Money & Politics

The Ideologues Who Want to Destroy Democracy to Save Capitalism

How a shadowy libertarian theorist convinced Charles Koch and others in the radical right that in order for their version of capitalism to survive, government must be destroyed.

The Ideologues Who Want to Destroy Democracy to Save Capitalism

James Buchanan flashes a smile at a news conference in 1986 at George Mason University after it was announced that he is the winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic science. (Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week we presented you with historian Nancy MacLean’s fascinating story of James McGill Buchanan — the father of “public choice economics” whose writing was influential to a number of ideologues on the far right. Some of his ideas are popular among the very monied (including Charles Koch) of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party and are frightening in their sheer calculation and callousness. As MacLean said: “His theory of the motives of public actors was so cynical as to be utterly corrosive of the norms of a democratic society, as people pointed out along the way, but he would not listen.”

George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian, has more on the history of Buchanan and his twisted ideas:

He aimed, in short, to save capitalism from democracy.

In 1980, he was able to put the program into action. He was invited to Chile, where he helped the Pinochet dictatorship write a new constitution, which, partly through the clever devices Buchanan proposed, has proved impossible to reverse entirely. Amid the torture and killings, he advised the government to extend programs of privatization, austerity, monetary restraint, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions: a package that helped trigger economic collapse in 1982.

None of this troubled the Swedish Academy, which through his devotee at Stockholm University Assar Lindbeck in 1986 awarded James Buchanan the Nobel memorial prize for economics. It is one of several decisions that have turned this prize toxic.

But his power really began to be felt when Koch, currently the seventh richest man in the US, decided that Buchanan held the key to the transformation he sought. Koch saw even such ideologues as Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan as ‘sellouts’, as they sought to improve the efficiency of government rather than destroy it altogether. But Buchanan took it all the way.

…The papers Nancy MacLean discovered show that Buchanan saw stealth as crucial. He told his collaborators that ‘conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential.’ Instead of revealing their ultimate destination, they would proceed by incremental steps. For example, in seeking to destroy the social security system, they would claim to be saving it, arguing that it would fail without a series of radical ‘reforms.’ (The same argument is used by those attacking the NHS). Gradually they would build a ‘counter-intelligentsia,’ allied to a ‘vast network of political power’ that would become the new establishment.

Through the network of think tanks that Koch and other billionaires have sponsored, through their transformation of the Republican party, and the hundreds of millions they have poured into state congressional and judicial races, through the mass colonization of Trump’s administration by members of this network and lethally effective campaigns against everything from public health to action on climate change, it would be fair to say that Buchanan’s vision is maturing in the US.

Read more from Monbiot in The Guardian and read an excerpt from Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.