Has the National Book Award been corrupted by politics?
The Award committee has just shortlisted as a finalist Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, an expose of the Koch Brothers’ plot to undermine democracy. The book is well written and a fast read. It tells a story that is heartening to those who fear the Kochs’ growing power. It is, however, full of errors and distortions, which have already been extensively documented. The selection, in the face of these notorious problems, raises uncomfortable questions about what the committee is thinking.
Awards committees have occasionally recognized scholarship that later turned out to be badly flawed. They can’t check sources. Scholarship inevitably relies on norms of trust that are sometimes betrayed. But this may be the first time that a work was honored with a nomination for a major award after the flaws were widely known.
Democracy in Chains has been testing the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity. There has been an explosion of documentation that MacLean gets facts wrong, misunderstands her sources, and invents quotations or pulls them out of context to mean the opposite of what they said. You can find all this easily if you just google the book’s title.
It is hard to avoid the inference that the book’s defects are outweighed, in the committee’s judgment, by the book’s eloquent denunciation of the Kochs. Perhaps the committee so distrusts MacLean’s attackers that it has not bothered to look into their claims. This development is bad news for the political left, which, until now, has prided itself on its ability to face inconvenient truths.
MacLean’s central historical claim is false. That claim is that the economist James Buchanan devised the “master plan” (xviii) by which the Koch brothers are now subverting democracy. Buchanan devised no master plan, and there’s no evidence that the Kochs’ political actions were influenced by anything he wrote.
MacLean states a valid and important complaint against the Kochs. They threaten to impose a new quasi-feudal hierarchy in the guise of liberty. But a work of history is supposed to be more than a denunciation of bad political actors.
Democracy in Chains is an extended study of Buchanan. His work, which won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics, argued that, if state actors are as selfish as private actors normally are, they are likely to be captured by unsavory special interests. Some interest groups dominate the electoral system because they are unusually good at organizing. These groups are able to advance their policy goals even when their gains involve greater losses for others who are unorganized. Congress subsidizes big farming, artificially cheap high fructose corn syrup then finds its way into most processed foods, and the mass of citizens endure obesity, diabetes, and inflated food prices. Legislation and regulation sometimes stifles competition and pointlessly burdens economic activity.
Buchanan’s scholarship thus supports the views of libertarians, who want to minimize the role of the state. (Even a minimal state presupposes, however, that there is a limit to the corruptibility of public officials. The police must still reliably protect persons and property. If it’s conceded that they can be honest, why can’t other state agencies?) Buchanan himself was so eager to promote privatization that he pushed a school voucher scheme in Virginia amid the desegregation struggle, oblivious to the way in which it would promote racial segregation.
Libertarianism’s growing influence in American politics is largely the achievement of one man, the billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. (He, more than his younger brother David, is the moving force in the brothers’ political activities. He talked David into being the Libertarian vice presidential candidate in 1980, because he was too busy running the family company to do it.) Since 1966, long before he became a household name, he has energetically supported libertarian causes and funded libertarian thinktanks. Buchanan was one of the many beneficiaries. Koch’s growing network has mobilized, not only his own vast wealth, but hundreds of millions from other rich capitalists, moving the Republican Party in a libertarian direction and helping it win elections. The party is increasingly hostile to all aspects of big government, not only Obamacare but also Medicare, Social Security, and environmental regulation.
What does Koch want? And why is he winning? There has been some very good scholarship and journalism, notably by Theda Skocpol and Jane Mayer, exploring that question. But Democracy in Chains distorts rather than advancing our understanding.
The book is beautifully written and a fast read. Its best pages vividly describe the Virginia that Harry Byrd dominated, first as governor and then as U.S. Senator from the 1920s until 1965, and its resistance to school desegregation. The state was a corrupt racist oligarchy, so secure in its control that it did not need Klan violence, using cleverly designed legal rules to hold down both taxes and voter participation. Here MacLean, an expert on Southern history, writes with authority.
