U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Controversy over Democracy in Chains

You may be aware that the new book by Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, has received a lot of notice over the past week or two. Some of this notice has been very positive, but much more has been sharply critical, attacking MacLean’s scholarly credibility. Most but not all of this negative response has been from scholars who identify as libertarians.

Some of the other authors of this blog and I are planning a roundtable for later on to discuss Democracy in Chains as a work of intellectual history, in large part because we feel that the critiques of MacLean’s work have not adequately engaged with its core arguments and because these critiques often seem unfamiliar with the “best practices” of intellectual history: there is likely some interdisciplinary miscommunication here.[1]

But there remain quite a number of criticisms which I personally feel are simple misreadings of MacLean’s arguments and method. Let me be clear: I don’t speak for MacLean. Nor is this post intended to stand in for an exposition of the book. But there has yet to be any substantive pushback to the critiques that have been advanced so far, and many of her detractors have taken that silence as proof that their arguments have incontestable merit. I disagree. This post, then, is intended simply to answer some of the more prominent lines of attack on MacLean and on the book; please watch this space for further discussion of the book itself.

Because of the volume of responses to MacLean and her book, I’m going to proceed synthetically and use representative examples of particular kinds of critiques rather than sort through an itemized list containing each separate charge. I think there are a few basic recurrent lines of attack, and my response can be generalized over each several instance, but if you feel that there are important criticisms that I have not answered or addressed, please link them in a comment and I’ll do my best to respond to them as well.

Okay, here we go.

To me, there are three basic areas where people have had problems with MacLean and her book. The first is with her characterization of Buchanan—his motives and vision of society and his character. The second is closely related and has to do with her analysis of the political import of Buchanan’s ideas and whether they are really so consonant with or integral to the political projects she links them to. The third area of critique has to do with her handling of her sources. Specific accusations are either that she makes up connections in order to tarnish Buchanan or others or that she alters quotes in such a manner as to make them mean something different from (and much more sinister than) what they actually mean.

Reading most of the responses (I may have missed some) and talking with some of her critics on twitter, I feel that many readers have taken MacLean’s objective in the book to be some kind of character assassination of James M. Buchanan and, to a much lesser but still important extent, of Tyler Cowen. Few if any of the responses have directly challenged her characterizations of Charles Koch or of Gordon Tullock, who are also important figures in her story—Koch especially so. I can say anecdotally that this likely has something to do with the warm regard many economists have for Buchanan (and Cowen) personally and for the great admiration they have for his work. The silence surrounding her attack on Koch might be because by now such attacks are expected, or it might reflect some of the underlying divisions among libertarians—not all think that Koch has been good for the cause.

Buchanan, however, seems to me to be a more universally respected figure among libertarians. I would speculate that one of the seeds for why there is such a backlash among economists to MacLean’s book is that they see her attack coming out of nowhere and targeting someone they think of as a good person. Buchanan died in 2013. Lots of people in the profession knew him and may feel personally injured by her attack. Again anecdotally and not probatively, I’ve even heard something to the effect of “I just can’t believe he was like that.”

Buchanan the person

So what is it that MacLean says Buchanan was like? A few people have pointed to some passages like the one where she refers to Buchanan as an “evil genius” (42) or where she attributes Cowen’s absence at Buchanan’s funeral to his coldhearted calculation that Buchanan was no longer useful to the Koch network (204), and I’m not going to defend those passages. They’re hyperbolic and sound like a cheap thriller. But I’d argue that they are ornamental excesses rather than structural or logical faults. So she thinks they’re jerks. That’s only a problem if we believe that the whole project is organized for the purpose of proving that Buchanan and Cowen are jerks, and that strikes me as a gross misreading.

The point of the book—the reason that Buchanan and Cowen are even in the darn thing—is their connection to Charles Koch, a connection which is not seriously in doubt, and which MacLean amply proves. What we make of this connection is a slightly separate issue, and I’ll get to it in a second. But the fact of the matter is that MacLean wrote about Buchanan’s ideas because she thinks they are central to the strategy of Charles Koch as it developed from about the mid-1990s on. Understanding those ideas and where they came from, then, helps us understand where that strategy points as an end goal: what kind of society they envision as a good society.

That brings us to why Brown v. Board, John C. Calhoun, and the Agrarians are in the book. To read some of MacLean’s critics, you’d think she dredges up these matters just because she wants to make Buchanan out to be a racist. She addresses that question specifically in this podcast interview with David Stein and Bets Beasley, but the nub of the issue is that Brown, Calhoun, and the Agrarians each speak to more issues than just racism. She makes clear that Brown was worrisome to many Southerners for the total implications of its ruling: states’ rights of all kinds would not be respected. That included, very importantly, states’ ability to overlook census data in making up representational rules for state legislatures—an issue the Court did in fact take up shortly thereafter, upholding a one-person-one-vote principle that forced a wholesale change in the power structure of Virginia state politics. Brown also threatened to constrict the areas where states could set their own labor and environmental laws.

MacLean takes up all of these considerations as part of why Buchanan wanted to fight Brown: her argument is not that he was just a racist and didn’t like integrated schools.[2] For Buchanan and Colgate Darden (the president of UVA, who sponsored Buchanan’s center that MacLean argues was designed to fight Brown), it was the whole complex of issues that were suddenly in play that made Brown so ominous. One of those issues certainly was integrated schools, and MacLean does furnish extensive evidence for the amount of effort that Buchanan put into trying to figure out how to get around the Brown ruling for Virginia’s public schools (see Chapter 4). His frustrations with the difficulty of figuring out how to circumvent this imposition of federal authority, she argues, led to his conceptualization of public choice economics. The argument, let me reiterate, isn’t “he was racist so he invented public choice.” The argument is, he disliked the coercive power of the state that he saw revealed in Brown and its enforcement, and he kept working on the problem of how to fight that power and formulated public choice.

So why is Calhoun in the book? Again, it’s not because she wants to smear Buchanan or libertarianism in a guilt by association maneuver. Besides, the connection between libertarianism and Calhoun is hardly the debatable contention that her critics say it is. I just did a search of the Mises Institute and turned up 220 results—including this article—referring to Calhoun, all positively as far as I can tell. And consider that the same press—the Liberty Fund—which has put out the Collected Works of Buchanan also has published a volume of “Calhoun’s most important constitutional and political writings.” Pointing out the importance of Calhoun to the historical defense of minority property rights isn’t a low blow tactic, it’s a completely defensible argument in intellectual history.[3]

Enough with the arguments that MacLean was trying to smear Buchanan for being a racist. The bigger issue is whether her characterization of Buchanan (and Cowen) as anti-democratic is valid, but that’s as much a question of whether she mischaracterized his ideas as it is a question of whether she impeached his character, so I’ll turn to that part now.

Buchanan’s ideas

What needs to be understood at the outset is that MacLean is not explicit about her definition of democracy but makes it abundantly clear that majoritarianism and reasonable transparency must be fundamental and non-negotiable elements of any adequate definition. You must at least try to convince a majority of people of your views and you must be honest in your representation of what your views really are. If you give up on those two elements, then you’ve crossed the Rubicon and are implementing something basically despotic.

Now, one of MacLean’s key arguments is that Buchanan’s ideas have undermined the centrality of majoritarianism as one of the most basic rules for what constitutes a democratic system, making it simply “one decision-making rule among many possibilities, and rarely ideal” (79). That interpretation of Buchanan’s views on majoritarianism is not really in dispute—in fact, it’s pretty fundamental to his ideas. What is more disputable is whether MacLean’s definition of democracy as so wholly tied to majoritarianism is in some way superior to Buchanan’s—and obviously that’s tough to adjudicate (which was one of Buchanan’s points to begin with, rather ironically). But MacLean’s argument that Buchanan and Koch have ruled out majoritarianism as the bar they must clear to legitimately implement their vision of a good society is pretty straightforward and solid.

As a sidenote, I’ve seen numerous statements that MacLean doesn’t understand public choice, or doesn’t get economics. That’s very interesting, because as she makes clear in the footnotes, her interpretation of public choice borrows heavily from the work of S. M. Amadae. And guess who blurbed Amadae’s first book, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy? “James M. Buchanan, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Economics.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever asked to provide a blurb for a book that is partly about me (fat chance, I know), I’ll probably refuse if I vehemently disagree with the characterization of my ideas.

At any rate, MacLean’s other argument is that Buchanan embraced a policy of implementing piecemeal reforms that individually would not be objectionable but would add up to a state of affairs that would definitely be rejected by a majority of citizens. Keeping the ultimate sum of these piecemeal reforms hidden from voters, then, was a necessary part of achieving them. Take as an example the franchise. It may be difficult to convince a majority of citizens that the goal of reducing the number of people who can vote is a good idea. But it may be not so difficult to convince people that barring people who don’t have the right forms of ID is a prudent measure to combat voter fraud.

I was frankly surprised at the amount of evidence MacLean was able to marshal to prove that Buchanan and Koch advocated this kind of deliberate deception about their ultimate ends. (See, for examples, 117, 120, 142-143, 144, 151.) But the point is, this argument about “stealth” is the one her critics must attack to shake the whole book and I would contend that disproving it would be the most significant way they could demonstrate that she has misunderstood Buchanan’s ideas. I do recognize that most of her evidence for the advocacy of stealth is archival, but this is only a problem if we have reason to doubt that MacLean honestly represents her sources.

Which is how we get to the many attacks on MacLean that she misquotes or distorts quotations to make Buchanan or Cowen seem sinister. Let’s take the Cowen example because it seems to be the one most people are angry about. Here are the facts.

Alleged misquotations

This is the document in question, “Why Does Freedom Wax and Wane?” although there is also a second version available on-line here. (That becomes somewhat important, as you’ll see in a moment.) The crucial sentence in question is—in full—the following: “While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” When MacLean quoted this sentence, she left out the “While” and the “it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” Thus, in her book it appears as “the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome.”

Her critics see this as prima facie evidence of a bad faith effort to distort Cowen’s meaning to make him appear to be anti-democratic. I think that’s immediately debatable, however, because by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic. And that’s what Cowen is doing here: entertaining the possibility that weakening checks and balances could produce a desirable outcome.

Let’s think about it this way. If I said, “While permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome,” what could we conclude? That I was advocating child labor? No, that would be too much. But that I was open to the idea? Yes, that’s a fair reading of the sentence.

And that is certainly the broader context of this sentence in Cowen’s essay. He is evaluating different techniques that would make “market-oriented reforms” easier, and some of those are anti-democratic. He is open to the idea that reductions of democracy could produce positive outcomes. True, he does state earlier that he “explicitly favor[s] more democratic systems,” but he finishes that sentence with a qualifier that, for MacLean, makes all the difference: “In fact, I explicitly favor more democratic systems, despite thinking that market-oriented reforms have been desirable in the cases discussed above.” I think that in MacLean’s opinion, anyone who—as Cowen clearly does—values “market-oriented reforms” above democracy is anti-democratic. Anyone who feels that democracy can be merely a preference will—one might presume—feel no strong constraint against dropping democratic norms when circumstances make doing so advantageous.

Here’s MacLean in a separate passage from page 223, again quoting Cowen:

“The freest countries have not generally been democratic,” Cowen noted, with Chile being “the most successful” in securing freedom (defined not as most of us would, as personal freedom, but as supplying the greatest economic liberty).

That parenthetical is telling: her point is that Cowen’s priorities are, to use a technical term, screwed up. Defining freedom not as political freedom but as having the fewest economic constraints, she’s saying, is a gross distortion of the word itself.

