2018/05/30: unlike even the most property-friendly founders Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Buchanan wanted a private governing elite of corporate power that was wholly released from public accountability.
Suppressing voting, changing legislative processes so that a normal majority could no longer prevail, sowing public distrust of government institutions— all these were tactics toward the goal. But the Holy Grail was the Constitution: alter it and you could increase and secure the power of the wealthy in a way that no politician could ever challenge.
MacLean argues that despite the rhetoric of Virginia school acolytes, shrinking big government is not really the point. The oligarchs require a government with tremendous new powers so that they can bypass the will of the people. This, as MacLean points out, requires greatly expanding police powers “to control the resultant popular anger.” The spreading use of pre-emption by GOP-controlled state legislatures to suppress local progressive victories such as living wage ordinances is another example of the right’s aggressive use of state power.
Could these right-wing capitalists allow private companies to fill prisons with helpless citizens—or, more profitable still, right-less undocumented immigrants? They could, and have. Might they engineer a retirement crisis by moving Americans to inadequate 401(k)s? Done. Take away the rights of consumers and workers to bring grievances to court by making them sign forced arbitration agreements? Check. Gut public education to the point where ordinary people have such bleak prospects that they have no energy to fight back? Getting it done.
Would they even refuse children clean water? Actually, yes.
MacLean notes that in Flint, Michigan, Americans got a taste of what the emerging oligarchy will look like — it tastes like poisoned water. There, the Koch-funded Mackinac Center pushed for legislation that would allow the governor to take control of communities facing emergency and put unelected managers in charge. In Flint, one such manager switched the city’s water supply to a polluted river, but the Mackinac Center’s lobbyists ensured that the law was fortified by protections against lawsuits that poisoned inhabitants might bring. Tens of thousands of children were exposed to lead, a substance known to cause serious health problems including brain damage.
Tyler Cowen has provided an economic justification for this kind of brutality, stating that where it is difficult to get clean water, private companies should take over and make people pay for it. “This includes giving them the right to cut off people who don’t—or can’t—pay their bills,” the economist explains.
To many this sounds grotesquely inhumane, but it is a way of thinking that has deep roots in America. In Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative (2005), Buchanan considers the charge of heartlessness made against the kind of classic liberal that he took himself to be. MacLean interprets his discussion to mean that people who “failed to foresee and save money for their future needs” are to be treated, as Buchanan put it, “as subordinate members of the species, akin to…animals who are dependent.’”
Buchanan, a 1940 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University who later attended the University of Chicago for graduate study, started out as a conventional public finance economist. But he grew frustrated by the way in which economic theorists ignored the political process.
Buchanan began working on a description of power that started out as a critique of how institutions functioned in the relatively liberal 1950s and ‘60s, a time when economist John Maynard Keynes’s ideas about the need for government intervention in markets to protect people from flaws so clearly demonstrated in the Great Depression held sway. Buchanan, MacLean notes, was incensed at what he saw as a move toward socialism and deeply suspicious of any form of state action that channels resources to the public. Why should the increasingly powerful federal government be able to force the wealthy to pay for goods and programs that served ordinary citizens and the poor?
In thinking about how people make political decisions and choices, Buchanan concluded that you could only understand them as individuals seeking personal advantage. In an interview cited by MacLean, the economist observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly assumed that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. Buchanan vehemently disagreed — that was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to “tear down.” His ideas developed into a theory that came to be known as “public choice.”
Buchanan’s view of human nature was distinctly dismal. Adam Smith saw human beings as self-interested and hungry for personal power and material comfort, but he also acknowledged social instincts like compassion and fairness. Buchanan, in contrast, insisted that people were primarily driven by venal self-interest. Crediting people with altruism or a desire to serve others was “romantic” fantasy: politicians and government workers were out for themselves, and so, for that matter, were teachers, doctors, and civil rights activists. They wanted to control others and wrest away their resources: “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves,” he wrote in his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty.
Does that sound like your kindergarten teacher? It did to Buchanan.
The people who needed protection were property owners, and their rights could only be secured though constitutional limits to prevent the majority of voters from encroaching on them, an idea Buchanan lays out in works like Property as a Guarantor of Liberty (1993). MacLean observes that Buchanan saw society as a cutthroat realm of makers (entrepreneurs) constantly under siege by takers (everybody else) His own language was often more stark, warning the alleged “prey” of “parasites” and “predators” out to fleece them.