koch’s Institute for Humane Studies) on how to bring about radical change that both men know the vast majority of people do not want.
2. His decision to provide a guide to the operatives funded by the Koch donor network who would carry out this radical change, in what Cowen himself called “big-bang style clustered bursts.” Let me also point out that the report Cowen drew up carried the subtle suggestion that success in carrying out these big bang bursts might require “the weakening of the checks and balances” in our constitutional system — something now obviously underway.
It is the last part that intrigues me. Again MacLean implies that Cowen wants to undermine the checks and balances in the U.S. system. In fact, she notes that this very such tactic is currently underway.
Why is this intriguing? Well consider the extended quote from MacLean’s book below (sorry, I bought a digital version so I cannot give accurate page numbers, but I copy and pasted this quote).
Americans are taught from an early age to revere the checks and balances built into our political system by that document, features designed to act as imposing speed bumps, if not complete roadblocks, to radical change from hotheaded majorities, particularly those who may encroach upon the property rights of the minority. The most obvious among these binding features is our grossly malapportioned Senate, designed to put brakes on the House of Representatives, which was to represent the people directly. A state with comparatively few residents, such as Wyoming, has the same Senate representation as the most populous state, California. That means the vote of a Wyoming resident carries nearly seventy times more weight than the vote of a Californian in Senate elections and deliberations. How fair is that? It’s not. It is precisely the kind of malapportionment that the Supreme Court, in the early 1960s, ruled unconstitutional in internal affairs of the states, whose officials were purposely overrepresenting rural residents over urban and suburban residents—indeed, a much more egregious departure from the “one person, one vote” standard. But because the apportionment of Senate seats is written into the Constitution, in the one section that cannot be amended, the remedy cannot be applied nationally.
On the one hand, this constitutional system has helped make the United States the most stable republic in the modern world. On the other hand, it has also made ours by far the least responsive of all the leading democracies to what the people want and need. It takes upheaval of truly historic proportions to achieve significant change in America, even when it is supported by the vast majority—as evidenced by the civil war required to end slavery, the tens of thousands of strikes and other struggles needed to achieve reform during the Great Depression, and the mass disruption and political crisis that civil rights activists had to bring about in order to win for African Americans the same constitutional rights enjoyed by other citizens. The existing checks and balances, in short, create an all but insuperable barrier to those seeking to right even gross social injustice.
The problem is systemic. Built into our Constitution, the change-blocking mechanisms prevent us as a polity from addressing our most profound challenges until there is supermajority support for doing so. We can see the toll of these constraints by looking at the problem of economic inequality. As it has swelled in the United States to a degree not seen in any comparable nation, intergenerational mobility—the ability of young people to move up the economic ladder to achieve a social and financial status better than that of their parents, which was once the source of America’s greatest promise and pride—has plummeted below that of all peer nations, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom. Many thinkers seek to explain this divergence by citing a uniquely individualistic culture. We have all heard those claims, perhaps even floated them ourselves.
But two of the country’s most distinguished comparative political scientists, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, recently approached the puzzle of U.S. singularity in another way: they compared the number of stumbling blocks that advanced industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process. Calling these inbuilt “majority constraining” obstacles “veto players,” the two scholars found a striking correlation: the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality. Only the United States has four such veto players. All four were specified in the slavery-defending founders’ Constitution: absolute veto power for the Senate, for the House, and for the president (if not outvoted by a two-thirds majority), and a Constitution that cannot be altered without the agreement of two-thirds of the states after Congress. Other features of the U.S. system further obstruct majority rule, including a winner-take-all Electoral College that encourages a two-party system; the Tenth Amendment, which steers power toward the states; and a system of representation in the unusually potent Senate that violates the principle of “one person, one vote” to a degree not seen anywhere else. Owing to such mechanisms, Stepan and Linz note, even in the late 1960s, “the heyday of income equality in the United States, no other country in the set [of long-standing democracies] was as unequal as America, and most were substantially more equal.” As arresting, even the most equal U.S. state is less equal than any comparable country. What makes the U.S. system “exceptional,” sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority.
To this already singularly restrictive system the cadre seeks to add still more veto points. In the dream vision of the apparatus Charles Koch has funded to carry out Buchanan’s call for constitutional revolution, it would be all but impossible for government to respond to the will of the majority unless the very wealthiest Americans agree fully with every measure. The project has multiple prongs.
Based on all of this I can only conclude that MacLean actually finds the checks and balances–veto points/players–as a problem. A problem that stymies the application of majoritarianism. A thwarting of the will of the people. “[A]n all but insuperable barrier to those seeking to right even gross social injustice.” Not only that the accusation of MacLean’s that Cowen and the Koch Cabal™ “are seeking ‘to add still more veto points.'”
Given this why is MacLean upset that Cowen wants to remove such “veto points”? Why did she mangle the quotes the way she did? This makes her narrative rather incoherent. Are the checks and balances good? Checks and balances that stymied the majority will as expressed in Kansas in 1954 and which was over turned that majoritarian outcome via Brown v. Topeka Board of Education? After all, Brown v Board was one of the supposed motivating factors of Buchanan, et. al. according to MacLean. Why would Buchanan et. al., want more veto points when it was precisely one of these veto points that gave us the very thing that supposedly horrified Buchanan, Brown v. Board, and which undoubtedly MacLean would completely agree with? I submit that not only is MacLean’s narrative incoherent she simply does not understand the political philosophy of Buchanan and other Public Choice theorists. Nancy MacLean is, to put it simply, an ignoramus.
Disclaimer: I receive absolutely no money nor support in any fashion from any source related to the Kochs. No grants, no funding, no honoraia, sadly no nothing. Not that I’d accept a grant, funding, or honoraia from the Kochs or anyone else that wants to throw money may way.