Now, as I said, there are two versions of this paper. The first one I linked to was a revised version of the paper that Cowen put on the web in 2015; the other version is the original and comes from 2000. Cowen places this note on the first page of the revised version:

I don’t these days agree with everything in this piece, so think of it as a time-slice of my opinions and survey methods from back then. In any case, I hope it is still of interest. Some verb tenses and discussions related to time have been changed in minor ways, to avoid sounding strange or incongruous, but otherwise I have left the content as it was.

I haven’t made a page-by-page comparison of the two versions, but the last claim is not quite true; Cowen did do a little editing that changes the meaning of the sentence that MacLean quotes on page 223. In the revised version, he has added “economically” so that it now reads “the economically freest countries have not generally been democratic” (emphasis added).[4]

Now, that is not just a minor change: when Cowen adds “economically” to “freest,” it acknowledges that there are different definitions of freedom and that “economic freedom” is not the only kind that matters. Perhaps this was his intent in 2000, or perhaps his views on the matter have shifted. But the more immediate issue is that MacLean definitely saw the 2000 version that doesn’t say “economically freest” but rather “freest,” and in that version, Cowen appears considerably more absolute in his statement.[5]

Let me be crystal clear here. I’m not saying that I think Tyler Cowen is anti-democratic. Frankly, I haven’t read enough of his work to pass judgment. But I don’t think that MacLean is being inconsistent in portraying him as anti-democratic because the definition of democracy she seems to use is pretty strenuous. The standard she works under in the book is: You don’t get to say that democracy merely works better or is merely a personal preference and still get to call yourself a democrat. You don’t get to say that economic freedom is more important than civil rights and still call yourself pro-democratic.

Whether that’s a fair definition of democracy or of being democratic is something people have been debating for a long time. And in my humble opinion, that—and not some effort to distort the plain meaning of Cowen’s words—is what MacLean is doing here. Absent the assumption that she was out to get Buchanan and Cowen, there are perfectly valid and reasonable ways to read all those supposed misquotations or mischaracterizations that demonstrate not that she’s unprofessional but that she has strong views about what democracy is and that she has held Buchanan and Cowen to that exacting standard. We can argue about her standard, but the attacks on her credibility are meritless.

[1] Ironically enough, James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock have a beautiful reflection on the dangers and benefits of interdisciplinary work at the very beginning of Calculus of Consent.

[2] Cf. 19 especially and also the penultimate para on 25. Chapter 3, however, makes the argument in full.

[3] There’s a kind of sub-argument here about whether MacLean can make inferences about the intellectual influence of writers on Buchanan when they don’t show up as explicit references in Buchanan’s published writings. Basically, if Buchanan doesn’t say, “hey, I got the idea of calling the overreaching state Leviathan when I read Donald Davidson,” is it fair to say that there’s still a probable connection given that Davidson was active in the same state Buchanan grew up in at the time of his intellectual formation? I would argue that yes, that’s a permissible inference, but not one that you should rest other important arguments on. (Which MacLean doesn’t.) I’m pretty sure that I have all kinds of intellectual influences rattling around in my head that I’ll never think to acknowledge explicitly—but that doesn’t mean that if someone else points them out they’re doing something underhanded.

[4] Because details are important, I want to acknowledge that the sentence begins with the qualifier “In Asia,” but whether this is a restrictive qualifier or not (i.e., if Cowen means that only in Asia is there a negative correlation between economic freedom and democracy or if he only is trying to address the matter at hand) is not clear, particularly since he also discusses non-Asian countries—including—with a similar apparent relation.

[5] Evidence that MacLean saw the second version: she says on 296n60 that her version lacks page numbers. Only one—the 2000 version, the one without “economically”—is unnumbered.

150 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Here is a brief and non-exhaustive list of critiques of MacLean, along with one defense:
    David Gordon, MacLean on James Buchanan: Fake History for an Age of Fake News
    Michael Munger, On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice
    Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them.
    Philip Magness, Nancy MacLean’s Calhounite Imagination (plus two other posts on his blog)
    Jonathan H. Adler, It turns out Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’ is ‘a work of speculative historical fiction’ (plus other posts in the same place)
    David Bernstein, Some dubious claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’ (plus other posts in the same place)
    Russ Roberts, Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology
    John Jackson, Was James Buchanan a Racist? Libertarians and Historical Research

    • Andy, thanks for this post.

      A note on Magness’s critiques. A couple of those have run at HNN (e.g. here: “How Nancy MacLean Went Whistlin’ Dixie”).

      The author blurb for Magness’s critique at HNN does not note (as of this writing) that until the end of the Spring 2017 semester Magness was the Director of Academic Programs for the Institute for Humane Affairs, the Koch-bankrolled think-tank that figures prominently in MacLean’s book.

      I cannot imagine why that connection went unacknowledged.

      • If you don’t even know enough to know that IHS isn’t a “think tank,” you really shouldn’t be commenting on it.

      • Last I checked, “think tank” wasn’t a technical term. Besides, it describes IHS’s origins and development very well.

        It also describes the Cato Institute, which is, I believe, a source of funding/support for you. Was it your critiques at Washington Post that didn’t acknowledge that conflict of interest, or was that a different Koch client’s “objective scholarly opinion”? Hard to keep you guys straight!

      • No, IHS is nothing like a think tank, and nothing like Cato. For that matter, you seem to know little about Cato and its relationship with the Kochs. Let’s give you a quiz: what % of Cato’s $40 million or so budget do you think comes from Koch sources?

      • You’ve established that I blog at a site hosted by the Washington Post, and I’ve established that you are making negative insinuations about people based on ties to organizations you know nothing about. You told Phil Magness that you try to avoid errors in what you write, and then you insist that IHS is a “think tank.” Sheesh.

      • A note on L.D. Burnett’s critiques. My past affiliation with the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University is fully disclosed on my publicly available CV, and in numerous publications I wrote during my time there. In fact, Burnett herself confirmed this with me in a twitter exchange yesterday. That she now insinuates an effort being made to obscure it suggests a certain level of dishonesty on her own part. I’d also note that I haven’t written much of anything about the portions of MacLean’s book that pertain to Buchanan and IHS (which long preceded my time there), opting to focus instead upon her historical misrepresentations of Buchanan’s intellectual influences. It’s unfortunate to see Burnett go down the route of peddling scurrilous insinuations about her interlocutors, but given that this is also someone who apparently sees nothing wrong with MacLean’s outright fabrication of historical events, it is not particularly surprising.

      • ‘I have nothing of substance to say but wish to discredit so I will nitpick a single word in the hopes that attention to this single blade of grass will lead readers to miss the forest.’

  2. “The argument is, he disliked the coercive power of the state that he saw revealed in Brown and its enforcement, and he kept working on the problem of how to fight that power and formulated public choice.”

    And that’s exactly where she goes from his documented support for school vouchers, (in which, btw, he explicitly stated that he opposed mandatory segregation), to wild speculation that has no documentary evidence. Or so I challenge you, beyond wild speculation, what evidence did she provide that this is what motivated his work on public choice, rather than the obvious, which is that as a student of Frank Knight he sought to challenge the dominant paradigm in welfare economics that essentially compared imperfect markets to an idealized government? I don’t believe the book provides any such evidence, which is why Munger is correct to call it a work of speculative historical fiction.

    • This is obviously a very important point, and I’m glad you zeroed in on it. I tried to address it above, but let me expand on it a bit further.

      First, I’d say that we ought to acknowledge both that Buchanan was not the only person involved here in the formulation of public choice and that he’s not the sole focus of MacLean’s account of how public choice came about. What she does clearly argue is that Brown was a big part of the impetus for establishing the TJ center. Would you agree?

      Assessing how much of the ideas behind public choice we should credit to Buchanan and how much to Tullock is obviously a matter of some dispute, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to argue that Tullock played a major role and that it is wrong to consider CofC a solo work by Buchanan. It’s perhaps better, then, to look at the milieu of the TJ center and of UVA to account for the influence of Brown on the formation of public choice, and there I think MacLean has a whole range of evidence and argument that you’re not really engaging with.

      My reading of what you’re saying is (and correct me if I’m wrong), “show me the smoking gun where Buchanan says that Brown provoked him to invent public choice.” But the thing is, that’s not what MacLean’s arguing–it’s simply not that direct. Tullock is important, what’s going on at UVA is important, and even what’s going on with state politics is important. That is, to me, where MacLean does a very good job of fleshing out the whole milieu in which public choice originated–not just in the mind of Buchanan.

      • Fleshing out he milieu is important. But the argument seems to be “Buchanan was a southerner, he lived in Virginia and taught at a state university at a time when the white political establishment was mostly dedicated to segregation, and he wrote a paper supporting school vouchers at a time when vouchers were one alternative segregationists were considering to integrating the public schools. THEREFORE, his work on public choice was inspired by his hostility to Brown and desegregation.” The “therefore” is unsupported speculation. You could just as easily posit, “Buchanan was opposed to mandatory segregation, and he was inspired by the Court’s opposition to it in Brown. However, he saw that the political class was going to handle desegregation in a terrible manner, that democracy wasn’t functioning well in Virginia or nationally, and he THEREFORE was inspired to explore the relationship between constitutionalism and democracy, which lead to public choice.” This therefore is similarly speculative, and similarly almost certainly wrong. There is no need for such speculation, when the Chicago school in which he was educated was busy tearing down the pillars of welfare economics (see, e.g., Coase, also responding to the perfect government vs. imperfect markets paradigm).

      • “What she does clearly argue is that Brown was a big part of the impetus for establishing the TJ center. Would you agree?”

        Based on what? That Buchanan advocated for school choice? Seriously what is the basis for this claim?

      • “My reading of what you’re saying is (and correct me if I’m wrong), “show me the smoking gun where Buchanan says that Brown provoked him to invent public choice.” But the thing is, that’s not what MacLean’s arguing–it’s simply not that direct.”

        It is in the dust jacket…presumably MacLean had some say over that,

        “…. but the dust jacket, which one assumes she approved — in my experience authors always get to approve the text of the dust jackets — boldly states that “Buchanan first forged his ideas in Virginia, in a last-gap attempt to preserve the power of the white elite in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.”


  3. You say: ” these critiques often seem unfamiliar with the “best practices” of intellectual history: there is likely some interdisciplinary miscommunication here.”…”is it fair to say that there’s still a probable connection given that Davidson was active in the same state Buchanan grew up in at the time of his intellectual formation? I would argue that yes, that’s a permissible inference”

    You seem to be saying here that the Davidson connection is in line with “best practice”. Reminder: MacLean wrote, not only that the Southern Agrarians were influential on Buchanan but that, of the twelve, Davidson “seemed most decisive” and later that he “seemed to see through lenses wholly crafted by Davidson”. I think most readers would have assumed that MacLean had actual evidence behind those claims rather than that there was a “probable connection given that Davidson was active in the same state Buchanan grew up in”. If this *is* in line with best practice in intellectual history, what’s an example of someone else in the field making claims in such confident language off such a rickety foundation?

  4. David,
    “his work on public choice was inspired by his hostility to Brown and desegregation.”

    That’s your paraphrase of her argument. Let me ask you, as a law professor: do you think that it’s possible to oppose Brown on constitutional grounds and still be open to the desegregation of schools–perhaps even to support black and white children attending integrated schools together, as long as the policies effecting that integration are not imposed by the federal government?

    Your understanding of MacLean’s argument is that when she says that Buchanan opposed Brown, he did so because he was a racist, and so her argument in effect is that his racism spurred him to invent public choice. (Again, you’re still acting like public choice is a solo creation, but we’ll pass on from that.)

    And so, by your lights, her failure to provide some kind of evidence that Buchanan wanted to keep black kids out of all white schools because he was a racist is a failure to provide evidence that there is some link between Brown and public choice.

