The beliefs of economist James Buchanan conflict with basic democratic norms. Here’s why.

Controversy has recently arisen around James M. Buchanan, the economist and Nobel laureate who died in 2013, because of the book “Democracy in Chains” by Nancy MacLean. MacLean calls Buchanan “the missing piece of the puzzle” to understanding the rise of the “radical right.” Responding to MacLean’s claim that Buchanan’s ideas helped justify a “return to oligarchy,” Georg Vanberg writes that Buchanan had a “deep commitment to democratic principles, including individual autonomy and equality.”

Whether one agrees with this claim depends on how one defines democracy. Buchanan was deeply committed to ideas that many people consider profoundly anti-democratic. Democracy — as taught in middle school civics classes — allows and encourages citizens to come together and use the public sphere and electoral system to pass new legislation. Buchanan consistently argued that this should be made almost impossible.