Looking Back on the Publication and Reception of Democracy in Chains

Five years ago there appeared the most appalling instance of academic malpractice that I’ve ever personally engaged with. In her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, published in June 2017, Duke University “historian” Nancy MacLean purports to reveal that my late Nobel-laureate economist colleague, James Buchanan, was a white supremacist who throughout his long tenure in the academy aimed to undermine democracy and to oppress the poor and working classes, and who eventually became a willing tool of rapacious oligarchs.

No one who knew Jim Buchanan personally, or who even just read relevant parts of his vast scholarly output, recognizes the fictional “Buchanan” who appears in MacLean’s book. Thus in the previous paragraph I put the descriptor “historian” in quotation marks to reveal up front my low assessment of the quality of MacLean’s historical research and reporting on Buchanan’s work. Her book is a screed of fiction passed off as a work of fact.

Long-time readers of my blog, Café Hayek, know that I spent a great deal of time and energy during the Summer and Fall of 2017 exposing some of the countless fallacies and grotesque misimpressions that constitute the substance of MacLean’s book. My efforts are surely less thorough and effective than are those of more talented scholars, including AIER’s own Phil Magness, who joined in the effort to set the record straight against MacLean’s fabrications about Buchanan, and about the school of public-choice research that Buchanan co-founded with his brilliant long-time colleague and co-author Gordon Tullock. (Disclosure: I was, for many years at George Mason University, a colleague also of Gordon Tullock.)

I share here – as I will in my next column – some of my many efforts to expose the errors that run throughout MacLean’s book, as well as throughout some of the attempts by others to defend her fictional tale.

First is this (slightly amended) June 28, 2017, letter to New Republic News Editor Alex Shephard:

Mr. Shephard:

In the introduction to your interview of Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean, you write that my late Nobel laureate colleague James Buchanan insisted “that democracy and liberty – defined as free market capitalism – were incompatible and that it was necessary to limit participatory democracy to protect the property rights of the extremely wealthy. Though he did no empirical work, he was remarkably influential in the field of public choice theory, which essentially argued that markets could never fail and governments always did.”

Your characterization of Buchanan verges on libelous. For starters, Buchanan did not believe that “markets could never fail.” Here’s just one of many quotations from Buchanan’s published works that disprove your accusation: “Markets fail; governments fail.” (This quotation is from page 130 of Jim’s 1976 paper “Methods and Morals in Economics” as this paper is reprinted in volume 19 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan.) Much of Buchanan’s work is a careful comparison of what he always insisted are the imperfect outcomes of markets with the imperfect outcomes of politics. It’s true that Buchanan’s comparisons of politics with markets led him to conclude that imperfect markets outperform imperfect politics more often than most people suppose. But it is emphatically untrue that he believed that “markets could never fail and governments always did.”

Worse is your assertion that Buchanan believed that democracy and liberty are incompatible. Although Buchanan – like every other serious person who’s pondered the matter – opposed unlimited majority rule, throughout his life he sought ways to ensure that each and every adult has an equal voice in the political arena. Jim understood that a key benefit of such political equality is the maximum possible protection of individual liberty.

Finally, even if we ignore Buchanan’s proposal for confiscatory inheritance taxation, it is grotesque of you to suggest that Buchanan wished to protect the private property rights only of “the extremely wealthy.” Jim advocated strong and equal protection of everyone’s private property rights. So I challenge you (or Prof. MacLean, or anyone else) to put your money where your mouth is: search for passages in Buchanan’s writings showing that he wished to protect only the property rights of the rich, and that he was hostile, or even indifferent, to the property rights of the non-rich. For each such passage you find I’ll pay you $1,000. But if you’re unable to find any such passage you pay to me $100. Deal?

Sincerely,

Donald J. Boudreaux

Shephard did not respond to the above letter.

Next up is this never-published letter sent to Higher Education:

Democracy in Chains author Prof. Nancy MacLean pleads for fellow progressives to help protect her from the many negative reviews that her book is receiving (“Stealth Attack on Liberal Scholar?” July 12).

