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What Does Nancy MacLean Think of Woodrow Wilson?

Much has been written about Nancy MacLean’s fictional account of how the late Nobel laureate economist Jim Buchanan allegedly was instrumental in trying to undermine democratic institutions so that elite oligarchs would rule.  And “Progressives” – uncritically mistaking fiction for fact – are self-righteously applauding her fantasy tale.  This applause prompts me to ask: what do these “Progressives” (and MacLean) think of Woodrow Wilson?  Wilson, after all, was not only a prominent academic in his day, he also grabbed and controlled far more political power than even the fabulist MacLean dares assert that Buchanan grabbed and controlled.  Yet while there is zero evidence for MacLean’s argument that Buchanan wished to undermine democracy, Wilson was quite open about his desire to create an administrative state and protect it from “meddlesome” public opinion.

A book that, sadly, has gotten far less attention than MacLean’s error-saturated tome is Columbia University law professor Philip Hamburger’s scholarly and excellent 2014 volume, Is Administrative Law Unlawful?  Let’s quote from pages 370-71 (footnotes deleted):

Rather than seek popular power, many early advocates of administrative power wanted popular support for a sort of elite power.  In the 1880s, Woodrow Wilson believed that “[t]he most despotic of governments under the control of wise statesmen is preferable to the freest ruled by demagogues.”  Of course, Americans had a free government, and therefore in combatting “the error of trying to do too much by vote,” Wilson aimed to limit public opinion – to “make public opinion efficient without suffering it to be meddlesome.”  The key was to confine “public criticism” to “formative” policy and to exclude it from administrative details: “Let administrative study find the best means for giving public criticism this control and for shutting it out from all other interference.”  Later advocates of administrative law [John Preston Comet] would argue that “[a]dministrative legislation has greater permanence, continuity, and scientific value than legislative administration issuing from fickle popular bodies..”  One way or another, the point was that administrators, unlike legislators, would not have to bend their principles “to the whim of popular opinion.”

This rejection of the popular power exercised through legislatures required a segregation of administrators from political control.  Civil service reform ensured that only the right sort of persons would be allowed into government, and it simultaneously secured them against being removed by those who were politically accountable to the people.  As a result, the populace now had to trust their administrative rulers.  Wilson soothingly explained: “Self-government does not consist in having a hand in everything any more than housekeeping consists necessarily in cooking dinner with one’s own hands.  The cook must be trusted with large discretion as to the management of the fires and the ovens.

Although the advocates of administrative power thought of themselves as pursuing functional advantages for the entire society, the class implications were never far from the surface.  Some late-nineteenth-century reformers had responded to popular legislative politics by candidly envisioning a sort of “aristocracy.”  Proponents of administrative law share the underlying assumption that the better sort of persons had to exercise power, but they more acceptably referred to them as scientific “experts.”  Even so, the class prejudice remained visible.  Professor John Burgess of Columbia, for example, urged administrative reform while disparaging the “spurious” sort of democratic government in which “the ignorant rule the enlightened” and “the vulgar rule the refined.”

My goal here is not to assess the merits or demerits of administrative ‘law.’  Rather, my point is to note that libertarians, free-market conservatives, and classical liberals (such as Jim Buchanan) are hardly the only people who do not wish to live under a regime of unlimited majority rule.  Nearly everyone who’s thought seriously about democratic governance understands that it must be constrained if society is not to become hellish.  The purposes for the proposed restraints on democracy differ – for example, Woodrow Wilson wanted to constrain it so that the majority would less frequently override the decisions of government administrators, while Jim Buchanan (like James Madison) wanted to constrain it so that the majority would less frequently override the decisions of individuals acting as private citizens.  Either way, it is absurd to leap, as MacLean leaps, from nothing more than a finding of serious and scholarly expressions of concern that majoritarianism is not ideal – as well as from a finding of specific proposals to rein majoritarianism in – to the conclusion that those who offer such expressions of concern, as well as offer such proposals, are wicked, pro-oligarchic enemies of the people.

I’ve not the time now to elaborate further, but I assure you that, as I allude to at the end of the opening paragraph to this post, if one were to compare the words and contexts of Buchanan’s enormous body of work (of which MacLean seems to be largely ignorant) to the words and contexts of Woodrow Wilson’s work, one would discover that, of the two, Buchanan was far the more friendly to democratic values and far the more hostile to elite pretensions.


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