If this summer has been Pokemon Go for academics who seek to catch all the errors in Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, then I have caught them all. This article surveys the critical literature.
Although I agree with most of the criticisms (any disagreements noted below), I approach the matter with disappointment but without malice. I believe both sides should be heard. This is why I offer here a list of criticisms, as well as a number of other useful resources, including rebuttals from Nancy MacLean and her defenders (and counter-rebuttals), as well as other context.
Primarily, I hope this is useful for anyone overwhelmed by the volume of the response to MacLean’s work. I also hope these sources may serve as an introduction to the work of James Buchanan, whose deeply illuminating ideas I have myself neglected until now.
A few disclaimers are in order. I have read the entire book, endnotes and all. I am neither directly nor indirectly funded by the Koch brothers, or any other libertarian or right-wing organization.
I have both leftist and libertarian sympathies (a topic for another time). As such, I should celebrate Democracy in Chains for shedding light on an aspect of the unholy alliance between libertarians and the Right. This movement has been known since at least the early Cold War as “fusionism” – a word conspicuously absent from MacLean’s work of intellectual history.
Democracy in Chains attempts to uncover a “stealth plan” to “chain” American democracy and replace it with plutocratic rule. Unfortunately, the narrative undermines itself by finding conspiracy (“a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance”) where none exists. The right-libertarian alliance - or, as MacLean puts it, the “ultra-capitalist radical right” - is not so much an alliance as it is the same movement (“the cause”). The epicenter of the plan is Nobel Prize-winning economist (and “evil genius”) James M. Buchanan. Buchanan’s “Public Choice Theory,” with the help of financing from Charles Koch, successfully built a political infrastructure that now threatens American governance. To boot, Buchanan’s theories are traceable to Southern slave power and segregation.
The fact is that the fusionist story is much more complicated and far more interesting than the Manichean tale MacLean tells. In attempting to reveal a peculiarly sinister “covert strategy” originating in Buchanan, Koch, and their “cadre,” MacLean concocts a “there” that isn’t really there. Her book suffers to the extent it adds nothing to our knowledge: either (a) it is revealed by the criticisms below to be speculation built on a consistent series of misquoted and misinterpreted records, or (b) it is for this reason exceedingly difficult to credit.
I cannot speak for the field of history. But, as an attorney, if I submitted this book as a legal document, I would expect to suffer sanctions, a malpractice claim, and professional discipline, up to and including disbarment.
The Critical Responses
A few notes: with apologies to several stellar reviewers, the following list avoids redundancies because the early bird gets the worm. I note where I disagree with any criticism, and occasionally I supplement where necessary. I especially recommend responses with asterisks (*). For ease of reference, the label “Racial Roots” identifies sources that contribute to perhaps the most controversial claim in the book: the asserted influence of John C. Calhoun and the Southern Agrarians on Buchanan’s thought (and, by extension, on the entire public choice research program – i.e. Calhoun’s “modern understudies”).
- Jason Brennan: Conspire Me This: Is Nancy MacLean a Hired Gun for the Establishment? (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 23, 2017)
MacLean received $50,000 from the government...to write this book criticizing a movement skeptical of government. This would be an unfair criticism if Brennan wasn’t satirizing MacLean’s own argumentative style.
Cowen is made to appear as though he sought to supplant democracy. In context, Roberts points out that Cowen said the opposite. Among other things, MacLean removes key clauses from a sentence to achieve her original meaning.
Roberts also appends a rebuttal from MacLean and responds to it. Ramesh Ponnuru has a more pointed response to MacLean’s rebuttal.
Numerous anti-racist researchers have built their analyses squarely on Buchanan’s public choice approach.
The first wide-ranging and highly critical book review. It is essentially a litany of errors. Here are a few:
(a) Although MacLean argues against constitutional “shackles” constraining majority democratic decisions, she seems to favor Brown v. Board of Education. What of other traditionally Left-friendly cases, like Roe v. Wade or Obergefell v. Hodges? Ilya Somin (below) goes into greater detail on this point.
(b) Immediately after saying, “I am not an economist, and I hold no special brief for Keynes,” MacLean goes on to assert Keynesian ideas “saved liberal democracy . . . in the face of capitalism’s most cataclysmic collapse.”
(c) MacLean conflates two decisions, Lochner (which struck down maximum hours legislation) and Plessy (which ruled segregation constitutional), in several discussions to imply Buchanan and his ideological allies support both decisions. But this intellectual tradition “today decries Plessy.”