    Except that it doesn’t work that way, and I already pointed out why in the post above: Brown’s implications were immediately seen to extend far beyond the desegregation of public schools to all kinds of legal and administrative issues, from labor law to environmental regulation. By coming up with workarounds to Brown’s ruling regarding school desegregation, Buchanan and the TJ Center were attempting to establish strategies for re-setting the division of powers between the federal and state governments.

    Let me summarize: nothing about MacLean’s argument about Brown and public choice depends on establishing Buchanan’s personal views on integrated schools or on establishing whether or not he was a racist. It depends on establishing that he and his colleagues at TJ and UVA were intent on fighting back against the opening to what they saw as unlimited federal intervention in the states. And she did that.

    • I think before we get to your questions, I have to focus on the Maclean says that “Buchanan opposed Brown.” It’s not at all clear to me that Buchanan opposed Brown, and MacLean doesn’t provide evidence that he did. I agree that what he opposed was using Brown as an opening wedge for “unlimited federal interference in the states.” But of course he didn’t need Brown for this, what libertarian-oriented thinker would endorse the proposition that “unlimited federal interference in state and local affairs” is a good thing? Is there any evidence that he wasn’t a libertarian-oriented thinker in 1953, but was by 1960, such that we could at least suspect that the issue desegregation changed his thinking in some some? If not, and in the absence of any documented evidence in his own papers that Brown-related issues inspired him, and in the presence of knowing that his work on public choice was completely responsive to what was going on in economic circles at the time (and he wasn’t even the first to work on such things, see eg Ken Arrow) we are back to completely unsupported speculation.

      • What do you think “opposing Brown” means? As I asked before, do you–as a law professor–think that it is possible to believe that Brown was wrongly decided and yet to be in favor of integrated schools, provided that their integration is administered locally or by the state and gains the consent of the taxpayers who fund the school system?

      • As a law professor, I can tell you that Brown I said that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and Brown II said that desegregation should be accomplished with “all deliberate speed.” There is nothing in either opinion that suggests that endorsing the opinion requires one to support any given mechanism for desegregation, much less to support using Brown as a wedge to undermine the constitutional foundations of federalism in general. Indeed, a good % of black southerners opposed how Brown was implemented, e.g., closing down the black schools and forcing black kids to go to schools with a hostile white majority, though few of them would have opposed the general principle of Brown.

        But that’s really a side point, the main point being that unless there is evidence that Buchanan’s basic outlook on politics and economics changed between 1953 and 1960, there is nothing beyond wild speculation to any theory that desegregation was a motivating factor in his work. This is especially true when there is an obvious alternate explanation in that Buchanan’s work was part of a broader effort to update welfare economics that included many other prominent figures, some of whom were liberal in their politics.

  5. Brian,
    BFFs? That’s a curious reading. I was saying that Calhoun pops up frequently among self-identified libertarians. That’s what referring to the Mises Institute establishes.

    The passages you quote from the post make my argument for me: do you think “best practices” and “permissible inference” mean the same thing?

    • I certainly interpreted your footnote 3 as a defence of her “permissible inference”. There’s a “best practices” way of being transparent with your reader when you’ve got a hunch but no proof.

    • And yet LVMI hosts scholars who are and have been for over two decades hostile to both Buchanan and especially the Kochs. They have called themselves “paleolibertarians” to distinguish themselves from the libertarian mainstream, and LVMI’s leader Lew Rockwell has been fairly implicated in racism. Even then, I doubt that anyone at LVMI would agree with MacLean that libertarians’ “lineage” is traceable to Calhoun. One can find almost twice as many positive references to abolitionist Lysander Spooner at Mises.org. So is the real story that libertarianism’s “lineage” can be traced to Spooner? Nonsense.

      Meanwhile, references to Calhoun at Cato are sparse and negative.

    • Andy – The problem re. Davidson is not whether she “inferred” an intellectual influence from plausible evidence.

      Rather, she claimed specific knowledge of a connection between Buchanan and Davidson. MacLean’s language on this point implies that it is direct and that she has documentation of this connection. Her footnotes simply do not support anything about that claim though, and that’s a critical problem for her that goes against the most basic evidentiary practices of the historian’s trade.

    • That’s like saying that Bernie Sanders is a genocidal maniac because both he and Stalin identified with Marx.

      (Incidentally, of the first 10 search results for “Buchanan” on the LvMI website, two are links to the same interview with James, which is generally but not entirely friendly; one is a negative review of Democracy in Chains; three are articles challenging his thought, and four are about other people named Buchanan. The Austrians and Buchanan may all identify as libertarians but there are real differences between them.)

      • By the way I have never gotten a dollar from the Kochs and work on a campus where any sniff of Koch money would start a riot, but if they’re reading this they can feel free to send me a check.

  6. I guess giving a subject the most charitable reading IS actually still a thing after all.

    You write, “…by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic. And that’s what Cowen is doing here: entertaining the possibility that weakening checks and balances could produce a desirable outcome.”

    I am far from the first person to point this out, but, since literally everyone–every constitutional law professor, ACLU member, political scientist, hard core member of a kibbutz, or sophomore political science major at Berkeley–has questioned the appropriate mix of checks and balances within a majoritarian democracy system, I guess everyone is anti-democratic according the Dr. Nancy MacLean. EVERYONE.

    But by all means, let’s give HER the benefit of the doubt. “By her lights,” anyone not sharing her fantastically naive notion of democracy must be a racist, Koch tool.

    (Yes, I have benefitted in recent years from Koch funding. I know this disqualifies me from commenting on anything with many of you who find it easier just to disregard people with whom you disagree. Enjoy your bubble.)

    • What this essay and the ensuing debate makes very clear is that it is very important, indeed essential, to give MacLean’s book the most charitable reading possible, but that the standards of intellectual history in 2017 are such that there is no such obligation to extend such charity to the interpretation of anyone else’s work, particularly not someone who ever received Koch funding.

      More seriously, there is no dispute that a) some libertarians and conservatives were hostile or indifferent to Brown, b) some libertarians and conservatives were morally complicit in efforts to oppose racial desgregation, c) some conservatives and libertarians have soft spots for Calhoun and the Confederacy, and d) the Kochs have spent millions funding various libertarian political organizations and academic work with the goal of creating (what in their view would be) a better world. None of this is remotely controversial.

      MacLean’s work has been attacked because she spins a fabulist tale that is often based upon misreading or mischaracterizing sources, when it’s not based upon pure speculation. To quote J. Morgan Kousser, “does evidence count in history anymore?” (Cite: http://people.hss.caltech.edu/~kousser/book%20reviews/maclean.pdf) It seems not.

      • Any scholar writing a negative — or positive — review of a book focusing on an institution or funding source from which they themselves have benefited or are benefiting should acknowledge that fact in the review. Similarly, any scholar who receives funding to pursue research designed to advance the business interests of a private corporation should acknowledge that fact in the published scholarship (see the recent controversy over Google funds for scholars).

        If reviewers have a personal stake in promoting or undermining the reputation of a book, readers deserve to know that.

  7. Oh boy, it’s going to take me some time to catch up to all these comments.

    David (btw, I’m really enjoying our discussion),
    The immediate reaction to Brown was to assume that it opened the door to federal intervention–I don’t think the historical record could be clearer on this. Your first paragraph implies that Brown I and II could have been read as just nice sentiments without any real force attached, but that’s clearly not the understanding that most people at the time had. As for your point about the 1953 to 1960 period, are we then to assume that Buchanan had public choice fully formed in his head when he left Chicago and for whatever reason got distracted by school vouchers and other issues for a few years, and then only got around to *co*-authoring CofC once he was through with his side project? (Again, let’s give Tullock his due–you’re resistant to doing this, but I’ll keep pressing.) That seems dubious to me.

    Aylok, yes, if I called it a “permissible inference,” then I’m defending it as permissible, especially if–as I noted–it’s not the basis for other important claims.

    Phillip, since you’re speaking to the same issue about the Agrarians, I’ll respond to you next. We’ve already had this out on Twitter, but I’ll reprise my argument here. You have responded to MacLean’s references to Calhoun and the Agrarians as if her intent was to brand Buchanan as a racist by association. My reading of her use of Calhoun is given above, and my reading of her use of the Agrarians and especially Davidson is that she’s trying to establish why Buchanan had a chip on his shoulder towards northeastern elites. That is a recurrent but minor motif in the book (she mentions it again even as late as when she discusses his Nobel Prize), but you seem not to have picked up on it. If my reading is correct, your chain of logic falls apart: her reference to the Agrarians isn’t an essential building block of her critique of the putative racism of public choice because that’s not why she’s bringing it up! And if that’s true, then I think we do not need to hold her to the same standard of evidentiary proof as if it were a crucial point on which a much larger and central argument were based: the plausibility of the connection is sufficient. I’m not saying that I would have used the same language she did to make the connection or that I necessarily would have brought it up in the first place. But what she did looks nefarious only if you’ve already decided that what she’s up to is nefarious and are grasping at straws to try to make your case. A reasonable reading that keeps things in proportion would acknowledge that the connection is plausible but unimportant and move on.

    • Your comment makes it seem like Buchanan spent a lot of time and energy between 1954 and 1963 on the school voucher issue. In fact, it seems he co-authored one unpublished memo in 1959 which if iirc turned into one short article. I’ve likely spent more time blogging and commenting re MacLean’s book than Buchanan spent on school desegregation.

      • That’s a good point, and actually it tallies with MacLean’s portrayal of the way that the 1959 paper (with Nutter) seemed completely out of step with where politics actually were on the ground re: schooling (see 55-56 and 61).

        But that hardly touches my larger point. You wrote “Buchanan’s basic outlook on politics and economics [didn’t] change[] between 1953 and 1960,” and so I’m wondering what accounts for his delay in publishing something like Calculus of Consent in, say, 1954 or 1955? Either he had all the tools he needed when he left Chicago or something happened between 1953 and 1960 that added a crucial dimension to his understanding of politics and economics. I’m saying that MacLean adduces the following as providing the missing elements: Gordon Tullock moving to UVA, the creation of the TJ Center and the discussions that took place there, and the political and social environment of Virginia and of Charlottesville in particular. Are you really saying that none of those made a bit of difference, and that he could have written CofC _on his own_ in 1954?

      • Sorry, that should be “his delay in publishing something like Calculus of Consent only in 1962 rather than in, say, 1954 or 1955?”

    • MacLean on the Agrarians:

      “The Nashville writer who seemed most decisive in Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system was Donald Davidson” (p. 33)

      “Vanderbilt was also the site of a culture project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state. The university was home to the Southern Agrarians, the literary men who in 1930 published a manifesto for southern rural life, I’ll Take My Stand.” (p. 33)

      Neither of these depictions concern the “chip on the shoulder” thesis you’ve been peddling. But both do assert the Agrarians had a direct *intellectual* influence on Buchanan’s intellectual system and his ideas about government, society, and justice.

      This is not just inference, Andy. It’s MacLean herself making a very direct claim of intellectual lineage.

      • Phillip, the whole chapter where the Agrarians appear is about the chip on his shoulder. Part of that comes from his southernness, and part of it comes from not being able to go to Vanderbilt and take the route his parents thought he’d take–going into politics like his grandfather and sort of redeeming (no pun intended) the family name (see 32-34). As Aylok points out below, Davidson doesn’t come up again outside of this context of his early formation as a southerner distrustful of northeastern elites.

        What you’re saying is that MacLean slipped in this fabricated connection because she wanted to prejudice the reader against Buchanan by linking him to men whose racism is well-known. But that can’t be the case if it’s simply not the reason she brings up the Agrarians, a conclusion which a responsible reading of Chapter 2 would yield.

