Even as I write this, violence has broken out in Charlottesville, Virginia between so-called “alt-right” demonstrators (read Nazis, Fascists & KKK-ers), and counter-demonstrators over Virginia’s attempt to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park. What’s interesting about Charlottesville is that it is the home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, which itself was the founding home of James McGill Buchanan’s Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy (what an insult to Jefferson’s thought). This confluence of right-wing street thugs with the center founded by the man, Buchanan, who, almost singlehandedly, charted the course for the libertarian right, is almost uncanny. But given the passions engendered by both Buchanan’s books and his work toward a right-wing “revolution” in American government, perhaps it should have been expected—especially with an incendiary like Donald Trump now tweeting violent rhetoric from his presidential post almost daily (and notably refraining from condemning the terrorists who openly carried guns, one of whom drove a car deliberately into a crowd, killing at least one person).
All this is by way of saying that the most impressive and infuriating book I’ve read in a while features this same James McGill Buchanan at its core: history Professor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Viking: 2017). MacLean announces her theme early on as an analysis of “the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance” (xv). She goes on to describe the root idea from James Buchanan: i.e., that “taxation to advance social justice or the common good was nothing more than a modern version of mob attempts to take by force what the takers had no moral right to: the fruits of another person’s efforts…a legally sanctioned form of gangsterism” (xxii). This is the nub of the whole effort of the radical right and Buchanan’s “public choice” theory (for which he won a Nobel Prize): to prove that democratic Government, through graduated income taxes, was illegally stealing from the wealthy (“makers”) and giving to the poor (“takers”) and calling it ‘social justice’ or the common good. Further, that government bureaucrats and lawmakers were able to do this because the majority were allowed to vote to keep in place such New Deal “thefts” as social security and medicare and unemployment, and even public schooling. Buchanan called this the government’s “bad faith,” because “activists, voters, and officials alike used talk of the public interest to mask the pursuit of their own personal self-interest at others’ expense.” Therefore, “Manacles, as it were, must be put on their grasping hands” (xxx). To be absolutely clear, what Buchanan and his followers planned was nothing less than a revolutionary change in the United States Constitution to keep government from using taxation and regulation to prevent capitalists from doing whatever the hell they wanted to do with their profits (this is what radical rightists sanctify as “liberty”). Nancy MacLean bluntly calls this “a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few” (xxxii).
MacLean then gets to specifics, and they are horrifying, not just because of what they reveal about the complete lack of ethics on the part of the radical right (both thinkers and activist “intellectuals” in such “think tanks” as the Cato Institute, and the entirety of George Mason [so-called] University), but also because of what the specifics reveal about how much these intellectual prostitutes have already accomplished. Concerning the former, consider how Buchanan thinks of human nature: in his book, the Limits of Liberty, he writes, “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves” (150). This may be an unintended echo of Buchanan’s hero, the slave-owning Sen. John C. Calhoun, who worked mightily to shape government to allow and extend slavery. Be that as it may, everyone, in Buchanan’s view, wants not only maximum freedom for himself, but also strict controls “on the behavior of others [slaves] so as to force adherence to his own desires” (150). In a piece he called “The Samaritan’s Dilemma,” Buchanan opined that Jesus was actually mistaken in his story about the Good Samaritan because modern man had lost the courage to keep the market (and people) in order. So, what might seem ethical and Christian—to help someone in need—was really the opposite. Why? Because helping a needy person only encouraged this “taker” to exploit the “giver” (the Samaritan) rather than solving his own problems. Like naughty children, parasites such as the needy required “spanking” to keep them from “exploiting” society’s producers. The only problem was how those in the know, like Buchanan and his corporate backers, could put shackles on the Samaritan—i.e., democratic government.
When it comes to what these stealth bombers have already accomplished, I’ll limit myself to two examples. First, Chile under Gen. Pinochet. It turns out that James Buchanan was invited to Chile in May 1980 to help the right-wing thugs there make their government coup permanent. That is, Pinochet wasn’t content with killing most of the leftists whom he ousted when he overthrew the Allende government. No, he wanted to make sure that Chileans could never again institute what he called ‘socialism,’ no matter what the people wanted. The solution was to rewrite the Chilean constitution “to forever insulate the interests of the propertied class they represented from the reach of a classic democratic majority” (155). And it was Buchanan who guided the Pinochet government in binding democracy with “locks and bolts.” So Pinochet’s government first instituted seven modernizations, including banning labor unions, privatizing social security (eliminating the company’s contribution), privatizing health care, forcing public universities to become “self-financing,” at the same time edging out humanities and liberal arts departments to minimize student questioning. Buchanan then arrived to help with rewriting the 1980 “Constitution of Liberty” to cast in stone such ‘improvements,’ a move that was so successful that even when Pinochet resigned and was formally disgraced, successive governments have been unable to undo the damage to Chile’s once-democratic procedures. That’s because the new constitution gave “the president unprecedented powers, hobble(d) the Congress, and enable(d) unelected military officials to serve as a power brake on the elected members of Congress,” while the new electoral system “would permanently over-represent the right-wing minority party to ensure a ‘system frozen by elite interests’” (160). It also prohibited all references to “class conflict” or “attacking the family.” The result, according to MacLean, was that even Michelle Bachelet’s presidency was crippled in its attempt to promote needed reforms.
