Free market advocates push for eliminating government regulation of businesses, arguing that better public services will result. The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the parking meter fiasco in Chicago, just to name a few recent examples, denude that argument and show the real harm this line of thinking brings about.
Rightfully, many writers have detailed how corporate lobbyists have pursued similar strategies for shrinking government, but far fewer explain the history of privatization and the undemocratic ideology that has driven it. Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, however, does just that.
MacLean, a professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, shows how a handful of economists, initially guided by James McGill Buchanan’s “public choice” theory, attracted immense financial support from key billionaires—most importantly Charles Koch.
Under Buchanan’s theory, for which he received a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986, government actions that respond to the needs of the majority of voters cripple an efficient market. Put more bluntly in Buchanan’s The Calculus of Consent, simple majority voting “tended to result in overinvestment in the public sector.”
Without government interference the market would be free to deal with all social problems. The wealthy minority would then have economic liberty and not be forced to pay for the needs of those who were not as productive. For Buchanan and his ilk, being poor was proof of not being productive. Influenced by this theory, these economists and a bunch of billionaires spearheaded the contemporary radical libertarian movement.
Koch is not the only billionaire involved here, but he is the wealthiest of the bunch. With yearly revenues of $115 billion, Koch Industries is the second largest privately held company in America. With that cash flow he created or funded a string of organizations that employ scholars, politicians, and activists dedicated to “tearing [government] out at the root.” His State Policy Network of libertarian think tanks has a branch in every state to pursue that effort.
MacLean details the intricate web of donors, organizations and academics funneling programmatic legislation throughout the country. The Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to pick one big example, produces hundreds of “model laws” at state level. Nearly 20 percent of these proposals have been adopted. In 2011 alone, legislators in 41 states introduced more than 180 bills produced by ALEC to restrict who could vote and how.
Koch and Buchanan also target eduction. As MacLean explains, this focus began in earnest after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision made segregated public schools illegal. In response to the ruling, Buchanan advocated unlimited privatization of schools and supported ending Virginia’s constitutional guarantee of free public schools.
MacLean writes that Koch “encouraged states to slash their state’s public university budgets while simultaneously raising tuition, ending need-based scholarships and undermining support for the liberal arts curriculum.” Meanwhile Buchanan argued that the public had to stop considering colleges and universities as public resources, saying “the student class has become parasites, who take from society without adding value.”
In the most harrowing moment of the book, MacLean quotes activist Murray Rothbard, who believed that radical libertarian ideas must be put to work. “We can learn a great deal from Lenin and the Leninists,” he said. He also told Koch to study Lenin’s strategies. Rothbard doesn’t call for armed revolution, but rather for creating a cadre of hardcore libertarian thinkers.
Though Russia’s democracy was corrupt then, Rothbard, and those who supported him, saw the US government as corrupt because its politicians adopted policies simply in the hopes of getting re-elected. For the radical libertarians, using a “government reform” message like Lenin did could help shrink government and thus restrict politicians from being captured by the interests of the majority of voters, who would have them interfere with the free market.
Democracy in Chains concludes that radical libertarians seek a return to oligarchy, in which both economic and effective political power is concentrated in the hands of the few. Their genius lies in repeatedly saying that government is broken so that “even those who supported liberal objectives lose confidence in government solutions.”
So, how do we save the future of our democracy? MacLean says we must take heed of a Koch maxim: “Playing it safe is slow suicide.”
Nick Licata is a former 5- term Seattle City Councilmember and the author of Becoming a Citizen Activist