David R. Henderson  

Tanenhaus on James Buchanan

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I have just read the first serious book review I've seen of historian Nancy MacLean's hatchet job book on James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. It's by Sam Tanenhaus.

He is, by and large, sympathetic with MacLean's strong claims about the role of James Buchanan in the rise of the radical right. Those of us who knew him well are more skeptical, partly because he was so bookish, so into thinking about fundamental ideas about governments and societies, and not really up to date on this or that political skirmish or current politician.

In any case, parts of the Sam Tanenhaus piece read as if Tanenhuas is writing for an audience that knows little economics and little U.S. history and is, therefore, credulous. Or it's possible it's Tanenhaus himself who's ignorant and credulous. I don't know. Three passages stand out.

Buchanan played a part, MacLean writes, by teaming up with another new University of Virginia hire, G. Warren Nutter (who was later a close adviser to Barry Goldwater), on an influential paper. In it they argued that the crux of the desegregation problem was that "state run" schools had become a "monopoly," which could be broken by privatization. If authorities sold off school buildings and equipment, and limited their own involvement in education to setting minimum standards, then all different kinds of schools might blossom. Each parent "would cast his vote in the marketplace and have it count." The argument impressed Friedman, who a few years earlier had published his own critique of "government schools," saying that "the denationalization of education would widen the range of choice available to parents."

Far-fetched though these schemes were, they gave ammunition to southern policy makers looking to mount the nonracial case for maintaining Jim Crow in a new form. Friedman himself left race completely out of it. Buchanan did too at first, telling skeptical colleagues in the North that the "transcendent issue" had nothing to do with race; it came down to the question of "whether the federal government shall dictate the solutions." But in their paper (initially a document submitted to a Virginia education commission and soon published in a Richmond newspaper), Buchanan and Nutter were more direct, stating their belief that "every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing"--the sanitized phrasing of segregationists.


See what Tanenhaus does here? He starts out by laying out Buchanan's pretty good argument against government monopoly. But then he says that southern politicians could use this argument to mount the nonracial case for maintaining Jim Crow. I'm not sure how. If people could choose their own schools, then Jim Crow would crumble. The essence of Jim Crow was lack of choice. See Loving v. Virginia.

Tanenhaus continues. Buchanan left out race too "at first." So then a reader would think that Buchanan later introduced race, right? Let's see.

Buchanan and Nutter stated their belief that "every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing." Tanenhaus says that this was the sanitized phrasing of segregationists. Possibly. I don't know. But it's also the phrasing of people who opposed Jim Crow laws, which forbade certain forms of freedom of association. One would think that if Tanenhuas wants to make his case that Buchanan favored segregation, he would come up with direct quotes to make it. It appears that he can't. So he uses a quote making the case against segregation and claims that it's really a disguised case for segregation.

For Buchanan, the trouble now went beyond the government. The enemy was the public itself, expressed through the tyranny of majority rule: The have-nots preyed on the rich, egged on by the new elite--labor bosses, benevolent corporations, and pandering politicians--who fell over themselves promising more and more.

This is a roughly accurate view of Buchanan's thoughts on democracy, although I don't recall Buchanan talking about benevolent corporations--maybe he did. But there's one jarring line that shows Tanenhaus's ignorance of Buchanan's views. It's this one: "The have-nots preyed on the rich." Any guesses as to who advocated that the government "prey on the rich" by imposing a 100% marginal tax rate on the value of all estates over $500,000 in 1975 dollars (or one million--I've forgotten which)? Hint: his initials are JMB. That's right: James M. Buchanan. He advocated that at a Liberty Fund conference I attended with him in June 1975 in Athens, Ohio.
His view of Social Security--a "Ponzi scheme"--is shared by privatizers like Paul Ryan.

True, but Tanenhaus might be surprised by someone else who explicitly labeled Social Security a "Ponzi game" and celebrated it for that reason: Paul A. Samuelson.

Tanenhaus, to his credit, is pretty much on target with his description of public choice.

This was not a new argument, but Buchanan gave it fresh rigor in his theory of "public choice," set forth in his pioneering book, The Calculus of Consent (1962), written with Gordon Tullock. Governments, they argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to "maximize their utility"--that is, win the next election or enlarge their department's budget?

This idea turned the whole notion of a beneficent government, and of programs and policies designed more or less selflessly, into a kind of fairy tale expertly woven by politicians and their flacks. Not that politicians were evil. They were looking out for themselves, as most of us do. The difference was in the damage they did. After all, the high-priced programs they devised were paid for by taxes wrested from defenseless citizens, who were given little or no effective choice in the matter. It was licensed theft, reinforced by the steep gradations in income-tax rates.


