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Democracy in Chains

Book Notes

Okay, to say I don't understand many of the vitriol that comes out of my dad's mouth is an understatement. A couple years ago, he was going off on how public schools should be shut down, the government has no right telling parents how to educate their kids, public schools are a farce. I had to remind him that I was a product of public education, and that he would have been incapable of teaching me, had it been upon his shoulders to do so. He might have paused at my response, but he continued to spout garbage that were clearly someone else's words.

This book helped me understand the source of those words. The book helped me understand the cult my dad is caught in, where his thinking originates, and just how horribly dangerous it is. My dad is on the side of authoritarianism, fighting for his own chains, as he yells "Freedom!" all the way down.

The strength and momentum of the masses brainwashing comes from the "capitalist radical right" James McGill Buchanan's ideas (which are really bad ideas for a healthy, thriving society) coupling with the Koch brother money, and a long con. The end result is a country with a system like Chile's broken system, with RWA in power. It's not a pretty thought.

This book is pretty incredible. I strongly (like STRONGLY STRONGLY) recommend this book to anyone who will read it. While it may not change your life, I will buy you a copy if you'll read it. Hell, I might start buying Dad many copies until he reads it.

Northern liberals—the very people who looked down upon southern whites like him, he was sure—were now going to tell his people how to run their society. And to add insult to injury, he and people like him with property were no doubt going to be taxed more to pay for all the improvements that were now deemed necessary and proper for the state to make. What about his rights? Where did the federal government get the authority to engineer society to its liking and then send him and those like him the bill?
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It would be an academic center, rigorously so, but one with a quiet political agenda: to defeat the “perverted form” of liberalism that sought to destroy their way of life, “a social order,” as he described it, “built on individual liberty,” a term with its own coded meaning but one that Darden surely understood.
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Buchanan fully understood the scale of the challenge he was undertaking and promised no immediate results.
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The goal of the cause, Buchanan announced to his associates, should no longer be to influence who makes the rules, to vest hopes in one party or candidate. The focus must shift from who rules to changing the rules.
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For liberty to thrive, Buchanan now argued, the cause must figure out how to put legal—indeed, constitutional—shackles on public officials, shackles so powerful that no matter how sympathetic these officials might be to the will of majorities, no matter how concerned they were with their own reelections, they would no longer have the ability to respond to those who used their numbers to get government to do their bidding.
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Once these shackles were put in place, they had to be binding and permanent. The only way to ensure that the will of the majority could no longer influence representative government on core matters of political economy was through what he called “constitutional revolution.”
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while criticizing government action that threatened his own liberty as a property owner, Calhoun saw nothing untoward in calling on the federal government to use its police powers to help his class stifle debate about its practices. That sleight of hand—denying the legitimacy of government power to act for the common good while using government power to suppress others—appears repeatedly in the pages that follow.
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Hayek took pains to persuade readers that the free market was not simply an efficient way of producing economic progress. Rather, the price signals of supply and demand provided the only means yet discovered of coordinating the desires and actions of millions of freely acting individuals, without government compulsion, in what Hayek called a “spontaneous order.”
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Hayek’s book, not surprisingly, spoke powerfully to right-wing American businessmen still smarting from the loss of time-honored prerogatives of the propertied class, who now were told that they had to negotiate with unions and meet new regulatory agency rules and standards.
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at this point he maintained that a return to Gilded Age laissez-faire was undesirable.
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He chose to build a career by turning a critical eye the other way: identifying and analyzing perceived “government failure,” so as to make the case that it should not be relied on by default without a sophisticated evaluation of its drawbacks. That was an innovative approach at the time and, on the face of it, a sensible one. Why simply assume government could do better?
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Buchanan found a half-century-old dissertation written in German by a nineteenth-century Swedish political economist named Knut Wicksell. Economists, Wicksell argued, should stop offering up policy advice to leaders they imagined as “benevolent despots” who could act on behalf of the public good. Instead, scholars should assume that public officials had the same self-interested motives as other economic actors and go on to scrutinize the actual operational rules, practices, and incentives that created the framework of government and bureaucratic decision-making.