The second example has to do with Social Security. MacLean points out how David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s economics chief, had to admit by 1982 that changing Social Security was impossible. The program was too deeply entrenched and was relied upon by too many Americans. So Buchanan and his minions (unlike George W. Bush, who openly advocated privatizing social security in an attempt that failed miserably) decided they had to use stealth, or misdirection, i.e. lies they called a “crab walk.” Buchanan advocated two basic steps in the strategy. First, the far-right had to change the thinking of its beneficiaries that Social Security was sustainable, so that abandoning the system would look reasonable. Second, the right had to employ the classic strategy of “divide and conquer.” With respect to this latter step, Buchanan advised separating beneficiaries into three groups. Group 1 were those already receiving benefits (or close to it). They were to be assured that their benefits would NOT be cut. Buchanan called this “paying off” existing claims, to remove from the fight those who would resist most fiercely. (If any of this begins to sound familiar, that’s because much of this strategy has already been employed in recent years, and it’s working.) Group 2 were those with high income. In a totally dishonest ploy, proponents would say that these high earners were going to have to pay taxes at higher rates to get their benefits. This would have the effect of dirtying the already dirty image of Social Security, and get the wealthy to see it as a “means-tested” program like the ones they already hated. Group 3 were younger workers. The ploy here was to remind them again and again that the FICA deductions from their salaries were, in essence, a “welfare subsidy” for old people. And to add to the discontent of almost everyone, those in power should propose “increas(ing) the retirement age and payroll taxes” to “irritate recipients at all income levels” (180). Again, sound familiar?
The point was simple: to split apart the groups who had always counted on Social Security as a mainstay of support in one’s old age so they would begin to fight one another. Clever bastards, aren’t they? But there was more. Legislation should be pushed to make private retirement saving easier—as in IRAs—by providing tax deductions for them. Where most people thought this was just a welcome hedge against indigence in old age, the far right saw the Individual Retirement Account as “a powerful vehicle for introducing a private Social Security system” (180). Remember Chile? One of the first things Pinochet did was to privatize social security. Why? Because of three benefits: 1) it would sever the average citizen’s connection to government; 2) it would weaken the appeal of the collectivity (one of the betes noires of Buchanan’s thought has always been the dreaded ‘collective’ will of the people) by fracturing groups that were once united; 3) it would put vast sums of money into the hands of the financiers, thus making them eager to donate huge sums to right wing groups leading this charge.
The frightening thing about all of this, as noted at the outset, is that it is working. Social Security Privatization, once a laughable proposal, has now become a central part of policy debates in government and media circles. Legions of people, particularly young ones, have been convinced by propaganda that Social Security will not be there for them when they retire, and that it is already forcing them to unfairly subsidize an older generation’s retirement. Almost everyone takes part in the IRA programs, thus paving the way for “self-sufficient retirement.” All this while Social Security is constantly said to be “out of money” when, in fact, it has surpluses of trillions (especially if unscrupulous leaders like George W. Bush did not “borrow” from the trust fund to support tax cuts for the wealthy and war spending.) But that is only on the surface. What Social Security Privatization really involves is the first step, the key step, in promoting the final revolution envisaged by James Buchanan and implemented by the Koch Brothers and their right-wing organizations. And that is the revision of the Constitution. Remember Chile? It was Buchanan who advised the Pinochet government on how to disguise that revision to make it seem like a bolstering of freedom, of liberty. That is precisely what he and, even more deceitfully, the Koch-funded operations, had, and still have in mind for the United States. Here is how Nancy MacLean puts it:
What was needed was a way to amend the Constitution so that public officials would be legally constrained from offering new social programs to the public or in engaging in regulation on their [i.e. citizens’] behalf even when vast constituencies were demanding them…The project must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule” (184).
Look at that again. “Removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule!” What these right-wing zealots intend is not just to win elections (change the rulers), but to alter the very basis of government (change the rules, like rule of the majority). The Constitution itself, the very core of democratic government, with its provisions for majority rule and the rights of the people to gather and petition their government to respond to their grievances—that is seen by the right as a constraint on freedom. A constraint on wealthy capitalists to do whatever they want to do. Indeed, as one of the chief barriers to economic freedom, Buchanan has identified excessive “governmental regulation of business,” with “the biggest threat…coming from the environmental movement” on a “quest for control over industry” (195). When you add in the impediments (to these zealots) of “government-backed health and welfare” and the education industry as manifested in government-run public schools and public universities that nurture “community values, many inimical to a free society,” and then throw in feminism, seen as “socialistic for no apparent reason,” you get a rather complete picture of the range of government programs and ideas and people now targeted for extinction.
This is serious, America. These hatchet men are well on their way to destroying the very rights and values that makes the United States of America what it is. Chief among them majority rule. And why is that? Because they know that their toxic ideas make them a permanent minority. Indeed, they exult in being a minority—the ones with the money; with the desire to be “free,” which to them means free to do whatever they want, no matter who or what gets hurt. The desire to keep all that they have earned, regardless of how much government-funded infrastructure or research or police protection or military adventurism is necessary to that earning. No matter how much that earning requires the enslavement of others to increase their almighty profit. No matter how much that profit requires the wholesale destruction of the very earth and its beings who supply the material basis and energy for their profiting in the first place. No matter. They want it all. Free. For themselves. And no one else. And will do whatever they must, engage in whatever lies and subterfuge they have to engage in, to get it. To steal it.
And it is time that the people of this country—those who care about rights and justice and the earth and all it means—wake up to what has been going on, what is still going on, and unite in the way that drives these assholes crazy. As a majority. To stop the damage and expel or eliminate from power those perpetrating it. Before the damage is too extensive, and it’s too late.