(d) If MacLean criticizes Buchanan for lacking empirical rigor, then she should also criticize Rawls, Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau.
(a) MacLean claims Buchanan was insensitive to economic coercion. But it was the prospect of economic coercion that caused him to favor antitrust regulation.
(b) Racial Roots 1 of 18: MacLean says John C. Calhoun was “a recurrent theme in the [Koch-funded] brain trust.” But he is not once cited in the 20-volume Collected Works of Buchanan – the supposed heart of the group.
- * David Henderson: Nancy MacLean's Distortion of James Buchanan's Statement (EconLib, June 27, 2017)
Buchanan is made to appear to favor treating some people unequally, like animals. His quote in context is a defense of human equality, and explicitly against such inequality.
Long suggests MacLean’s characterization in a prior book of Murray Rothbard’s essay “The Negro Revolution” – “His hope was that it ‘might be crippled and defeated.’” – is inaccurate. Long’s citation to the original essay indeed reveals a sympathetic analysis of “The Negro Revolution.” Rothbard writes, “the processes of gradualism and legalism, typified by the snail’s pace of school desegregation years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, began to make the Negroes restive, and understandably so.”
Racial Roots 2 of 18: MacLean paints Buchanan as having sympathies for the Southern Agrarians, a 1930s group that championed southern tradition, especially segregation. But no evidence is provided.
- Steve Horwitz: MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 28, 2017)
MacLean distorts or misunderstands an economic point. In context, Buchanan/Nutter do not support keeping costs down no matter what the result. Rather, they support, for a particular goal (universal education), keeping costs as low as possible (in other words, using resources as wisely as possible).
Meanwhile, they explicitly support the “democratic process” in the matter – a point at odds with MacLean’s thesis.
- David Bernstein: Some dubious claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’ (Volokh Conspiracy, June 28, 2017)
(a) Buchanan was not that important for libertarianism. Even other Public Choice scholars were more influential as libertarians.
(b) Buchanan was at best a weak libertarian: he favored a 100% inheritance tax.
(c) MacLean submits that early libertarians were opposed to Brown v. Board of Education. Bernstein, a professor of legal history and a libertarian, disagrees.
(d) Racial Roots 3 of 18: MacLean submits that libertarians are descendants of Calhoun. Yet he is barely cited among libertarians.
(e) MacLean mischaracterizes two libertarians for welcoming Brown because it would galvanize opposition to federal overreach and public schools. One of the two cited works is publically unavailable. The other one is a glowing celebration of Brown.
- David Bernstein: Some dubious claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains,’ continued (Volokh Conspiracy, June 29, 2017)
(a) MacLean lists a number of obvious conservatives as part of the “libertarian cadre.” Most of them were merely George Mason University (GMU) Board of Visitors, which is a group appointed by Virginia’s governor, and not any libertarian at the libertarian-friendly school.
(b) MacLean speculates that a major Koch institute moved to GMU because Buchanan was there. In fact, the move was for tax benefits, which were available if the institute was affiliated with a willing university.
(c) A number of false stories about GMU Dean Henry Manne are debunked. This point is continued in Bernstein’s post of July 7.
Part of point (c) appears unfair to me. Bernstein seems to strawman MacLean, who did not claim that Manne was “imposing [his] view on any law school faculty.” MacLean simply stated that “Manne’s law school would stake out” and “His faculty would advocate” a certain position that Manne happened to agree with. Bernstein would later clarify that his argument here was narrower.
Racial Roots 4 of 18: Are Buchanan, et al., intellectual descendants of the racist Calhoun?
(a) Calhoun isn’t cited at all in Buchanan’s 20-volume Collected Works.
(b) A paper by two of Buchanan’s “acolytes” is supposed to uncover affinities between the theories of Public Choice and Calhoun. Only one such affinity is actually explored in the paper: the narrow issue of “concurrent majorities.” As David Gordon notes (below), their conclusion expressly breaks Buchanan from Calhoun lack of “ethical foundations.”
(c) An alternative explanation is available: both Calhoun and Buchanan saw themselves as expanding on the Madisonian notion of checks and balances (as they explicitly claimed).
(d) MacLean is forced to read Calhoun into Buchanan’s work by citing a contemporary Koch-beneficiary, Murray Rothbard, who was an explicit fan of Calhoun’s political theory. But Rothbard was a critic of Buchanan and Public Choice theory. The feeling was mutual.
