October 9, 2017

Reviewing Democracy in Chains as speculative fiction, rather than as history

James Devereaux critiques the recent book by Nancy MacLean which was intended to tarnish the reputation of James McGill Buchanan by tracing the intellectual roots and influences that shaped Buchanan’s life and work.

Nancy MacLean, in her new book Democracy in Chains, has allegedly revealed the master plan of right-wing political operatives, funded by the Kochs and inspired by James McGill Buchanan. MacLean pulls no punches as she describes a right-wing conspiracy meant to bring about “a fifth column movement the likes of which no nation has ever seen.” (page 127) Alas, the major problem with her account, as her fellow Duke Professor Mike Munger summarized, is it is “a work of speculative historical fiction.” MacLean’s contribution is a failure of academic discourse more likely to increase unfounded paranoia and division than to reveal any hidden agenda. MacLean’s bias bleeds into nearly every aspect of this book and taints her interpretation of the facts and sources beyond any reasonable interpretation could support. At one point she ponders the genius of Buchanan but determines it to be an “evil genius” for his work, much of which discusses the difficulties of democracy (page 42).

Why, one may feel justified in asking, dwell on speculative fiction? Unfortunately, when speculative fiction enters the popular culture, is applauded, and treated as fact, a measure of scrutiny is required. MacLean has received a fair share of positive press. NPR wrote that Democracy in Chains is “a book written for the skeptic; MacLean’s dedicated to connecting the dots.” That is if the dots were points on a corkboard tied together with red yarn. Oprah’s book club put it in their “20 books to read this summer” list. The Atlantic’s review praised the book as “part of a new wave of historiography that has been examining the southern roots of modern conservatism.” Slate also wrote a review.

A Deluge of Error

MacLean’s revelation regarding this “stealth plan” for a “fifth column movement” focuses on the relatively obscure, but well-respected, founder of public choice economics Nobel laureate James McGill Buchanan. MacLean weaves a fascinating tale but one that paints Buchanan and sympathizing libertarians as radicals determined to undermine democracy for the purpose of satisfying elitist urges, squashing the underdog, burdening the minority, and exploiting the poor. Unfortunately for MacLean, and those heaping praise, it is clear this tale rests on ransom-note-style citations, cutting and pasting together portions of phrases to change the meaning and support her narrative. In certain places it appears she has woefully misunderstood the source material or did not care – the notes do not match the claims. By cobbling together this mish-mash of selective quotes and speculation MacLean errs twice: first in describing Buchanan’s views and second in describing the motives of Buchanan and anyone sympathetic to his view.

A litany of scholars have examined the book and revealed a deluge of error. Russ Roberts wrote that MacLean owed Tyler Cowen an apology, courteously gave her room to respond, which she used to double down on her claims despite the obvious selective use of unfairly parsed phrases which attributed a view to Cowen he did not hold. Steve Horwitz, Michael Munger, Jonathan Adler, and David Bernstein have found issues with her citations and claims (Adler aggregated them at the Washington Post). Most thoroughly, Phil Magness has dissected numerous errors, misquotes, and general failures of citation found within the book, it appears to be an ongoing project. The errors which have compiled are such that they undermine credibility in the reading. As others have listed her poor citations, mangling of quotes, and selective editing, this will not be the focus of this review.

Since the publication of Maclean’s book, Don Boudreaux at Café Hayek has been hammering her work on an almost daily basis.

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