I realize that I am a bit late to this party and that many of Nancy MacLean’s strange claims and factual errors have already been exposed and debunked by people much more familiar with her work, the intellectual history of libertarianism and the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, than I am. However, there is one aspect of MacLean’s conspiracy theorizing in Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (i.e., “the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance” in America) that, I think, needs further comment.
Specifically, it would appear that in her “thoroughly researched” book, as Publishers Weekly calls it, MacLean has not bothered to talk to many actual libertarians, including, apparently, her colleague at Duke University, Michael C. Munger. Had she done so, MacLean would have realized that libertarians have come to their views for a plethora of reasons—only one of which may be the generosity of the libertarian businessman, billionaire and bête noire of the progressive left, Charles Koch. (I shall return to Charles Koch below.) But that would have, I am afraid, undermined her view of the libertarian movement as a racist (what else?) conspiracy.
At the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I would like to like to offer a personal perspective on becoming a libertarian. Growing up in 1980s Czechoslovakia, I witnessed communism’s final decade. The people around me were still afraid of eavesdropping by the secret police, jail time for anti-socialist activities, professional ruin, and social ostracism. But communism no longer inspired terror in the way it had in the early years after the Czechoslovak communist putsch in 1948.
As such, I cannot claim some sort of a victimhood status. My generation did not associate communism with firing squads and starvation. Rather, communism meant annoying, but manageable, food shortages and the grey monotony of everyday life under a dictatorship. Why do I revisit 30-year-old memories? I do so, because appreciation for political and economic freedoms, which is what I understand libertarianism to mean, often comes from personal experiences that are unconnected to (imagined) conspiracies.
Perhaps it is the realization that interactions with businesses, like the local Whole Foods, are more pleasant and satisfying than interactions with government agencies, like the local DMV. Perhaps it is the desire to consume food, drink, and drugs without an input from an all-knowing government official. Perhaps, as was the case with me, it is looking at the economic and social ruins of socialism. Hundreds of millions of human beings have learned to appreciate freedom during communism and many, far too many, still yearn for it in places like Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.
We have, in other words, acquired libertarian tendencies without James Buchanan, Charles Koch or, for that matter, the Cato Institute.
Buchanan helped us to understand why communism fell, not to realize that it had failed. Wealthy libertarian donors enable people like me to proselytize on behalf of freedom and we appreciate them, in part, because we worry that socialism, like the tardigrade, is never truly dead. Had MacLean picked up the telephone and talked to one of the many American libertarian activists with weirdly sounding names, she would have realized that to be libertarian, one does not have to be a part of a vast and nefarious conspiracy. She would have saved us a lot of time spent on debunking her thesis and she would have saved herself a bucket-load of embarrassment.