When she turns her attention to the contemporary libertarian right, she sees something familiar. Its ambitions would make the country look a lot like the deep South in the bad old days:
“the uncontested sway of the wealthiest citizens; the use of right-to-work laws and other ploys to keep working people powerless; the ability to fire dissenting public employees at will, targeting educators in particular; the use of voting-rights restrictions to keep those unlikely to agree with the elite from the polls; the deployment of states’ rights to deter the federal government from promoting equal treatment; the hostility to public education; the regressive tax system; the opposition to Social Security and Medicare; and the parsimonious response to public needs of all kinds.” (233)
The one useful contribution of the book is to call attention to this parallel.
But her expertise also misleads her. Studying texts from the deep South during the Jim Crow period gives one a lot of experience seeing through nice-sounding rationalizations for feudalism. Her first book, on the Ku Klux Klan, was appropriately titled Behind the Mask of Chivalry. But the lessons can be misapplied. You can start seeing hidden racism everywhere.
She claims to know a lot about what Buchanan was thinking. The new school of political economy that he created at the University of Virginia was “meant to train a new generation of thinkers to push back against Brown [v. Board of Education].” (xix) “[S]omehow, all he saw in the Brown decision was coercion,” a danger to “Virginia’s archaic labor relations, its measures to suppress voting, or its efforts to buttress the power of reactionary rural whites by underrepresenting the moderate voters of the cities and suburbs of Northern Virginia.” (xiv) The stakes were “personal,” because “his people” were now going to be pushed around by “Northern liberals – the very people who looked down upon southern whites like him, he was sure.” (xiv) “I can fight this, he concluded. I want to fight this.” (xiv) The “intellectual lodestar” (xxxii) of the libertarian movement is John C. Calhoun, who wanted to constrain democracy in order to protect slavery. Buchanan’s “school of political economy mirrors” Calhoun’s. (1) The racist agrarian poet Donald Davidson, who thought that the growth of federal power threatened a new totalitarianism, was "(t)he Nashville writer who seemed most decisive in Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system," (33) and as a young man Buchanan “seemed to see through lenses wholly crafted by Donald Davidson.” (34)
All these descriptions of Buchanan’s thoughts are pure invention. The internal monologue I just described is based on nothing he wrote. She offers no evidence that he ever read Calhoun or Davidson. Neither name appears in the index of his 20 volume collected works. The book is full of this kind of thing. Steve Horwitz evidently is right that the book is “a massive exercise in confirmation bias resulting in misread and misinterpreted sources and factual claims unsupported by those sources.” Given the years she spent studying dishonest Southern racists, we can reconstruct how she could go so wrong. The National Book Award committee has less excuse. The nomination makes it more likely that many will treat the book as a reliable source of information about libertarianism. In order to be eligible for a nonfiction award, a book should in fact be nonfiction.
I have seen MacLean promote the book, and spoke to her once. She carries enormous conviction, she is earnest and idealistic, and she clearly believes what she is saying. If you fear the Kochs, it is comforting to have a Duke University historian on your side. But conviction isn’t the same as accuracy. Some parents show great conviction when they blame their children’s autism on vaccines.
MacLean’s big “discovery,” the “stealth plan” promised in the book’s title, is Buchanan’s “devious and deceptive” (178) proposal to destroy Social Security. She reads him as proposing that anyone attempting to dismantle the program should (1) reassure current recipients that their benefits were in no danger, (2) induce high earners to fear that they would be taxed at higher rates, (3) persuade younger workers that they were unfairly subsidizing the old, and that their own benefits were insecure, and (4) increase payroll taxes and the retirement age, to irritate those approaching retirement. (178-82) This mirrors modern Republican behavior pretty exactly. She claims that when Charles Koch read this work, he “concluded that he’d finally found the set of ideas he had been seeking for at least a quarter century by then – ideas so groundbreaking, so thoroughly thought-out, so rigorously tight, that once put into operation, they could secure the transformation in American governance he wanted.” (xx)
She has, however, massively misread her key document, which is, as one critic has shown in detail, “just a mundane economics paper.” Its main purpose is to explain why people continue to support Social Security in light of its problems of solvency – problems which, as it happens, were resolved shortly after the paper was written. In one section, two paragraphs long – less than a page of a 15 page scholarly article - Buchanan games out likely strategies for the program’s opponents. (It doesn’t include point (1) above; that’s a wild inference from another part of Buchanan’s article.) There is no reason to believe that Charles Koch ever read it.
