More Notes from Rod Kessler


In Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean illustrates how libertarian economist James Buchanan’s ideas were  translated into the kinds of right-wing public policies that the Koch network would eventually help implement. An illustration of applying Buchanan’s “public choice” economic principles to real world issues lies in his response to campus unrest (the Black Power movement & antiwar activism) in the late 1960s and early 1970s at UCLA and Virginia Tech—the subject of Chapter 7, “A World Gone Mad,” (102-111).

MacLean’s take on Buchanan’s views:

    The problem with the university . . .began with its distinctive structural features: “ (1) those who consume its product [students] do not purchase it [at full-cost price]; (2) those who produce it [faculty] do not sell it; and (3) those who finance it [taxpayers] do not control it” (104). 

Buchanan saw both the problem and solution in terms of incentive-affecting institutional structures. As MacLean put it:

The cure flowed from the diagnosis. Students should pay full-cost prices, and universities should compete for them as customers. Taxpayers and donors should organize “as other stockholders do” to monitor their investments. “Weak control” by governing boards must end. . .(105)

MacLean’s dissection of Buchanan’s thinking goes further, identifying Buchanan’s analysis of the university’s structure as a “blueprint for the right’s current fight to radically transform public higher education: to turn state universities into dissent-free suppliers of trained labor, run with firm managerial hands and with little or no input from faculty, and at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers (105).”  The authors of Academia in Anarchy, “in essence,” argue “that if you stop making college free and charge a hefty tuition, ideally enough to cover the entire cost of each education, you ensure that students will have a strong economic incentive to focus on their studies and nothing else—certainly not on trying to alter the university of the wider society. But the authors were also arguing for something else: educating far fewer Americans, particularly lower-income Americans who could not afford full-cost tuition. And they were telling the businesspeople who tended to dominate governing boards that it was time to get tough with their wards, faculty and students alike (105). 

What attracted the Koch team to Buchanan initially (mid-1970s) was his analysis arguing against appeasement of campus protests as well as their shared commitment “to school privatization at every level” (137).

A final note: Public higher education policy remains a hot topic today, with several presidential candidates on the Democrat side, far from advocating privatization, backing free education instead. There are pros and cons to the issue.  One summary is at


Notes: Buchanan’s book about solving the problems of the American university (co-authored with Nicos Devletogou) was Academia in Anarchy, published by neoconservative Irving Kristol (1970).