In the spring of 1972, a small group of thinkers met at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City to discuss the role of “altruism and morality” in shaping social life. Among them was James Buchanan, an economist then teaching at Virginia Tech, who was best known as one of the founders of “public choice” theory—a branch of economic thought that sought to apply the methodology of economics to political decision-making.
At the conference, Buchanan delivered a paper on the theme of what he termed the “Samaritan’s dilemma.” Using the framework of game theory, he argued that most people had a strong incentive, in the short term, to extend charity to others. There was a definite loss of “utility” associated with denying help to someone who needed it. But the problem was that this innate longing to be charitable opened up the possibility that “parasites” would take advantage. To counter it, people would need to sacrifice their immediate utility for long-term well-being—just as a mother might have to spank her child (an example Buchanan used) in order to encourage good behavior in the long term. “A species that increasingly behaves so as to encourage more and more of its own members to live parasitically off and/or deliberately exploit its producers faces self-destruction at some point in time,” Buchanan concluded. In the context of the early 1970s—shortly after the heyday of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs and the welfare-rights movement—there could be little mystery about the political significance of Buchanan’s arguments. The implication of his argument was clear: For the sake of the few, the American welfare state had ended up putting the whole in jeopardy.
Buchanan never achieved the fame of Milton Friedman, who made popularizing free-market ideas via his PBS show Free to Choose and his columns in Newsweek his life’s mission, nor has he ever received the same amount of attention as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises in historical accounts of the free-market right in America. But in Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean tries to provide a critical history of the role of Buchanan’s ideas in the modern conservative movement. MacLean asserts that his thinking—and especially his caustic attitude toward the state and government—became a critical source of inspiration for several generations of conservative thinkers and activists. Using Buchanan’s papers, she also seeks to excavate his relationship to Charles Koch, one of the Wichita, Kansas–based oil billionaires whose financial contributions have been integral to building the intellectual infrastructure for libertarianism.
Democracy in Chains has already become the object of much controversy. A variety of libertarians and political philosophers—many, though not all, working in Buchanan’s tradition—have attacked the book, arguing that MacLean has read Buchanan’s work (and their own) out of context, distorted quotes, overreached on the available evidence, and failed to grapple adequately with Buchanan’s ideas. They also contend that her vision of Buchanan is Manichaean and melodramatic, and that her assertion that the many Koch-funded organizations comprise a “fifth column” bent on undoing majority rule is, at the least, unfair. Meanwhile, liberal and left-leaning commentators have offered mixed reviews, with some, like political scientists Steven Teles and Henry Farrell, arguing that MacLean doesn’t do enough to engage with the substance of public-choice theory, and others, like historians Bethany Moreton and Colin Gordon, have praised MacLean’s hard-hitting analysis of the libertarian right’s fundamental hostility to ideas about majority rule. (I should say here that MacLean reviewed my first book and we know each other professionally; in fact, because we have participated in conference panels together, my name appears in her acknowledgements.)