By Chet Yarbrough
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
By: Nancy MacLean
Narrated by Bernadette Dunne
Nancy MacLean (American author, historian, professor at Duke University)
Labeling people is mind numbing. Labeling of political and economic interests is a crime against reason. Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, libertarian, Tea Partier, right-wing, and left-wing are some of the most common political labels. In the light of reason, none of these labels make consistent sense.
In modern American politics, labels attach themselves to people like Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and the Koch Brothers.
The only common characteristic of these representatives is that they are human’. Their labels only speak of partial truths about what they believe and what economic policies they support. Nancy MacLean uses most of these labels to make her case for “Democracy in Chains”.
Depending on one’s point of view, MacLean enlightens one side of her argument that, indeed, democracy is in chains. The chains of which she writes are manufactured, distributed, and applied by corporate America. MacLean identifies Noble Prize winner in Economics, James Buchanan, as the theorist that gave momentum to the Koch brothers’ political drive for unfettered free-enterprise.
Humans, even historians, are not omniscient. They are burdened with personal experiences that shape their beliefs and often compound their biases. Beliefs are not objective. They are right and wrong within the boundaries of facts and societal norms. Facts are facts, but norms are accepted behaviors that conform to a group, community, or culture.
An appeal Trump has to some Americans has to do with his consistency in denying the truth. Covid19 is a devastating killer but Trump gives comfort to many who want to believe his denial of reality. The same might be said about Trump’s global warming opinions. The science shows his chosen facts are wrong and America will pay for it in one way or another.
Trumpism is a disease of America’s own making but this too will pass. History will reflect how dangerous modern media is in promoting the worst qualities of the American electorate.
Societal norms change with time and human experience. Facts do not change but their interpretation is changed by new societal norms.
A prime example of facts that change, based on social norms, is the fact of world misogyny. “Me Too” has changed the meaning of the fact. Harvey Weinstein is now in prison and Jeffrey Epstein killed himself.
Slavery, misogyny, discrimination based on race, color, or creed, religious intolerance, and murder in war have been societal norms at different times in world history. MacLean suggests “Democracy in Chains” comes from a conspiracy of libertarians hiding among Republicans to reinterpret the Constitution of the United States.
That part of the American Constitution’s preamble that says the purpose of government is to provide for “general welfare” of all, is at issue with political and economic labels.
MacLean creates an argument that sounds like a conspiracy theory, a cabal of rich benefactors and political zealots who collude to reinterpret the American Constitution.
The principals of this conspiracy are the Koch brothers based on a theory grounded on an interpretation of von Mises’ economics.
Ludwig von Mise’s economic theory is artfully resurrected by the economist James Buchanan, modified by Friedrich Hayek, and reinforced by Milton Friedman.
Buchanan’s fundamental argument is that free enterprise should be free. He argues that the profit motive outweighs the negative consequence of social inequity by offering equal opportunity.
In Buchanan’s opinion, the only purpose of government is to provide for the common defense of the country. Education should be financed by private ownership of schools. Buchanan argues government financing of social service interferes with the benefits of a free market.
Buchanan reinforces a Spencerian belief in a “survival of the fittest”, a beggar thy neighbor distortion of Darwinian evolution. MacLean suggests the Koch brothers adopt Buchanan’s economic theory and implement it through clandestine proselytizing of others, and financial support for candidates who will vote for maximal unregulated free enterprise.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) conflates Darwinian evolution with free enterprise.
MacLean points to the folly of Buchanan’s economic policy in his consultation with President Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Buchanan recommends creation of a constitution that establishes and enforces Buchanan’s free-enterprise theories that forbade trade unions and encourage privatized social security. Unlike America, Pinochet’s free-enterprise government had no checks and balances.
Augusto Pinochet (Junta leader, military Commander and Chief, and then President of Chile from 1974-1990, died in 2006.)
With military oversight and control, Pinochet’s government victimized its citizens in the guise of a government that supposedly embraced libertarian free-enterprise. In fact, Pinochet’s constitutional government enriched a small minority and victimized (both economically and physically) the majority of the Chilean population.
Ludwig von Mises, an economics professor of the Austrian school, is the teacher of Friedrich Hayek. MacLean reviews papers written by James Buchanan who endorses von Mises economic theory; without any acknowledgement of Hayek’s tempering of von Mises’ “no quarter” for the poor or disabled. Buchanan becomes a theorist who motivates the Koch brothers to spend millions of dollars to undermine Government regulation of free enterprise.
