The White-Supremacist Roots of America’s Libertarian Right

The history of Koch-style libertarian economics is steeped in racism.

Chris Lehmann July 24, 2017

The far-right libertarian assault on democracy has hidden roots in white Southern furor over desegregation in the 1950s (Gettettmann/Getty Images)

Democ­ra­cy often comes down to hon­est math. After the 1965 pas­sage of the fed­er­al Vot­ing Rights Act, 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca seemed to be on a path toward the demo­c­ra­t­ic ide­al of one per­son, one vote.” Yet the 21st cen­tu­ry has seen enor­mous rever­sals of this hard-won progress. Not only have two oli­garchic GOP pres­i­dents been elect­ed with­out the pop­u­lar vote, but crude efforts to sup­press bal­lot access at all lev­els have become commonplace.

The intellectual theorists of white race privilege recognized that such head-on confrontations wouldn’t protect the old Jim Crow order for long. The problem was democracy itself: American opinion was turning against Southern racism.

What set the machin­ery of for­mal democ­ra­cy lurch­ing back­ward so dra­mat­i­cal­ly? In Democ­ra­cy in Chains: The Deep His­to­ry of the Rad­i­cal Right’s Stealth Plan for Amer­i­ca, Nan­cy MacLean traces the ori­gins to the back­lash against Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion. White suprema­cists vowed mas­sive resis­tance,” with Virginia’s Prince Edward Coun­ty going so far as to shut­ter its entire pub­lic school sys­tem for sev­er­al years.

But the intel­lec­tu­al the­o­rists of white race priv­i­lege rec­og­nized that such head-on con­fronta­tions wouldn’t pro­tect the old Jim Crow order for long. The prob­lem was democ­ra­cy itself: Amer­i­can opin­ion was turn­ing against South­ern racism.

That’s where the intel­lec­tu­al anti­hero of MacLean’s book, James Buchanan, comes in. A Ten­nessee-born free-mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ist who chaired the eco­nom­ics depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia (UVA), Buchanan launched a new cen­ter of polit­i­cal econ­o­my at the school in 1956 to break the pow­er­ful grip [of ] col­lec­tivist ideology.” 

In 1959, the fire-breath­ing lib­er­tar­i­an the­o­rists at UVA thrust them­selves into the heart of Virginia’s deseg­re­ga­tion bat­tle by propos­ing a now-famil­iar lib­er­tar­i­an ploy: pri­va­ti­za­tion of the state’s pub­lic schools. The pro­pos­al ele­vat­ed racial dis­crim­i­na­tion into a neu­tral-sound­ing quest for eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy. The mar­ket would see to inequal­i­ties via the log­ic of par­ent choice; it was sim­ply a mat­ter of let­ting the chips fall where they may.”

This was unal­loyed bull­shit, of course. Giv­en the gen­er­a­tions-old imbal­ance of wealth and pow­er between the races, any lais­sez-faire approach to com­pli­ance with Brown would inevitably rein­force racial inequal­i­ties. The state assem­bly even­tu­al­ly vot­ed down the rad­i­cal plan, but as MacLean notes, the under­ly­ing log­ic has since bur­rowed into near­ly every facet of our mad­ly pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic life — from the Flint water cri­sis to the attacks on Wisconsin’s pub­lic unions — in a stealth bid to reverse-engi­neer all of Amer­i­ca, at both the state and local lev­el, back to the polit­i­cal econ­o­my and oli­garchic gov­er­nance of mid­cen­tu­ry Vir­ginia, minus the segregation.”

A major force behind this trans­for­ma­tion was the lib­er­tar­i­an true believ­er, oil baron and mega­fun­der Charles Koch. When Buchanan launched anoth­er hard-right insti­tute at George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty, then a back­wa­ter sub­ur­ban com­muter school, in 1982, Koch’s largesse helped bulk it up into a con­ser­v­a­tive intel­lec­tu­al bul­wark. Buchanan and his Mason cohorts mint­ed a new gen­er­a­tion of ide­o­log­i­cal foot sol­diers who led the lib­er­tar­i­an Right in a steady anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic and oli­garchic drift. 

After Buchanan had a falling out with Koch in 1998, the hack lib­er­tar­i­an econ­o­mist Tyler Cowen kept ham­mer­ing away at the Buchananite gospel from his perch atop George Mason’s Koch-fund­ed Mer­ca­tus Insti­tute. The freest coun­tries” — in the lais­sez-faire sense — have not gen­er­al­ly been demo­c­ra­t­ic,” Cowen wrote in a 2000 essay, cit­ing as exem­plars of free­dom Augus­to Pinochet’s Chile (whose plu­to­crat­ic con­sti­tu­tion was essen­tial­ly ghost­writ­ten by Buchanan), Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong. The hard truth, there­fore, is that if Amer­i­can polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions ren­der mar­ket-ori­ent­ed reforms too dif­fi­cult to achieve, then per­haps these insti­tu­tions should be changed.” 

For starters, Cowen sug­gests, the weak­en­ing of the checks and bal­ances” in the U.S. con­sti­tu­tion­al order would increase the chance of a very good out-come.” What con­sti­tutes a very good out­come? Noth­ing less than a whole­sale rewrit­ing of the social con­tract,” with wor­thy indi­vid­u­als” ele­vat­ing them­selves up the social lad­der and the less for­tu­nate con­signed to shan­ty­towns. Get ready,” he counsels. 

As well we should. One way would be to use MacLean’s excel­lent exposé to help mobi­lize an ener­gized small‑D demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­torate. It’s long past time to smite the lib­er­tar­i­an Right with a kind of math that can’t be bought.

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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