Buchanan was never particularly important within libertarian circles. If one wanted to find an obscure character with big effects, a better candidate is Murray Rothbard, a genuine Calhoun admirer who had a huge personal impact on Robert Nozick, the most important libertarian philosopher, and Randy Barnett, the mastermind of the legal challenge to Obamacare. In 1976 Rothbard persuaded Koch to begin funding libertarian causes. He and was (and years after his death largely remains) chief ideologist of the Libertarian Party. (The leading history of libertarianism, Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, which MacLean cites, reports that the most important libertarian thinkers are Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Rothbard, and Milton Friedman.)
Moreover, even if Buchanan were read as offering a master plan, the strategy MacLean breathlessly reveals - splitting one’s opponent’s coalition and making one’s victories irreversible - is unremarkable in democratic contestation. All political movements begin as small groups of activists who want something that the majority isn’t thinking about. Roosevelt thus consciously sought to protect Social Security from future politicians. A similarly countermajoritarian network produced Obamacare: most people were happy with their health insurance, and the millions who were left out tended to be low income people who aren’t politically active. MacLean loves democracy, but doesn’t seem to grasp how it works in practice.
She calls this a plan to “undo democratic governance.” (xv) But the Kochs have for the most part played by the rules as they found them: raising money from donors and spending it on elections. Buchanan flirted with the idea of changing constitutional rules to disable big government, but that idea was hardly original with him.
The “stealth plan” evidently extends to everything the Kochs now do. But some of the nastiest Koch efforts MacLean enumerates, such as voter ID and climate change denial, weren’t in anyone’s minds when Buchanan wrote his 1983 paper. How can it make sense to blame him?
That leads us to the biggest big-picture failing of the book. Buchanan’s talk of “individual liberty” leads MacLean to observe that the term had “its own coded meaning.” (xiv) That meaning, she concludes, was resistance to Brown. Doubtless the term was thus used by a lot of racists. But how does MacLean know that this is what Buchanan meant by it?
Libertarianism started out as an idealistic creed, resisting oppressive state power. Adam Smith argued that mercantilism was hurting the working classes for the benefit of a few rich producers. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek argued that socialism would produce economic stagnation and tyranny. All of them were right. The modern form was led by romantic fabulists like Rothbard and Ayn Rand, peddling a combination of giddy optimism about how nice anarchy would be and cruel disdain for those who don’t do well in an unregulated market. Even this silly and dangerous stuff, which really does appear to have some grip on the Kochs, is built on a premise of equal rights (albeit interpreted to produce mighty unequal results).
MacLean doesn’t appear to understand any of this. She thinks that the libertarian cause “was never really about freedom as most people would define it.” (234) In her telling, libertarians were always plotting to impose an oligarchy on the rest of us. They were exactly like Harry Byrd. This doesn’t even do justice to Koch. He spent years as a lonely voice in the political wilderness, with no reason to think he’d ever have much influence.
The really interesting question, one that MacLean’s framework disables her from asking, is how what was once a philosophy of freedom has become so thoroughly corrupted. Libertarianism has indeed become a mask for oligarchical behavior, lately sinking all the way to the Koch brothers’ energetic support for vote suppression – a despicable political strategy that had long disappeared from American political contestation. (Here the South really has risen again.) They have also poured millions into spreading lies about global warming.
The fundamental difference between Koch’s America and Harry Byrd’s Virginia is that industrial capitalism offers a lot to those on the bottom. America’s ruling class is historically unique because it really does have a respectable defense for its privileges. In most societies, the rich have been useless parasites – landlords extorting tribute from peasant farmers, kings demanding tribute from those landlords, and so forth. Since about 1800, however, the human race has become steadily richer, and a big part of the reason is the growth of free markets. Capitalism is, in its broadest tendencies, good for the poor. After the collapse of Communism and the abandonment of socialism by such major powers as India, the proportion of the human race living in desperate poverty plunged. In 2013, 10.7 percent of the world’s population lived on less than US$1.90 a day, compared to 35 percent as recently as 1990. (MacLean writes that “the reality of unregulated capitalism” can be grasped by reading Dickens (97).)
