A heralded progressive exercise in deconstructionism self-destructs.
In her new book Democracy in Chains, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean accuses libertarians of working in secret to undermine democracy because of Charles Koch. Also, their ideas come from the plantation, and they all revolve around the late economist James Buchanan, who was motivated by opposition to the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. She means it, too, although I wouldn’t say she’s serious. One of her colleagues at Duke has said that “most of the book, and all of its substantive conclusions, are idiosyncratic interpretations of the facts that she selects from a much larger record,” and he’s being kind.
MacLean has been caught distorting quote after quote to suit her purposes. (Jonathan Adler is keeping a tally.) She seems to think the methods of a deconstructionist can be applied to history, that she is free to slice and dice source text to mean whatever she wants. One of her most common tricks is to take a descriptive statement and pretend that it’s a normative one. For example, James Buchanan once explained that classical liberalism (libertarianism) and George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” were categorically incompatible due to the question of paternalism, i.e., one’s attitude toward his fellow man. Either “other persons are to be treated as natural equals… or they are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to that accorded animals who are dependent.” Buchanan, for his part, thought others were equals.
MacLean gives him Bush’s position: “People who failed to foresee and save money for their future needs, Buchanan wrote in 2005, ‘are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to… animals who are dependent.’” This is exactly backwards, but the real intent is worse than mere distortion. She wants to portray Buchanan as a slavemaster at heart.
The sad thing is that all this dishonesty is in pursuit of a theory that is laughable on its face. Who is dumb enough to believe that a philosophy based on the most profound respect for human rights came from a peculiar institution that utterly negated them?
Several folks have pointed out the incoherence of MacLean’s main line of attack. She faults libertarians for supporting restraints on the will of democratic majorities. These are the “chains” of the title. Hers is the voice of the people. But the Brown decision was, of course, anti-democratic. Racist majorities were ordered to respect a minority’s equal right to a public education.
MacLean slips into the same contradiction later in the book, when she’s misrepresenting Tyler Cowen, director of the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University, as advocating “‘the weakening of the checks and balances’ in the American system.” Russ Roberts of Stanford’s Hoover Institution has exposed her trickery here, but it’s also worth pointing out that she’s contradicting herself. She wants us to see the libertarian as un-American, but elsewhere, she argues that checks and balances “prevent us as a polity from addressing our most profound challenges until there is supermajority support for doing so.” She makes it clear she’s not keen on much of anything checking a democratic majority, then attacks Cowen for the same position, which turns out to be her own invention anyway. This little hobgoblin is consistent only in her foolishness.
Still, it’s fair to say that MacLean’s general idea of politics is something close to democratic absolutism, with courts occasionally stepping in to uphold the latest fashions in social justice. When libertarians talk about restraints on the majority, they usually have in mind an expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights. When MacLean talks about restraints on the majority that she’d like to get rid of, she starts with “our grossly malapportioned Senate,” lamenting that “because the apportionment of U.S. Senate seats is written into the Constitution, in the one section that cannot be amended, the remedy cannot be applied nationally.” She blames our republican safeguards — vetoes, the Electoral College, federalism, and the rest — for “income inequality” (which Democrats still haven’t figured out is a perverse dysphemism for success), and moans that what “makes the U.S. system ‘exceptional,’ sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority.”
So great, you figure, she’s no Madisonian. It’s no crime to prefer a unicameral parliamentary system with no Constitution. Whatever. But then she says on the next page that “In the dream vision of the apparatus Charles Koch has funded” — yes, she really writes like that — “it would be all but impossible for” blabeddy blah oligarchs blah. You see, “the operatives of the apparatus tell themselves and those in their listening audience that they are restoring the founders’ vision. Some even call themselves ‘Madisonians.’ That, too, is misinformation.”
Now, forgive the interjection, but that one sentence actually features a pleonasm within a pleonasm, which is a truly rare feat of windbaggery. My hearing ears started to bleed at the redundancy of “listening audience,” but the whole eight-word phrase from “tell” to “audience” means nothing more than “say.” Bravo!
Her point, however, is preposterous and contradictory. Didn’t she just finish complaining about all the “stumbling blocks” and “obstacles” to democracy Madison wrote into the Constitution? And isn’t she complaining that libertarians want the same? Then what game is she playing here, other than trying to deny libertarians any sort of patriotic legitimacy for their ideas?
And she’s not finished. You see the Koch libertarian apparatus, they of the dream visions, is really “promoting a view of the Constitution from… the period after the defeat of Reconstruction…” She hangs this on nothing but a fragment of a Buchanan quote mentioning different systems in 1900 and 1960; Steve Horwitz at Bleeding Heart Libertarians exposed the fraud she’s perpetrating here, and also calls the book “a travesty of historical scholarship and a direct attack on the centrality of truth-seeking in intellectual discourse.”
