Liberty in Chains

I continue to add items to the list of related readings at the bottom of this post.

Liberty is a good thing, and not just because most people like to feel unconstrained by anything but their moral obligations and principles. (And it’s a good thing for liberty that it doesn’t depend entirely on self-control.) Liberty fosters constructive competition and, in the terminology of pop psychology, self-actualization; for example: the trial-and-error emergence of social norms that advance cooperation and comity; the trial-and-error emergence (and dissolution) of businesses that advance consumers’ interests; the freedom to work where one chooses (according to one’s ability), to live where one chooses (within one’s means), to marry the person of one’s choosing (consistent with public health and the wisdom embedded in voluntarily evolved social norms), to have as many children as a couple can provide for without imposing involuntary burdens on others; and the freedom to associate with persons of one’s own choosing, including the persons with whom one does business.

It’s no secret that those manifestations of liberty haven’t held throughout the United States and throughout its history. It’s also no secret that none of them is sharply and permanently defined in practice. In some jurisdictions, for example, a businessperson is forced by law to provide certain services or pay a stiff fine. The argument for such treatment takes a one-sided view of freedom of association, and grants it only to the person seeking the services, while denigrating the wishes of the person who is forced to provide them. The liberty of the customer is advanced at the expense of the liberty of the businessperson. It is an approach, like that of civil-rights law generally, which favors positive rights and dismisses negative ones. It is therefore anti-libertarianism in the name of liberty, as I explain in a recent post.

In sum, liberty isn’t a simple thing. It’s certainly not as simple or simplistic as J.S. Mill’s harm principle (a.k.a. non-aggression principle), as I have explained many times (e.g. here). In fact, it’s impossible for everyone to be satisfied that they’re living in a state of liberty. This is partly because so many people believe that they possess positive rights — entitlements provided at the expense of others.

More generally, liberty has been and continues to be invoked as a justification for anti-libertarian acts, beyond the creation and enforcement of positive rights. There is the problem of freedom of speech, for example, which has been interpreted to allow advocacy of anti-libertarian forms of government — most notably America’s present de facto blend of socialism and fascism.

This problem, which is actually a constitutional catastrophe, is closely related to the problem of democracy. There are many who advocate unbridled democratic control of private institutions through government power. One such person is Nancy MacLean, whose recent book, Democracy in Chains, seems to be a mindless defense of majority opinion. The Wikipedia entry for the book (as of today’s writing) seems fair and balanced (links and footnotes omitted):

In June 2017 MacLean published Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, focusing on the Nobel Prize winning political economist James McGill Buchanan, Charles Koch, George Mason University and the libertarian movement in the U.S, who, she argues, have undertaken “a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” According to MacLean, Buchanan represents “the true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right.”….

Booklist, which gave the book a starred review, wrote that Democracy in Chains … is “perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.” Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “MacLean constructs an erudite searing portrait of how the late political economist James McGill Buchanan (1919 – 2013) and his deep-pocketed conservative allies have reshaped–and undermined–American democracy.” Kirkus said “MacLean offers a cogent yet disturbing analysis of libertarians’ current efforts to rewrite the social contract and manipulate citizens’ beliefs.”

In The Atlantic, Sam Tanenhaus called Democracy in Chains, “A vibrant intellectual history of the radical right.” Genevieve Valentine wrote on NPR: “This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains.”

Democracy in Chains was criticized by libertarians. David Bernstein disputed MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan and George Mason University, where Bernstein is and Buchanan was a professor. Jonathan H. Adler noted allegations of serious errors and misleading quotations in Democracy in Chains raised by Russ Roberts, David R. Henderson, Don Boudreaux and others. Ilya Somin disagreed that libertarianism was uniquely anti-democratic, arguing that libertarians and left-liberals alike believed in constraining democratic majorities regarding “abortion, privacy rights, robust definitions of free speech… and freedom of religion, extensive protections for criminal defendants, and limitations on the powers of law enforcement personnel”. George Vanberg argued that MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan as wishing to “preserve (or enhance) the power of a white, wealthy elite at the expenses of marginalized social groups … represents a fundamental misunderstanding”. Michael Munger wrote that Democracy in Chains “is a work of speculative historical fiction” while Phillip Magness argued that MacLean had “simply made up an inflammatory association” concerning Buchanan and the Southern Agrarians. In response MacLean argued she was the target of a “coordinated and interlinked set of calculated hit jobs” from “the Koch team of professors who don’t disclose their conflicts of interest and the operatives who work fulltime for their project to shackle our democracy.”

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles wrote that “while we do not share Buchanan’s ideology … we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.”