      • Andy – Two points.

        1. MacLean’s words are sufficiently specific on the Agrarians to establish that she was attributing a direct intellectual influence upon Buchanan’s worldview to them. Your “chip on the shoulder” thesis entails importing your own reading and inferences from the chapter onto the claim while ignoring her explicit words. I’ve already documented those words above and they are clear as day. Persisting down this route further at this point only shows you’re being willfully obtuse.

        2. As we’ve discussed previously, MacLean’s fabricated connection to Donaldson serves the specific purpose of reframing Buchanan’s use of the Leviathan metaphor. By doing so she divorces Buchanan from Hobbes and replaces Hobbes with Donaldson. What I’ve been trying to explain to you at length for the past few days now is that Hobbes is a critical figure for understanding Buchanan. He appears more frequently in Buchanan’s work than almost any other political thinker, and Buchanan repeatedly identifies himself as engaging in the larger Hobbesian project. Reading Buchanan without Hobbes is an exercise akin to reading Smith without Hutcheson, or Kant without Hume. As someone who purports to be an intellectual historian, you should at least have the personal integrity to acknowledge that a book omitting such a crucial figure from Buchanan’s intellectual roots is *deeply* problematic, let alone one that tries to replace that figure with another influence that she fabricated out of thin air.

        (For reference, MacLean mentions Hobbes all of once in the entire book – and that’s to cast him aside in the Davidson passage on p. 33)

    • MacLean said the segregationist Donald Davidson and the Southern Agrarians were a “decisive” intellectual influence on Buchanan. She doesn’t directly cite the Davidson connection elsewhere, but it’s obviously a highly relevant claim for other questions MacLean discusses: what was Buchanan’s position regarding racism and desegregation? what sort of man was Buchanan? did his philosophy have compassion towards the poor and the nonwhite? what was his relationship with the Byrd machine? what does it say about GMU and the libertarian movement if they were influenced by Buchanan?

      Suppose an intellectual biography of a left-wing figure claimed that poet who praised Stalinist repression was a “decisive influence”. Would that be unimportant, let’s move on?

      • The counterfactual, here, is in fact a very common occurrence in the historiography of the left. Such references to the influence of Paul Robeson, The New Masses, or the many artists, musicians, and filmmakers of the Popular Front period (all of whom would be regarded by right-leaning historians as supporters or dupes of Stalin) are exceedingly common in the books and articles we read and write. And the vast majority of us take pains to question–and criticize–the blindness (willful and otherwise) of our subjects to the horrors of Stalinism, or to try to situate the affiliation sympathetically by reimagining the contingencies of the given historical situation.

        For what it’s worth, we all treat the Southern Agrarians in the same fashion: we look sympathetically to the very real sense of displacement and alienation that they experienced (an exercise for which training in Marxist social history, which is precisely attuned to taking seriously the grievances of those whose folkways were menaced by the arrival of a new economic order, has prepared us). Our critique tends to concern the elisions, romantic gestures of abstraction, and rhetorical sleights-of-hand that allowed thinkers of the Southern Agrarian school to blot out the realities of Jim Crow, to identify with antidemocratic and patriarchal idylls, and to isolate their own sense of aggrieved victimhood from that of their fellow citizens across class and color lines.

        This is how we do our work. It is not perfect, of course, and we don’t all do it in the same way. But we agree that both people and historical moments are inherently contradictory, messy, and always subjects to the influence of accidents of geography and biography, that most objects of analysis contain both good and bad, and that most people in most situations have but a dim idea of the general contour of historical change.

        MacLean is a senior scholar in our field, and her work has taught many of us a great deal about how to write and think. She adheres to the protocols laid about above on every page of her new work. In the end, that’s what matters, here.
        Which is not to say that anyone has to agree with the conclusions (most works of historical reinterpretation fail to convince most readers). But the implication that what is going on here is “guilt-by-association” rather than thick description–the recreation of the intellectual and affective universe in which a new kind of thought took shape–is simply wrong.

      • If the Stalinist comparison is too much, we can easily turn to one that’s more salient with MacLean.

        At a couple of points in her book MacLean expresses strong enthusiasm for a number of economists on the progressive left. She praises John Maynard Keynes a couple of times. She also cites John R. Commons and Richard T. Ely approvingly, and contrasts them with Buchanan and other free market thinkers.

        The problem is all three of the figures MacLean likes have serious faults on matters of race, eugenics, and a host of other social and civil rights issues. Keynes was the vice president of the British Eugenics Society and a life-long anti-semite. Commons published a number of academic articles referring to blacks as “lazy” by heredity and even suggesting that slavery had forced them to overcome their genetics. Ely was an outright white supremacist who frequently fantasized bout a eugenicized society of “Nordic” stock, and advocated policies to squeeze black people out of the workforce. It’s all horrendously ugly stuff.

        Would it be fair to write that MacLean shares in these horrible beliefs? Perhaps call them “decisive” influences on her intellectual system and politics? I ask because the intellectual affinity between her and Keynes, Commons, and Ely is infinitely stronger and better attested than the non-existent one she posits between Buchanan and Davidson.

  8. The financial interest that any of us have in defending anything related in some way to the Kochs pales in comparison to the financial interest non-tenure-track historians who would like future tenure-track positions have in defending a well-known, connected, prominent chaired historian. Since L.D. Burnett insists on talking about financial interest.

    • I’m several steps ahead of you, Prof. Bernstein. See this post from last week, about a different book entirely, a favorable review of which would do me no favors with any search committee. The pertinent passage:

      But what about this reader? Do I have anything useful to say about Kipnis’s book, beyond the fact that I am glad I read it? And, yes, I realize that simply saying that much – or that little – is enough to invite outraged condemnation from some quarters. In this job market, why risk offending anyone? Well, flip that around, as I do: In this job market, what does it matter whether you offend somebody or not? There are so few tenure-track jobs, the odds of landing one are already infinitesimally small. Might as well say what you think and not worry about it.

      And if you think that wading into a heated online argument about a senior scholar’s book — or, to be honest, about anything — is the route to a tenure-track job in intellectual history, you have not met many intellectual historians.

      Nevertheless, I say what I think. Deal with it.

    • David – Argumentum ad Kochum in a nutshell:

      “You didn’t disclose your connections to a Koch-funded department/center/university. You’re clearly trying to hide that you’re a shill for their corporate interests.”

      “What are you even talking about? My CV is public, and the department/center/university you’re complaining about is literally on dozens of things I’ve published over the last several years.”

      “AHA! So you admit that you’re a shill for their corporate interests!”

      It’s the same shoddy argument that they used against Mike Munger’s review, and the same conspiratorial line of thinking that’s at the core of MacLean’s unhinged “call to action” about the Amazon reviews from a week ago.

      Again, it’s truly sad to see that this is what passes for “intellectual history” in the academy these days.

    • This is a neat application of public choice theory to university governance!

    • David Bernstein, this is a horrible thing to say, and you should be ashamed of having said it. Unless LD happens to apply for a job in Nancy MacLean’s department — something that in the current job market would be akin to winning the lottery, as jobs for modern Americanists in any department are few and far between — nobody in the historical field is going to care, or base any hiring decision on, what she has to day about MacLean’s book. To compare this sort of “financial interest” with people literally taking a salary from the Kochs is beyond the bounds of reason.

  9. Re: LvMI
    This seems like a case of the narcissism of minor differences. I’m not saying that there aren’t important distinctions between differing varieties of libertarianism, but let’s try to read what I said in context. I’m arguing that Calhoun is a part of the intellectual heritage of libertarianism, and so I can introduce as proof instances of him pooping up among libertarians–even if those aren’t the libertarians you personally agree with.

    Please see the paragraphs in the original post above under the heading of “Buchanan the person.” You’ve essentially agreed with all the really important parts of MacLean’s argument.

    • There are many things in the book that would be true if Prof. MacLean had stated them differently. Did Ed Meese inspire the founding of the Federalist Society? No, but he was helpful in its early years. Did Henry Manne only hire white males? No, but the central administration was concerned that he wasn’t hiring enough women and minorities. Was Ed Meese a member of the “libertarian cadre?” No, but as Rector at GMU he was sympathetic to the law school and economics dept. Can libertarians “trace their lineage” to Calhoun? No, but some libertarians have found his ideas helpful in thinking about minority rights.
      The problem is that if you have to rewrite what MacLean wrote to defend it, you are not actually defending her book, you are defending the careful, scholarly, book she *could have* written but chose not to.

      • “The problem is that if you have to rewrite what MacLean wrote to defend it, you are not actually defending her book, you are defending the careful, scholarly, book she *could have* written but chose not to.”

        Not empty quoting.

      • In that instance, I think you would actually defending the book you wrote

  10. Haven’t read the MacLean book or critiques, therefore can’t comment on the main issues here.

    However, since Brown has come up, it’s perhaps relevant to the overall historical context to note that: (1) because of concerted resistance in Va. and elsewhere and for other reasons, it took a long time after Brown before the dual school systems (i.e. de jure segregated schools) in the South were dismantled, really not until the late ’60s and ’70s in many cases; and (2) along w/ the dismantlement of dual school systems, which mainly had existed in the South and in some border states, there was a continuation and in some cases intensification of de facto school segregation, notably in urban areas esp. in the North — an outcome that the Supreme Court helped along with its 1974 decision in Milliken v. Bradley.

    Also worth pointing out that members of the current Supreme Court do not agree on key aspects of the underlying meaning and implications of Brown, as evidenced e.g. in the 2007 case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. It would take too much space to go into here, but for an accessible discussion see Lincoln Caplan’s piece on Justice Breyer in Harvard Magazine, March/April 2017.

  11. Andy: no, I’m not saying Stalin and the Southern Agrarians were equally bad. I’m taking them as examples of things now held to be obviously and deeply wrong, and that reflect poorly on the vision of society and the good of people who endorse them.

    Kurt: the difference is that Pablo Neruda’s admiration of the USSR *actually happened*.

    • You have shifted the marker. Pablo Neruda felt the way he did about the USSR; Donald Davidson felt the way he did about the US South. Both strains of feeling “actually happened.”

      We are discussing the circumstance that befalls the historian who wishes to write about an actor a generation younger than such icons, who grew up within an orbit in which a Neruda (or a Davidson) was influential.

      • But MacLean didn’t just write that Buchanan grew up at a place and time where the Southern Agrarians and their ideas were influential. She makes highly specific claims like that Davidson’s influence “seemed most decisive” on the young Buchanan, who “seemed to see through lenses wholly crafted by Davidson” he felt weirded out the first time he visited New York.

  12. Not having read MacLean’s book yet–I’m about to!, and so slightly out of left field, but having just finished Melinda Cooper’s *Family Values*, in which Buchanan makes minor appearances, I would be very interested to hear what more expert folks on the period think about the two together. Maybe in the roundtable?

  13. I’m losing track of which comment streams I’ve commented on–please ping me if I’m missing anyone.

    I’m glad to see that you’ve moved on from trying to imply some connection between MacLean and Mussolini:

    So if we’re moving from calling her book a work of “speculative historical fiction” to saying that she used hyperbolic or imprecise language, that sounds like progress to me!
    More seriously, yes, I think this book is a trade book and is not written with as much precision as MacLean’s earlier work. I’ve tried to identify why I think some of the looser language and inferences are still within bounds of proper scholarly conduct and why these issues only are serious problems if you begin with a presumption of malevolence–which many critics clearly display. Absent that presumption, there are very reasonable interpretations of the issues that you and others have raised. Finally, I’ve identified particular areas in the book where I feel that critics who are responding in good faith ought to look in order to make a case against the book. Those are in the body of the original post.