Facts notwithstanding, MacLean’s point is that the liberty movement is “a cause whose lineage traces back to John C. Calhoun,” the little remembered Vice President and pro-slavery political theorist. In other words, libertarians are not the Founders’ progeny; they’re the secret bastard children of the racists. It’s not a throwaway comparison. Much of the first chapter is spent trying to establish a connection between Calhoun and Buchanan, but she ignores the only actual resemblance, one that relates to Madison. This commonality is so untroubling that MacLean mentions that others had noted it, but she never describes what it actually is. This is because it is simply the idea of consensus as a standard for collective action, a standard respected by the Occupy movement, among others.
Calhoun’s idea was to have a “concurrent majority,” a second governing body where members represented various “stakeholders,” as we could call them now, with some minority exercising veto power. In might look like modern Hong Kong, where one body represents geographic areas, and the other has mostly unelected representatives from agriculture, education, law, engineering, etc. Calhoun’s idea, of course, privileged planation masters, whom he believed represented both the interests of slaves and their owners. It shouldn’t need saying that Calhoun was wrong about slavery. That alone doesn’t invalidate a stakeholder system, not that libertarians have any interest in resurrecting the idea.
Calhoun and Buchanan both talked about coercion, but they meant very different things. Calhoun meant state sovereignty. Buchanan cared about the individual’s right not to be coerced or exploited. His work explored a system based on a unanimity principle, or at least something as close to unanimity principle as practically possible. MacLean claims that Buchanan and his invisible cabal “have never recognized economic power as a potential tool of domination,” but the truth is that the unanimity principle is first concerned with externalities — yes, those externalities: a mill that pollutes a shared stream, an industrial plant that pollutes the air of its neighbors. Buchanan understood that where consensus was required for action, externalities would be reduced to zero. And once you allowed compensation — for the polluted water, for the befouled air — the parties would always reach a rational deal, so long as each had the right to object. The opposite is also true, where a narrow majority is all that’s required to decide all questions of property, then factions will dominate. The miller and his friends might seize the farmer’s land, or vice versa. But power, not fairness, becomes the standard.
MacLean also tries to link Buchanan to an obscure segregationist Southern poet named Donald Davidson by the thinnest thread: Buchanan used the term “Leviathan” to describe the government, and so did Davidson. I almost felt embarrassed for MacLean here; she eventually acknowledges Thomas Hobbes, but my first impression was of a late save by an editor, saying, “You know, Nancy, actually…” The effect is a bit like hearing someone ignore Michael Jordan while insisting that the kids all started wearing Nikes because they wanted to be like Kurt Rambis. You could look up what Rambis wore… if you really want to… Jeffrey A. Tucker and Phillip Magness both had a lot of fun with the absurdity of the claim.
The point of MacLean’s nonsense is to distract the reader from the fact that Buchanan’s work responds over and over to the writings of Madison and Hobbes, among others, not these characters she comes up with. She has no argument here. After insisting that libertarians who see themselves as Madisonian are peddling “misinformation,” she simply drops it. What could she say?
In Federalist No. 10, Madison wrote that “a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
We usually call this “the tyranny of the majority,” but there’s a broader meaning to Madison’s idea of factions, one we’re too steeped in partisanship to consider. This is “that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
It is possible, Madison thought, to have a government that doesn’t pit one interest against another. Indeed, the Constitution he wrote provides for public goods, such as “the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards, and other needful buildings,” not the redistribution of wealth among factions.
Madison thought one practical solution to the problem of politicians ganging up on each other was simply to get big. “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” For one reason, they would be too distant from one another to realize they had sufficient power to pick on a minority.
Within two generations, it was clear that simple geographic expanse wasn’t going to prevent factions from forming. For one thing, some of the factions were forming to abolish slavery, a fact for which we are all grateful. Calhoun was utterly wrong. But the fundamental problem in Calhoun’s position, the problem with the categorical syllogism the South went to war to defend, lay squarely in a single one of its two premises. That is, it was the presumption that humans were property that invalidated their system. There was and is nothing wrong with the defense of property rightly defined.
A general system meant to protect the rights and property of all is not the problem; it’s the social contract. If you object to such a system in our modern era, it means you don’t think much of either rights, property, or both. You think they’re more like privileges allowed us so long as nobody else has a better claim, or belongs to a larger group making that claim.
It is people like MacLean that Madison knew “must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.”
Tomb of John C. Calhoun in Charleston, S.C. (Billy Hathorn/Creative Commons)