Actually, this is a pretty decent, if simplified, view of public choice. The one part that is off is the implication that the idea that government is beneficent began with New Deal thinking. It's much older than that. Has Tanenhaus read James Madison? Or Adam Smith? And he does well at saying that the damage when government looks out for itself is way greater than when private individuals do it. Look at the well over one-million people killed in Vietnam war and millions displaced due in part to LBJ's narrow motives.




COMMENTS (22 to date)
Jake writes:

The reviewer is grasping at straws to portray Buchanan in the poorest possible light.

Pro school choice? You're racist. Anti tax and spend? You hate poor people. Etc etc.

It's a hit piece, nothing more. I'm sure there are legitimate criticisms of Buchanan but these authors are not interested in honest discussion.

Jake writes:

Also, a question if I may. Prof Henderson, you said:

Any guesses as to who advocated that the government "prey on the rich" by imposing a 100% marginal tax rate on the value of all estates over $500,000 in 1975 dollars (or one million--I've forgotten which)? Hint: his initials are JMB. That's right: James M. Buchanan. He advocated that at a Liberty Fund conference I attended with him in June 1975 in Miami, Ohio.

Do you happen to recall what Buchanan's reasoning was for this position? I don't think I have ever seen something that radical from a libertarian before.

Roger McKinney writes:

Had the author known the real history of free market economics he would know that the top theologians in the U.S. taught it throughout the 19th century. It was so dominant that some historians have labeled it "clerical laissez-faire." The Rev Francis Wayland was the leader. He was a pastor at First Baptist of Boston then president of Brown, a Baptist college. He taught theology and economics and wrote his The Elements of Political Economy in 1837. It was the most popular econ text until the civil war. Clerical laissez-faire didn't end until after Ely founded the AEA in 1885 to promote socialism.

But even worse, the author seems to be oblivious to the left's role in racism. I give the ugly history here: http://rdmckinney.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-lefts-long-lingering-history-of.html

Steve Horwitz writes:

Also, David, that line about the have-nots preying on the rich ignores the way in which public choice has analyzed the rent-seeking behavior of the relaltively well-off as a way for them to shut out low-wage and relatively powerless competitors to keep monopoly profits for themselves. Yes, they often have to persuade the public that their cause is just, but they remain the bootleggers to the Baptists they create.

Unchained democracy tends to work to the benefit of those who have resources and power already, not the masses, even if the masses support their own impoverishment.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

I heard MacLean interviewed at https://thisishell.com/interviews/957-nancy-maclean

Would love to hear as a guest with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. My favorite episodes are with guests who disagree.

Brandon T. writes:

Thanks for the write-up, David.

As a Redhawk, however, I must correct one small thing: there is no Miami, OH. There is only the original "Public Ivy," Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio.

Weir writes:

It's such a nifty trick, I want to try a few for practice. "Sam Tanenhaus was a human earthling at first." "Mother Teresa was a Catholic at first." "The moon circled the earth at first."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brandon T.,
Thanks. Correction made: Ohio University in Athens.

Richard writes:
See what Tanenhaus does here? He starts out by laying out Buchanan's pretty good argument against government monopoly. But then he says that southern politicians could use this argument to mount the nonracial case for maintaining Jim Crow. I'm not sure how. If people could choose their own schools, then Jim Crow would crumble. The essence of Jim Crow was lack of choice. See Loving v. Virginia.

I think "free choice" and "individual liberty" were always pretenses in the civi rights movement. The same Civil Rights Act that banned mandatory segregation was used to enforce mandatory quotas and busing schemes to achieve racial balance within less than a decade. What really bothers liberals is not lack of choice, it's racial disparities, and they know you won't eliminate those by leaving people alone.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"But even worse, the author seems to be oblivious to the left's role in racism. I give the ugly history here: http://rdmckinney.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-lefts-long-lingering-history-of.html"

I read your link, and I think that you are redefining the meaning of "left"; the hyper-Tory Carlyle could be many things, but "left" it was not. And are you sure that Hayek considered nacinal-social as "left-wing"? I only read some opassages of his book, but my impression is that he considered nacional-socialism "right-wing socialism" (e, perhaps more important, he talked about a conflict between the "spirit of 1789" - classic liberalism - and the "spirit of 1914" - statism, what gives me the impression that he was equating classic liberalism with the French Revolution).

David White writes:


I'd like to read that article by Buchanan and Nutter. It would seem the scholarly thing to do would be to give that information to the reader.

I'd also point out that segregationists certainly did use the language of "private property rights" and "rights of association", to justify refusing to serve black customers, even after the Civil Rights Movement had their legal successes.

Lester Maddox was a good example of this--see this Wikipedia piece for a introduction:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_Maddox

This is the context in which many southerners first heard "libertarian-sounding" language.