- * Mike Munger: On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice Constitutional Conspiracy? (Independent Institute, June 29, 2017)
A wholesale defense of James Buchanan and Public Choice theory. This review introduces the term, “speculative historical fiction” for the book’s genre. You can also listen to Munger’s podcast on the topic.
- Zachary Woodman: Against Guilt by Historical Association: A Note on MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains” (Notes on Liberty, June 29, 2017)
Racial Roots 5 of 18: Even if MacLean’s research was accurate into Buchanan’s unsavory associations, that does not make his ideas wrong.
- * Steve Horwitz: The Butcher with a Smile – More Mangling from Nancy MacLean (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, July 1, 2017)
MacLean condenses Buchanan to believe: “the nation’s decision-making rules were closer to “the ‘ideal’ in 1900 than in 1960.”” (quoting Buchanan and Tullock, The Calculus of Consent).
But in context, they’re saying: (a) if the rules in 1900 were ideal, then the rules in 1960 (the time of publication) are too loose; and (b) if the rules in 1960 are optimal, then the rules in 1900 were too restrictive. It’s a basic economic analysis of law, not a statement that we should return to the rules in 1900.
And even if Buchanan and Tullock did favor returning to the rules of 1900, the context is clear: it would to be to chain minority interest groups – whereas MacLean’s thesis is that Buchanan and his “cadre” seek to chain the democratic majority.
- David Boaz: Another Misleading Quotation in Nancy MacLean's "Democracy in Chains" (Cato @ Liberty, July 5, 2017)
Far from defending corporate interests against the poor, as MacLean suggests, Boaz actually says (a) the “parasite economy” favors corporate lobbyists, and (b) the whole thing is so complex that it is difficult to distinguish “the predators and the prey.”
- Daniel Bier: The Juvenile “Research” of “Historian” Nancy MacLean (The Skeptical Libertarian, 7/5/2017)
MacLean misattributes a cliché quotation about “the big lie” to Joseph Goebbels.
- David Bernstein: Yet more dubious claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’ (Volokh Conspiracy, July 7, 2017)
(a) Bernstein adds to his previous criticism of MacLean’s fabrications of George Mason University (GMU) Law Dean Henry Manne. Among several good points, Bernstein unfortunately continues to strawman MacLean (as mentioned above) when he defends Manne to not have “sought to impose [his position] on a law school,” is if MacLean claimed he did.
(b) Bernstein objects to a footnote to his book, stating it does not support MacLean’s relevant point in the text.
(c) MacLean conflates Justice Scalia with GMU Law, stating they both agree on a point of jurisprudence that Scalia would obviously not agree with.
- Art Carden: “Democracy in Chains” Is The Perfect Book for the Age of Trump. The Reasons Why Will Surprise You. (Forbes, July 7, 2017)
(a) Buchanan’s autobiography directly contradicts a point MacLean makes – on the very page MacLean cites to.
(b) Racial Roots 6 of 18: If Buchanan sympathized with the 1930s literary group that championed segregation, it is odd that he never cited them, since Buchanan was not especially shy about mentioning his literary interests.
(c) Carden notes several problems with MacLean’s reading of Buchanan’s “The Samaritan’s Dilemma.” His truncated defense here seems unconvincing, insofar as MacLean properly quotes Buchanan to say, “we may simply be too compassionate for our own good.” While his paper with Phil Magness adds another misquoted passage by MacLean from “The Samaritan’s Dilemma” (see below), her general interpretation of the paper seems to stand.
- Michael Giberson: Fun with Footnotes (A game of scholarly discovery) (Knowledge Problem, July 9, 2017)
(a) MacLean suggests Buchanan was so fed up with the status quo that a revolutionary alternative was required – in a “counsel of despair,” Buchanan suggested despotism. But Buchanan’s point in context is that those who would advocate despotism are unnecessarily engaging in a “counsel of despair.”
(b) Buchanan’s alternative, as discussed in the following section, is a contractarian system with affinities to perhaps the most popular modern left-liberal philosopher: “It is in this respect that the modern contractarian revival, stimulated largely by the publication of John Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice (1971), is highly encouraging.”
Giberson has a follow-up post, in which he reveals that each of MacLean’s 5 quotes in this paragraph are transformed when placed in context. For example, in the same section from which MacLean quotes, Buchanan sounds unmistakably democratic when he writes: for any “revolutionary” change to the system, “structural changes should be those upon which all members in the community might conceptually agree. Little, if any, improvement . . . is promised by imposition of new rules . . . .”
