While some of the hotter debate from the middle of July has died down, the impact of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains continues to reverberate, especially among historians. This week, a number of us will be posting on different aspects of the book, from libertarianism and public choice to the history of segregation and voting rights in the United States. But we will also address some of the broader issues which the book and its reception raises about how to do intellectual history, how to write well about politically sensitive issues, and particularly how to write good intellectual history for a broad audience.
So please watch this space for further posts on Democracy in Chains and James M. Buchanan, but also be sure to read these two exceedingly insightful reviews of the book by Claire Potter and Bethany Moreton, published just last week. Below, I will kick things off by connecting some additional dots demonstrating James Buchanan’s ties to segregation and restrictions of voting rights in the United States.
One of the complaints that came from many of MacLean’s critics was that she failed to produce enough “smoking guns” to satisfy them. To me this represented a very poor understanding of the nature of historical—and particularly of archival—evidence: even fairly explicit sources require interpretation, contextualization, and even synthesis. History is not just throwing down a quotation and shouting “QED!” anymore than good economics just dumps a bucket of data on the reader, presuming that they will be able to sort things out and reach the “obvious” conclusion.
With that said, I think the following should lay to rest the question of whether tying the millstone of segregationism to the neck of James M. Buchanan is justified.
In the 1976 essay “America’s Third Century in Perspective,” Buchanan twice quoted the former Alabama governor George Wallace approvingly, and one of those references came from a Wallace speech that was specifically about desegregation. Here’s the first quote:
George Wallace’s reference to the “brief-case carrying bureaucrats” strikes home to many because of the demonstrable absurdities promulgated everywhere in the name of liberal progress. (“Third,” 6)
Those brief-case carrying bureaucrats were none other than the architects of busing programs whom Wallace denounced over and over again on the campaign trail in the Democratic primary of 1972. And lest we quibble over whether George Wallace could be invoked benignly in 1972, let’s just stop: as Time magazine wrote that year,
The man who once declared that he would “out-nigger” anybody on the stump, whose most durable public image was blocking the schoolhouse door to blacks, seldom lets a racist tinge color his rhetoric these days. The shift is partly a response to the more moderate temper of the times in the South, partly a reflection of the fact that he no longer needs to. George Wallace has become his own code word; his people know where he stands, and his country style permits infinite shadings of nuance and allusion.
The second quote mentioning Wallace is in a way even more interesting, as it demonstrates both awareness and approval of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Buchanan praised what he saw as
a populist revolt, a revolt against the oppression of taxes imposed by governments at all levels, taxes that are increasingly seen to support unproductive and essentially parasitic members of society. George Wallace exploited this attitude successfully and expressed it in his slogan, “send them a message.” It was in recognition of the strength of this attitude that Richard Nixon patterned his major electoral victory, and it was this that offered the origin for his second-term theme of budgetary restriction. (“Third,” 7, emphasis added)
Later, Buchanan paraphrases Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority without naming it, writing that “We can sense the emergence of a ‘new majority,’ geographically concentrated in the South, Middle and Far West, and functionally including the ethnic blue collar workers in the Northeast” (“Third,” 10). These two quotes are plain evidence of Buchanan’s approval of using racial desegregation as a wedge issue to pry white votes away from support of the welfare state.
Whether or not Buchanan was committed philosophically to segregation for reasons other than those politically pragmatic uses of eroding what he would call “collectivism” is not within reach of the available evidence—on that, we have no grounds to speculate. But that as late as 1976 he saw the issue of segregation as a potent and valuable tool for advancing his own political program of reining in “Leviathan” is not disputable.
The “America’s Third Century” essay is interesting for another reason: it gives us some more insight into why Buchanan became more and more convinced that his ideas would never be adopted by a majority of the citizens of the United States. In the essay, Buchanan reveals his enormous disappointment with Watergate—but for reasons very different from those which distressed most Americans. Buchanan was frustrated by Watergate because he saw it as derailing Nixon’s incipient turn against the welfare state. He felt that Nixon’s 1972 campaign–and its smashing electoral success–revealed that the tide of history had turned. Watergate, therefore, was Leviathan reasserting itself against an evanescent popular movement against collectivism. Watergate was also a distraction for this movement, diverting the political momentum of the budget fight and throwing everything into chaos. Buchanan felt that there was, in other words, a window open in 1973 that could have been the breakthrough he wanted: a popularly supported counter-revolution.