And there still are some libertarians who would defend Maddox's right to disallow customers based on race. (He denied it was race-based, but that's ridiculous.)

Roger McKinney writes:

Miguel,

Check this out:

"Indeed, a good case can be made that Carlyle was the forefather of fascism....Carlyle was not a socialist in an ideological sense. He cared nothing for the common ownership of the means of production. ... His writings appeared and circulated alongside those of Karl Marx and his contemporaries, but he was not drawn to them....Rather than an early “leftist,” he was a consistent proponent of power and a raving opponent of classical liberalism..."

I disagree that he wasn't leftist. He wasn't a Marxist, but socialism predated Marx by several decades. Hayek's Counter-Revolution in Science is a good history. Carlisle merely advocated a pre-Marx socialism.

Fascism is a form of socialism. It combined the left's obsession with eugenics and Carlisle's style of socialism. There are several styles of socialism. German socialism began in the 1870s and had nothing to do with Marx. The Nazis thought they were socialists, hence the name National Socialism.

Fascism differs from communism, the Russian version of socialism, only in that it pretends to allow private property. But the state controls all aspects of property. The "owner" merely has a title with no control, but property without control is not property. See Mises' Omnipotent Government for a history of German socialism.

Yeah, Hayek thought the Nazis were socialists. Read his intro. He says he wrote the book because Brits thought of Nazism as a late form of capitalism and he wanted to demonstrate how socialism has to become a dictatorship like Hitler's.

Not all people on the left are racists. But the most racist people in modern history have always been socialists.

Jon Murphy writes:

@David White:


I'd also point out that segregationists certainly did use the language of "private property rights" and "rights of association", to justify refusing to serve black customers, even after the Civil Rights Movement had their legal successes.

But it works both ways. It also means that I, a white man, can freely associate with blacks, and immigrants, and whoever. Jim Crow Laws didn't allow this sort of interaction. So, freedom of association cannot possibly have been used to strengthen Jim Crow.

David White writes:

But it works both ways. It also means that I, a white man, can freely associate with blacks, and immigrants, and whoever. Jim Crow Laws didn't allow this sort of interaction. So, freedom of association cannot possibly have been used to strengthen Jim Crow.

I'm not arguing that question here.

I'm just reminding readers of a historical set of facts about Mr. Maddox and his arguments.

Jon Murphy writes:

@David White:

I'm just reminding readers of a historical set of facts about Mr. Maddox and his arguments.

Fine, but ultimately irrelevant.

With respect, without explaining the other side of the issue (as I did in my comment and Prof. Henderson in the post), your comment seems like a "guilty by association" thing; "these people misused/misunderstood Buchanan's argument to justify racial ideas, thus Buchanan's arguments are racially motivated."

Yes, some people use "right to association" to justify not serving black customers, just like Nazis use Freedom of Speech to justify marching and rallying and spreading hate speech, but it doesn't imply that Freedom of Speech is a fascist tool any more than freedom of association is a segregationist tool.

When we come across a misconception (especially a character-assassinating misconception like Tanenhaus and McLean have), pointing out potential justifications for how that misconception came about is pointless; we need to attack the misconception itself.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"I disagree that he wasn't leftist. He wasn't a Marxist, but socialism predated Marx by several decades. Hayek's Counter-Revolution in Science is a good history. Carlisle merely advocated a pre-Marx socialism. (...)"

"Fascism is a form of socialism. It combined the left's obsession with eugenics and Carlisle's style of socialism. There are several styles of socialism. German socialism began in the 1870s and had nothing to do with Marx. The Nazis thought they were socialists, hence the name National Socialism."

It seems to me that you are using "leftist" and "socialist" as if they are the same word; but they are different words - the anti-clerical, republican, pro-universal suffrage, leftists form 1789 to 1848 were not socialists; the opposite (being socialist without being left-winger) is more complex, specially because the word "was born" associated with the left - but if we define "socialism" to encompass all kinds of economic dirigism (and it seems implicit if we consider Carlyle a "socialist"), it was historically common to see the conservative and traditionalist right-wing to be more interventionist than the liberal and radical left-wing (look, for example, for the corn laws question - the Liberals, the newborn trade-union movement and some Conservatives in favor of free-trade, and most Conservatives against).

Or look for the first years of the USA - I suppose that "right" and "left" were not used in USA in that time, but there was a tendency (perhaps specially from the opposite party...) to associate the Jeffersonians with sympathy with the French Revolution (ergo, a kind of "left-wing") and the Federalists with sympathy with the British aristocracy (ergo, a kind of "right-wing") - and it was the Jeffersonians who were in favor of free-market and it was the Federalists who were in favor of federal intervention in economy (protectionism, internal improvements, etc.).

