When the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Tennessee-born economist James McGill Buchanan was horrified. Over the course of the next few decades, the libertarian thinker found comfortable homes at a series of research universities and spent his time articulating a new grand vision of American society, a country in which government would be close to nonexistent, and would have no obligation to provide education—or health care, or old-age support, or food, or housing—to anyone.
This radical vision has become the playbook for a network of people looking to override democracy in order to shift more money to the wealthiest few, historian and professor at Duke University Nancy MacLean argues in her new book, an intellectual biography of James Buchanan called Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.* Buchanan’s life story, she writes, is “the true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right.”
I spoke with MacLean about Buchanan’s intellectual evolution and its legacy today. We discussed whether it’s helpful or counterproductive to call the network of organizations funded by Charles Koch a “conspiracy,” the line of influence between Buchanan and what’s going on in MacLean’s home state of North Carolina, and that time Buchanan helped Chile’s dictator craft a profoundly undemocratic constitution. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.