Modern left-liberals also seek to constrain majorities, through judicial review and regulatory agencies. (Don Boudreaux provides some history on the anti-democratic rationale in early Progressive support for the administrative state.)
- David Gordon: MacLean on James Buchanan: Fake History for an Age of Fake News (Mises Wire, 7/10/2017)
Another wide-ranging and highly critical review. I have room only to list a few of the numerous errors reviewed:
(a) Buchanan’s assumption of human self-interest (as opposed to “mutual respect”) was not an account of reality, as MacLean believes, but rather an analytical construct – a common tool in political theory. Moreover, in the very book MacLean cites, Buchanan expressly finds “ordinary respect” among American habits.
(b) MacLean quotes Buchanan to ask how the poor might accept constitutional rules that restricted wealth transfers, as if to say, “how do we rich people put one over on the poor?” But Buchanan thought redistribution was necessary, as expressly stated in the book MacLean quotes.
(c) MacLean claims Buchanan “reject[ed]” Progressive-era claims about the impurity of markets: that “social power shaped markets.” Then, on the very same page in her book, MacLean discusses Buchanan’s ideas on rent-seeking and special interest groups – which are precisely about social power shaping markets.
(d) Far from being a stealth racist, Buchanan argued in favor of racial preferences in an article not cited by MacLean.
(e) No, J.S. Mill was actually an opponent of public schooling. (Gordon leaves the task to me of quoting Mill: “That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. . . . A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another . . . it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”)
- David Bernstein: Nancy MacLean’s conspiratorial response to criticism of ‘Democracy in Chains’ (Volokh Conspiracy, July 11, 2017)
On a personal note, it was after reading MacLean’s disappointing plea for support here that I began paying attention. I haven’t managed to look away since. See below for more rebuttals from Nancy MacLean and her defenders – and responses in turn.
Another reason it is difficult to claim Buchanan sympathized with the segregationist Southern Agrarians of the 1930s is that their anti-industrial economic theory is, if anything, antagonistic to Buchanan’s more laissez-faire-oriented approach.
- Don Boudreaux: James Buchanan Was Not Referring to Koch Contributions (Café Hayek, July 13, 2017); Don Boudreaux: The Relevant Part of Buchanan’s Memo (Café Hayek, July 14, 2017)
To MacLean, Buchanan’s use of “gravy train” refers to Koch funding of higher education to promote libertarian-oriented research. In actuality, Buchanan is talking about funding for new scholars to promote libertarian-oriented research.
Here, I disagree. Boudreaux’s distinction seems to be without a significant difference.
- Steve Horwitz: A Devastating Review of Nancy MacLean’s Book on the Klan (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, July 14, 2017)
In 1996, a scholar (unaffiliated with the Kochs) found a similar pattern of shoddy scholarship in a 1994 book published by Nancy MacLean.
- * Henry Farrell and Steven Teles: Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them. (Vox, July 14, 2017)
Two non-right and non-libertarian thinkers lament the approach taken in Democracy in Chains. A more sober, less error-prone, and more charitable work on the history of public choice economics deserves to be written.
- Georg Vanberg: Duke professor Georg Vanberg on ‘Democracy in Chains’ (Volokh Conspiracy, July 14, 2017)
Far from being an anti-democrat in support of oligarchical rule, Buchanan focused on the welfare of all and on political equality for all.
MacLean implies economist W.H. Hutt supported the white power structure by arguing that “the South’s state officials were right” to try to limit union power. But Hutt was a long-time opponent of South African Apartheid before Buchanan sponsored him at his University – at which point he began similarly to criticize American segregation. Moreover, far from providing tacit support for “the South’s state officials,” Hutt’s opposition to unions included the contention that white unions were key lobbyists for Apartheid.
- David Bernstein: How influential was James Buchanan among libertarians? (Volokh Conspiracy, July 17, 2017)
Racial Roots 7 of 18: A 1988 survey of Liberty Magazine readers indicates the following were not that important for the libertarian movement: James M. Buchanan, John C. Calhoun, the South.
MacLean calls her work an “intellectual history” of James Buchanan. But she mentions Thomas Hobbes – one of the most important thinkers with whom Buchanan wrestled throughout his career – only once, in passing.
