The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean
In 2013, the Duke University historian Nancy MacLean was researching Milton Friedman when she ran across references to an economist she hadn’t heard of, James McGill Buchanan. Indeed, few non-economists would have heard of Buchanan and probably would have casually assumed she was referring to the late fifteenth President of the United States (a man justly famous, until recently, as by far the worst president in U.S. history).
But this James Buchanan was a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and MacLean thought she ought to explore an archive of the recently deceased scholar at George Mason University, Buchanan’s final professional seat. What she found was an entire house on the campus that included his private office, which had lain untouched since his death.
The main burden of Buchanan’s economic theory was the argument that all economic actors, including government functionaries and legislators, are individuals seeking to maximize their self-interest.
Stacks of papers and letters packed the room. She started with the stack to her left as she entered, and soon found correspondence between Buchanan and the notoriously secretive right-wing financier Charles Koch. It turns out that Koch was the principal financial backer of Buchanan’s professional shop, and Buchanan remained for decades an integral part of the Koch project to undermine the American welfare state. MacLean would have a window on the whole operation—through Buchanan’s eyes.
The resulting book is a stealth attack on the Kochs’ stealth operation.
The main burden of Buchanan’s economic theory—what got him the Nobel Prize from the notoriously right-wing selection committee for the Economic Prize—was the argument that all economic actors, including government functionaries and legislators, are individuals seeking to maximize their self-interest. While free markets discipline self-seeking behavior among entrepreneurs, he held that government, by exacting legally sanctioned taxes, sets up many varieties of what he called “rent-seeking.” That is, everyone from senators to bureaucrats to welfare recipients is trying to get something without working for it.
This fundamentally libertarian theory is what drew the attention of Charles Koch as early as the 1960s. MacLean chronicles that half-century collaboration, and in the process illuminates not only Buchanan himself, but importantly, the whole Koch political enterprise.
Koch started with the strong conviction that the country had been headed wrong since the New Deal. His father was a founder of the John Birch Society, so he came by his convictions from the cradle. How could he bring together like-minded people to change the country’s mind-set back to the ideal of unfettered free enterprise with a government that only kept order and provided for national defense?
Buchanan’s theories were a key to reaching that objective because they challenged the conventional wisdom that the government could and should do good, especially for the weakest, least-advantaged members of society. Both Koch and Buchanan believed that this simply encouraged dependency of the “takers” of society, at the expense of the tax-paying “makers”.
Koch and Buchanan were successively disappointed by the Republican presidencies of Nixon, Ford and Reagan. Even Reagan, who talked the right talk, caved to political pressure at critical times such as the deal with the Democrats to shore up Social Security. By the time of the first Bush, they had concluded that they could never count on convincing a majority of the wisdom of their plan. This should not have surprised them if they really believed all actors to be rent-seekers. Where was the rent for the “takers” in following the radical libertarian blueprint?
Hence, from roughly 1990 the strategy was to proceed covertly, by indirection and deception. From this came, for example, the persistent insistence that Social Security would go bankrupt without such “reforms” as Individual Retirement Accounts, reduced benefits, and increased retirement age. From this came the obsessive insistence on tax cuts as the fix to whatever ailed the economy, thereby weakening the capacity of government to do anything. From this came the push for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which if adopted would permanently disable government’s capacity to counter recessions with deficit spending to stimulate the economy. And from this came the long-term focus of such Koch-funded entities as the Federalist Society to populate the judiciary with libertarians and conservatives who could block popular government programs like the Affordable Care Act.
The objective, in short, was to so shackle government at all levels that it would be unable to respond to popular demands for help. Then people would really be on their own, and the rich “makers” could keep their money and make more.
Years before his death in 2013, Buchanan himself had been sucked dry and shunted aside to end his days in his cabin in southwest Virginia. But the Koch operation continued to grow and thrive. Its tentacles literally reach all quarters of official Washington and the surrounding think tanks and lobbyists. It was a central player in the long campaign to undermine and frustrate Barack Obama’s progressive agenda.
In 2016, it looked like the promised land was at hand, with Congress already controlled by right-wing Republicans deeply dependent on the Koch enterprise, and the prospect of a conservative Republican President. But Donald Trump was not the president the Kochs had in mind. They did everything they could to stop him and failed. His hostility to free trade and demonization of immigrants were particular issues for the Kochs.
But what this book makes clear is that Trump is at most one more distraction, one more temporary setback for a cause that will not accept defeat: the cause of unrestricted plutocracy in the guise of democracy.