MacLean explains how the Koch brothers create a non-profit foundation to elect Senators and Representatives to undermine unionization, government support of public health, public education, social security, and other public services supported by government tax dollars. This cabal is formed in the 1960s, particularly after Johnson’s “Great Society” movement. The cabal is built on belief that health, education, and welfare are best served by free enterprise, not government programs.
MacLean notes how this cabal fights increased taxes on the rich to pay for public services that subsidized public health, education, and welfare. Buchanan identifies federal taxes as a form of confiscatory government action, tantamount to a tyranny of the majority over a rich minority.
The cabals’ argument is that private enterprise is the real engine of improved public health, education, and welfare for all Americans. Their supporting evidence is the rising wealth of the economy, and the general health of the American population.
The “libertarian” Koch followers imply the gap between rich and poor is a motivation for climbing the ladder of American opportunity.
Though MacLean labels this cabal as Libertarian in motive, it hides behind a cloak of Republicanism. MacLean argues that Republicans who fight this secret organization either change their tune or lose their public office. Her evidence is Republicans who have lost their seat in Congress, like John Boehner, or switched their tune, like Orrin Hatch, who retired after 42 years as a Republican Senator from Utah.
Putting aside labels, “Democracy in Chains” is simply about self-interest. Human nature is to seek one’s own interest whatever one’s political or economic label. Until self-interest becomes care for all Americans, there will be opposition to government tax dollars for public health, education, and welfare.
MacLean implies American Democracy is chained by the self-interest of the rich and industry lobbyists who feed the electoral process. The issue of government competence is deeply affected by dollars spent by corporations and the rich to elect sycophants.
The election process in America needs reform. Government competence in providing public welfare is distorted by lobbyists pursuing their own agenda.
Only competent government can deal with the complex causes of homelessness, a failing public education system, international conflict, pandemics, and environmental disasters.
When homelessness, poor education, crime, a pandemic, or physical disaster directly affects the self-interest of the many, even the …Radical Right…will turn to government for help.
An irony of MacLean’s labeling of the Koch cabal is Donald Trump’s election as the President of the United States.
Trump is his own label, neither Republican, conservative, libertarian, or liberal, but he is a product of the Koch brothers’ division of the Republican party.
Trump’s veto of Congress’s approval of a Defense bill and Covid19 relief reflect the temper tantrum of an eight year old.
Trump’s life may be spared by the experimental medicine he has been given. His response is “don’t be afraid” of Covid19. Whether he lives or dies, all people should be afraid.
Trump is a carnival barker trying to attract patrons to an entertainment venue. He has no particular philosophical underpinning. That may explain why he became the President of the United States. America has lost its way.
Toward the end of MacLean’s book, the libertarian attack on social security is shown as a penultimate example of the threat of ideas in the United States. The irony of that statement is that the U.S. is a monumental beneficiary of ideas in its Constitution.
MacLean explains how Buchanan recognizes how social security in the United States is an election killer for anyone who argues it should be privatized. Buchanan, and presumably the Kochs and their followers, devise a scheme to split the electorate that supports social security.
- Co-opt those nearing retirement by making them exempt from any changes in the social security benefit.
- Offer IRA’s as an attractive alternative to government subsidized social security.
- Enlist the finance industry into a campaign for privatization of social security as a benefit to them for more private investment through their investment houses.
- Emphasize the frail financial viability of social security for the younger generation by suggesting it will go bankrupt before they are eligible.
- Explain the potential for increase in taxes on the rich to maintain social security when now their contribution is limited to the same payroll contribution as the poor and middle class.
If this divide and conquer scheme works, opposition to privatization of social security becomes less of a problem for “libertarians” who wish to be elected. The principle of divide and conquer exemplifies a nation founded on self-interest. To true believers-everyone needs to fend for themselves. Only the strong (the relatively rich, and/or clever) will survive in Buchanan’s world.
As Supreme Court’ Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” That may be liberal jargon, but private enterprise would have foundered, and society would have been less civil without checks and balances written into the Constitution. MacLean makes a strong case for reducing corporate influence in the American electoral process.