Democracy in Chains.
That's the book's title. Must be about the Iron Curtain or Cuba–or to bring us up to date, Venezuela, right?
Not so. The subtitle of the book, witten by Duke University historian Nancy MacLean is The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America.
Oh. The main theme of the book, according to what I've read, is that well-funded libertarians eager to impose economic inequality and serve the interests of rich white men are ganging up to get the courts to enforce those un-democratic institutions called property rights. You know, like preventing your home from being seized by the city you live in because the city council decides to replace it with some condos that never get built. Oh wait! Kelo vs. City of New London went the other way! The Supreme Court ruled that the displaced homeowner, nurse Susette Kelo, had to suck it up because the condo plan served a "public purpose"–so yay, democracy! What's McLean's problem?
Her problem, it turns out, are those perennial liberal arch-villains, billionaires Charles and David Koch, who fund a lot of libertarian think tanks and university research centers employing libertarian professors..
So naturally, liberals have been out of their minds with praise for Democracy in Chains. "This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains. . . . If you're worried about what all this means for America's future, you should be," gushes NPR, which is funded by us taxpayers, so it's democracy.
But not everyone is onboard the Chains train. David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, writing in the Washington Post, argued that MacLean simply got a lot of her facts wrong, especially about James Buchanan, a libertarian economist who got a Nobel prize in 1986 for his "public choice" theory–the idea that government bureaucrats aren't neutral public servants but have a vested interest in keeping their bureaucracies big and powerful (MacLean argued that Buchanan was the architect of a movement to make libertarianism mainstream):
I only met Buchanan once, at an Institute for Humane Studies gathering for young libertarian academics around 20 years ago. The devil himself (Charles Koch) was there. Buchanan gave the keynote address. What did this arch defender of inequality and wealth talk about? He gave a lengthy defense of high inheritance taxes, necessary, in his view, to prevent the emergence of a permanent oligarchy. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “Democracy in Chains” fails to note Buchanan’s strong support of inheritance taxes. [Update: He in fact publicly supported a 100% inheritance tax.]…
Furthermore, MacLean tries to claim that libertarians backed Southern resistance to court-imposed racial desegregation as part of a "noble quest to preserve states' rights and economic liberty." Her sole publicly available citation is to an article by libertarian Frank Chodorov that she says criticized the Supreme Court's 1954 school-desegregation decision, Brown vs. Board of Education. In fact, as Bernstein points out, the article by Chodorov praises the Brown ruling as "in line with what is deepest and strongest and most generous in our historical tradition."
Bernstein was not the only scholar to take MacLean to task for mischaracterizing a range of libertarian thinker and their ideas. So now, according to Inside Higher Edication, MacLean is claiming an evil radical right conspiracy is at foot to discredit her book, financed of course (if indirectly) by none other than…the Koch brothers! So she apparently did what every liberal professor does when faced with an evil radical-right conspiracy: go on the Internet to get her liberal professor friends to write rave reviews of her book on Amazon:
In a social media post that MacLean did not authenticate to Inside Higher Ed, but which has been widely shared online by her supporters, she allegedly asked friends and colleagues to help defend her book against an apparent coordinated attack.
“I really, really need your help,” MacLean is said to have written. “This will sound nutty, I know, but it’s actually happening: the Koch operatives and the riders of their academic ‘gravy train,’ as James Buchanan called it, are working very hard to kill Democracy in Chains — and to destroy my reputation (as they have done to climate change scientists and others bearing inconvenient truth).”
By using the Post blog posts, the note says, critics "make it appear to the ordinary web surfer that the [newspaper] itself is trashing my book when it’s really the Koch team of professors who don’t disclose their conflicts of interest and the operatives who work full-time for their project to shackle our democracy. The other side was getting top placement because their team was clicking and reclicking and sending embedded links, and the velocity of their activity drove up their links.” (It should be noted that the blogs in question are affiliated with the Post, but authors' views are solely their own.)
The note suggests that supporters can help by googling MacLean and her book and clicking on “real” listings to push them above allegedly paid returns, and promoting as "helpful" Amazon reviews that appear authentic. "The operatives are juking the Amazon stats so that their hit jobs (by people who in nearly every case never read the book) come up first by the number of 'helpful' votes," it says. MacLean also warned readers about a propaganda-style wiki page set up by someone with a pseudonym.
“People: this is real,” the post reads. “I won’t be the last they set out to get."
Inside Higher Ed further reports:
MacLean did not respond to a request for hard evidence of the Amazon review gaming.
Bernstein, meanwhile, has called MacLeans allegations “fanciful and potentially libelous." Although George Mason, many of whose law and economics professors are libertarians, has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars' worth of Koch funding, Bernstein told Inside Higher Ed that no one "urged me, asked me, beseeched me, paid me or otherwise tried to influence me to blog about the book.”
The one thing to be said about MacLean's alleged social-media plea is that it sounds about as conspiracy-obsessed as her book. At the risk of sounding conspiracy-obsessed myself, I can't help thinking there's a plot afoot to make libertarians pariahs in the academic community.