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He had found theoretical anchors for both sides of his fiscal inclinations: to curtail taxation and contain government spending. “Pay as you go” was both economically wise and morally just, Buchanan concluded in his first book. He took his stand alongside “the much-maligned man in the street,” who compared national budgets to household ledgers and abhorred red ink in either. A government forced to balance its books every year, he believed, would act more like the nineteenth-century federal government and the southern states whose ongoing tightfisted policies he equated with economic liberty.
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Left unspoken was how that framework appealed to the more right-wing members of the propertied class by keeping their taxes low and denying basic services—schools, roads, and sanitation—to those who could not pay for them.
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In Byrd’s view, government must defer entirely to business owners to run the economy while balancing its own budgets like a prudent household. His mantra was “pay as you go”: no public investments that would incur debt, no matter how great the promised payoff might be.
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And then he admitted that he “would go much farther than you [have]. . . . In principle the full burden of education should be borne by the parents of children,” not paid by the state. Why, you may wonder, did Friedman want the government out of schooling? That would promote personal responsibility—through birth control. If parents had to bear the full cost of educating their children, he believed they would have “the appropriate number of children.”
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“No nation,” he said in reference to compulsory high school, “has ever attempted to keep so many children in school so long.” It was an excess of democracy to try to educate so many, he suggested, and it would cost taxpayers too much money. 29
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For example, he acknowledged that he had “neither taken nor taught an elementary economics course.” But precisely because of that, he believed himself to be “in a completely unbiased position” to determine “that they are taught wrong.” 6
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Interestingly, these conclusions issued from purely abstract thought experiments, not from any research on political practice. Indeed, even a sympathetic economist soon cited as “the major deficiency” of the Virginia school “the failure to search for empirical tests of the new theories.” 13 The lack of proof, however, did not stop Buchanan and Tullock from offering what they considered the only right solution: to stanch the flow of money, change the incentives. Majority rule ought not to be treated as a sacred cow. It was merely one decision-making rule among many possibilities, and rarely ideal. It tended to violate the liberty of the minority, because it yoked some citizens unwillingly to others’ goals.
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give each individual the capacity to veto the schemes of others so that the many could not impose on the few. Only if a measure gained unanimous consent, they argued, could it honestly be depicted as “in the public interest.”
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As one-sided as the political decisions of their own era seemed to Buchanan and Tullock, they never acknowledged that the system of rules they favored, the one that struck down labor and market regulations along with civil rights and voting rights protections, was just as one-sided. The power of the most propertied to constrain representative government through the courts not only allowed states to legislate racial segregation while keeping wage-earning Americans from effectively advancing their interests, but also hobbled the growing number of middle-class reformers who hoped to steer between what they often viewed as greed on one side and grabbiness on the other in an era marked by veritable rolling wars between corporations and workers.
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Today Goldwater is best remembered for one line in his acceptance speech,
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“I would remind you,” the nominee announced in his climax, “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”
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In June 1963, the dean of the faculty alerted the president to “a condition in the Department of Economics that has worried me for quite a while. Doctrinalism tends to breed authoritarianism,” he warned. “And absolute doctrinalism breeds absolute authoritarianism absolutely.” 37
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Instead, they should adopt his radical methodological individualism in all that they studied, and assume that individuals always sought personal gain, whether in the economy or in politics. But, he opined, markets were good, whereas politics was bad. In
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What Buchanan was doing was leveraging the prestige of economic “science” to reject what several generations of scholarship in the social sciences, humanities, and law had exposed: that the late-nineteenth-century notion of a pure market was a fiction. That fiction helped emerging corporate elites to shape law and governance to their advantage while devastating the societies over which they held sway by virtue of their wealth and the control over others it could purchase.