The writers cited in the second and third paragraphs are far better qualified than I am to defend Buchanan’s integrity and ideas. (See “Related Reading”, below.) I will focus on MacLean’s ideas.

Why does MacLean claim that democracy is in chains? In what follows I draw on Alex Shephard’s interview of MacLean for The New Republic. MacLean is especially interested in preserving “liberal democracy”. What is it, according to Maclean? She doesn’t say in the interview, and mentions it only once:

[I]f you block off the political process from answering people’s needs, as the radical right managed to do throughout Barack Obama’s two terms on so many major issues, then people get frustrated. They get frustrated that politics has become so polarized between right and left and they believe that liberal democracy does not work—they start to believe that we need a radical alternative.

MacLean seems to have the same view of “liberal democracy” as her European counterparts. It is a mechanism through which government takes some people’s money, property rights, and jobs to buy other people’s votes. It is democracy only in the sense that a majority of voters can be counted on to demand other people’s money, property rights, and jobs. It confers on “liberal” politicians and their bureaucratic minions the image of being “compassionate”, and enables them to characterize their opponents — people who don’t support legalized theft — as mean-spirited. It is asymmetrical ideological warfare in action, with an unsurprising result: the victory of “liberal democracy”.

This sample of MacLean’s thinking (to dignify her knee-jerk leftism) is consistent with her assumption that she knows what “the people” really want; for example:

On issue after issue you see vast majorities of Republicans who actually agree on some of the fundamental needs of the country: They support a progressive income tax, they want to address global warming, they care about the preservation of Medicare and Social Security as originally construed as social insurance, they care about public education…. But they have been riled up by this apparatus [“radical right” libertarianism], and by very cynical Republican leaders, to support a party that is undermining the things that they seek.

What does the purported (and dubious) existence of “vast majorities of Republicans” have to do with anything? To the extent that there are voters who identify themselves as Republicans and who favor those programs that benefit them (or so they believe), that simply makes them part of the problem: another interest-group trying to spend other people’s money, and thus spending their own because every “favor” requires repayment in the realpolitik of Washington.

Also, as evidenced by many of the items listed below in “Related Reading”, MacLean’s discussion of “the fundamental needs of the country” and how they can best be met is deeply flawed. Further, her generalization about “vast majorities” is dubious given that (a) not a single Republican member of Congress voted for Obamacare but (b) Republicans made large gains in both houses of Congress in the election that followed the enactment of Obamacare.

There’s a bigger problem that MacLean doesn’t seem to grasp or acknowledge, namely, the debilitating effects of “liberal democracy” on liberty and prosperityeveryone’s liberty and prosperity, contrary to MacLean’s “right-wing conspiracy” theory. Even the poorest of today’s Americans would be far better off had the United States not become a “liberal democracy”. As for liberty, social and economic liberty are indivisible; taxation and regulation diminish prosperity and liberty (the ability to choose where one lives, with whom one associates, etc.).

In any event, by MacLean’s logic the demise of liberty and decline of prosperity are acceptable if a majority of the American people want it. Certainly, by the mid-1930s a vast majority of the German people wanted Adolph Hitler to remain in power, and it’s likely that similar majorities of the Russian and Chinese people felt the same way about Stalin and Mao. (The devil you know, etc.) The difference between “liberal democracy” and the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and their ilk is only a matter of degree.

MacLean would no doubt respond that there is a proper limit on government power, a limit that is respected in a “liberal democracy” but not in a dictatorship. But there is no limit, not even in a “liberal democracy”, except for the limit that those in power actually observe. In the end, it is up to those in power to observe that limit — and they won’t.

The Framers of the Constitution, who understood human nature very well, knew that venality and power-lust would prevail if the new government wasn’t constrained by rigorous checks and balances. (Those words don’t occur in the Constitution, but it is nevertheless replete with checks on the power of the central government and balances of power within the central government and between it and the States.) But the checks and balances have all but disappeared under the onslaught of decades’ worth of unconstitutional legislation, executive usurpation, and judicial malfeasance. The election of Donald Trump — leftist hysteria to the contrary notwithstanding — is all that saved America (temporarily, at least) from its continued spiral into hard despotism. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have redoubled Barack Obama’s penchant for government by executive fiat, given her expansive view of the role of the central government and her own dictatorial personality. (As far as I know, for all the hysteria about Mr. Trump’s supposed “fascism”, he has yet to defy court orders enjoining his executive actions, despite the apparent unconstitutionality of some of the judicial interventions.)

MacLean’s hysteria is badly misplaced. “Liberal democracy” isn’t under siege. Liberty and prosperity are, and have been for a long time. The siege continues, in the form of resistance to Mr. Trump’s administration by legislators, judges, the media, much of the academy, and the usual left-wing rabble. It’s all part of a vast, left-wing conspiracy.