It’s true that negative responses are coming fast and furiously from those of us who actually knew the subject of her book (the late Nobel laureate James Buchanan) and who know the subject-matter (public-choice economics) that MacLean bizarrely alleges to be part of a racist plot to silence the many for the benefit of the privileged few. But MacLean goes totally off the rails when she writes that “the Koch operatives and the riders of their academic ‘gravy train,’ as James Buchanan called it, are working very hard to kill Democracy in Chains – and to destroy my reputation.”

First, none of us are “Koch operatives” (whatever that term might mean). Second, our goal is not to destroy MacLean’s reputation but to protect Buchanan’s from her wildly inaccurate portrayal. Third, contrary to MacLean’s claim, Buchanan used the term “gravy train” to refer neither to the Kochs’ contributions to higher education nor to any benefits that market-oriented professors generally might receive from the contributions of private donors. The “gravy train” quotation – the source of which MacLean footnotes on page 270 of her book – is from an unpublished, informal 1973 memo written by Buchanan in which he suggests that one way to attract more graduate students and freshly minted PhDs (“New young scholars”) to do the kinds of social-science research that he believed should be done was to increase the size of their academic stipends and honoraria.

It is deeply disturbing that a professor of history who presents herself as having written a factual account of the life’s work of Jim Buchanan misquotes him in a way to give readers the impression that he said something that he quite emphatically did not say.

Sincerely,

Donald J. Boudreaux

The following post – here slightly amended – appeared at Café Hayek on July 18, 2017:

In this earlier post I noted that Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains, is inexcusably ignorant of the economics of the Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan, who she mistakenly portrays as a racist goon for privileged oligarchs. (Again, her ignorance is inexcusable because she chose to write a book about Buchanan’s ideas without bothering to learn those ideas.) Here’s a good example of MacLean’s utter ignorance of the meaning of Buchanan’s words – an ignorance that runs throughout her book.

On page 96 of her book MacLean refers to one of Buchanan’s most-famous articles, his 1963 presidential address to the Southern Economic Association. The title of this address – which was published in the January 1964 issue of the Southern Economic Journal – is “What Should Economists Do?” MacLean fancies that she’s found in this article smoking-gun evidence that Buchanan sought to turn economists away from being concerned with questions of income or wealth distribution. Here’s MacLean (who, crack and careful historian that she is, gets something as straightforward as the date of Buchanan’s election as president of the Southern Economic Association wrong):

Elected president of the Southern Economic Association in 1964, he used his bully pulpit to prescribe “what economists should do.” They should cease focusing on problems of resource distribution – what the field called “allocation problems” – because the very idea that inequality was a bad thing led to looking for remedies, which in turn led the discipline toward and applied “mathematics of social engineering.”

Face-palm bad. LMAO wrong!

“What Should Economists Do?” is Buchanan’s profound plea for economists to stop thinking of the economy as a machine to be engineered. Society in general, and the economy in particular, are not, Buchanan argued, mechanical devices that require engineering. The economic problem is not an engineering one of ‘allocating’ given and available resources to their ‘correct’ (i.e., value- or utility-maximizing) slots. That is, the economic problem is not, contrary to what economists over the past several decades had come more and more to assume, one of getting resource allocation correct. Instead, Buchanan insisted, the economy is an emergent and ever-changing order of exchange relationships – exchange relationships only some of which are typical arms-length exchanges in private-property markets. Therefore, to better study the real-world economy, economists should (Buchanan urged) focus their analytical lights on the many different ways that human beings actually do or can engage with each other in mutually advantageous exchanges.

Buchanan’s call for economists to stop focusing so heavily on problems of resource allocation was emphatically not, contrary to MacLean’s claim, a call for economists to stop worrying about or studying income or wealth distribution. Buchanan there said absolutely nothing at all about income or wealth distribution, and no economist who heard his speech or who read it in print would assume that he was counseling economists to ignore questions of income or wealth distribution.