Watergate left him despairing of such a window re-occurring and believing instead that the establishment was too strong to be countered with ordinary popular resistance. Or as he put it, “the damage done by Watergate to Nixon’s attempts to weld permanence into the ‘new majority’ may be mortal, in which case the governmental share in the economy will continue to grow almost without opposition, and more seriously, the government’s interferences in all aspects of our lives will proceed apace” (10).
MacLean’s account of this essay mentions this angle on Watergate but only very briefly (see pages 115ff), and for a very interesting and significant reason. The version of “America’s Third Century” which I’ve been quoting from is the published version which came out in the first volume of the Atlantic Economic Journal in 1976, but the essay was delivered as a talk at the International Atlantic Economic Society’s inaugural banquet in September 1973. MacLean’s account of this meeting draws heavily from archival materials supporting the drafting of this speech. It is from those documents that she draws some of the more self-consciously dramatic but also sinister quotations of the book, from Buchanan telling a group of his cronies “If a history of the Third Century movement is ever written, it can talk about origins in a log cabin deep in the Virginia mountains… A roaring fire will add a bit of a conspiratorial flavor,” to the more direct, less jovial injunction, “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential” (quoted on MacLean, 116, 117).
The published essay of course bear no traces of those gestures toward conspiracy, but on the other hand it does show more plainly how much Watergate affected Buchanan. MacLean’s focus on the 1973 documents helps us see the private thoughts and actions of Buchanan and his associates, while my focus on the 1976 essay helps us understand something more about the way the events after September 1973—Nixon would last almost a year more—mattered to Buchanan and the movement he hoped to build. In 1973, Buchanan referred to “the Watergate mess,” but by 1976 it was of course something much more than a mess.
The last item I wish to point out is the December 1970 Buchanan essay “The ‘Social’ Efficiency of Education,” which sheds some additional light on Buchanan’s willingness to use constraints on the franchise as a means to achieving desired political ends.
Context is key here: in 1970, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act Amendments passed by Congress earlier that year. Those amendments required that states register 18- to 20-year-olds. Some states resisted this new order, and in Oregon v. Mitchell, the Court sided with Congress. By July 1971, the issue was totally resolved when the Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified.
Because of the war in southeast Asia, the movement to expand the electorate to 18-year-olds had considerable political momentum—as one can see from the fact that the Twenty-Sixth Amendment was the quickest to be ratified in the nation’s history. (By the way, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Utah have yet to ratify—come on!) Buchanan was therefore writing at a time when an imminent expansion of the electorate was on the immediate horizon, and the expansion seemed likely to usher in a host of voters who were, in his eyes, politically unreliable.
The essay, I’ll gladly admit, is not about voting rights: it’s about public funding for higher education. “If society does not think that it is getting its money’s worth from the educational processes as they exist,” Buchanan asks, “if the admitted advantages of free inquiry are more than outweighed by the negative effects of direct political action by militant groups centering their headquarters on the nation’s campuses, why not simply close down the universities?”
These questions in themselves—especially the treatment of free inquiry as a conditional good (“we’ll pay for free inquiry, but only if it gives us the answers we like”—the Koch motto?)—are disturbing, but Buchanan ups the ante by describing the students and those whom he awkwardly calls “post-students” as “parasites.”