    I will have to check out the Caplan piece–thank you. You may also be interested that alongside Brown, Baker v. Carr also plays an important role in MacLean’s account of the history of the Virginia School of Political Economy. In essence, MacLean argues that because Baker v. Carr disrupted the representational allotments within VA that kept the Byrd machine in power, it also played a role in the makeup of UVA’s Board of Visitors–and thus created a less hospitable environment for Buchanan and Tullock, causing him eventually to leave. It’s an interesting story.

    • Hyperbolic or imprecise? If I were a judge and she were an attorney, and used such “hyperbolic” or “imprecise” language, with footnotes that don’t support the text, in a brief she filed in my courtroom, I’d sanction her, and refer the matter to the state bar.

      If you write, “the Oakland A’s won 3 world championships between 1986 and 1988,” and they won none, it’s not a defense to say, well, they were competitive for the division title in 2 of those years, and one year they even made the playoffs.”

      • Do we really need to drag the poor Oakland A’s into this? 🙂

        I think the fact that you assume that the correct analogy here is to a lawyer and a court of law is worth mulling over. As I’ve tried to say repeatedly, the insistence by MacLean’s critics that the purpose of the book is to amass evidence that James M. Buchanan was a very bad man is a serious misreading of the work. What she’s trying to do is what historians constantly do–move back and forth from a central figure to their context or milieu, trying to reconnect explicit or implicit lines of influence and to posit reasonable explanations for the way certain ideas were formed or actions were decided upon.

        Let’s take the phrase she uses for Calhoun: “intellectual lodestar.” Phillip and others have objected to that as an incorrect characterization of Calhoun’s importance to libertarianism’s intellectual history. Fair enough: maybe it’s hyperbolic or imprecise to assign him that kind of importance.

        But is it the same kind of thing as claiming that the Oakland As won a World Series when they didn’t? No, not at all. Intellectual historians disagree all the time about how to weigh the relative importance of different figures within an intellectual tradition, and sometimes those opinions diverge pretty radically. That’s not evidence of someone being a bad historian but just evidence of the heterogeneity of historians. We disagree, sometimes about pretty important things.

      • Again, there are things she writes that are simply false, e.g., that Henry Manne only hired white men, that Ed Meese inspired the founding of the Federalist Society, etc. These are not matters of interpretation, these are matters of fact. There are other issues that are matters of interpretation, but for which she provides little to no evidence for her interpretation, and the footnotes she uses to support her interpretations don’t support the text, like the claim that Brown v. Board played a huge role in inspiring the libertarian movement, or the claim that Henry Manne wanted to establish a law school that would take positions on particular political issues. One defense I’ve seen is that she gets the details wrong, but the basic story right. How is a historian supposed to get the broad story right if she doesn’t get the details that support the broad story correct?

      • Also, I don’t think linking Buchanan to Calhoun is merely imprecise or hyperbolic, it’s an intentional smear, trying to tie him to someone who she depicts as a defender of not just slavery but oligarchy. And it goes beyond “imprecision” to devote an entire preface to Calhoun, as if he were indeed the key to understanding both Calhoun and libertarianism.

        Also, of course I use a courtroom analogy because I’m a law professor. But also note that lawyers allow a lot of room for one-sided argument, we are advocates, after all. Even that is obviously not what historians are supposed be doing. But if MacLean were merely doing that, one would just say that she wrote the equivalent of legal brief, not an objective book. Instead, I’m saying she wrote the equivalent of the sort of legal brief that could get one sanctioned and in trouble with the bar.

    • Andy – It’s a thought experiment. If MacLean can connect Buchanan to figures like Calhoun on the flimsiest of innuendo, or obscure figures like Davidson on nothing more than their common uses of a well known metaphor from political philosophy, it stands to reason that the same logic could be applied to MacLean herself in ways that would permit similar connections to pretty much anyone who’s ever used the term “social justice” in advocacy of the poor (Charles Coughlin, Mussolini, and even Juan Peron come to mind).

      It also stands to reason that much more substantive and direct intellectual homages by MacLean to Keynes, Ely, and Commons could be used to link her to Keynes, Ely, and Commons’ own respective acts of racism and eugenic advocacy.

      I suspect you would find the implications of any of these exercises to be grossly unfair to MacLean, whom you insist upon approaching with the utmost charity. My question then is this: why do you so credulously accept the same tactic when MacLean does it to Buchanan?

      • Intellectual historians (even those working in political theory, such as myself) know perfectly well how careful one must be to establish intellectual influence.

        This is a joke. Why not just say “this is very badly done, but it’s sufficiently tangential and we can address other claims”?

      • The entire prologue is devoted to Calhoun. How is that “tangential?”

  14. Buchanan probably opposed Jim Crow as a constraint on free markets. The more interesting question is how he would respond to voluntary segregation. And here lies an unmentioned but important controversy. Is voluntary segregation truly a manifestation of free choice when the underlying distribution of wealth and power privileges white schools and leaves African-Americans with far less adequate options?

    So do you think Buchanan was comfortable with “voluntary segregation?” and what does that imply about his awareness of reality on the ground for Africa -Americans?

    By all means, challenge the racism of racist progressive economists.

    • @Francis BeIlamy

      The system of legally mandated segregation in schools and public accommodations etc in the Jim Crow South can be viewed as being at one end of a spectrum. Residential segregation outside that context was often the result of government action (see the discussions of Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law) or a mix of government action and individual decisions (on the context for the latter, see T. Schelling’s well-known article the title of which is escaping me at the moment).

      In short, the notion that patterns of de facto segregation are or have been purely the result of ‘free choice’ is incorrect, as you suggest. (I don’t know what Buchanan’s views on this were, b/c I don’t know v. much about Buchanan.)

  15. I would like to point out the disgusting nature of this post by way of a counter-example:

    All Progressives are despicable racists. How can I say this? Early Progressives were despicable racists and eugenicists as per the work of Thomas C. Leonard in the Illiberal Reformers. If you support the minimum wage you are a despicable racist. Again, how can I claim this? Again the work of Thomas C. Leonard. Are you a fan of Margaret Sanger? You know the drill at this point, same source BTW. BTW Hillary Clinton was given the Margaret Sanger award and she was quite proud of it….so if you voted for her why were you supporting somebody with such racist ties? See how pernicious and ugly this gets.

    So even IF Buchanan was motivated by Brown v. Topeka Board of Education*, Public Choice has grown well beyond that. This kind of sleazy guilty by association should be slapped down and hard by any reasonable person. After this tactic paints with a broad brush and would tar the work of many who are or were in no way motivated by such views.

    *And to be clear I have seen no evidence of this presented at all. Not even Mr. Seal seems to have any evidence and at best he tries some ridiculous slight of hand on this point.

    • I’m not clear on your point. Thomas Leonard’s analysis is quite popular in Libertarian circles, I think. Matt Zwolinski, for example, similarly argues that minimum wage advocates have historically been motivated by racism. W Hutt attributes apartheid to the machinations of the
      South African labor movement. Do you cite Leonard as an equivalent to MacLean, or do you think he is more persuasive than she in making these sorts of arguments?

      I agree that modern public choice has departed in certain ways from the early formulation.

  16. You state: “The argument, let me reiterate, isn’t ‘he was racist so he invented public choice.'”

    From the blurb for the book at https://history.duke.edu/book/democracy-chains: “In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite’s power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.”

    These don’t seem terribly compatible to me. I realize the latter was probably written by the publisher’s marketing department and not by the author, but why would they think they think it accurately reflects the author’s thinking (if, that is, they do)?

  17. After reading “Democracy in Chains” twice, it seems pretty convincing that Buchanan was 1) racist , and 2) a collaborator with the sadistic fascist regime of Pinochet. I am also convinced that there is a certain anti-democratic strain within libertarian circles, but that will never result in any fundamental changes in the way American democracy now works..I see also that all the libertarian criticism of this book is attempting to take the high-road ethically, but we who support the book are not duped by this obvious hypocrisy.. We know you are furious and we are glad that you are, as exemplified by the angry reaction of your colleague Michel Kelly-Gagnon here in Quebec at the Montreal Economic Institute when I wrote him yesterday about racist and fascist Buchanan.

    Interestingly, over 2000 years ago Aristotle recognised the strain between mass democracy and arrogant reactionary oligarchical tendencies. I will reproduce the quote from his “Politics” in another post coming up next.


      • No it is not. My name is Marco and I speak for myself, and no one else. Also, you may have noticed that I wrote that I live in Montreal not in North (or izzit South ?) Carolina where Nancy Maclean works at Duke University. That you should even question the fact that my post may have been one by Nancy Maclean but disguised shows that you are slightly paranoid.


      • Marco, don’t worry about offering a rejoinder to petty comments like Verdon’s — no one of substance around here questions your veracity. (Plus, we can see it on the blog dashboard.)

        Indeed, this seems like a good place for a more general note/reminder to readers/commenters: like most WordPress blogs, this one logs commenter IP addresses, allowing us to enforce a strict “no sock-puppeting” policy, something we actually have never had a problem with. But it’s good that the feature is there — it allows us to block commercial spammers.

        Also, this has been a very active comment thread, at least for our blog. We have all tried to fish comments out of the queue quickly so people following the discussion don’t miss any exchanges. But we are all volunteers, and we are all neck-deep in work, so if it takes us a while to get to your comment, please be patient. After your first comment is approved, you will be able to post subsequent comments without approval. Comments with more than one hyperlink will be held in the queue awaiting approval (a spam-screening feature).

        So, everybody, comment away!

  18. “So why is Calhoun in the book? Again, it’s not because she wants to smear Buchanan or libertarianism in a guilt by association maneuver. Besides, the connection between libertarianism and Calhoun is hardly the debatable contention that her critics say it is. I just did a search of the Mises Institute and turned up 220 results—including this article—referring to Calhoun, all positively as far as I can tell.”

    If you are an academic Mr. Seal….

    The Mises Institute is where Rothbard settled. Rothbard was not known to have much if any sympathey with Buchanan and Tullock nor with their mode of analysis. None at all in fact. You have pretty much just gone full MacLean on this one. You are noting one element of the libertarian movement takes a favorable view of Calhoun…so…what? All libertarian minded folks must have a a favorable view of Calhoun? That is what you call “research” or reasonable? Why did you not look at say the Cato Institute? You do know how to use google right? I did it with Calhoun site:cato.org and got only 30 hits and a number of those seem to include things like Calhoun county and city of Calhoun, and a Joseph Calhoun and a John B. Calhoun. Or did you do such a search and didn’t report it because it does not fit your attempt to defend MacLean?

    Or why not the Mercatus Center? Again, google gave me 19 hits. And actually at least one paper that looks like it does point to something by John C. Calhoun. “The Relationship Between Taxpayers and Tax Spenders”, but not exactly the smoking gun as it is written by Bruce Yandle and also references James Madison.

    “As public concern over rising U.S. budget deficits and debt mounts, policymakers propose numerous explanations and policy changes. One explanation dates back to political theorists John C. Calhoun and James Madison, who wondered about the consequences for the republic if the citizenry became divided into classes of taxpayers and tax beneficiaries or spenders. In particular, they feared that the property rights of the taxpayers would not be protected.”