Another wide-ranging review with some fresh analysis:
(a) Racial Roots 8 of 18: It is unlikely that Buchanan sympathized before college with the Southern Agrarians, a 1930s pro-segregation group, because he said he was a socialist before he came across Frank Knight in graduate school.
(b) Buchanan may not have been an empiricist generally, but he established a research agenda for an explosion of empirical public choice studies.
(c) Racial Roots 9 of 18: MacLean favorably cites a number of “outspoken eugenicists who incorporated this position into their own respective assaults on laissez-faire in human reproduction” – which contextualizes her dubious suppositions about the racist roots of laissez-faire.
(d) Whereas MacLean reads Buchanan in his “The Samaritan’s Dilemma” to say spanking a child may hurt the child, but it’s for the child’s good, his focus was actually about the parent’s pain. This is another bad misreading, but does not dislodge MacLean’s general understanding of the essay that says “we may simply be too compassionate for our own good.”
(e) Buchanan did indeed travel to Chile for an economics conference during its tumult in 1980, but MacLean’s claim that he had an intimate hand in the establishment of the dubious Constitution is premised on flimsy evidence.
MacLean turns an essay arguing against economists’ role as engineers reallocating resources into an essay arguing against the study of income and wealth distributions.
Gordon Tullock’s publication record in 1967 was anything but “undistinguished.” More here.
Racial Roots 10 of 18: MacLean’s intellectual connection between John C. Calhoun and public choice economists – both of whom are supposed to seek to replace democracy with oligarchy – is undermined by a paper she cites (“The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun”) that expressly distances public choice from Calhoun’s “lack of ethical foundations,” which “shows up in his defense of slavery.”
Racial Roots 11 of 18: While MacLean paints Buchanan as an agrarian idealist – which was supposed to have fueled his pro-segregation sympathies – he was anything but, according to his autobiography.
Magness is interviewed a few days after this piece for a general discussion on the book.
Another wide-ranging review, which nicely contextualizes a lot of what others have already said. Doherty adds an instance where MacLean construes a speech by Charles Koch to be a call for a “covert strategy” on the basis of James Buchanan’s ideas. The speech says nothing of the sort.
Doherty’s review is notably unafraid to also take critical aim at the libertarian right.
- Don Boudreaux: A Note on MacLean’s Charge that Calhoun is an “Intellectual Lodestar” (Café Hayek, July 20, 2017)
Racial Roots 12 of 18: Calhoun is not mentioned once in a dense 790-page survey of public choice scholarship published in 2003.
- * Radley Balko: Public choice theory is crucial to understanding the criminal justice system (Washington Post, July 21, 2017)
Just what the title says. The broader point is: public choice theory is a nonpartisan intellectual methodology, and can (and should) be used by the Left just as well as by the Right.
- J.C. Bradbury: Buchanan’s master plan to undermine the welfare state is just a mundane economics paper (JCB Thoughts, July 22, 2017)
MacLean presents a paper by Buchanan as though it is a plan to undermine Social Security. In actuality:
(a) It is a dispassionate discussion of the prospects for Social Security. For example, the passage from which MacLean quotes Buchanan’s strategy to roll back Social Security is found in a 2-paragraph section titled, “Strategy for Opposition.” MacLean doesn’t mention that the 4-paragraph section immediately preceding is titled, “Strategy for Support.” Both sections are purely descriptive: what arguments must either side make to advance their case?
(b) MacLean cites a critic of the article, but does not mention that (i) the critic is Mancur Olson, himself a public choice giant, (ii) Olson praised the paper, and (iii) Olson’s goal was to save Social Security.
- James Taylor: Did Buchanan Really Think That African-Americans Had No Desire For Freedom? Another Major Distortion from Nancy MacLean. (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, July 22, 2017)
MacLean reads Buchanan to claim that ex-slaves didn’t want to be free, as witnessed by their “renewed dependency” after the Civil War. In context, the passage reads differently.
I strongly disagree with this defense. MacLean’s reading is correct, at least on its face. One can reasonably find a charitable interpretation, but MacLean’s is the most straightforward.
Taylor addresses peripheral matters in a follow-up.
MacLean characterizes contributors to a book published by Tyler Cowen as having “showcased nonscholars on the payrolls of three different Koch-funded nonprofits.”
(a) But the book features all scholars – most of whom are very well-known.
(b) Only three were from Koch-funded organizations. Boudreaux couldn’t comment on one, but the other two did not get most of their funding from the Kochs.
