The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Georg Vanberg, professor of political science and law at Duke University, asked me to post the short essay below on his behalf.
Much ink has been spilled over Nancy MacLean's "Democracy in Chains," a book that places Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan at the center of a right-wing conspiracy to undermine American democracy. Central to MacLean's argument—indeed, part of the dramatic opening story of the book, and the focus of the fourth chapter—is the insinuation that Buchanan's academic work was animated by racial animus and, in particular, opposition to the integration of Southern schools following the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Importantly—and this is why I call it an insinuation—Professor MacLean offers no evidence in support of this rather serious charge.
Of course, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It turns out, however, that there exist documents that relate to James Buchanan's views on education and school segregation. And this evidence directly contradicts Professor MacLean's characterization, and suggests that Buchanan strongly opposed segregation, and supported diversity in education. It comes from two of Buchanan's letters (available here and here). (I was alerted to these letters by Professor Jeremy Shearmur of Australian National University, who came across them while conducting research at the Hoover Institution. The location of the letters at Hoover is in the IEA archive, Box 162.2. Professor MacLean lists this archive among the archival collections she consulted for her book.)
In 1984, Buchanan was asked to contribute to an essay collection on school vouchers, edited by Arthur Seldon. In two letters, Buchanan politely declined to participate. And then, Buchanan offers a brief comment on his views on education and school vouchers. Critically, he voices reservations about the introduction of vouchers. Why? Because, as he writes, he is concerned "somehow, to avoid the evils of race-class-cultural segregation that an unregulated voucher scheme might introduce." Buchanan then goes on to express support for introducing competition in the provision of education, but notes that this should be done in a way that serves "at the same time, to secure the potential benefits of commonly shared experiences, including exposure to other races, classes, and cultures." In short, though brief, Buchanan's letter eloquently expresses a vision of education that champions the value of diversity, explicitly condemns "the evils of race-class-cultural segregation," and notes his reservations about school vouchers if they threaten these values. This is powerful evidence: Buchanan is writing a private letter to a person who is sympathetic to his academic approach and supports voucher systems. There is little reason to doubt that the statement expresses anything other than Buchanan's sincere views.
It is unfortunate that Professor MacLean appears to have missed these critical documents in her research in the Buchanan and IEA archives. This is not a minor oversight. The central rhetorical strategy of Professor MacLean's book is the insinuation that Buchanan (and others working in the public choice tradition) were motivated by racial animus, and a desire to maintain the dominant position of a privileged, white, male elite. According to MacLean, this led them to develop a particular approach to thinking about politics, and to advocate for institutional and constitutional rules that, according to Professor MacLean, institutionalize (among other ills) racist practices. Buchanan's letters to Seldon directly contradict this unsubstantiated characterization of Buchanan's motivations and views. More importantly, the attitudes that Buchanan expresses in his letters are entirely consistent with what I take to be the foundation of Buchanan's academic work, and his contractarian political philosophy: a fundamental commitment to the equal treatment of all individuals, and opposition to institutionalized privilege for anyone (for more detail, see here and here).