Controversy has recently arisen around James M. Buchanan, the economist and Nobel laureate who died in 2013, because of the book “Democracy in Chains” by Nancy MacLean. MacLean calls Buchanan “the missing piece of the puzzle” to understanding the rise of the “radical right.” Responding to MacLean’s claim that Buchanan’s ideas helped justify a “return to oligarchy,” Georg Vanberg writes that Buchanan had a “deep commitment to democratic principles, including individual autonomy and equality.”
Whether one agrees with this claim depends on how one defines democracy. Buchanan was deeply committed to ideas that many people consider profoundly anti-democratic. Democracy — as taught in middle school civics classes — allows and encourages citizens to come together and use the public sphere and electoral system to pass new legislation. Buchanan consistently argued that this should be made almost impossible.
Democracy sometimes needs coercion
As Vanberg explains, Buchanan’s ideal of social interaction requires mutual consent and an absence of coercion. Of course this is an important moral principle, but in the context of how a government works, it places severe limitations on what a government can do. Any law is coercive in the sense that not obeying it leads to criminal penalties, so in this sense, any new law increases the extent of coercion in society. Many would consider a law, and the coercion it introduces, as legitimate if the law results from a democratic process. But for Buchanan, there is very little scope for such coercion.
Buchanan decried the increasing involvement of government in our social life and economy during the 20th century, and argued that our system of government made it much easier to increase laws, regulations and taxes than to decrease them. Hence he argued that we should have a “constitutional revolution” to make the passing of new laws as difficult as possible, requiring unanimous consent: “where the relevant set of choices are those relating to changes in the law, in the rules that constrain both private and public activity, there is no place for majority rule or, indeed, for any rule short of unanimity.”
Unanimous consent would prevent the majority from trampling upon a single powerless person, but also allow one billionaire to refuse to pay taxes that could help thousands of starving neighbors. Buchanan favors equality in the sense that every single person should have a veto on government action, but argues for a constitution that makes it almost impossible to create laws to remedy any kind of inequality or power imbalance that arises outside the political process.
Buchanan would keep government from stopping discrimination
Buchanan’s ideal government would establish the conditions that best allow mutually consenting people to interact and nothing more. For example, if an employer did not want to hire someone because of her race or gender identity, Buchanan would oppose government action to remedy this situation, because it would force the racist or sexist employer to do what he does not want to do. Buchanan would be absolutely fine with the government not doing anything about private schools that exclude people with brown skin, banks that do not loan to LGBT folks, Airbnb hosts who refuse to rent to Asians or firms that do not hire Latinos. If an employer tells an employee that he will get promoted only if he agrees to have sex with her, the employee would have no legal remedy, because under Buchanan’s way of thinking, the employer is simply making an offer that the employee is free to refuse. Some people still make this kind of argument today.
This was not just a theoretical issue for Buchanan. As MacLean explains, in an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1959, Buchanan and his University of Virginia colleague Warren Nutter state: “We believe every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing. We therefore disapprove of both involuntary (or coercive) segregation and involuntary integration.” In the political context in Virginia at the time, involuntary integration meant obeying the Brown v. Board decision. I do not know their intentions, but Buchanan and Nutter’s argument for school privatization gave intellectual validation to whites who wanted to exclude blacks from their schools.
Buchanan did not respect peaceful civil disobedience or his political opponents
Finally, peaceful civil disobedience, which includes boycotting classes, sit-ins and prayer vigils in the middle of traffic, is an essential part of democracy for me and many others. Peaceful civil disobedience should be available for all political actors, minority or majority. Countries that suppress peaceful civil disobedience are rightly called undemocratic. However, in “Academia in Anarchy” (1970), Buchanan and Nicos E. Devletoglou wrote, “Tactics of civil disobedience have now been diffused internationally, and these are employed almost daily in battles within the universities. Vulnerable and apparently spineless, university authorities seem powerless to act, presumably because they cannot deal with anarchy and terror in a manner ‘befitting’ their traditional educational role.” Buchanan and Devletoglou consider civil disobedience as a whole, which includes sitting at segregated lunch counters, as anarchy and terror.
Buchanan had a very strong reaction to the student demonstrations in the 1960s. In “The ‘Social’ Efficiency of Education” (1970), Buchanan, in a section called “The Failure of the Institutions of Order,” wrote: “Unrestrained and with little or no sense of mutual respect and tolerance, [students flout] ordinary rules of conduct; they disrupt others in the pursuit of their affairs; they have almost destroyed the basic order that once prevailed on campuses everywhere. All of this would be disturbing enough if the students’ excesses were confined within the ivy walls. But having learned none of the simple virtues in either family, church, or school, why should we expect the child-men to behave differently in the great society beyond the groves? The animals are in the streets, literally, and if college buildings burn so do banks, as we are finding this year.”
Note that Buchanan here embraced “order” and insisted that something must be done about students who have not done anything illegal but merely disregard “ordinary rules of conduct” and “disrupt others,” which are of course part of peaceful civil disobedience. Buchanan called human beings “animals” and “child-men.” Elsewhere, he called people “parasites.” This is a kind of dehumanization and disrespect that is plausibly inconsistent with democratic values, which imply a minimum degree of respect for those whom one disagrees with.
Buchanan’s legacy is mixed
I have had lots of indirect contact with Buchanan. I am one of hundreds of people who work in the public choice tradition, pioneered by Buchanan and many others. One of my undergraduate advisers, Charlie Plott, was a student of Buchanan’s at Virginia. I have given talks in the George Mason economics department, where Buchanan was a central figure. I have publicly lauded the books of George Mason economics faculty and my books have been praised by them. I was an assistant professor in the University of Chicago economics department, where Buchanan went to graduate school. My second book was called “another hit” by Peter Boettke, current president of the Mont Pelerin Society, of which Buchanan served as president.
It is possible to acknowledge an intellectual debt to Buchanan and not share all of his ideas. People have used public choice ideas to argue for minority voting rights and mechanisms to encourage sexual assault reporting, for example. Even so, we should all try to understand Buchanan’s ideas better, in their full intellectual, historical and political context. In my opinion, the beliefs and values of Buchanan I discuss here conflict with basic democratic norms.
Michael Chwe is professor of political science at UCLA.