Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains has been the gift that keeps on giving. Rather than pile on yet another specific error in the book, I want to briefly address one of the overall themes through a specific thinker and context she raises.
As co-blogger Mike has pointed out, MacLean is an unreconstructed majoritarian throughout the book. The whole problem with public choice is that it wanted to place democratic majorities in chains. She is unwavering in her commitment to that claim. As many have noted, myself included, it’s a strange position to take for a progressive who presumably supports the Supreme Court decisions in Brown, Loving, Roe, and Obergefell, all of which overturned the work of democratic majorities in a large number of states.
MacLean also charges public choice with racism, as she sees its desire to chain those majorities as a way of locking in the privileges of the rich, white, elite by denying the progressive forces of history on the side of the majority from creating the policies and institutions they wish to. She also argued that the context of 1960s Virginia was one in which it was easy for Buchanan and others to signal that racism in subtle ways, hence the way she sees his argument for competition in schooling as opposition to Brown.
At one point, she invokes Buchanan’s invitation to the South African economist W. H. Hutt to spend the 1965-66 academic year at UVA as evidence for her broad thesis by pointing to Hutt’s work that was critical of unions. She sees this as evidence of Buchanan’s defense of the privileges of wealth. What she fails to note, as several others have pointed out, was that Hutt was a vocal and early critic of apartheid and compared it to the segregation in the US south. And part of his criticism of unions was the role that white unions had played in both privately coercing black workers in South Africa and then using the power of the state to put apartheid into law. If Buchanan was really such a racist and defender of segregation, why would he invite Hutt and have him speak on those issues?
During the winter he was at UVA, Hutt published an article entitled “South Africa’s Salvation in Classic Liberalism” in Il Politico (Vol. 30, No. 4, December, pp. 782-795). What’s particularly interesting in light of MacLean is this paragraph where he discusses the origins of apartheid (emphasis mine):
But very soon in the development of the mining industry, fears began to arise that the Africans might one day claim the right to perform many of the tasks which had hitherto been the preserve of the Whites. It is hardly surprising that, in the early years of the present century, the full strength of the white labour union movement came to be used to check a gradual dissolution of customary obstacles to African employment in work involving skill or responsibility. By means of violent strikes, the labour unions demonstrated the private coercive power which the State had allowed them to acquire. The white miners formed an important portion of the electorate; and far from the State taking steps to suppress private coercion, before long it substituted its own coercion for that of the labour union, through the Mines and Works Act of 1911. Known as the first “Colour Bar Act”, it was the first to embody explicitly the principle which has recently become known as “job reservation.” It illustrates, therefore, (a) what the “classic liberal” must regard as the reprehensible passivity of the State when confronted with private coercion by a politically favoured group, and (b) the tendency of the State to discriminate directly in favour of the politically strong (whether majorities or minorities) in the absence of effective constitutional restraints.
What’s worth noting here is that Hutt’s case for constitutional constraints is that they prevent the powerful from preying on the weak, which is precisely the opposite of MacLean’s view. What enabled the powerful whites in South Africa to use the state to oppress the blacks was not the existence of constitutional constraints but their absence. In both of his final observations there, Hutt takes the side of the politically weaker and oppressed blacks against the powerful whites. This is certainly not the picture of libertarianism that MacLean draws in her discussion of Buchanan, public choice, and the Koch brothers.
This is the scholar Buchanan chose to visit UVA in the mid-1960s: a long-time opponent of apartheid who had been hounded for his views and who understood that public choice was an effective tool to prevent the exploitation of the politically weak by the politically powerful. This perspective is consistent with public choice’s description of the role of constitutional rules and Buchanan’s life-long commitment to a world without discrimination or domination.
Nancy MacLean’s overarching narrative of public choice’s call for constitutional constraints as a road map for the powerful to acquire and maintain power over the powerless gets matters completely backward. Hutt’s invitation to Buchanan’s Jefferson Center and the talks he gave and the papers he published while there are further evidence of her complete misreading of her subject matter.