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Take, for example, one of the central concepts of public choice analysis: “rent-seeking.” Mainstream economists enlisted the concept of “rents” to describe the additional profits a firm might secure without creating additional value for the economy by productive activity—say, by lobbying to extend the patent on an existing product.
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They depicted as “rent-seeking” any collective efforts by citizens or public servants to prompt government action that involved tax revenues. And, in their assumption that individuals always acted to advance their personal economic self-interest rather than collective goals or the common good, Buchanan’s school went further, projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing.
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The scholars were conducting, in effect, thought experiments, or hypothetical scenarios with no true research—no facts—to support them, while the very terms of their analysis denied such motives as compassion, fairness, solidarity, generosity, justice, and sustainability. 42
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Researchers in history and sociology, for example, including some emerging leaders in UVA’s own history department, such as the southern historian Paul M. Gaston, were reaching conclusions that, in effect, echoed the teachings of Martin Luther King and civil rights activists: that radical restructuring would be required to include all Americans in the promise of opportunity, and that for this, federal intervention was essential. It was needed for a simple reason, they showed: because only the federal government had the power to end the long train of damaging injustices shielded by undemocratic state governments. 45
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Buchanan’s telling distorted the reality in at least two ways. The administration was not, in fact, liberal, let alone hostile to right-wing ideas. Its members were pragmatic conservatives; Buchanan’s men were zealous libertarians. And the administrators had realized that the difference mattered.
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He never acknowledged any fault on his or his fellows’ part for their fall from grace. In his telling of his life story, the campus donnybrook took its place alongside the alleged discrimination he had suffered in the Navy, where he had felt the sting of Ivy League northerners’ snobbery about Middle Tennessee State Teachers College. He was the victim of mistreatment; he was sure of it.
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It also bears noting that, for a thinker who professed devotion to liberty, Buchanan showed a marked enthusiasm for the armed suppression of rebellion, both at home and abroad. Indeed, he never questioned the rightness of American military policy in Vietnam—except to say that it should be more aggressive. 16 His reductionist analysis turned young Americans with a passion to live up to their nation’s stated ideals into menaces who misrepresented their purposes for personal gain and the pure pleasure of disruption. Viewing the protesters, white and black, as spoiled work shirkers who lived off illegitimate extractions from taxpayers, he found it easy to call for the use of clubs to subdue them.
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The self-styled libertarian went further in outlining “a counterstrategy,” one he honed and shared with powerful donors, think tank staff, and like-minded public officials over the ensuing decades, for it had application far beyond the campus. The president should play “a simple tit-for-tat game” with the “undesirables.” The students who caused trouble should “be subjected to explicit harassment by the administration,” a kind of hounding “always within rules but explicitly designed to keep them busy and off balance.” There should also be a new “reward-punishment structure for faculty.”
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The original Populists had extolled the ordinary men and women who produced needed goods by the sweat of their brows and reviled as “parasites” the mortgage bankers, furnishing merchants, and robber barons who lived in luxury by exploiting them. The People’s Party called on the federal government to intervene, as the only conceivable counterweight to the vast corporate power altering their society. Because that government was representative of the people (or could be made so, through organizing), they saw it as wholly legitimate to endow Congress with new powers that the people believed it needed to ensure justice in a land changed by concentrated corporate power. 10
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By contrast, the twentieth-century libertarian directed hostility toward college students, public employees, recipients of any kind of government assistance, and liberal intellectuals.
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Remaining were such strategic questions as “How is respectability to be established and maintained? How much hypocrisy is necessary? How much internal criticism is to be allowed?”)
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Universal Oil Products engaged in what Buchanan’s coauthor Gordon Tullock would later define as (and an adult Charles Koch would revile as) “rent-seeking behavior.” It referred to all attempts to extract benefits (financial or otherwise) through manipulation of the political or legal system that exceeded what those seeking these advantages would have been able to earn through their own productive activity. 4 Of course, what happened to Fred Koch wasn’t rent-seeking behavior; it was criminal behavior. If Universal’s lawyers felt confident that the courts would have sustained their claims, then Universal would not have resorted to bribery.
