The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

This book review from The New York Times reveals how the Right has been working successfully undercover for a long time to undermine our democracy and who the people are at its helm.

James McGill Buchanan, shortly after notice of his Nobel Prize in Economics

Book review by HEATHER BOUCHEY for The New York Times

. . . In the United States, promising and then delivering services and protections for the majority of voters provides a path for politicians to be popularly elected. [The economist James McGill] Buchanan was concerned that this would lead to overinvestment in public services, as the majority would be all too willing to tax the wealthy minority to support these programs. So Buchanan came to a radical conclusion: Majority rule was an economic problem. “Despotism,” he declared in his 1975 book “The Limits of Liberty,” “may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”

Buchanan therefore argued for “curbing the appetites of majority coalitions” by establishing ironclad rules that would curb their power. As he was known for saying, “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers.” In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision making.”

Buchanan, however, also had what MacLean calls a “stealth” agenda. He knew that the majority would never agree to being constrained. He therefore helped lead a push to undermine their trust in public institutions. The idea was to get voters to direct their ire at these institutions and divert their attention away from increasing income and wealth inequality. . . .

Buchanan decided he needed to influence policy at a deeper level. In the ensuing years, he sought to lead an economic and political movement in which he stressed that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential” to mask efforts to protect the wealthy elite from the will of the majority. In September 1973, Buchanan held the inaugural meeting of the International Atlantic Economic Society, arguing for the need to “create, support and activate an effective counterintelligentsia” to reshape the way people thought about government. He believed the center-left controlled academia and “effectively indoctrinated political actors in both parties,” MacLean writes. To fight back, conservatives needed to develop new surrogates who could be “indoctrinated” in turn with right-wing ideas, and then “mobilized, organized and directed” to disseminate them. . . .

Seeing the name of an unfamiliar economist eventually led her to rooms full of documents that made clear how “operatives” had been trained “to staff the far-flung and purportedly separate, yet intricately connected, institutions funded by the Koch brothers and their now large network of fellow wealthy donors.” Buchanan’s papers revealed how, from a series of faculty perches at several universities, he spent his life laying out a game plan for a right-wing social movement.

kochs

David and Charles Koch

One part of his plan involved Social Security. The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a watershed for conservatives, yet it quickly became clear that he, too, would succumb to political pressure. By 1982, Reagan’s fight to end Social Security — long a bugbear of Buchanan’s — was faltering. Amid that debate, the libertarian Cato Institute, funded by the brothers Charles and David Koch, made privatization of Social Security its top priority and turned to Buchanan for a master plan. Buchanan told them that “those who seek to undermine the existing structure” must do two things: Make people doubt the viability of Social Security, and divide the public by suggesting high earners be taxed at higher rates — which might sound progressive but would ultimately undo the universal foundation of the program itself. . . .

 American democracy was unprepared to defend itself against the agenda of Buchanan and conservative benefactors. Buchanan may not have been the only actor in this movement, and the role of conservative donors and economists has been documented elsewhere, but we are now living in a world he helped shepherd into reality. Public choice economists argue that those with the most to lose from change will pay the most attention, which has certainly been the case with Charles and David Koch. They and their friends have invested enormous sums in organizations that have changed the national debate about the proper role of government in the economy. Our politically polarized and increasingly paralyzed government institutions are the result . . . .

Power consolidation sometimes seems like a perpetual motion machine, continually widening the gap between those who have power and money and those who don’t. Still, “Democracy in Chains” leaves me with hope: Perhaps as books like MacLean’s continue to shine a light on important truths, Americans will begin to realize they need to pay more attention and not succumb to the cynical view that known liars make the best leaders.

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