Economic affluence has placed modern man in what I call the ‘samaritan’s dilemma’. He is simply unwilling to force those who refuse to join the system to exist wholly outside the system. He is quite willing to allow for the existence of parasites, those who feed upon him without contributing to his well-being. This is essentially what the student class has already become, and it is also what the postgraduate class may become during the 1970’s. (“Education,” 660)
But the issue is not just financial—students mulcting money from the public under the guise of “learning.” The issue is also, and fundamentally, political.
modern man finds himself being rapidly forced to allow the parasites entry directly into the political-decision process. The spring of 1970 marked the possible beginnings of an important shift in American policy, a shift that I view with much gloom. Students were successful in university after university in politicizing the academe, and, beyond this, they were successful in making their voices heard by political leaders. With little regard for facts, and spurred by the romantic cliches of the moment, the masses formed, with little or no resistance. (“Education,” 660)
Buchanan is clearly, I think, insisting that the electorate should not be expanded to include 18- 20-year-olds: they already have been able to assert themselves politically far too much. But even stopping the expansion of the electorate may prove insufficient. The time was, he argues, when everyone was assumed to have a fling with radicalism in college, but the trouble today is that too many are leaving college with their radicalism intact.
All of this may be changing, and very rapidly, if the student and poststudent of the 1970’s is allowed to obtrude his own naive, uniformed, and romantic fancies directly into the political process, while himself remaining a parasite feeding on the rest of society. For the first time, the student’s failure to understand and to appreciate the workings of the market order, for the first time his failure to understand and to appreciate the crucial role played in such an order by the entrepreneur, by the profit and loss, reward-punishment structure of the market, may become critical influences on the formation of social policy. For the first time in the United States, the quasi-comic mouthings of neo-Marxist slogans may come to be taken seriously by practicing politicians, as seems to be the case in 1970. (“Education,” 661)
What, then, is the solution? Sorry for another long quote, but you deserve to hear it from the horse’s mouth:
There is no way that we can get the educational house in order within the medium-term future. If my rather pessimistic picture contains elements of descriptive reality (and I hope that it does not), Western society’s main task is to shift itself, by brute resolution, out of the samaritan’s dilemma, to close off the parasitic option now available to the student and post-students who refuses to conform to ordinary rules of conduct. I wish that I could think modern man capable of even this modest step toward some restoration of sanity. (“Education,” 661)
This is straightforward advocacy of using the market to discipline political dissidents, of shoring up a political order imperiled by the entrance of newly enfranchised citizens by turning the coercive pressures of the market squarely on them to alter their politics or encumber their political participation.
Many people feel that holding public services hostage in order to extract political concessions from those who rely on those public services is wrong. Many people feel that restricting political participation—including the franchise—based on demographic assumptions on how someone will vote is also wrong. James M. Buchanan had no problem with either.
 See Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, Second Edition (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000), 432.
 It’s also worth pointing out how even in this brief essay we see how thickly rooted was Buchanan’s notion of liberty in the drama of North versus South. For him—as for so many others who have seen “states’ rights” as a proper bulwark for individual liberty—everything was dandy before the Civil War: “Fortuitous circumstances held back the actual growth of central government power until well in-to the Second Century. Before the end of the First Century, however, elements of the design had been effectively destroyed. Viable federalism, as a means of checking the expansion in power of the central government, has scarcely existed since the horrible civil war of the 1860’s” (“Third,” 6). Note also that interesting locution “the horrible civil war of the 1860’s”—a phrase that allows for an interpretation of the conflict as lasting beyond Appomattox and into Reconstruction.
 Incidentally, let’s settle another question as well. There was some dispute over whether it was plausible to link Buchanan to Donald Davidson via the former’s invocation of “Leviathan” to describe the post-New Deal state. The opposing contention was that there was no reason to do so because Buchanan’s Leviathan was the same as Hobbes’s—there was no need to look for another possible reference. In the “America’s Third Century” essay, however, Buchanan refers both to Hobbes’s Leviathan and to an “American Leviathan”—“Since the Great Depression, we have witnessed a continuing and accelerating growth in the American Leviathan” (“Third,” 6) Now, anyone who has read Anne Kornhauser’s Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970 knows that a sentence like that cannot plausibly be read apart from a familiarity with the way the word “Leviathan” was reinvented in the 1930s to describe the hothouse growth of administrative agencies regulating the economy. There were numerous invocations of “Leviathan” in that decade, so a reasonable person might respond that it was not necessarily Davidson that Buchanan was alluding to but Charles Beard or Robert MacIver, who both published books with “Leviathan” in the title in the 1930s. But it is not at all reasonable to tell us that our inquiry ought to stop at Hobbes.