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One can only wonder if the course of both Fred’s and Charles’s lives might have been somehow different had the judge in the case refused the bribe and heard the case on its merits.
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For in his own mind his success confirmed the quality of his intelligence and his fitness as a leader.
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The devil is in the details, goes the old adage, and it is true: the wicked genius of Buchanan’s approach to binding popular self-government was that he did it with detailed rules that made most people’s eyes glaze over. In the boring fine print, he understood, transformations can be achieved by increments that few will notice, because most people have no patience for minutiae. But the kind of people he was advising can hire others to make sure that the fine print gets them what they want.
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What’s perplexing is how a man whose life’s mission was the promotion of what he and his fellow Mont Pelerin Society members called the free society reconciled himself, with such seeming ease, to what a military junta was doing to the people of Chile.
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But perhaps above all, for Buchanan, the end justified the means: Chile emerged with a set of rules closer to his ideal than any in existence, built to repel future popular pressure for change. It was “a virtually unamendable charter,” in that no constitutional amendment could be added without endorsement by supermajorities in two successive sessions of the National Congress, a body radically skewed by the overrepresentation of the wealthy, the military, and the less popular political parties associated with them.
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As they set about devising binding rules to limit what other political agents could do, would he have seen that they might be using the rule-writing process to keep themselves in power?
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From this we can only conclude that he was well aware of the Pandora’s box he had helped open in Chile for the genuine, not merely metaphorical, corruption of politics, but he valued economic liberty so much more than political freedom that he simply did not care about the invitation to abuse inherent in giving nearly unchecked power to an alliance of capital and the armed forces. His silence, it must be said, safeguarded his reputation.
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The novel labor “flexibility” heralded by the regime’s enthusiasts had taken away protections that working people won over generations of organizing and political action. “Precarious and low-income work [became] the staple for over 40 percent of the Chilean labor force,” a marginality compounded by the fact that individuals were now forced to save the full cost of their retirement pensions, with no contribution by their employers, and pay for other goods that had previously come with citizenship. Not to mention those who had dutifully put away money only to have it lost in the downturn.
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The young people demanded the end of “profiteering” in schooling and a free education system with quality and opportunity for all. What they were asking for “is that the state take a different role,” said one leader, Camila Vallejo. “People are not tolerating the way a small number of economic groups benefit from the system.” 47
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But durable locks and bolts were exactly what James Buchanan had urged and what his Chilean hosts relied on to ensure that their will would still prevail after the dictator stepped down. And today the effectiveness of those locks and bolts is undermining hope among citizens that political participation can make a difference in their quality of life. Frustrated by how the junta’s economic model remains so entrenched nearly three decades after Pinochet was voted out, many are disengaging from politics, particularly the young, who have never known any other system. Some legal scholars fear for the legitimacy of representative government in Chile as disgust spreads with a system that is so beholden to corporate power, so impermeable to deep change, and so inimical to majority interests.
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These libertarians seemed to have determined that what was needed to achieve their ends was to stop being honest with the public. Instead of advocating for them frontally, they needed to engage in a kind of crab walk, even if it required advancing misleading claims in order to take terrain bit by bit, in a manner that cumulatively, yet quietly, could begin to radically alter the power relations of American society.
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If you have ever seen a television ad showing older people with worried faces wondering if Social Security will be around when they need it, or heard a politician you think is opposed to the retirement program suddenly fretting about whether it will be there for you and others, listen more carefully the next time for a possible subliminal message. Is the speaker really in favor of preserving the system as we know it? Or is he or she trying to diminish the reputation of the system with the public, so that when the right time comes to make changes to it, even small ones that in fact reduce benefits or change the rules for beneficiaries, those affected will be less likely to feel that something good is being taken away from them? While step one would soften public support for the system by making it seem unreliable, step two would apply a classic strategy of divide and conquer. Recipients could be split apart in this way.