Related reading (listed chronologically):

Jason Brennan, “Conspire Me This: Is Nancy MacLean a Hired Gun for the Establishment?“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 23, 2017 (See grant number FA-57183-13, awarded to MacLean by the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

Russell Roberts, “Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology“, Medium, June 25, 2017

Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek — begin with “Russ Roberts on Nancy MacLean on Tyler Cowen on Democracy” (June 26, 2017) and continue through dozens of relevant and eloquent posts about MacLean’s outright errors, mental sloppiness, and argumentative slipperiness

David Henderson, “Nancy MacLean’s Distortion of James Buchanan’s Statement“, EconLog, June 27, 2017

Philip W. Magness, “How Nancy MacLean Went Whistlin’ Dixie“, Philip W. Magness, June 27, 2017

Ramesh Ponnuru, “Nancy MacLean’s Methods“, National Review Online, The Corner, June 27, 2017

Johnathan H. Adler, “Does ‘Democracy in Chains’ Paint an Accurate Picture of James Buchanan?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 28, 2017

David Bernstein, “Some Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 28, 2017

Steve Horwitz, “MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 28, 2017

David Bernstein, “Some Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains,’ Continued“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 29, 2017

Philip W. Magness, “Nancy MacLean’s Calhounite Imagination“, Philip W. Magness, June 29, 2017

Michael C. Munger, “On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice“, Independent Institute (forthcoming in The Independent Review), June 29, 2017

Daniel Bier, “The Juvenile ‘Research’ of ‘Historian’ Nancy MacLean“, The Skeptical Libertarian, July 5, 2017

David Boaz, “Another Misleading Quotation in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, Cato At Liberty, July 5, 2017

David Bernstein, “Yet More Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 6, 2017

Michael Giberson, “Fun With Footnotes (A Game of Scholarly Diversity)“, Knowledge Problem, July 9, 2017

David Gordon, “MacLean on James Buchanan: Fake History for an Age of Fake News“, Mises Wire, July 10, 2017

Ilya Somin, “Who Wants to Put Democracy in Chains?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 10, 2017

David Bernstein, “Nancy MacLean’s Conspiratorial Response to Criticism of ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 11, 2017

Don Boudreaux, “Quotation of the Day…“, Cafe Hayek, July 12, 2017

Don Boudreaux, “Nancy MacLean Should Get Back in Touch with Reality“, Cafe Hayek, July 12, 2017

Steve Horwitz, “A Devastating Review of Nancy MacLean’s Book on the Klan“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, July 12, 2017

Jeffrey A. Tucker, “This Confused Conspiracy Theory Gets the Agrarians All Wrong“, FEE, Articles, July 12, 2017

David Bernstein, “Duke Professor Georg Vanberg on ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 14, 2017

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, “Even the Intellectual Left Is Drawn to Conspiracy Theories about the Right.Resist Them.“, Vox, July 14, 2017

Jonathan H. Adler, “‘Why Have So Many Embraced Such an Obviously Flawed Book?’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 15, 2017

Sarah Skwire, “MacLean Is Not Interested in a Fair Fight“, FEE, Articles, July 15, 2017

Steven Hayward, “The Scandal of the Liberal Mind“, Power Line, July 16, 2017

Steven Hayward, “When You’ve Lost Rick Perlstein…“, Power Line, July 19, 2017

Jonathan H. Adler, “Nancy MacLean Responds to Her Critics“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 20, 2017

Charlotte Allen, “They’re Out to Get Her?“, The Weekly Standard, July 20, 2017

Dave Bernstein, “Did Nancy MacLean Make Stuff Up in ‘Democracy in Chains’?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 20, 2017

Brian Doherty, “What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong about James Buchanan“,, July 20, 2017

Arnold Kling, “Nancy MacLean: Ignoring the Central Ethical Issue“, askblog, July 20, 2017

Greg Weiner, “Nancy MacLean’s Ad Hominem Ad Hominem“, Library of Law & Liberty, July 25, 2017


  1. Very cogently put: “The argument for such treatment takes a one-sided view of freedom of association, and grants it only to the person seeking the services, while denigrating the wishes of the person who is forced to provide them.” As for the increasing shrillness of leftists like Nancy MacLean it does seem ridiculous that in an age when “liberal democracy” is more powerful than ever, the slightest setback is deemed resurgent fascism. It is born of desperation and delusion. I was suddenly reminded of how at the height of Stalinism in the 1930s, millions of people were killed off, many of them being declared imaginary “saboteurs,” to explain the failures of collectivization rather than admit that communist perfection was unattainable and its implementation fraught with waste and corruption.

    Liked by 1 person

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