    There is also this paper too, “Calhoun’s Concurrent Majority as a Generality Norm”. From the abstract, “The purpose of this paper is to analyze the political philosophy of John C. Calhoun from the perspective of Virginia Political Economy. Specifically, this paper argues that Calhoun’s theory of the concurrent majority offers a way of operationalizing the “generality norm” of Buchanan and Congleton Politics by principle, not interest: towards nondiscriminatory democracy.” I suppose that one looks bad, but if you think so that means you do not understand Buchanan and Congleton. More from the abstract, “The analysis of this doctrine, which holds that constitutional democracy can only be preserved from majoritarian absolutism if minority interests have the power to check the power of majority coalitions, is this paper’s main purpose.” Oh my God! That Buchanan and Congleton wanting to tear down democracy and majoritarianism. Allowing the majority to have a check on the power of majority coalitions…kind of like in Topeka Kansas where the majority wanted segregated schools. Yes, lets elevate majoritarianism so that there are no such checks [/sarcasm].

    • This minority check is primarily about wealth, isn’t it? It’s designed to prevent any measures that challenge economic inequality. After all, there will always be at least one person who dismisses taxation as theft.

  19. In a previous post I promised to reproduce a quote by Aristotle pertinent to this debate. I have also included a second one, which is very profound in my opinion. They were both reproduced by an American sociologist , Seymour Martin Lipset, at the beginning of his book “Political Man” (1959). Incidentally, there is a chapter in that book called “Working Class Authoritarianism” which is extremely relevant to another debate, that around the white trash that is supporting Trump.


    First quote by Aristotle:

    “Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed
    by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to
    be well administered, in which the middle class is large. . . .
    Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens
    have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess
    much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democ-
    racy, or a iure oligarchy; or a tyranny may develop out of either
    extreme— either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an
    oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle con-
    stitutions and those aldn to them. . . . And democracies are safer
    and more permanent than oligarchies, because they have a mid-
    dle class which is more numerous and has a greater share in

    government; for when there is no middle class, and the poor
    greatly exceed in number, troubles arise, and the state soon comes
    to an end.” ( 1221-1222 )

    Second quote:

    “A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he
    who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For
    man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated
    from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice
    is the most dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms,
    meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use
    for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the
    most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of
    lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the
    administration of justice, which is the determination of what is
    just, is the principle of order in poHtical society.” ( 1130)


  20. Why is no one discussing whether Public Choice Theory accurately describes human actors in the political economy, or whether it doesn’t?

    So far all I’ve learned here is that at some point both progressives and libertarians had humans in their midst who were less than angels. Ok, got that, no surprise there.

    Does Public Choice Theory accurately describe human action in the political economy, or does it not?
    There is the million dollar question, the rest are just book sales.

    • Public choice theory properly inspires us to question the motivations and objectives of government action. However, in denying the value of almost all government intervention and embracing an idealized view of markets, it leaves itself open to the charge that it is as corrupt as the statism it criticizes.

      • Public choice is a methodology, and public choice theorists can be found all over the political map.

      • As I understand it, Behavioral Symmetry is central to Public Choice. If market actors are benevolent than political actors will be benevolent.

        If political actors are self-interested than market actors we be self-interested.

        Is that understanding inaccurate?

        If accurate it seems useful to humans looking to create good institutions (private and public).

        If not accurate is their use of the term behavioral symmetry deceptive?

      • The genius of Buchanan’s public choice theory is that it simultaneously undermines the legitimacy of federal government action to address the economic security interests of the majority who are “economic non-authorities” (see J David Greenstone) while permitting state policies that shackle labor and consumer movements (as states compete for business investment under the doctrine of “competitive federalism.”

      • Francis,

        You must be joking. Buchanan and libertarians generally almost invariably oppose state governments shackling of laborers and consumers; competitive federalism is, if anything, a concession to those who favor expansive regulatory restrictions on markets. This concession is, admittedly, made because they (we) are confident that states that do the least shackling will be the most successful.

  21. My law school used to have a public choice class co-taught by two public choice scholars, a liberal Democrat and a libertarian Republican.

    • I read Angus Deaton in the Economist recently, blasted our healthcare system from a left leaning perspective and used Public Choice to do it.

      What the insights told him as he explained them didn’t seem radical, they were humanly consistent.

  22. Andy – can you clarify MacLean’s views for me. For example consider the following two quotes (from you):

    “What needs to be understood at the outset is that MacLean is not explicit about her definition of democracy but makes it abundantly clear that majoritarianism and reasonable transparency must be fundamental and non-negotiable elements of any adequate definition.”

    “You don’t get to say that economic freedom is more important than civil rights and still call yourself pro-democratic.”

    Suppose the majority oppose the Civil Rights reform (as they did for most of American history), would MacLean would been against it? If so, she is anti-democratic, as majoritarianism is non-negotiable. If not, she is against civil rights and can’t be called pro-democratic.

    “I think that’s immediately debatable, however, because by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic.”

    How is this consistent with majoritarianism? A large point of checks and balances is to prevent majoritarianism. Suppose the majority want to remove freedom of the press, but the Bill of Rights restricts it. Does Maclean support removing the freedom of the press? If yes, she proposes weakening checks and balances. If no, she is not majoritarian.

    How do we reconcile these often conflicting traits of being democratic?

    • Justin,
      Thanks for this question. This is quite tricky, as you’ve already indicated, but I think MacLean addresses this issue on pages 225-226. She writes,
      “Americans are taught from an early age to revere the checks and balances built into our political system by that document, features designed to act as imposing speed bumps, if not complete roadblocks, to radical change from hotheaded majorities, particularly those who may encroach upon the property rights of the minority… On the one hand, this constitutional system has helped make the United States the most stable republic in the modern world. On the other hand, it has also made ours by far the least responsive of all the leading democracies to what the people want and need… The existing checks and balances, in short, create an all but insuperable barrier to those seeking to right even gross social injustice. The problem is systemic. Built into our Constitution, the change-blocking mechanisms prevent us as a polity from addressing our most profound challenges until there is supermajority support for doing so.”

      MacLean then turns to the research of Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, who studied the effect of “veto players” on inequality in democracies. Veto players are figures or institutions that can block the will of the majority. They found that “the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality.”

      MacLean sees the Koch plan as an attempt to multiply the number of veto players while simultaneously disempowering or capturing those veto players who operate within the already existing system of checks and balances: the ideal is to create a democratically unresponsive and uncheckable set of veto players who operate wholly by their own rules. This both weakens checks and balances and further constrains the will of the majority from having legislative efficacy.

      What I think MacLean would like to see are some changes to the existing system that do not disturb the separation of powers but that make the veto players that already exist more responsive to majority opinion. She brings up the grossly disproportionate weight that voters from low-population states like Wyoming have relative to, say, California because of the nature of the Senate. While she acknowledges that changing the current arrangement into a true one-person-one-vote system is impossible, I think that gives some indication of what kind of reforms she’d like to see. Some of the ideas that were proposed–and in some cases enacted–by the Progressives in the early 20th c might be other steps, such as the recall of judges or a greater scope for recall of other elected officials, more use of referenda and initiatives, etc.

      Does that make sense?

      • You do realize that MacLean sounds very much like what she accuses Tyler Cowen of sounding like in that passage…right?

        ” On the other hand, it has also made ours by far the least responsive of all the leading democracies to what the people want and need… The existing checks and balances, in short, create an all but insuperable barrier to those seeking to right even gross social injustice. The problem is systemic. Built into our Constitution, the change-blocking mechanisms prevent us as a polity from addressing our most profound challenges until there is supermajority support for doing so.”

        That sounds to me like she wants to weaken those checks and balances.

        Seriously, I have to wonder…how can you be so ideologically blinded here? Why is Tyler Cowen being excoriated for even mentioning the weakening of checks and balances…but when MacLean does it…well, that’s just dandy. And here is what you wrote.

        “I think that’s immediately debatable, however, because by her [MacLean’s] lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic.”

        Please, we need to see you do your little dance on this point to reconcile everything.

      • Yes it makes sense and thank you for the detailed reply. I think it’s a reasonable position to take. However, I’ll agree with the commenter above that her criticism of Cowen seems a bit hypocritical if that is her view. I think she is guilty of holding her opponents to standards that she doesn’t hold herself or her allies to.

    • The reasons why Southern majorities appeared to support Jim Crow were

      A. Blacks were not included in the voting public in large numbers.

      B. Urban whites were underrepresented.

      C. Business elites and conservative church hierarchies cultivated racism to obstruct a possible inter-racial alliance.

      D. Segregation rendered interracial understanding less likely.

      E. Majorities for civil rights did emerge in many states outside the South.

      • The reason southern majorities appeared to support Jim Crow, outside of states in which African Americans approached majority status, is that a majority of the population in fact supported Jim Crow. Meanwhile, historical work continues to be distorted by the weird progressive assumption that racism is naturally foreign to the working class unless “cultivated” by elites. But I suppose Marxian influence positing that the working class is naturally internally aligned dies hard.

      • Nevertheless, it’s true that if blacks had been allowed to vote, there would have been a lot less of Jim Crow, because democracy tends to favor groups that have intense views on particular issues, and the average white didn’t feel as strongly about enforcing segregation as the average African-American felt opposed to it. Hey, that’s a lesson we get from public choice! Anyway, that’s a good example of why majoritarianism ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, sometimes we want electoral minorities to be able to assert disproportiontae influence.

      • I actually agree w/Bernstein that the working class can have inherent racism, per his first comment.

        His second one, about whites feeling less strongly about keeping segregation in place? In a long list of laughably bald, unsupported presuppositions types on this page by the libertarian hordes of locusts, that may be the biggest of all.

      • If you believe that whites felt more strongly about keeping segregation than blacks did about opposing it, then you’ve contradicted your point about Jim Crow being non-majoritarian. And, seriously, you know the kind of person who refers to other people as insects? Nazis.

      • Actually, isn’t it difficult to infer the strength of voter’s concern about a particular issue without specific polling data? Each voter has a bundle of concerns and probably an overall narrative. For many Southerners, the “Southern Way of Life” was in peril. This was an all-encompassing motivation for action.

      • And, you ARE given me more reasons to like you less, bless your pea-picking heart.

        Actually, David, YOU are the one doing the self-undercutting. If, indeed, racism is engrained in working-class whites without the manipulations of the ownership class, it therefore stands to reason that whites would care MORE about segregation than blacks would about ending it.

        Like shooting fish in a barrel.

      • “If, indeed, racism is engrained in working-class whites without the manipulations of the ownership class, it therefore stands to reason that whites would care MORE about segregation than blacks would about ending it.”

        Uh, no, that doesn’t follow logically at all. I can see why you use a pseudonym.

      • This seems like a roundabout way of saying ‘majorities I disagree with don’t count.’

    • Justin: Actually, given the stances of many Americans re the First Amendment on freedom of the press, actually, supporting its modification, if not its full removal, might be majoritarian.

      Civil rights and liberties, beyond that, IMO, should not be put in a “checks and balances” context. Whether one derives them from natural law, or from other source, they would perhaps better be taken as (largely) “self-evident truths.”

      • “Civil rights and liberties, beyond that, IMO, should not be put in a “checks and balances” context.”

        Why? Where the rights come from and how they are protected are two separate issues, so I’m not sure I see the argument. The point of checks and balances is largely to prevent government from infringing on these natural, inalienable, self evident, or whatever you want to call it sort of rights. The importance of this evident from the fact that governments around the world and throughout history have routinely restricted civil rights and liberties

  23. http://s-usih.org/2017/07/the-controversy-over-democracy-in-chains.html

    In 1954 Paul Samuelson wrote “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure”. He recognized the inherent problem with public goods. You can benefit from national defense without paying for it, so you might as well pretend to have less interest in it than you truly do (false signal). Therefore, taxation should be compulsory. But then Samuelson simply assumed that planners would do an adequate job of correctly guessing your true valuation of defense. He assumed omniscience.

