The Economist Who Hated Democracy


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories


James McGill Buchanan may be the most influential conservative economic thinker you’ve never heard of. His belief that liberty (in the free-markets sense) was incompatible with democracy (in the people-power sense) has shaped the conservative movement from the Goldwater era to the present, according to a new book by Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains (Alex Shephard in The New Republic).

MacLean traces the roots of Buchanan’s thinking to the dawn of the school voucher movement in the fallout of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that barred segregated schools. In his lifetime, Buchanan, who died four years ago, was often overshadowed by Milton Friedman, who became the celebrity market-promoting economist.

Buchanan’s unique twist on free-market conservatism was to view government not only as a source of inefficiency and bad decision-making, like the classical economists, but as an implacable enemy of political freedom. In his view, whatever governments do is by definition coercive, and whatever wealthy individuals and corporations do is by definition an exercise of freedom.

Sound familiar? Buchanan played a powerful role in shaping the ideology of the Koch brothers, whose funding network sits at the heart of today’s right-wing movement. His thinking lies behind the legal arguments of the Citizens United decision and the political rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. If you want to understand how we got where we are today, you should probably know about him.

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