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In other words, the revolutionaries must find the people who would gain from the end of Social Security and draw them into the battle alongside the cadre.
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In the case of Social Security, the answer was clear: the financial sector. The right was not against people putting away for their retirements. To the contrary, they wanted people to save, early and actively, for their own retirements as part of their philosophy of personal responsibility. They just wanted those savings taken out of the hands of the federal government and put into the hands of capitalists, just as was done in Chile. And to end employer contributions as Chile had.
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For the libertarian right, Social Security privatization meant a savvy triple win, in which ideological triumph over the most successful and popular federal program was the least of the gains. First, it would break down citizens’ lived connection to government, their habit of believing it offered them something of value in navigating their lives. Second, it would weaken the appeal of collective organization by inducing fracture among groups that had looked to government for solutions to their common problems. But third and just as important, by putting a vast pool of money into the hands of capitalists, enriching them, it would both make them eager to lobby for further change and willing to shell out dollars to the advocacy groups leading the charge for change.
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Buchanan never lost sight of the fact that such rearguard assaults on the welfare state would take the movement only so far. What was needed was a way to amend the Constitution so that public officials would be legally constrained from offering new social programs to the public or engaging in regulation on their behalf even when vast constituencies were demanding them.
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The project must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule.” 53
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Like Buchanan, Manne rejected the idea of open searches for the best talent, in favor of hiring kindred thinkers, all white men who felt “underappreciated” at other schools.
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As chairman of the Rules Committee, Smith became a legendary tactician of the manipulation of legislative rules to prevent the majority from achieving its will.
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Operationally, as Buchanan had repeatedly explained, such a program must ultimately change the rules, not simply who rules. In the near term, it had to have two components. First, it had to create a pathway from here to there that could be executed in small, piecemeal steps that on their own polled well enough with the American people that they could win passage without raising the public’s ire. But each step had to connect back to the previous step and forward to the next one so that when the entire path was laid, all the pieces would reinforce the route to the ultimate destination. By then it would be too late for the American public to cry foul.
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Second, and as important, because some of those piecemeal steps, no matter how prettified, could not be fully disguised, where necessary they had to be presented to the American public as the opposite of what they really were—as attempts to shore up rather than ultimately destroy—what the majority of Americans wanted, such as sound Medicare and Social Security programs. For such programs, the framing should be one of the right’s concern to “reform” the programs, to protect them, because without such change they would go bankrupt—even though the real goal was to destroy them. For both men, the ends justified whatever means seemed necessary, although those means should remain technically within the law.
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Because environmentalists were, in the eyes of Manne and Buchanan, on a “quest for control over industry,” they had to be not merely defeated, but defamed, with their personal “hidden agenda” exposed.
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“Any modern democracy’s tax policy” was likewise trouble, because the voters’ “inevitable egalitarian instincts” would lead them, if unobstructed, to “redistribution.”
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As “the most socialized industry in the world,” the GMU team complained, public schools, from kindergarten through university, nurtured “community values, many of which are inimical to a free society.”
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Finally, the golden anniversary discussions should also figure out how to deal with feminism, which the men found to be “heavily socialistic for no apparent reason.” 24 A kind of cultural war was therefore in order against this movement that relied so heavily on government action.
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Socialism, as the Mont Pelerin Society members defined the term, was synonymous with any effort by citizens to get their government to act in ways that either cost money to support anything other than police and military functions or encroached on private property rights.
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“We are increasingly enfranchising the illiterate,” grumbled Jim Buchanan, “moving rapidly toward electoral reform that will not expect voters to be able to read or follow instructions.”
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Although far more politically engaged throughout his entire academic career than he ever publicly admitted, he chose to tell himself that this debacle was all the fault of others.
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By self-description autistic and an “upper-middle-class white male who all his life felt like he belonged to the dominant group,” Cowen was not inclined to sentimentality or solidarity.
