[In the spirit of full disclosure, the author wishes to note her participation in the Koch Associate Program in 2015-2016. Her employer, the Capital Research Center, is also a partner organization in both the Koch Associate Program and the Koch Internship Program.]
It’s fair to say only the wonkiest of Beltway Insiders and market-oriented economists have much to say about Nancy MacLean’s ideological polemic purporting to recount the influence of James Buchanan and public choice theory, Democracy in Chains. Indeed, the Duke history professor’s critics tend to be libertarian academics and economists who wish to set the record straight on MacLean’s book, which is riddled with conjecture, conspiracy, and proof-texting dressed up as “history.”
MacLean’s book claims to expose a cabal of segregationists who leaned on Buchanan’s work to attempt to undermine American democracy. MacLean goes so far as to claim notorious antebellum South Carolina politician and defender of slavery John C. Calhoun was Buchanan’s intellectual progenitor. Of course, MacLean eventually links this racist conspiracy to the ultimate boogeymen: libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch.
Despite numerous negative reviews which highlight irresponsible scholarship and willful misreading of primary documents, MacLean’s book won critical acclaim and numerous accolades. Democracy in Chains won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Lillian Smith Book Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was named the “Most Valuable Book” by The Nation.
After overcoming a supposed “coordinated attack” on her book when it was published over a year ago, MacLean seems to be going strong. In fact, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—a generally left-wing association of university academics—is hosting MacLean for a live online book discussion about her work on November 2. Besides adding academic legitimacy to the controversial tome, the AAUP and its affiliate organizations have a few other reasons to promote MacLean’s storyline about James Buchanan.
An attack on school choice
Buchanan won his Nobel Prize for his work in the field of public choice theory. When applied to governments, public choice theory asks questions about government accountability and transparency, the influence of special interests, and the incentives that drive political decision-making. Public choice theory also provides critics of government actions with an alternative to market failure as an explanation for social problems, namely, government failure. This dense economic theory doesn’t make for popular reading, but when applied to education reform, the dismal science becomes compelling to the general public.
The modern school choice movement traces its roots back to Buchanan’s fellow Nobelist Milton Freidman and his wife and co-author Rose Friedman, but Buchanan also had ideas about educational vouchers. School choice policies in all their varied forms—from vouchers, to charter schools, to education savings accounts—are anathema in many liberal circles aligned with the government school teachers’ unions.
Currently, only the wealthy few can operate outside a government-controlled education monopoly. Offering choice to parents would threaten the educational establishment by allowing parents to opt in or out of schools regardless of socioeconomic status. Teachers’ unions are right to see school choice as a threat to their government-granted privilege, as a market would demand better teachers and measurable learning gains.
Suddenly, the AAUP’s endorsement of MacLean’s book isn’t just leftist academics enjoying an ideological echo chamber—it makes political sense.
The AAUP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. However, in 2009, the AAUP spun off the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress (AAUP-CBC), a 501(c)(5) trade union. AAUP-CBC works closely with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the two national teachers’ unions, to organize university professors. When confronted with education reform in the shape of school choice, AFT cites left-wing authorities like the Center for American Progress (and now Nancy MacLean), which say that school choice is a racist policy born from opposition to Brown v. Board, which outlawed public school segregation.
Spreading a false narrative about public choice theory that paints James Buchanan as a closet racist is just another rhetorical weapon for teachers’ unions to hurl at well-intentioned school choice policies.
An attack on donor intent
But it’s not just school-choice championed by libertarians, including Charles and David Koch, that the AFT and AAUP oppose. These government worker unions take it the next step further through their long-standing partnership with UnKoch My Campus, a left-wing campaign to pressure universities not to partner with or take contributions from the libertarian philanthropists.
The AFT, AAUP, and UnKoch oppose academic freedom and major First Amendment principles embodied in corporate and charitable giving, such as honoring donor intent and preserving anonymous speech and giving. This is particularly ironic since UnKoch My Campus enjoys similar donor protections through its parent organization, Essential Information, and partnerships with major far-left organizations such as the Center for Media and Democracy, Greenpeace, and AFT, which until recently, were listed as official partners on UnKoch My Campus’s website.
The AFT, AAUP, and UnKoch My Campus have also combined forces to expose donor agreements and have privately funded academic programs and research centers repudiated by university communities. As recently as this past summer, UnKoch My Campus co-founder Ralph Wilson participated in two panels at the AAUP/AAUP-CBC Summer Institute to talk about “undue donor influence” and “restoring faculty governance,” ostensibly to limit input from other members of campus communities—which usually include donors and alumni.
The coordination doesn’t end there. The AFT website still hosts an UnKoch Your Campus checklist, which links to Greenpeace and the UnKoch My Campus Toolkit. That toolkit lists the usual cast of campus activists as resources including the AAUP, the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch, and the Center for Public Integrity. The newly revamped UnKoch My Campus website (which appears to still be under construction) also features a list of programs at universities across the country funded through the Charles Koch Institute. Also note that UnKoch My Campus’s Day of Action is on October 25, just a week before the AAUP hosts its online book club.
Helping disseminate Nancy MacLean’s book among labor union-aligned campus activists is just another tactic that the academic orthodoxy will use to shut down discussion and limit intellectual diversity on university campuses. Whether they fight donor intent or malign a whole field of study, the AAUP, AFT, and UnKoch have a vested interest in promoting shoddy academic work that reinforces their viewpoint and agenda.