The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Duke University's Michael Munger has written an extensive review and response to Nancy MacLean's "Democracy in Chains." His conclusion, amply substantiated, is that MacLean's book, while quite "remarkable," should be understood as " a work of speculative historical fiction." He explains:
There is considerable research underpinning the speculation, and since MacLean is careful about footnoting only things that actually did happen she cannot be charged with fabricating facts. But most of the book, and all of its substantive conclusions, are idiosyncratic interpretations of the facts that she selects from a much larger record, as is common in the speculative-history genre. There is nothing wrong about speculation, of course, but there is nothing persuasive about it either, in terms of drawing reliable conclusions about history.
The reason that Democracy in Chains is remarkable is that it is such a great story. The evil mastermind of the secretive "Public Choice" movement, James Buchanan, was the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in economics. MacLean is able to decode the true meaning of his mostly rather bland, academic-ese writings, after which Buchanan achieves the status of a Bond villain. Buchanan sought nothing less than to bring down the America we all love, and replace it with a plutocracy. The account is rendered plausible by MacLean's excellence as a writer.
The problem with history, of course, is that many narratives about a few cherry-picked events and documents are "plausible." The task of the historian is to try to distinguish among plausible accounts "through careful sifting of evidence and respectful encounters with opposing points of view." There is none of that here. Even a casual familiarity with the basic facts of James Buchanan's life and scholarship, and of the growth and success of the Public Choice movement, reveal far simpler, and more plausible, explanations.
For more on MacLean's book, see my prior post, which collects links to early commentary and critiques.