Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America

By Horwitz, Steven | The Cato Journal, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America


Horwitz, Steven, The Cato Journal


Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America

Nancy MacLean

New York: Viking Press, 2017, 366 pp.

Although not her intent, Duke historian Nancy MacLean's new book has been a great make-work program for libertarian scholars across several disciplines. Democracy in Chains tells the story (and I use that word purposefully) of the "radical right's stealth plan for America." The unsurprising central figure of her story is billionaire Charles Koch. However, his surprising partner in plotting to destroy American democracy is the late James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986 for his contributions to public choice theory. MacLean sees that theory as the missing piece that Koch needed to put his "master plan" into effective practice.

Public choice theory is the application of the economic way of thinking--or "rational choice theory"--to politics. The theory starts from the assumption that political actors are no different from economic ones in wanting to improve their own well-being through exchange. Therefore both markets and politics can serve as institutional contexts for exchange, and public choice theory attempts to identify the results of such exchanges under those alternative institutional contexts. The analytical goal is to determine when "private choice" (the market) works better or worse than "public choices" (politics or other forms of collective choice). Public choice theory challenges the public-interest view of politics. It often shows how public-interest justifications for political action are unlikely to work because there's no incentive for political actors to produce those outcomes via political exchange. It is, in Buchanan's words, "politics without romance." And, because public choice theory helps show why many things government does are really about benefiting particular individuals rather than the public at large, it is a theoretical framework that is often, though far from exclusively, deployed by people with libertarian inclinations.

There's nothing especially radical about this theory. In fact, when Buchanan won the Nobel Prize, some in the media wondered why it was really necessary to give the Nobel to someone who had the ground-breaking insight that politicians are self-interested! Of course public choice theory is more sophisticated than that, but it is also true that we see its basic ideas as part of our nightly entertainment. The popular British TV series Yes, Minister was written with the explicit intent of illustrating public choice theory's understanding of the political process. Shows such as House of Cards and Veep also give us a perspective on politics that nicely aligns with the insights of public choice. The characters in those shows are self-interested, if not often egomaniacal. They want to get reelected, so their behavior is partially dictated by an awareness of voter preferences, as well as an acute understanding of what voters are oblivious to. In fact, they often like it when voters are unaware because it allows them to work in the shadows. Deals are struck with special interests, and others are stabbed in the back. Meanwhile, characters, such as Veep's Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), offer public-interest justifications for legislation that viewers know are mere rhetorical smokescreens for the real rationale: the trading of political favors that occupies the days of most politicians. And do viewers regard those shows as nefarious, anti-democracy, right-wing propaganda? No, in fact, most probably believe that they are roughly accurate portrayals of what goes on in our hallowed halls of government. Part of Buchanan's project was to systematically explain such behavior with existing rational choice concepts. So, despite MacLean's efforts to make public choice seem both obscure and radical, not only is the theory widely used in economics--and not just by "right wingers"--but we also see its influence in popular culture. …

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