Or look to Portugal in 19th century - the "Regeneradores" (the right-wing, the party associated with the Constitutional Charter of 1826, with restricted suffrage and strong powers to the king and to the House of Lords) were the party of the "public infrastructures", and the "Históricos/Progressistas" (the left-wing, the party associated with the Constitution of 1822, with universal male suffrage, parliamentarism and unicameralism) were the party who demanded "less expenses and less taxes".

David White writes:

Jon,

I have no interest in character assassination or in justifying MacLean's view of James Buchanan. That's one reason for why I wished MacLean and Tanenhaus would have given us the article (by Buchanan and Nutter) in question. There simply isn't enough evidence in the piece to support a negative assessment.

All I did was point out some historical facts about how some people used some libertarian ideas to justify racist exclusionary practices within their businesses (in Maddox's case, a restaurant).

I'm not even presenting these facts in order to discredit libertarianism. I'm simply reminding present-day libertarians of a fraught period of American history. Though it doesn't justify McLean, it might go some way towards explaining why she treats Buchanan the way she does.

Jon Murphy writes:

@David White:

I get that you have no interest in character assassination. I get that, but many who read your comment might not. That's my point: by presenting Maddox's argument in support of McLean's point but not explaining why he's wrong (and thus her interpretation of the principle is wrong), it gives the strong illusion of a guilt-by-association argument.

David White writes:

Jon,

you seem interested in defending the legitimacy of libertarian ideas, an exercise in theory. That's a legitimate project.

Here, I'm more interested in how the theory (or parts of the theory) gets embedded in actual history, how people in the thick of politics appropriate parts of the theory, and, of course, reject other parts.

Libertarians forget this second task to their detriment.

Roger McKinney writes:

Miguel,

Here are quotes from Wikipedia that I think does good job of describing the use of the terms today:

The contemporary Left in the United States is usually understood as a category that includes New Deal social-liberals (in contrast to traditions of social democracy more common to Western Europe), Rawlsian liberals, and civil libertarians, who are often identified with the Democratic Party. In general, the term left-wing is understood to imply a commitment to egalitarianism, support for social policies that appeal to the working class, and multiculturalism. The contemporary center-left usually defines itself as promoting government regulation of business, commerce and industry; protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion; and government intervention on behalf of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and the working class.[50]

The contemporary Right in the United States is usually understood as a category that includes social conservatives, Christian conservatives, free market liberals, and economic libertarians who are often identified with the Republican Party. In general, the term right-wing is understood to imply a commitment to conservative Christian values, support for a free-market economic system, support for a strong national defense, and support for traditional family values. The contemporary center-right usually defines itself as promoting deregulation of banking, commerce, and industry.[51]

People get confused by the media's dishonest perpetuation of the lie that Nazis and racists are on the right. The US left, socialists, embraced the Nazis as one of them until Hitler attacked Russia. Then they labeled National Socialism a form of capitalism. Since most historians and the media are socialists they profit from keeping up the dishonesty.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Well, by these wikipedia definitions, Hitler (and Carlyle) were neither left nor right (nor, btw, Lenin or Stalin) - neither were in favour of "protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion; and government intervention on behalf of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities" or "support for a free-market economic system (...) [and] promoting deregulation of banking, commerce, and industry."

Of course, Carlyle, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin did not live in contemporary United States, meaning that applying definition style "The contemporary Left in the United States..." does not make much sense to them; booth american "liberalism" and "conservatism" are essentially off-shots of classic liberalism (unlike european - specially mainland european - socialism and conservatism), meaning that booth value more individual liberty (in some issues - usually cultural - for the "liberals", in others - usually economic - for the "conservatives") that the left-wing and the right-wing in the rest of the world.

And, attending that, afaik, the left/right division is very recent in the USA, more one reason to not use the american standards to distinguish the left-wing from the right-wing worldwide (makes more sense to use the French meanings, for example, because these terminology was born in France; and, in France, of the 3 right-wing traditions - the liberal Orleanists, the nationalist/populist Bonapartists and the traditionalist Legitimists - only the Orleanists are enthusiasts of the free market).

"The US left, socialists, embraced the Nazis as one of them until Hitler attacked Russia."

That part of the history was probably much obfuscated (and even more for me, a Portuguese), but I have the idea that, at least since the Spanish Civil War, and the Abrahan Lincoln Brigade, even in the US the "anti-fascism" was the dominant left-wing battle cry; yes, with some interruption for the big-C-Communists during the German-Soviet Pact, but I imagine that, even in this time the non-big-C-Communist left ("liberals", Socialists, Trotskyists, etc.) continued to use the anti-fascist rhetoric.

byomtov writes:

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