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The core claim of this movement—certainly Buchanan’s core claim going all the way back to Brown—was that government did not have the right to “coerce” the individual, beyond the basic level of the rule of law and public order. If liberty, as Buchanan and others in the movement would use that term, had any hard and fast meaning, it lay in the conviction that every person, up to the very wealthiest among us, had the same right to control the earnings of his own labor as he saw fit, even when the majority thought that this money might be put to better use serving the public interest.
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But what Rowley saw—up close—was two equally troubling patterns that did not square with that way of thinking. First, the sheer scale of the riches the “wealthy individuals” brought to bear turned out to have subtle, even seductive, power. And second, under the influence of one wealthy individual in particular, the movement was turning to an equally troubling form of coercion: achieving its ends essentially through trickery, through deceiving trusting people about its real intentions in order to take them to a place where, on their own, given complete information, they probably would not go.
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He saw, too, that Koch had “no scruples concerning the manipulation of scholarship”; he wanted Cato’s output to aid his cause, period.
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The acclaimed jurist Louis Brandeis, who over the course of his lifetime amassed considerable wealth, once warned the American people that as a nation, “we must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
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I suspect, however, that even Brandeis (who also spoke of the need for unions, and for social justice and wise regulation in an earlier age when capital ran amok) never imagined that enough wealth could be concentrated in the hands of a few to launch such an audacious stealth attack on the foundational notion of government being of, by, and for the people. 10
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But Brandeis also bequeathed us the maxim “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
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“If you tell a great lie and repeat it often enough, the people will eventually come to believe it,” Joseph Goebbels, a particularly ruthless, yet shrewd, propagandist, is said to have remarked.
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People who failed to foresee and save money for their future needs, Buchanan wrote in 2005, “are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to . . . animals who are dependent.” 15
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And because “worthy individuals” will manage to climb their way out of poverty, “that will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind.”
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Cowen foresees that “we will cut Medicaid for the poor.” Also, “the fiscal shortfall will come out of real wages as various cost burdens are shifted to workers” from employers and a government that does less.
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For example, the economist prophesies lower-income parts of America “recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment” complete with favelas like those in Rio de Janeiro. The “quality of water” might not be what U.S. citizens are used to, but “partial shantytowns” would satisfy the need for cheaper housing as “wage polarization” grows and government shrinks.
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Less well known is that these zealots do not believe that the government should be involved in trying to promote public health, period. We are not talking about subsidized hip replacements and birth control. We are talking about things like basic sanitation, something governments have committed to since the Progressive Era as the single most important measure to stop waterborne epidemics such as cholera and typhoid.
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Thom Tillis, a North Carolina state senator elevated to the U.S. Senate in 2014 with backing from the Koch apparatus, has said that restaurants should be able “to opt out of” laws requiring employees to wash their hands after using the toilet, “as long as they post a sign that says, ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.’ The market will take care of that.” 20
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What happened in Flint was not a natural disaster. Nor a case of governmental incompetence. What happened there was directly attributable to the prodding of the Mackinac Center, one of the first Koch-funded—and in this case, Koch-staffed—state-level “think and do” tanks that now exist in all fifty states and are affiliated with the State Policy Network (SPN), also Koch-concocted, to coordinate efforts to prevent state governments from responding to the demands of the “takers.”
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The Koch team, led by Cato, continues to push the Pinochet model of individual investment accounts, a model for which they have won the support of many Republican elected officials. But in reality, that model proved so disastrous that after the dictatorship ended, a nearly universal consensus emerged on bringing back key elements of social insurance. The system of individual accounts proved a huge boon to the financial corporations that received the automatic deductions from workers’ paychecks. The companies exploited that access mercilessly, achieving an average annual profit rate of more than 50 percent over a five-year period, thanks, not least, to their taking between a quarter and a third of workers’ contributions as fees.
