Nancy MacLean: How Democracy Was Chained

Nancy MacLean‘s Democracy In Chains not only sheds light on the history of the ideas that have come to dominate the best funded wing of U.S. conservatism (more accurately defined as radical libertarianism), it also sheds considerable light on the ideas behind the Jindal era in Louisiana politics.

James McGill Buchanan

MacLean traces the intellectual and political history of James McGill Buchanan. She stumbled across Buchanan’s name in footnotes in separate sources on separate issues and her curiosity was piqued.

One of the footnotes referred to Buchanan’s role in Virginia’s attempted massive resistance against the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Buchanan, it turns out, was the brains behind the idea of proposing the state shut down and then sell all of its white public schools (Brown over turned the separate but equal ruling that came in Plessy v. Ferguson). Buchanan propose the state then issue vouchers to students whose families could then use the money to send their kids to segregation academies which could even buy the schools from the Commonwealth.

Like a number of other ideas put forth by Buchanan over the next 50 years, the idea of getting Virginia out of the public education business was not  popular with a lot of people in that state, not the least of which was the business community which had started growing in Northern Virginia. It was a reality that would shape how Buchanan and the people who used his ideas talked about them. They learned that being clear about the intent of their policies would produce public opposition to them. So, a level of language corruption was essential to the promotion and spreading of these ideas.

Buchanan was the leading light in what has become the public choice movement, which uses the concept of choice to undermine public belief in a broader common good and public interest. At the core of his beliefs is the idea that majorities are not to be trusted and that liberty is to be defined and measured in terms of wealth, property ownership and the extent to which the state can tax wealth and make claims on property that run counter to those of the owners. In short, when it came to government’s ability to tax and its ability to make policy, Buchanan believed that unanimous decisions were the only ones that could be considered legitimate.

In order to understand what Bobby Jindal did to Louisiana, the essential books are The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein and Democracy In Chains by Nancy MacLean.

Buchanan’s ideas, then, would award political veto power to the smallest, yet most powerful minorities — the rich and the propertied. Buchanan provided intellectual aid and comfort to the 1%. In return, they funded the ostensibly economic but truly political centers he founded using the largesse of donors such as Charles Koch at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and George Mason University.

In addition to school vouchers, Buchanan’s ideas include cutting taxes, shrinking the size of government, raising the cost of using government services — particularly higher education, removing government from the business of regulating business, and weakening any power that might challenge what businesses or wealthy individuals would do in any sector.

If you live in Louisiana, or Wisconsin, or Kansas, these ideas probably sound familiar it’s because governors in those three states (Bobby Jindal, Sam Brownback and Scott Walker – all connected to Charles Koch’s money and networks) implemented versions of those ideas in their states.

In order to understand the basic premise of how Bobby Jindal operated while governor of Louisiana, you need to read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. It provides the framework of Jindal’s approach to government, starting with the creation of artificial emergencies which opened the way for him to radically reshape Louisiana government in ways that he could not have done without the existence of those emergencies.

Jindal is an intelligent man who was served by smart people. It strains credulity to believe that they never could balance a state budget. The record shows that Jindal used recurring revenue shortfalls as the trigger mechanism to radically change state government in ways that we will be trying to recover from for years to come (think state cuts in higher education funding coupled with rising tuitions and think of the tax exemptions and incentives to companies that his administration threw at companies to get them to locate here).

But, Democracy In Chains shows us were many of Jindal’s worst ideas came from and they can traced back to Buchanan and places like the Mercatus Center at George Mason which Buchanan helped found and which consulted with Jindal’s Commission on Streamlining Government which operated for about seven months in 2009 and early 2010. This commission was where everything from Jindal’s so-called education reforms to the great severance tax razoo of 2010-13. Armed with those ideas (what Milton Friedman called a “tool box”) Jindal entered his second term with his ideological guns blazing in what turned out to have been a bone-crushing failure of a presidential campaign.

Jindal came into office with a surplus of $1 billion. By the time the tax exemptions were piled up, the incentives dished out and his administration’s general indifference to the fate of state government and its impact on the people of the state, Jindal left office in 2016 as the most unpopular governor in the country (followed closely by Brownback and Walker) leaving his successor John Bel Edwards a $3 billion budget hole to close.

Buchanan, MacLean writes, viewed himself as a theorist in the school of political economy. At none of his three academic centers were economists asked to deal with the actual math of economics. It was visionary work unencumbered by pesky numbers or even facts.

What the records of Jindal, Brownback and Walker show is that Buchanan’s ideas are not the kind that successful governments can be built upon. After reading MacLean’s book, it’s clear that breaking government was the objective — one which Buchanan, his office-seeking acolytes, and his supporters could not publicly reveal.

Duke University historian and author of Democracy In Chains, Dr. Nancy MacLean. (Photo courtesy of Duke University)