Charlottesville’s Past That Isn’t Even

Here in Charlottesville, Virginia, I like to point out that the rallies of racists are mostly imported from out of state. It’s tempting to relax comfortably on that assertion, and to reflect on how our great lord and master Thomas Jefferson owned people with more reluctance and inner turmoil than Barack Obama bombing a foreign country or Donald Trump mouthing kind or coherent phrases from a teleprompter.

Reality is a little more troubling. Jefferson was a vicious and heartless profiteer and racist who was into slavery for the money and the benefits. UVA had ties to the KKK in the 1920s when the racist war monuments were put up in segregated parks by a wealthy resident. Jim Crow ruled until the Civil Rights movement and has been dying hard. Most people, including the mayor, didn’t come around to favoring taking the statues down until after the deadly rally.

Now Charlottesville’s tragedy has helped many other places take down the sort of statues that still stand in Charlottesville, albeit now covered in black tarps. But Charlottesville and UVA have been leaders on these issues in other ways that one doesn’t hear much about. Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is illuminating, and criticisms of parts of the book, which I am in no position to judge, do not touch on some central points.

The right-wing anti-government movement that has created things like unregulated “development” in Houston, the defunding of preparation for hurricanes, free rein to destroy the earth’s climate for war and profit, and the bizarre cultural understanding in which we simply accept that we must fund disaster relief ourselves as the government is too busy funding wars and billionaires — all of this has deep roots in an institute of economists now based at George Mason University but originally created at the University of Virginia in 1956 in response to school integration. And those economists’ teachings have deep roots in the thinking of leading advocates for slavery.

James McGill Buchanan created at UVA an economics department funded by Charles Koch and dedicated to expanding the power of the wealthy to hoard more wealth, and to reducing the power of the masses to influence government. John C. Calhoun, proponent of slavery extraordinaire, was the grandfather of the deceptive ideology advanced. In Calhoun’s thinking, taxing a slave owner was an abuse and exploitation, whereas owning someone as a slave was simply the exercising of liberty. Similarly, taxing an oil CEO is tyranny in today’s libertarian understanding, whereas letting people drown in a flood is just right and proper.

Making this twisted line of thought presentable as a quantifiable science overseen by experts has been the work of decades of deliberation and deception. Yet slavery has not been made presentable again, and opposition to public spending on human needs grew out of slavery — arose in fact only in areas that practiced slavery. Buchanan and others did not set out to win over the public, but to mislead the public into supporting policies that would have little backing if properly understood.

Massive resistance was not massive, de-funding is not reform, and the right to work is not a right.

Virginians did not rise up en masse and compel their representative government to shut down all the schools rather than integrate them. Rather, state politicians elected by a corrupt system imposed a shutdown in the face of significant popular resistance to it.

The economist schemers knew that shutting down schools was unpopular, so began the ongoing effort to sell the defunding of schools as school reform, innovation, experimentation, choice, and so forth. They would push the same lies about Social Security and healthcare.

In 1974, Charles Koch set up his own foundation and held its first event here in Charlottesville with Buchanan as featured speaker. Buchanan and his ilk went on pushing for more wealth consolidation and de-democratization, to “save capitalism from democracy.” Buchanan offered Augusto Pinochet guidance on how to entrench elite rule in Chilean institutions, and sought the same in the U.S., working toward the “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule.”

Tyler Cowen, who would later succeed Buchanan and who now leads the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, says that in the future people will be “expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now.” The U.S. will be “some version of Texas — and then some.”

You’re welcome, world.

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