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What did Cowen discover? One key finding was that by the 1920s, in both Europe and the United States, “the expansion of the voter franchise” beyond “wealthy male landowners” had produced the unfortunate result of enlarged public sectors. Alas, “the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests leads to higher turnout and higher welfare spending.” 61
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We can see the toll of these constraints by looking at the problem of economic inequality. As it has swelled in the United States to a degree not seen in any comparable nation, intergenerational mobility—the ability of young people to move up the economic ladder to achieve a social and financial status better than that of their parents, which was once the source of America’s greatest promise and pride—has plummeted below that of all peer nations, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom.
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But two of the country’s most distinguished comparative political scientists, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, recently approached the puzzle of U.S. singularity in another way: they compared the number of stumbling blocks that advanced industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process. Calling these inbuilt “majority constraining” obstacles “veto players,” the two scholars found a striking correlation: the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality. Only the United States has four such veto players.
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In the dream vision of the apparatus Charles Koch has funded to carry out Buchanan’s call for constitutional revolution, it would be all but impossible for government to respond to the will of the majority unless the very wealthiest Americans agree fully with every measure.
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the interpretation of the Constitution the cadre seeks to impose would give federal courts vast new powers to strike down measures desired by voters and passed by their duly elected representatives at all levels—and would require greatly expanded police powers to control the resultant popular anger.
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One North Carolina insider summarized the danger bluntly: “Lose the courts, lose the war.” 79
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As the push for aggressive judicial activism on behalf of economic liberty illustrates, for all the small-government rhetoric, the cadre actually wants a very strong government—but a government that acts only in a way they deem appropriate. It wants our democracy to be curbed as Chile’s was, with locks and bolts on what the majority can do.
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One is a power grab by affiliated state legislators reaching down to deny municipal governments the right to make their own policies on matters hitherto within their purview, not least local election rules.
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A case in point: when Jane Mayer began to expose the operations of the Koch brothers and their network, they dispatched private investigators in a fruitless quest to find dirt with which to discredit her and tried to convince her employer to fire her. Anyone who tries to expose what this cause is up to thus must ask herself: Will I become the target of a similar scurrilous attack? Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep quiet? The cadre even has an economics euphemism for harassment designed to intimidate—they call it “upping the transaction costs for the other side.”
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“Democracy,” the towering African American historian John Hope Franklin observed in the midst of World War II, “is essentially an act of faith.” 96 When that faith is willfully exterminated, we should not be surprised that we reap the whirlwind.
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The public choice way of thinking, one sage critic warned at the time James Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, is not simply “descriptively inaccurate”—indeed, “a terrible caricature” of how the political process works. It also constitutes an insidious attack on the very “norm of public spiritedness” so crucial to shaping good government policy and ethical conduct in civic life. That is to say, public choice theory was wrong in its explanations, and would be toxic if believed by the public or its representatives. We have seen the truth of that prediction.
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To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else and enshrine it in the nation’s governing rules, as Calhoun and Buchanan both called for and the Koch network is achieving, play by play, is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form.
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But nearly all else about the political economy of midcentury Virginia enacts their dream: the uncontested sway of the wealthiest citizens; the use of right-to-work laws and other ploys to keep working people powerless; the ability to fire dissenting public employees at will, targeting educators in particular; the use of voting-rights restrictions to keep those unlikely to agree with the elite from the polls; the deployment of states’ rights to deter the federal government from promoting equal treatment; the hostility to public education; the regressive tax system; the opposition to Social Security and Medicare; and the parsimonious response to public needs of all kinds—not just the decent schools sought by aspiring teenagers like Barbara Rose Johns and John Stokes but also the care and shelter of the elderly poor, the mentally ill, and others in whose names Dr. Louise Wensel ran her 1959 Senate campaign against Old Harry.
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If we delay much longer, those who are imposing their stark utopia will choose for us. One of them has announced flatly: “America will soon make a decision about its future. It will be a permanent decision. There will be no going back.” As we consider the future of our democracy in light of all that has happened already, we may take heed of a Koch maxim: “Playing it safe is slow suicide.” 99
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