The Violence of ‘Liberty’ - Book Symposium: Democracy in Chains

Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Policy Trajectories

Nancy MacLean’s superb study Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America has been vilified by the usual suspects – the libertarian right. Probably the main source of their ire is the fact that MacLean has pulled the cover off of their agenda and its sources of financial support.

One of the major themes of the libertarian right’s reaction is to argue that the economist James Buchanan, the doyen of public choice economics, was not a racist. After all, he never appears to have denigrated black people in either his public interaction or in his personal or professional writings. He never appears to have used bigoted rhetoric nor hurled racial slurs. Indeed, I personally can attest to the fact that the courtly Buchanan never said anything offensive to me during our encounters at History of Economics Society meetings. Of course, he never said anything at all to me. So how could he be charged with promoting white supremacy?

Apparently MacLean’s attackers view racism as something associated solely with individual behaviors involving the use of vitriolic language, the display of symbols of hate, and physical violence. Of course, people can harbor racist ideas that never are voiced and, perhaps, that they do not even realize are racist beliefs. Indeed, willingness to embrace an individual from a disdained group does not mean that the disdainful feelings about the group are gone. Acceptance of specific political candidate, a friend, or even a husband or wife who is a member of a group subjected to prejudiced attitudes does not mean those attitudes toward the group have evaporated. Social psychologists like Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp have distinguished between affective and cognitive beliefs about members of a different social group — the possibility of feeling affection for individual members of the other group while maintaining stereotypical beliefs about the other group as a whole.

But perhaps the deeper violence of racism is performed by institutionalized policies and practices, rather than individual actions and attitudes. As MacLean documents in detail, Buchanan was a major architect of a set of policies that lay at the heart of southern massive resistance to school desegregation. Those policies, couched in the language of individual choice and personal “liberty”, included greater parental “choice” and vouchers for private school enrollment.

Read the full commentary here