- Don Boudreaux: YA Third Reason Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology (Café Hayek, July 23, 2017)
To MacLean, one of Tyler Cowen’s books “elaborated on old shibboleths from Ludwig von Mises.” MacLean does not explain why. Besides Cowen not citing Mises, this is a puzzling claim for several reasons. David Gordon (above) has a truncated version of this point.
- Steve Horwitz: Confirmation Bias Unchained: Nancy Maclean on James Buchanan, the History of Public Choice Theory, and Libertarianism (draft paper, July 24, 2017)
Horwitz theorizes that the pattern of errors throughout the book is the result of confirmation bias. He warns that MacLean’s flawed view of public choice theory may harm future research in the field that might otherwise have been useful for all political persuasions, including the Left. You can also listen to Horwitz on this podcast.
- * Art Carden, Vincent Geloso, & Phillip W. Magness: Situating Southern Influences in James M. Buchanan and Modern Public Choice Economics (draft paper, July 25, 2017)
A good overview of the race-related matters already covered above, as well as a few other matters:
(a) Racial Roots 13 of 18: In addition to not being mentioned in a 2003 encyclopedia of public choice scholarship (see above), Calhoun enjoys “no entries” in “standard Public Choice reference texts, such as the Charles Rowley-edited Encyclopedia of Public Choice [2004, 1144 pages] or the Michael Reksulak, Laura Razzolini, and William Shughart-edited Elgar Companion [to] Public Choice [2001, 819 pages].” It should be noted that Calhoun appears twice in one entry in the Encyclopedia, but only for historical detail.
(b) Racial Roots 14 of 18: Buchanan’s work mentions only two authors featured in an anthology of southern literature: Jefferson for his political theory, and Martin Luther King in a passage expressly opposing segregation: “(t)he local [segregation] statutes that were violated by the restaurant sit-ins of the early 1960’s were ‘Southern’ laws, of course, and properly and universally condemned as ‘unjust.’” His lack of southern influence can also be seen in the absence of southern writers in his chapter, “Influences on My Academic Life and Thought,” and in another chapter that “contains a loosely-arranged collection of quotes he had written ‘in three small black notebooks.’”
(c) Racial Roots 15 of 18: The Southern Agrarians may have influenced two well-known conservative contemporaries – only one of which is referenced by Buchanan, and only in passing.
(d) Buchanan and Nutter explained that their paper on school privatization was a dispassionate economic analysis of various schooling alternatives, and that they were against both forced integration and segregation. MacLean’s reading of the paper as a cloak for segregationists should take into account that there were no ideal solutions for Buchanan and Nutter in the South at the time, where they were surrounded either by racists or central-planner economists.
(e) More evidence against Buchanan’s latent racism is: (i) his opposition to the minimum wage was premised, among other things, on the conviction that it harmed “Negroes”; (ii) not only did Buchanan invite the clearly anti-racist W.H. Hutt to his institution in Virginia, but he kept him on for two after Hutt published an “Addendum” to one of Buchanan’s book, arguing for constitutional rules of non-discrimination – despite the “oppositional implications for Virginia’s segregationist political establishment”; (iii) “Buchanan trained and inspired scholars to do research on racism and its institutional roots.”
- Jason Kuznicki & Jason Briggeman: In Praise of Chains: How Public Choice Helps Us Understand and Fight Racism (Liberal Currents, July 28, 2017)
Ironically dubs Democracy in Chains “a work of public choice,” after skillfully discussing the advantages (often for Leftist ends) of public choice theory. How so? Public choice theory reveals the outsized power of concentrated special interests in a democracy, which is exactly MacLean’s thesis about James Buchanan and the Koch brothers.
- Don Boudreaux: More on Nancy MacLean’s Distorted Portrait of Jim Buchanan’s Tax-Reform Analysis (Café Hayek, July 28, 2017)
(a) MacLean pulls some quotes together from Buchanan’s book The Limits of Liberty to portray a defense of the rich against taxes, which are no better than theft. In context, however, Buchanan actually argues precisely against this position. Such an argument “tends to obscure much that requires careful analysis” and “is one of the major sources of confusion” in political theory. He explicitly defends such taxation under simple majority rules in the very section of the book being quoted.
