The Notion that James Buchanan Backed Segregation is Preposterous

The truth is the reverse. He was so alarmed by segregation, he favored measures to end it.

The publication of Democracy in Chains produced a strong reaction by Public Choice economists because the content of this book challenges the professionalism and decency of James Buchanan, and to a lesser extent other economists who see merit in his work. The author of Democracy in Chains (Nancy Maclean) claims that Dr. Buchanan acted as an agent of the Charles Koch in a racially motivated conspiracy to undermine Democracy.

The alleged motivation for this conspiracy was the desegregation ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Letters by Buchanan have surfaced (#1 and #2) which undermine MacLean’s assertion that he was part of a segregationist or racist conspiracy.

While the Buchanan letters do much damage to the thesis of Democracy in Chains, there is additional evidence against the idea that Buchanan’s work in Public Choice was in any way segregationist.

First Hand Report

I took Professor Buchanan’s seminar on Constitutional Political Economy in 1999. T his was the last time he taught a full graduate class. One day, Dr. Buchanan took us through a short exercise. He first described a situation with two distinct racial groups, initially in integrated neighborhoods. The main assumption in this exercise was that while everybody is willing to live in an integrated community nobody wants to be in the minority. The assumption of “minority avoidance” leads steadily to complete segregation. What was the point of this exercise? Even a comparatively weak a form of racial bias as minority avoidance results in full-blown racial segregation.

How far back did Buchanan’s concern for segregation extend? A long way. Professor Buchanan saw the tendency of people to self-segregate as problematic. James Buchanan was a free-market oriented economist, compared to other economists, but he was not doctrinaire.  Dr. Buchanan was open to a few types of state intervention, and he did see racial segregation as problematic. Did Dr. Buchanan agree with all of the policies people on the political left have proposed for desegregation? Most certainly not, but he clearly opposed segregation, and would at least consider integration policies.

Buchanan’s letters on school choice indicate concern for segregation on his part going back to 1984. The content of his 1999 class indicated that he remained concerned about these issues to the end of his teaching career. How far back did Buchanan’s concern for segregation extend? There is likely no way of establishing a specific date, but it would be strange for Buchanan to have changed his views regarding race segregation only in 1984, at the age of 65.

My education in Public Choice Economics started with Dr. Buchanan’s 1999 seminar, continued with classes taught by Charles Rowley and Richard Wagner, and ended with Gordon Tullock’s Topics in Public Choice. Racial issues received no attention in the classes by Rowley, Wagner, and Tullock.

The reason for lack of attention to racial issues in most Public Choice is simple: public choice is the application of modern methods of economic analysis to the public sector. Modern economics assumes that people are all just people, that everyone is predominately rational and selfish. Consequently, economists assume that people are homogeneous, not because we think that everyone is literally identical, but rather because people of different races all have the same economic motives.

Dr. Buchanan was concerned enough about racial segregation to depart from the normal “race neutral” assumption of Public Choice in one of his last few course lectures. Given Buchanan’s discernable long-standing concern with race segregation (as well as numerous other distortions and errors in Democracy in Chains) MacLean should apologize.

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