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Nixon and Buchanan: Power versus Principle



James M. Buchanan toiled in the academic trenches for more than half a century, plowing vital new ground that advanced our understanding of the untamed beast that is government (and, by extension, the rascals who grasp at its reins). His passing yesterday should be a solemn occasion for all who value a free and prosperous society.

But ultimately it may help Buchanan’s cause that he passed away on the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the wilier rascals of modern American politics, Richard Nixon. If nothing else, this coincidence provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the vastly different legacies these men left, and to publicize the lessons learned from that comparison every January 9th.

For obvious reasons, a full accounting is beyond the scope of a mere blog post. But you can get a glimpse of the Buchanan side of the ledger from reading the recent Beacon posts by Robert Higgs, Randall Holcombe, and Mary Theroux. (Updated 1/11: Also see Alex Tabarrok’s compendium of Buchanan appreciations.) As for the Nixon side of the ledger—where to begin?

On economic policy alone, Nixon’s legacy is remarkably distressing. He pressured the Federal Reserve to help him get re-elected by pumping up the supply of money and credit. He severed the remaining ties of the dollar to gold. He imposed wage and price controls, his controls on energy prices causing especially long-lasting harm. He pushed for higher import duties, his tariffs on textiles being an economic component of his “Southern strategy.” He created vast new feel-good regulatory agencies that continue to hamper every manner of peaceful commerce, from Wall Street to Main Street.

It was all designed to get Nixon re-elected, no matter what the long-term economic harm to ordinary Americans. It’s no small irony that the fervent anti-Communist called his policies what Lenin called his: the New Economic Plan.

There is much to learn from the Nixon legacy. The lesson isn’t simply to beware of wily politicians; it’s also to beware of the political processes and mechanisms that foster, enable, and equip them. And this is the lesson of the life’s work of James M. Buchanan. For until we understand the incentives and pitfalls of electoral politics, we will continue to fall prey to the false promises of opportunistic elected officials and their appointees, who seek rewards for themselves and the advancement of their pet causes while foisting the costs on the rest of us.

May the coincidence of January 9th remind us of the difference between a life guided by noble principles—and a life guided by the blind pursuit of power. And may all of us strive for the former.

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