So why are the Kochs, and the army of billionaires they lead, so radical? Revolutionary libertarian ideas do not usually accompany great wealth. One peculiarity of the Koch network is that in most times and places, wealthy elites are conservative in the classic sense of the word: averse to abrupt change, reverent toward tradition. They don’t want upheaval, because if the world is turned upside down, they might not be able to keep what they have. The welfare state was invented by Otto von Bismarck in the nineteenth century to pacify the working classes. In Finland in 2000 – a prosperous country with an unusually robust welfare state - the top 0.5 percent of the population owned 71.6 percent of all investment wealth in the capital market, compared with 41.4 percent for the same cohort in the United States. The Finnish superrich understand that their wealth is more secure if the lower classes feel secure. Meanwhile America’s elite are keen to destroy Social Security and Medicare. That’s the development in the history of ideas that really needs explaining.
Koch’s undoubted recent success isn’t because of any master plan. It’s because, after decades of trial and error, he has put together a superb political organization, on two levels: the network of organizations like Americans for Prosperity that can bring pressure to bear on legislators by threatening to finance challengers, and the large body of wealthy donors who fund that network. (The Kochs undertook an intensive reappraisal of their strategy as recently as 2012, after they wasted millions trying to defeat President Obama’s reelection.) Koch didn’t know, twenty years ago, that this was what would work, or he would have followed this plan sooner. He succeeds because his opponents don’t have his organizational skill. If the left wants to fight him, it needs to develop similar skills.
Libertarian philosophy does contain the seeds of oligarchy. But that doesn’t mean that it’s what the authors plan or intend. Karl Marx’s political theory, when implemented, probably leads inevitably to the likes of Brezhnev. You can’t say he wasn’t warned: Michael Bakunin argued in 1873 that Marx’s aspirations, if realized, would produce “a despotism of a governing minority, all the more dangerous in that it is an expression of a supposed people’s will.” Marx responded with daffy optimism, declaring that the dictatorship of the proletariat would merely deploy “means for its liberation which will fall away after the liberation.” That’s not how it worked out. But one would misread Marx if one concluded that he had a stealth plan to put a corrupt oligarchy in power. He wanted to liberate, not enslave, the working classes. He was simply mistaken about the consequences of his philosophy.
The argument between libertarians and their critics on the left is similarly about consequences. Libertarianism is a variety of liberalism, the philosophy that values freedom. The argument is about whether human freedom will be promoted by radically constraining the state. We are arguing about means, not ends, and so we have common ground to work from. All this disappears in MacLean’s picture, in which libertarians (who have understandably been enraged by the book) are mendacious enemies of liberty, the moral equivalent of the Southern racists who fought Brown. How could one possibly have a conversation about anything with such people?
This picture poisons American political discourse. It produces reactions like MacLean’s response to her critics, which has mainly consisted of ad hominem attacks: “You’ve accepted funding from the Koch brothers, therefore shut up.” (For whatever it’s worth, I’ve never sought or received a penny from them, and any hope I might have had for their support is being ruined by what you’re now reading.) She has an obligation to respond in detail to the charges of falsification and distortion, answer them if she can, confess error if she can’t. She showed no inclination in that direction even before the National Book Award shortlist. This misbehavior has now been rewarded.
Committees sometimes make mistakes: after Michael Bellesiles won the Bancroft Prize for his book Arming America, the book was shown to be full of fabrications, the prize was rescinded, and Bellesiles resigned his Emory University professorship in disgrace. But the Bancroft committee did not know about the book’s defects when it made its decision. What excuse has the National Book Award committee?
The political left has until now prided itself on being the reality-based community. Unlike Fox News and Breitbart, it does not embrace invented facts when they support its melodramatic narrative. Until now. With a few honorable exceptions, it has received MacLean’s book with enthusiasm.
The nomination bespeaks a new low in polarization: if you write a readable book denouncing the Kochs, we love you, and we don’t care whether anything you say is true. The prize is being used to make a political statement, like Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded less than nine months after he took office. Even he found that embarrassing. Party solidarity now overrides all other considerations. This is, of course, the kind of thinking that led otherwise thoughtful Republicans to vote for Trump.
You need to be able to look at libertarian ideas respectfully, with an appreciation of their attraction, if you’re going to understand the dreadful way in which they are being abused.