I have just read the first serious book review I’ve seen of historian Nancy MacLean’s hatchet job book on James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Sam Tanenhaus.

He is, by and large, sympathetic with MacLean’s strong claims about the role of James Buchanan in the rise of the radical right. Those of us who knew him well are more skeptical, partly because he was so bookish, so into thinking about fundamental ideas about governments and societies, and not really up to date on this or that political skirmish or current politician.

In any case, parts of the Sam Tanenhaus piece read as if Tanenhuas is writing for an audience that knows little economics and little U.S. history and is, therefore, credulous. Or it’s possible it’s Tanenhaus himself who’s ignorant and credulous. I don’t know. Three passages stand out.

Buchanan played a part, MacLean writes, by teaming up with another new University of Virginia hire, G. Warren Nutter (who was later a close adviser to Barry Goldwater), on an influential paper. In it they argued that the crux of the desegregation problem was that “state run” schools had become a “monopoly,” which could be broken by privatization. If authorities sold off school buildings and equipment, and limited their own involvement in education to setting minimum standards, then all different kinds of schools might blossom. Each parent “would cast his vote in the marketplace and have it count.” The argument impressed Friedman, who a few years earlier had published his own critique of “government schools,” saying that “the denationalization of education would widen the range of choice available to parents.”

Far-fetched though these schemes were, they gave ammunition to southern policy makers looking to mount the nonracial case for maintaining Jim Crow in a new form. Friedman himself left race completely out of it. Buchanan did too at first, telling skeptical colleagues in the North that the “transcendent issue” had nothing to do with race; it came down to the question of “whether the federal government shall dictate the solutions.” But in their paper (initially a document submitted to a Virginia education commission and soon published in a Richmond newspaper), Buchanan and Nutter were more direct, stating their belief that “every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing”–the sanitized phrasing of segregationists.

See what Tanenhaus does here? He starts out by laying out Buchanan’s pretty good argument against government monopoly. But then he says that southern politicians could use this argument to mount the nonracial case for maintaining Jim Crow. I’m not sure how. If people could choose their own schools, then Jim Crow would crumble. The essence of Jim Crow was lack of choice. See Loving v. Virginia.

Tanenhaus continues. Buchanan left out race too “at first.” So then a reader would think that Buchanan later introduced race, right? Let’s see.

Buchanan and Nutter stated their belief that “every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing.” Tanenhaus says that this was the sanitized phrasing of segregationists. Possibly. I don’t know. But it’s also the phrasing of people who opposed Jim Crow laws, which forbade certain forms of freedom of association. One would think that if Tanenhuas wants to make his case that Buchanan favored segregation, he would come up with direct quotes to make it. It appears that he can’t. So he uses a quote making the case against segregation and claims that it’s really a disguised case for segregation.

For Buchanan, the trouble now went beyond the government. The enemy was the public itself, expressed through the tyranny of majority rule: The have-nots preyed on the rich, egged on by the new elite–labor bosses, benevolent corporations, and pandering politicians–who fell over themselves promising more and more.

This is a roughly accurate view of Buchanan’s thoughts on democracy, although I don’t recall Buchanan talking about benevolent corporations–maybe he did. But there’s one jarring line that shows Tanenhaus’s ignorance of Buchanan’s views. It’s this one: “The have-nots preyed on the rich.” Any guesses as to who advocated that the government “prey on the rich” by imposing a 100% marginal tax rate on the value of all estates over $500,000 in 1975 dollars (or one million–I’ve forgotten which)? Hint: his initials are JMB. That’s right: James M. Buchanan. He advocated that at a Liberty Fund conference I attended with him in June 1975 in Athens, Ohio.

His view of Social Security–a “Ponzi scheme”–is shared by privatizers like Paul Ryan.

True, but Tanenhaus might be surprised by someone else who explicitly labeled Social Security a “Ponzi game” and celebrated it for that reason: Paul A. Samuelson.

Tanenhaus, to his credit, is pretty much on target with his description of public choice.

This was not a new argument, but Buchanan gave it fresh rigor in his theory of “public choice,” set forth in his pioneering book, The Calculus of Consent (1962), written with Gordon Tullock. Governments, they argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to “maximize their utility”–that is, win the next election or enlarge their department’s budget?

This idea turned the whole notion of a beneficent government, and of programs and policies designed more or less selflessly, into a kind of fairy tale expertly woven by politicians and their flacks. Not that politicians were evil. They were looking out for themselves, as most of us do. The difference was in the damage they did. After all, the high-priced programs they devised were paid for by taxes wrested from defenseless citizens, who were given little or no effective choice in the matter. It was licensed theft, reinforced by the steep gradations in income-tax rates.

Actually, this is a pretty decent, if simplified, view of public choice. The one part that is off is the implication that the idea that government is beneficent began with New Deal thinking. It’s much older than that. Has Tanenhaus read James Madison? Or Adam Smith? And he does well at saying that the damage when government looks out for itself is way greater than when private individuals do it. Look at the well over one-million people killed in Vietnam war and millions displaced due in part to LBJ’s narrow motives.