July 15, 2017

Another critique of Nancy MacLean’s book smearing economist James M. Buchanan

Filed under: Books, Economics, History, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In the Washington Post, a fellow Duke professor airs some concerns over MacLean’s recent character assassination attempt, Democracy in Chains:

Professor Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains has received considerable attention since its release a few weeks ago. A recent Inside Higher Ed article reports on the critical reviews and Professor MacLean’s allegation that these critiques are part of a coordinated, “right-wing” attack on her work. The book’s central thesis — summarized elegantly in the Inside Higher Ed piece – is that Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan “was the architect of a long-term plan to take libertarianism mainstream, raze democratic institutions and keep power in the hands of the wealthy, white few.” MacLean concludes that Buchanan’s academic research program — known as public choice theory — is a (thinly) disguised attempt to achieve this purpose, motivated by racial and class animus.

As president of the Public Choice Society (the academic organization founded by Buchanan and his colleague Gordon Tullock), I am writing to respond to Professor MacLean’s portrayal. Since she believes that critiques of the book are part of a coordinated attack funded by Koch money, let me begin with a disclosure. I have no relationship with the Kochs or the Koch organization. I have never received money from them or their organization, either personally or to support my research. I have not coordinated my response to the book with anyone. I do, however, have a personal connection to Buchanan. My father was a longtime colleague and co-author of Buchanan’s. I am also very familiar with Buchanan’s academic work, which relates directly to my own research interests. In short, I know Buchanan and his work well, but I am certainly not part of the “dark money” network Professor MacLean is concerned about.

There are many things to be said about Professor MacLean’s book. For an intellectual historian, the documentary record constitutes the primary source of evidence that can be offered in support of arguments or interpretations. For this reason, intellectual historians generally apply great care in sifting through this record and presenting it in a way that accurately reflects sources. As numerous scholars have by now shown (see here, and links therein, for an example), Professor MacLean’s book unfortunately falls short of these standards. In many instances, quotations are taken out of context or abbreviated in ways that suggest meanings radically at odds with the tenor of the passage or document from which they were taken. Critically, these misleading quotations are often central to establishing Professor MacLean’s argument.


What then, of “chains on democracy”? It is true that Buchanan did not think much of unfettered, majoritarian politics and favored constitutional rules that restrict majority rule. But the foregoing discussion should already make clear that this conclusion was not based on an anti-democratic instinct or a desire to preserve the privilege of a few. Instead, Buchanan’s careful analysis, originating in his seminal work with Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, led him to the conclusion that in choosing a political framework (“constitution”), all individuals will typically have good reasons to favor some restrictions on majority rule in order to protect against the “tyranny of the majority.” As he argued, democracy understood simply as majority rule “may produce consequences desired by no one unless these procedures are limited by constitutional boundaries” (Buchanan 1997/2001: 226). In other words, what justifies “chains on democracy” for Buchanan are his commitment to individual autonomy and equality, and his emphasis on consent as a legitimating principle for political arrangements. To paint his endorsement of constitutional limits on the use of political power as motivated by an anti-democratic desire to institute oligarchical politics is to fundamentally misunderstand Buchanan’s sophisticated, subtle approach to democratic theory, which was committed above all to the idea that political arrangements should redound to the benefit of all members of a community.

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