“What Should Economists Do?” is not an article on, in any way, questions about income or wealth or economic inequality. Not even close! Yet MacLean misinterprets Buchanan’s quite conventional (among all economists) use of the term “allocation” to mean something akin to “income distribution” or “wealth distribution.” This misreading by MacLean of Buchanan would be hilariously funny were it not used by her to portray Jim Buchanan as someone who he most certainly was not.

If MacLean errs on so fundamental a matter as what Buchanan (and the typical economist generally) means by the term “allocation,” she has earned everyone’s distrust in her skills as a scholar.

Alas, embarrassingly for the economics profession, some prominent economists praised MacLean’s book – a reaction to her work that tells me either that the economists who issued such praise either didn’t actually read her book (otherwise they’d have noticed the above-noted egregious error and realized that MacLean doesn’t know what she’s talking about), or their Progressive ideology blinded them to MacLean’s actual words.

Finally here, I share this post on MacLean’s smear of Gordon Tullock:

No time is an acceptable time for spreading fake news, but now it is especially important for friends of truth and civility everywhere to call out fake news and “alternative facts.” Alas, Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is little more than a parade of fake news, “alternative facts,” and an author’s wild hallucinations. Consider, for example, MacLean’s description on page 99 of Jim Buchanan’s long-time colleague and sometime co-author Gordon Tullock; this description comes in the part of MacLean’s fable where she is relating the University of Virginia’s failure in 1967 to promote Tullock to the rank of full professor:

Brilliant though Buchanan and his allies might have believed the law school alumnus [Tullock] to be, he lacked training in the field in which he taught, and his publication record – apart from the book he coauthored with Buchanan – was undistinguished.

Well now. It’s true that Tullock (1922-2014) was formally trained as a lawyer and not as an economist. But being brilliant and precocious, Tullock – having taken Henry Simons’s famous course in economics at the University of Chicago law school – taught himself advanced economics. The scholar whose publication record MacLean calls “undistinguished” had, by the end of 1967:

– 3 publications in the American Economic Review (the top journal in economics)

– 4 publications in the Journal of Political Economy (a top journal in economics)

– 3 publications in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (a top journal in 

economics)

– 1 publication in Economic Journal (a top journal in economics)

– 1 publication in Oxford Economic Papers (a high-level journal in economics)

– 1 publication in Economic History Review (a high-level journal in economics)

– 3 publications in Ethics (a top journal in philosophy)

– 2 publications in Science (a high-level science journal)

– 1 publication in the Journal of the American Statistical Association (a top 

journal)

– 1 publication in Il Politico (a highly respected social-science journal in Italy)

– 1 publication in China Quarterly (a highly respected journal, I am told)

(Readers can check my list by searching Tullock’s publications at JSTOR, which does not include all journals in which Gordon might have published.)

And Gordon had just published, in the Western Economic Journal, “The Welfare Costs of Tariffs, Monopolies, and Theft,” his seminal article which would launch research into rent-seeking.

Book-wise, Tullock also by then also had co-authored (with Buchanan) The Calculus of Consent (1962) and had written and published The Politics of Bureaucracy (1965).

Tullock’s publication record in 1967 was most assuredly not “undistinguished.” In fact, it was decidedly distinguished.

Nancy MacLean doesn’t know what she’s writing about.

Indeed.

Note that I do not accuse MacLean of being a liar. I suspect that she really believes that her fables capture and convey important truths. But whether in this assessment I am correct or incorrect, one conclusion is airtight: As a scholar, Nancy MacLean is an utter disgrace.

Spread the word:

This article, Looking Back on the Publication and Reception of Democracy in Chains, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.

Email Newsletter

Sign Up for our Newsletter

Enter your best address below to receive the latest cartoons and breaking news in your email inbox:
Please wait...
You are successfully subscribed!
There was an error with subscription attempt.