Slate has a very intense and depressing interview with Nancy MacLean, author of a biography on Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan spent much of his intellectual life trying to conceive of the best society and government, one that a radical libertarian would love, the government being under no obligation to provide anything to anyone. MacLean believes that the “radical right” of our country, people like the Koch brothers and Peter Thiel, are heavily influenced by Buchanan’s ideology and that ideology is dark and undemocratic. The whole interview is worth a read but here are some highlights, starting with Buchanan’s evolution into darker and darker territories.
The core ideas kind of stayed the same. What did change over time was his own outlook. It became much darker over the years. His first big book in his field, which is called public choice economics, was titled The Calculus of Consent, and it came out in 1962 and was co-authored with Gordon Tullock. It was the work for which Buchanan was most recognized in his Nobel citation. In that work, he seemed to believe that somehow people of good will could come to something close to unanimity on the basic rules of how to govern our society, on things like taxation and government spending and so forth.
And by the mid-1970s he concluded that that was impossible, and that there was no way that poor people would ever agree … there was no way that people who were not wealthy, who were not large property owners, would agree to the kind of rules he was proposing. So that was a very dark work. It was called The Limits of Liberty. He actually said in that work that the only hope might be despotism.
Buchanan helped to advise Pinochet’s Chilean government on how to run a society without letting the majority of people have control. Real bedtime story stuff. She also goes on to explain that she believes people do a disservice in thinking about wealthy right-wingers like the Koch brothers as simply being greedy for money and deregulation for profit. She believes it’s a deeper ideological belief in their opinion of themselves dominating others. To this end, it’s not simply that people like Peter Thiel or Charles Koch are racists and misogynists—they probably are—it’s that those groups threaten obstructing their maneuvers to dominate.
I think actually what’s going on is that these people are extremely shrewd and calculating, and they understand that African Americans, because of their historical experience and their political savvy, understand politics and government better, in a lot of ways, than a lot of white Americans. And they are a threat to this project because they will not vote for it. So they want to keep them from the polls.
Similarly, young people are leaning left now, and they don’t accept a lot of these core ideas that come from this project, so this project has been very determined to keep young people from the polls. Frankly, if they could keep women away, they would, too. Because they understand that women suffrage opened the way to greater government involvement in the economy, and greater social provision and regulation.
MacLean also explains the circumstantial evidence that Charles Koch knew and supported Buchanan over the years, adding credence to her belief that Buchanan’s thinking is behind much of the Koch brothers’ vision of the world. When you add that to Peter Thiel’s infamous statements about how women’s suffrage screwed everything up in our country as well as his believe that there is an inherent “incompatibility” between “freedom and democracy,” it’s hard not to believe that this is exactly what’s driving this nightmare train.