    The reason that I haven’t purchased MacLean’s book is because everything that I’ve read about it leads me to believe that she thinks that the other 1954 thing… “Brown v. Board of Education” was somehow more relevant to Buchanan and the formation of public choice than Samuelson’s paper.

    You’ve read MacLean’s book… did she even mention Samuelson’s paper? Did she mention anything about the fact that the biggest economic defense of our current system of government is based on the assumption that planners are omniscient?

    Buchanan had absolutely no issue with Samuelson’s view on the inherent problem with public goods and the need for compulsory taxation. But when it came to his assumption of omniscience, Buchanan had a very big issue.

    In 1963 Buchanan wrote “The Economics of Earmarked Taxes”. He argued that taxpayer earmarking would eliminate the incentive to give false signals. Since you are paying taxes anyways, if you were given the opportunity to earmark your taxes, then the amount of your tax dollars that you earmarked to defense would accurately reflect your valuation of defense. Say that your valuation of national defense is $1000 of your tax dollars but you only earmark $100 tax dollars to national defense. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to spend the difference on private goods (ie clothes, food). It means that you’ll have $900 tax dollars to earmark to other public goods (ie education, healthcare)… which you value less than national defense. Therefore, there’s absolutely no incentive to give a false signal.

    MacLean is correct that Buchanan’s work is anti-democratic. Unfortunately, as a result of her economic ignorance, she thinks that his work is inspired by racism and/or the ultra-wealthy. No. Seriously? No. His work is inspired by his very serious concern about the assumption of omniscience. If this absurd assumption is abolished, then the conclusion really can’t be direct democracy. No economist in their right mind is going to argue for voting on the amount of money to spend on defense. Because if that was sane, then we might as well vote on the amount of money to spend on milk. Except, if voting is used to allocate all resources, then money itself would be pointless.

    Buchanan is our Goliath. MacLean is not your David. But at least she tried. If she hadn’t, it’s doubtful that you would have written anything about Buchanan.

    • The Koch brothers paid Samuelson to write that piece, so that Buchanan defenders like yourself would be able to cite it in the future to obscure the fact that he was *really* motivated by opposition to Brown v. Board of Education.

  24. I would hypothesize that the oversll motivation of Buchanan’s academic interventions was to disable the federal government as a lever for agalitarian social change.

    • I would like to propose that my well-off neighbor’s support for laws prohibiting me from looting his pantry are motivated by his desire to prevent egalitarian social change.

      • I didn’t say “rely on,” and you didn’t even try to refute the Google search.

        I know other professors who have no problem using Wikipedia, properly understood and used. As I know them personally, AND as they’re philosophy professors, and thus know something about knowledge, I’ll take their reasonable stance over yours.

        Please respond in a way that gives me more reason to like you less?

  25. A few observations …

    • Thanks to everyone who has commented, especially to Andrew for both initiating this discussion and his keen defence of MacLean. It’s all been quite edifying, especially for insights into how non-practitioners of intellectual history perceive the field’s methodologies and assumptions of complexity in the circulation and inspiration for ideas. There is undoubtedly a decent paper to be written about this separation.

    • I hope that Prof. MacLean uses some of her first royalty cheque to buy a bottle of wine for each of her most ardent critics. The volume of their attacks, along with the outrage and snark—I counted roughly a dozen separate posts about it at the Volokh Conspiracy blog—generated enough curiosity that I was inspired to buy a copy, and I don’t imagine I’m the only one. You can’t buy that kind of publicity, so she should reward them for their free labour. Similarly, in focusing so much bile toward MacLean and her book, they’ve done well to validate it as a work worth discussing. The lifeblood of any argument depends on its circulation, and her critics have made sure that her book generates conversation.

    • That said, I’m not that enthused by the book. I started it a couple days ago and am only two-thirds or so through, but thus far it’s too obvious for my tastes. I’m very sympathetic to the core premise—the Bolshevik nature of modern conservatism (i.e., an intellectual vanguard in service of political change via a discourse of crisis) and its elitist ambitions—but too often the historical narrative and examination of how these ideas developed gets shunted aside to make comments about contemporary politics. Yes, these things are of course related, but it presents as a book trying to do too much—it’s about the success of libertarian ideas (or rather one part of that story) and the necessary links between conservative academics, private interests, and public institutions, but it’s also about generating outrage toward the anti-democratic nature of the American right and contemporary politics. I’m not familiar with MacLean’s previous work, but I can’t help but think that the latter aspect was shaped or accented by her editors at Viking to make it more appealing to a non-scholarly audience. But if that’s the price to be paid to expand the audience, it’s defensible.

    • Thanks to Maclean and a few others, I perceive the field as I imagine other non-practitioners of phrenology perceive that field.

      Maclean has also reaffirmed that publicy funded institutions often end up functioning as clergies for devout statists intent on proselytizing ideas contrary to the opinions of the majority (ironically in their name) via funding forcibly expropriated by people who disagree with them.

      Thankfully, Maclean’s book will likely be a net good: it will reignite interest in the works of James Buchanan and stimulate a healthy skepticism of the capacity of the state to serve the interests of the public. Libertarians should buy Nancy Maclean a whole cellar of wine. With enemies like her who needs friends.

    • Also, I’m curios if scholars here think “generating outrage” against one’s political adversaries is the point of ‘scholarly’ intellectual history?

  26. “At a couple of points in her book MacLean expresses strong enthusiasm for a number of economists on the progressive left. She praises John Maynard Keynes a couple of times. She also cites John R. Commons and Richard T. Ely approvingly, and contrasts them with Buchanan and other free market thinkers.

    The problem is all three of the figures MacLean likes have serious faults on matters of race, eugenics, and a host of other social and civil rights issues. Keynes was the vice president of the British Eugenics Society and a life-long anti-semite. Commons published a number of academic articles referring to blacks as “lazy” by heredity and even suggesting that slavery had forced them to overcome their genetics. Ely was an outright white supremacist who frequently fantasized bout a eugenicized society of “Nordic” stock, and advocated policies to squeeze black people out of the workforce. It’s all horrendously ugly stuff.”

    Not empty quoting. Clearly MacLean is a racist.

    That claim has as much if not more support than MacLean’s claims regarding Calhoun and Donaldson and the agrarians. Or her claims about Buchanan and Brown.

    I find it hilarious that MacLean is so worked up about the secret motives of Buchanan which she apparently discerns because of his lack of racial rhetoric…but she’ll turn to people who were openly and disgustingly racist.

  27. Do want to point out that many guests here are behaving in rude, aggressive, and non-collegial ways (in marked contrast to the usual tenor of conversation here, which has often involved friendly disputes with readers of varying affiliation, including contributors to the National Review and Reason). Perhaps it might be a good idea for those dishing out insults and puffing out chests to reflect on their behavior, and to conduct themselves in a manner more civil. At a certain point, readers will justly draw conclusions about the ethical commitments of those who swagger around throwing elbows in somebody else’s living room.

  28. “That parenthetical is telling: her point is that Cowen’s priorities are, to use a technical term, screwed up. Defining freedom not as political freedom but as having the fewest economic constraints, she’s saying, is a gross distortion of the word itself.”

    If anyone is screwed up it is Andrew Seal. And lets stop it with using synonyms when we can use one word, mmmkay? Where exactly does personal freedom end and economic freedom begin? Seal (and MacLean apparently) seem to argue that there is some bright line between the two when in fact there is not. Any reasonable person can see this. If I am not free to buy something my personal freedom has been curtailed. There might be good reason to curtail that freedom (say the something in question entail harm of another–e.g. certain types of graphic images or videos). But the point still remains, this curtailment of my economic freedom also impacts my personal freedom. Similarly my right of free association, that allows me greater opportunities in finding employment. Economic and personal freedom are inextricably linked.

    • Also with regards to economic freedom vs. personal freedom, you fail to note that in the original version Cowen did use the phrase, “economic freedom” no less than 6 times. If we are to “judge Cowen by the totality” of his words and actions….well maybe it is not so clear as you make it out to be. In fact, the very next sentence reads, “If we examine the index of
      economic freedom, Hong Kong is typically among the freest areas in the world, if not the freest.”

  29. There is an interesting implicit debate at the level of assumptions. Those who defend “Democracy in Chains” can visualize and indeed value “solidarity” as a motivating force among human beings. They are open to broadening the rules that govern enterprise and hope that a “public interest” can be denied. The critics do not accept the notion that voters might learn to align their interests with others, or that elected leaders might act in good faith, or that private bodies exercise power over others,

    These fundamental assumptions direct our choices about charity and critique.

    • No one here is denying that voters can align their interests with others, nor that private bodies exercise power over others. But power is a vague word, and the power of an employer or buyer or seller is fundamentally of a different nature than the power of a state.

  30. What is striking about all this is the relentless defense of Buchanan/libertarianism. On the one hand, i wonder what life would be like to have so much time on my hands. On the other hand, having spent time reading this long thread of comments, and trying to make sense of it, the first thing that comes to mind is Freud’s essay on fetishism.

    • What comes to my mind is bulverism: the tendency to attack the motives or psychology of one’s intellectual opponents or explain them away, while not bothering to actually rebut their actual ideas.

      Kurt, was this the sort of rudeness you had in mind?

      Speaking of Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes people genuinely just oppose the idea that one’s rights cease to exist because 51% of the voters in a nation refuse to acknowledge them. Striking indeed.

    • In other words you have literally nothing other than a missing qualifier (oh the irony) and speculation?

      “MacLean made extraordinarily strong claims about a fellow scholar’s research, methods, and ethical choices by claiming he had connections to white supremacists without any substantive evidence.”

      There, fixed it for you.

      • You have “fixed” very little in your many comments on this post, Steve. But you do have a style that “seems” more combative than informative. Jackson’s explanation goes on for paragraphs beyond your reading, perhaps comment on the rest that he has written:

        Magness is quite right that Buchanan, unlike Davidson, did not celebrate the Confederacy or segregationist visions. Nor does MacLean make that claim. What she does claim is that Davidson and Buchanan shared a cultural preference for the “country aesthetic” particularly as found in the American south. She claims that this manifested itself in a hostility toward the federal government and northern culture more generally. Thus, when Buchanan leaves the south for New York in 1941, he saw the city “through lenses wholly crafted Donald Davidson” (p. 34). I think “wholly” is an exaggeration here; the Tennessee boy probably had a lot of reasons to dislike the big city and how he was treated there. But there is a difference between exaggeration and imaginary.

        The key work cited by MacLean is Paul V. Murphy’s book, The Rebuke of History: Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought. Murphy writes: “Over the course of the 1930s, Davidson articulated a variant of Agrarianism that he closely linked to the particularities of region and community” (pp. 92-3). “New York City came to represent all that he disliked about America and bore the brunt of his accumulated resentments as a regional literary figure.” writes Murphy of Davidson. “‘I felt I was in enemy territory,’” MacLean quotes Buchanan as saying about his time in New York, “‘I was subjected to overt discrimination based on favoritism for products of eastern establishment universities’” (p. 34). It is this parallel to which MacLean is pointing when she notes Buchanan’s “Davidson-like” language when he encountered discrimination against himself as a southerner in the Northeast. And, like Davidson, she points out that he was especially attuned to prejudice against southerners like himself without a similar empathy regarding discrimination toward “Catholics, Jews, Mexican Americans, working class white man, and, above all, African Americans” (p. 35).

      • Ray,

        I read his entire post and it is based on basically the following:

        1. Buchanan and Davidson lived in the same state at the same time.
        2. Davidson was well regarded in some sectors.
        3. Jackson has influences he has never referenced.
        4. Thus, Buchanan had to have read Davidson.

