Nancy MacLean’s generalized rewriting of James Buchanan’s views on democracy

I have only read a small bit of Nancy MacLean’s book on James M. Buchanan, public choice, and politics. I’m reluctant to buy a copy, but I wanted to see if it was as bad as some critics have said. (Now you know something of my limited knowledge of and pre-existing bias against the book. -MG) A few weeks back I spotted a copy in the bookstore. I opened it up toward the middle, scanned a few pages, took a picture of pages 150-151 and a picture of the related endnotes for later reference.

Given the criticism the book was receiving, I was curious how well the book would stand up to a little quasi-random spot checking. Judge for yourself below.

A paragraph on page 151 stood out for appearing to claim that Buchanan reluctantly conceded that despotism might be the only way he would get his favored system into place (this is the same paragraph featured in my earlier, somewhat tongue-in-cheek post):

But if not by willing consent, then how could the cause stop citizens from turning to government? Buchanan wanted to see, somehow, a “generalized rewriting of the social contract.” American needed “a new structure of checks and balances,” well beyond that provided for in its founding Constitution, itself already a very pro-property-rights rulebook, as he well knew. He advised “changes that are sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label ‘revolutionary.’” The time when it seemed as if normal adjustments might be enough had passed. Buchanan closed with “a counsel of despair” that troubled him. “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”90

The paragraph stood out because it seemed totally at odds with what I knew of Buchanan’s work. (See note below on my Buchanan, GMU, and Koch connections.)

Let us compare this paragraph by MacLean and the quoted material from Buchanan’s book The Limits of Liberty, which MacLean’s footnote 90 links to. The links embedded in the quotes below connect to the online Buchanan book.

Generalized rewriting of the social contract

[MacLean] But if not by willing consent, then how could the cause stop citizens from turning to government? Buchanan wanted to see, somehow, a “generalized rewriting of the social contract.”

The phrase “generalized rewriting of the social contract” appears in the forward to the book in which Buchanan is describing the overall issue the book addresses:

[Buchanan] Institutions evolve, but those that survive and prosper need not be those which are “best,” as evaluated by the men who live under them. Institutional evolution may place men increasingly in situations described by the dilemma made familiar in modern game theory. General escape may be possible only through genuine revolution in constitutional structure, through generalized rewriting of social contract. To expect such a revolution to take place may seem visionary, and in this respect the book may be considered quasi-utopian. Rethinking must precede action, however, and if this book causes social philosophers to think more about “getting to” the better society and less about describing their own versions of paradise once gained, my purpose will have been fulfilled.

Buchanan observes evolved institutions, “as evaluated by the men who live under them,” need not be best, and revolutionary steps may be needed to move the status quo. He wants the book to inspire social philosophers to think about how to get to a better society and not just think about what that better society may entail.

A new structure of checks and balances

[MacLean] American needed “a new structure of checks and balances,” well beyond that provided for in its founding Constitution, itself already a very pro-property-rights rulebook, as he well knew.

The quote is from the last paragraph of Ch. 9 in Buchanan, here is that paragraph and a portion of the previous one:

[Buchanan] If our Leviathan is to be controlled, politicians and judges must come to have respect for limits. … If judges lose respect for law, why must citizens respect judges? If personal rights are subjected to arbitrary confiscation at the hands of the state, why must individuals refrain from questioning the legitimacy of government?

Leviathan may maintain itself by force; the Hobbesian sovereign may be the only future. But alternative futures may be described and dreamed, and government may not yet be wholly out of hand. From current disillusionment can come constructive consensus on a new structure of checks and balances.

Buchanan’s “new structure” is presented as the possible result of “constructive consensus” on how to avoid an all-powerful state.

Sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label revolutionary

[MacLean] He advised “changes that are sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label ‘revolutionary.’” The time when it seemed as if normal adjustments might be enough had passed.

In Ch. 10, Buchanan is discussing the seemingly paradoxical term “constitutional revolution,” which he has mentioned earlier in the book and makes a focus of the chapter.

[Buchanan] The problem worthy of attention is [, given] an existing constitutional-legal order, as it is actually enforced and respected, how can changes be made so as to improve the positions of all or substantially all members of the social group? History produces an evolving status quo, and predictions can be made about alternative futures. If we do not like the particular set of alternatives that seem promised by nonrevolutionary situational response, we are obliged to examine basic structural improvements.

This is the definitional basis for the term “constitutional revolution,” which may appear to be internally contradictory. I refer to basic, nonincremental changes in the structural order of the community, changes in the complex set of rules that enable men to live with one another, changes that are sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label “revolutionary.” At the same time, however, it is useful to restrict discussion to “constitutional” limits, by which I mean that structural changes should be those upon which all members in the community might conceptually agree. Little, if any, improvement in the lot of modern man is promised by imposition of new rules by some men on other men. Nonconstitutional revolution invites counterrevolution in a continuing zero- or negative-sum power sequence.

