In Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains” there is an impressive account of the efforts of Nobel Prize economist James Buchanan to build over his career a theory of government and democracy to justify the reversal of all redistributive or environmental public interventions. These efforts were generously funded by billionaires and helped to create the intellectual infrastructure of what is today a very powerful network of right wing organizations. The origins of that network are traced in the book to the resistance of the Southern oligarchy in the US to the enfranchisement of African-Americans. How the school of thought promoted by Buchanan has come to be so influential not only in the US but also in Europe (this economist was one of the favorite of more than one of my undergraduate teachers) is probably a combination of the originality and audacity of his radical ideas and the financial support he received. The book is stronger in connecting Buchanan to the social context of the time than in analyzing his ideas on their merits, something for which the author delegates into basically only just another author (Amadae, which I’ll read). By this, she leaves aside an interesting history of economic ideas, which is the debate between Buchanan and his co-authors and other more progressive economic thinkers, such as Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen, who were also concerned about the problems of government and democracy (which are real), who took seriously the critique of Buchanan to public intervention, but who ultimately reached opposite conclusions.
Interestingly, in the book there is also more than a passing mention of Gordon Tullock, the most famous of Buchanan’s co-authors, and who was recently mentioned in this blog. In p. 99 of the book, for example, we can read: “In 1967 (…) for the third time in as many years, the senior economics faculty, led by Buchanan, again recommended that Gordon Tullock be promoted to full professor. (…) Tullock had never earned a PhD and by his own admission had never completed an economics course. Brilliant though Buchanan and his allies might have believed the law school alumnus to be, he lacked training in the field in which he taught, and his publication record –apart from the book he had coauthored with Buchanan- was undistinguished. He was also an awful teacher. It did not help that Tullock struck many as an egomaniac –or just a twit. (Once, for example, as a new colleague was unpacking his books, Tullock appeared at the door. “Oh, Mr. Johnson, I’m glad that you finally arrived,” he said. “I need the opinion of someone obviously inferior to me.”). Tullock would not be promoted. Buchanan was furious.”