        And for proof? Buchanan later in life found enjoyment in getting back to his roots–i.e. spending time doing things that can be associated with getting back to his agrarian roots such as picking berries, getting a bucket of water from the creek near his cabin, etc.

        Of course, we are to ignore how Buchanan had absolutely no desire to do this for the vast majority of his life and he was quite happy to live his life much like the rest of us. That is being completely fine with depending on others, via the market, for food, clothing, and just about everything else he consumed.

        It is an extremely weak argument at best.

      • Ray –

        Re. “What she does claim is that Davidson and Buchanan shared a cultural preference for the “country aesthetic” particularly as found in the American south.”

        Over the last couple of days I decided to go back and work through Buchanan’s autobiographical writings to see if this read is in any way plausible. Two things emerged that are directly relevant.

        1. Buchanan did NOT in fact share Davidson’s “country aesthetic” when he left for New York. He discusses the subject of country life at length in Chapter 8 of the book and says quite plainly that he had no romantacized fondness for the farm life he was leaving behind in 1940 – he wanted to get away from it. The main point of the chapter is to illustrate that any appreciation for the “country aesthetic” that he had was a late-life discovery. He went back to the country as an old man in his retirement years and discovered there was something more to it than the drudgery and harsh living conditions he remembers – and repudiated – from his youth. That leaves him exactly opposite of Davidson in 1940, and raises an additional question as to how MacLean could have missed this point as it is very prominent in the chapter.

        2. The attribution of Buchanan’s Leviathan to Davidson rather than Hobbes has a severe problem of the timeline. In another passage from the same book, Buchanan describes his intellectual interests in Hobbes at length and indicates that they took on an increased significance to him in the late 1960s due to the influence of his faculty colleague Winston Bush (who was working on Hobbes at the time). Buchanan said this interest moved Hobbes from the peripheral background of his own thought and into the center. If you look at Buchanan’s works they directly confirm this pattern. The first time he deploys the Leviathan metaphor is a coauthored essay with Bush in 1973, and it becomes a major theme for Buchanan with his book “The Limits of Liberty” in 1975. The timing shows that the Hobbesian influence on the term’s use is direct and incontrovertible. Meanwhile, MacLean’s claim about Davidson is several decades off, completely without attestation, and contradicted in an affirmative attestation that Hobbes was in fact the source.

    • I am trying to understand why critics are having a hard time with an analysis that casts Buchanan as an advocate of a Southern vision and opponent of equality. MacLean is explicit that her charge is not that Buchanan was a racist, but that he favored a states rights order leaving business elites in a dominant position. MacLean’s detractors understand racism as a claim in debate. They do not accept the legitimacy of arguments based on a broader call for equality because public choice theory and related perspectives normalize inequality.
      Equality is chimerical at best and fatal to liberty at worst.

      • Gee…maybe because she claims he was trying to provide alternative routes to maintain racial segregation…even though there appears to be zero evidence.

      • Alternative routes to maintaining the existing Southern order minus explicit racism…

        It’s okay to admit that a constitutional economics would reproduce vast inequalities. “Liberty” requires inequality and hierarchy (where only some choose to be free), doesn’t it?

      • I’m not accusing you of being a Frenchman; im just claiming you were born in and have lived all your life in France, and that both your parents were French; nor am I saying you’re not a Frenchman. But don’t dare suggest I’m accusing you of being a Frenchman! Where would you get that from?

  31. “The most important thing I want readers to take from this book is an understanding that the Koch network and all of these people are doing what they’re doing because they understand that their ideas make them a permanent minority. They cannot win if they are honest about what they’re doing.”
    – Nancy MacLean

    I think it’s a bit of a conundrum that, to the degree that one believes McLean’s statement above to be true, one would seem to be impelled to doubt that “all of these people”–including, presumably, many of Buchanan’s defenders (in this forum, for example)–are engaging in good faith debate. Conversely, to the degree that one is willing to accept the statements of T. Cowen, R. Roberts, D. Boudreaux, M. Munger, et. al. as honest expressions of their views, one has to reject the book’s most important takeaway–at least according to its author.

  32. You should know that the Tyler Cowen quote is clearly about parliamentary systems (you can see this from your very citation), which we do not have in the United States. Parliamentary systems have weaker checks and balances on the government than does our constitutional system. In other words, a weaker system of checks and balances through a parliamentary system (like in Britain) probably wouldn’t lead to market oriented economic or political outcomes. Not only is McClean cutting and pasting what she wants she’s misrepresenting him entirely while not being logically consistent with her argument that unchecked Democracy is better than checked and constrained democracy. This is just bad scholarship from a historian that doesn’t understand her subject at all.

  33. There are a number of major new articles discussing the book and the controversy about it. Here are links to two important ones:

    1) Marc Parry’s reported piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, featuring a range of responses/critiques from fellow historians, including Michael Kazin and Jennifer Burns

    2) A lengthy (and fascinating) one-on-one interview with Nancy Maclean (from which some quotes were pulled for Parry’s piece). Maclean mentions Andy’s post above as one of several thoughtful discussions of the book.

    The roundtable on the book will be running here at a later date.

  34. There’s been a fair amount of scholarly work in recent years by political scientists pointing to the increasingly disproportionate influence that the very wealthy have over policy process and outcomes (in the U.S.).

    I tend to think of this phenomenon in terms of “democracy distorted” rather than “democracy enchained” — which is MacLean’s metaphor in her title and a phrase she uses in the interview that L.D. linked above. Now I haven’t yet read the book, but I wonder (just thinking aloud, which I guess is ok in a comment thread) whether at least one line of apparent criticism — namely, that MacLean doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge/appreciate the anti-majoritarian features built into the U.S. political design from the beginning — would have been somewhat neutralized or at least de-fanged had she chosen language closer to “democracy distorted.” Of course, it’s not as startling or provocative as the phrase ‘democracy in chains’ and may not convey exactly what she wants to convey about the aims of the movement she’s writing about. But simply as a matter of language, I don’t find “democracy in chains” all that illuminating.

    Democracy, after all, is almost always constrained (which is what the “chains” metaphor suggests), esp. in a constitutional design like that which the U.S. has. “Distorted,” to me, is perhaps more apt in suggesting that the system is regularly producing outcomes that are not only anti-majoritarian but that consistently give disproportionate weight to the preferences of one particular, small slice of the electorate.

    Well, I hope to have read the book before the roundtable occurs…

    • Actually, having just re-read Andy’s quotes, upthread, from pp.225-26 of the book, it would seem MacLean is quite aware of, and critical of, the “change-blocking” features of the U.S. constitutional design.

  35. I haven’t read the book yet — it’s in my Kindle and should get read soon. And yeah, I agree that MacLean should buy her critics a bottle of wine, as they have inspired a number of purchasers.

    I can’t judge whether your thesis is true or not, not having read the book. But one meta-comment, if that’s OK. The critics seem to be saying that MacLean indicts Buchanan — and, by implication, the whole libertarian enterprise — by saying that Buchanan was inspired by opposition to Brown v. Board and the intellectual influence of John C. Calhoun. They interpret MacLean as arguing that libertarianism is really just a stealth attempt to re-implement Jim Crow, or something like it. They contend that this is not factually accurate.

    You argue that this is a misreading of her book.

    Not having read the book, I cannot comment on who is right on that issue. However, if it is a misreading, it seems to be a very common one among folks on the left who love love love the book and think everybody ought to read it. They certainly interpret it as proving that libertarianism and racism are inextricably linked.

    So if nothing else, her book is certainly amenable to that misreading.

    • That’s a good question, Peter, but I’m wondering if it has less to do with what they’ve read of the book and more to do with the way it’s been characterized so far by its critics. I’m not really familiar with people on the left who have read the book carefully and are coming away with the impression that it says that libertarianism or public choice are intrinsically racist. If you know of some reviews or other places where someone’s saying that, please point me to them! Thanks!

  36. This defense of MacLean’s misquotation of Cowen (which, it should be noted, is just one of many much misquotations) strikes me as extremely weak. Explaining an idea for the sake of setting it up so that you can knock it down is a common rhetorical technique, and that’s all Cowen is doing here. Reading the quote in full context makes it clear that Cowen is against the idea; reading the MacLeaned quote gives precisely the opposite impression. If this is indeed merely a matter of interdisciplinary communication—if this is considered an acceptable practice among historians—this reflects very poorly on history as a discipline.

    Ironically, your defense of MacLean brings to light another distortion I have not seen mentioned elsewhere:

    “The freest countries have not generally been democratic,” Cowen noted, with Chile being “the most successful” in securing freedom (defined not as most of us would, as personal freedom, but as supplying the greatest economic liberty).

    Note that in the original document, the full sentence is, “In Asia, the freest countries have not generally been democratic,” and very explicitly refers to Hong Kong and Singapore, not to Chile.

    The unedited sentence introducing the section on Chile is, “If we examine non-communist autocracies, the reforms of Pinochet’s Chile were probably the
    most successful.” The most successful at what is not stated explicitly, but judging from the context, it’s likely that he means the most successful at instituting market reforms. He also mentions that Chile has successfully transitioned from autocracy to democracy, which he may or may not have intended “most successful” to refer to. Note that this follows a lengthy discussion of successful reforms under a democratic government in New Zealand.

    MacLean’s editing gives the impression that the part about the freest countries [in Asia] generally not being democratic refers to Chile, and that Cowen regards Chile as being the most successful country in “securing freedom,” full stop. These are her words, not his.

    How is it, that even in attempting to defend MacLean, you offer up yet another passage in which she misrepresented a source document? Is the quality of her work really such that you can pull out a paragraph at random and find an instance of scholarly misconduct?

    What’s really striking, besides the extent of the liberties MacLean takes with the source material, is how utterly implausible this is to anyone familiar with Cowen or with libertarian thought in general. Ask ten prominent libertarian thinkers what they think the most free country is, and you might well get ten different answers, but it’s vanishlingly unlikely that one of them will be Chile.

    • Also, since the claim that “the freest countries have not generally been democratic” is explicitly limited to Asia, the “economic” qualifier is much less important than it would be in a global context. Asian countries in general have not been great on civil liberties; in 2000, before China really started putting the screws on Hong Kong, it was arguably the all-around freest country in Asia. And the only other serious contenders, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, had had autocratic governments in very recent history. Japan’s democratic constitution, recall, was imposed on it by an occupying army.

    • Brandon, read footnote 4. I don’t know if your comment below is a belated attempt to acknowledge my argument or if you just skipped reading it entirely, but at least acknowledge that I already addressed your objection.

  37. Here’s one of the concluding paragraphs of an article that economist W.H. Hutt wrote in 1966 while a visiting professor under Buchanan’s sponsorship at UVA. It builds upon Buchanan and Tullock’s Calculus of Consent, which MacLean incorrectly portrays as intellectual ammo to entrench segregation.

    “Those who accept the logical content of the C[alculus] of C[onsent] may well differ widely in their forecasts of the exact sphere in which, under the unanimity they envisage, legislative edict or the discretion of officialdom should be allowed to decide either ends or means. But all who really understand the argument must, we feel, accept the principle that collective decisions should be non-discriminatory, except with the prior consent of those discriminated against. Unless this condition is fulfilled, laws of any kind which, directly or indirectly, discriminate in favour of or against any particular group (whether on the grounds of race, colour, ancestry, creed, sex, occupation, district, property or income) should be ruled unconstitutional and void.”

    As I’ve noted since the outset of this discussion, MacLean appears to have omitted directly pertinent evidence that contradicts her narrative of portraying Buchanan’s project at UVA as pro-segregation.

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