Notice what MacLean avoids quoting: “how can changes be made so as to improve the positions of all or substantially all members of the social group,” changes “upon which all members in the community might conceptually agree.” Note especially Buchanan’s explicit statement: “Little, if any, improvement in the lot of modern man is promised by imposition of new rules by some men on other men. Nonconstitutional revolution invites counterrevolution in a continuing zero- or negative-sum power sequence.”

Can you read that sentence and conclude that Buchanan advocated imposing despotism via revolution?

A counsel of despair

[MacLean] Buchanan closed with “a counsel of despair” that troubled him. “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”

Here is Buchanan:

[Buchanan] In this respect at least, the modern radical revolutionaries may be correct; improvement may well require changes in the system, not in the personnel that man it and not through peripheral adjustments. But if both markets and governments fail, what is the organizational alternative? … Regardless of the organizing principle, the larger the proportion of “good” men in the community, the “better” should be the community, provided the terms are defined in accordance with individualistic precepts. But it is folly to expect all men to be behaviorally transformed. Yet this becomes the minimal requirement for an acceptably orderly society without organization.

Social order may be imposed by a despotic regime, through either an individual ruler or through an elite ruling group. Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe. In which case, those who claim no special rights to rule had best judge existing institutions in a different light. This would amount to a counsel of despair, however, and there may be alternatives worthy of consideration.

The Contractarian Revival

It is in this respect that the modern contractarian revival, stimulated largely by the publication of John Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice (1971), is highly encouraging….

Buchanan continues for fifteen more paragraphs until coming to a conclusion in which he advocates developing an alternative to both laissez-faire, which he said is too connected to “rights of property in the historical status quo” and socialism, which he describes as the “throughway to Leviathan.”

Read the original and you will note [as Art Carden commented on Facebook] Buchanan is not closing with “a counsel of despair,” nor is Buchanan actually presenting the “despotism may be the only … alternative” claim as his own view. He explicitly raises the claim to reject it in favor of contractarian analysis. He simply raises the idea as a way to transition the reader to what comes next: a discussion of contractarianism. [For more of Carden’s views, read “Democracy in Chains” Is The Perfect Book for the Age of Trump. The Reasons Why Will Surprise You.]

Conclusion

The constantly odd thing about MacLean’s book–as I have gathered from her interviews, her critics, and the bits of it I’ve read–is her presentation of James Buchanan as some sort of shadowy, behind-the-scenes, master political strategist trying to make the world safe for ultra-rich white people. Much of his work, and much of public choice theory, is aimed at explaining how wealthy and well-connected individuals and groups can use politics to exploit ordinary workers and consumers.

Does Buchanan actually think that despotism may be the only way he can get his system in place? MacLean wants her readers to believe that claim. Again, judge for yourself.

Above I try to provide context enough for the reader to make a fair judgment.

NOTES:

As an undergraduate economics student in west Texas, my public finance text was written by Buchanan and Marilyn Flowers. I became interested in attending graduate school at George Mason University because that was where Buchanan was. Eventually I earned my PhD in Economics GMU. I had a class with Buchanan and classes with Buchanan-students-turned-colleagues Robert Tollison and Richard Wagner. Without claiming to be an expert, I have some familiarity with Buchanan’s work.

Are you Koch-curious? If yes, you should read up on the ad hominen fallacy or take a look as this simple explanation by Art Carden: ‘Hocus Pocus Charles Kochus’ is not an argument.

For the curious, I have worked with and participated in events hosted by groups that have taken money from the Kochs. I’m a libertarian-leaning academic, which makes the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundations a bit harder to tap. At the same time, the vast majority of my current income comes the state of Texas. I have received much more money working for the federal government than I have received directly from any Koch-connected organization. [Upon reflection, “much more” is probably not true and “more” may not be true. I worked two years for the now-defunct Citizens for a Sound Economy, a group that Charles Koch supported, and three years for Argonne National Laboratory, but the Argonne work was under a variety of short-term, modestly paid positions. -MG]

Ideologically, I was a Milton-Friedman-reading free market Republican well before hearing of the Kochs, much less took any money from any organization somehow connected to the Kochs or their charitable or political activities.

I first learned of David Koch during the 1980 presidential campaign, and started leaning libertarian in 1980 after candidate Ronald Reagan went to Detroit to promise to protect American autoworkers from the Japanese. 

Many links to criticisms of MacLean’s book are collected here by Jonathan Adler: Does ‘Democracy in Chains’ paint an accurate picture of James Buchanan? [with updates].

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2 thoughts on “Nancy MacLean’s generalized rewriting of James Buchanan’s views on democracy

  1. Unfortunately Buchanan’s writing is usually so inaccessible and obscure that it’s difficult for a layman (the presumed audience for Maclean’s trade published book) to understand what he meant without significant effort. In comparison, Maclean’s writing is facile (where it is not outright wrong) and the reader is quickly satisfied that IMPORTANT INFORMATION has been received. In the battle for hearts and minds, I don’t see how Maclean loses here.

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