(b) In the same passage, MacLean imports the subtitle from a separate Buchanan essay: “Why must the rich be made to suffer?” This is supposed to color MacLean’s premise about The Limits of Liberty (see point (a)) that Buchanan is trying to protect the rich against the poor. The essay, however, is an argument for closing tax loopholes, which cause socially inefficient spending by the “suffering” rich for the sake of tax avoidance. He does argue for lower tax rates, but only after loopholes are closed, which expands the tax base (thereby not necessarily depressing total tax revenue). In short, the focus is protecting rich taxpayers not from poor tax recipients, but from inefficient costs, which harm both rich and poor.
- Don Boudreaux: I Challenge Nancy MacLean to Supply Evidence for Her Claim (Café Hayek, July 28, 2017)
Contrary to MacLean’s assertion, there is no evidence that Buchanan was ever for “eliminating collective action,” and a lot of evidence against.
MacLean appears to fabricate a Buchanan quote. Google can’t find it. She does cite to an essay that says something similar. Boudreaux, unlike Bradbury, thinks the false quotation is an adequate paraphrase (I agree).
Racial Roots 16 of 18: Buchanan has a strong argument against slavery and against social domination generally in his essay, “The Foundations for Normative Individualism.” MacLean does not mention the idea or the essay.
Though MacLean claims Buchanan, et al., wrongly styled themselves Madisonians, Boudreaux finds a quote from Madison about the importance of property rights that sounds a lot like something Buchanan, et al., would say. This is not a fair rebuttal, however. MacLean writes elsewhere in her book: “It was true that Madison was eager to protect property rights, but he also aimed to enable lasting majority self-government, with protection for minority interests – but not domination by them.”
- Don Boudreaux: Was Buchanan’s and Tullock’s Enterprise “Like” Calhoun’s? (Café Hayek, July 31, 2017)
Racial Roots 17 of 18:
(a) While Calhoun’s idea of a “concurrent majority” sought to “chain” majority-rule legislation, Buchanan’s interest in unanimous decision making extended to constitutional rules, not to mere legislation.
(b) Whereas Calhoun was a methodological collectivist, seeing politics as fundamentally a battle of interest groups, Buchanan (along with other public choice scholars) was a methodological individualist.
(c) Though Calhoun was an advocate of interest group-based politics, Buchanan (along with other public choice scholars) was a normative individualist.
Note: the final two points are supported by the very article MacLean uses to connect Buchanan to Calhoun.
Carden finds that MacLean made up a Buchanan quote. In fact, she did not, as David Boaz notes in a comment to Carden’s post. Boaz is correct to say that MacLean stretches the context and misleads about where the citation is located. These are far from the massive errors Carden suggests, however.
- Brian Doherty: To Duke Historian Nancy MacLean, Advocating Free Markets Is Something ‘The World Has Never Seen Anything Like...Before’ (Reason, August 2, 2017)
Though MacLean often cited correctly to Doherty’s own book, she once improperly used it to support the idea that Brown forced many libertarians to stop calling themselves “libertarian.” I believe Doherty misstates MacLean’s broader point in the paragraph, which is that Brown sparked a crisis of ideological identity on the Right. With that said, however, this broader idea still does not seem to be supported by the footnote. In fact, the ideological turmoil recounted in Doherty’s book occurred before Brown was decided.
Rosser correctly identifies a split in the libertarian movement between those in Alabama and those in Virginia. While MacLean focuses primarily on Virginia, it is the Alabama crowd’s politics that would better fit her story.
- * Georg Vanberg: Democracy in Chains and James M. Buchanan on school integration (Volokh Conspiracy, September 1, 2017)
Racial Roots 18 of 18: Elsewhere in an archived box that MacLean had cited in her book lies a set of correspondences between Buchanan and a colleague, in which Buchanan spells out his sympathies for public education, including his concerns that vouchers might exacerbate racial segregation. Still, some of MacLean’s staunchest critics are willing to cut her slack for this omission.
In addition to Nancy Maclean’s disappointing initial response to the criticism, there have been other defenses, including from MacLean, here, here, and here (the former two are worth reading). Counter-rebuttals may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Other background – all courtesy of economist Don Boudreaux – may be useful, on James Buchanan’s view of the market and the extent (or lack) of his political influence; on Buchanan’s understanding of market failure and support for political equality; on Progressives’ own history of racism and elitist anti-majoritarianism; on intellectual influences on Buchanan and public choice; on the roots of public choice theory. Perhaps the most relevant background supplement might be here, on the complexities of democratic decision-making and Buchanan’s project as an attempt to make democracy work.