Public Choice

Just How Much Did Nancy MacLean Get Wrong?

Despite being a finalist for the National Book Awards, Democracy in Chains is fatally flawed history.


Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains, an error-filled screed against Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan, is one of five finalists for a National Book Award.

Is that honor deserved? It is worth considering, as the award's nominators did not, that nearly every reviewer with actual independent knowledge about her book's topics has pointed out a startling range of errors of citation, interpretation, narrative, and fact. (This includes my own review in the October Reason, in which I demonstrate that a central element of her historical narrative—that in the 1990s Buchanan's ideas became the secret influence behind the political machine run by billionaire Charles Koch—is based on an absurd and unsupportable reading of the only textual evidence she offers.) MacLean still refuses to engage any of her critics on points of substance.

Economic historian Phil Magness, currently teaching at Berry College, has been one of MacLean's most diligent critics. In his review of her book for Modern Age, Magness explains that MacLean

unambiguously presents the servicing of segregationist politicians as the raison d'être for the TJC's [Thomas Jefferson Center, which Buchanan ran] activities at the University of Virginia. She depicts Buchanan as having "taken his cues from [Virginia senator and leading segregationist] Harry Byrd and Jack Kilpatrick," the segregationist editor of the Richmond News-Leader.

In that review and in a series of highly detailed posts on his blog, Magness has delved deeply into that portion of MacLean's book, and especially into her attempts to link the segregationist cause to the work Buchanan and collaborator G. Warren Nutter did pushing for school vouchers in post-Brown Virginia. As Magness notes, MacLean has a pattern of suggesting things she knows she can't prove:

MacLean generally stops short of linking Buchanan and Byrd outright, and does so by necessity. There is no evidence the two ever crossed paths in any substantive way. So instead of calling Buchanan a segregationist, she simply contends that he utilized the opportunity of segregation to advance a libertarian school voucher agenda at the expense of black students. To get to Byrd, she advances historically unsupported claims of a connection between Buchanan and Byrd-allied newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick. But even more so, she relies on Buchanan's own presumed silence on segregation to "read between the lines" of his voucher advocacy and discern a motive that is not evident from any straightforward reading.

While taking MacLean's arguments apart, Magness turned up a good deal of evidence that she either missed or ignored:

• As early as 1948, Buchanan was writing (as an economic analyst, not as a full-throated moralist) that racial segregation is an "inefficient" system that requires "improvement." As Magness summarized, Buchanan's analysis held that "forcing states with segregation to bear the costs of this inefficiency themselves could become an effective fiscal mechanism to incentivize integration."

• The TJC hosted in 1958, and published in 1960, an explicitly anti-segregation talk by one of Buchanan's mentors, Frank Knight. (Among other things, Knight said that "Equality before the law means that there is equal opportunity for everyone to find or make his own place in society. This ideal was dishonored in the breach rather than honored in the observance for some time into the age of liberalism, notably by this country in the matter of racial discrimination.") As Magness explains, "Buchanan hosted Knight for these explicitly anti-segregationist remarks in the spring of 1958, which was also the high water mark of Sen. Harry Flood Byrd Sr.'s 'massive resistance' fight against Brown v. Board. If…Buchanan, Nutter, and the TJC were trying to service the segregationist political establishment of Virginia, as has been charged, then playing host to Knight's anti-discriminatory lecture and later publishing it makes for a very odd strategy of communication."

• Despite MacLean's insinuation that Buchanan's pro-voucher position was objectively pro-segregation, more than a few Virginia segregationists passionately believed the exact opposite and argued as much the same year that Buchanan and Nutter wrote their paper.

• Archival evidence shows that Kilpatrick was not aware in advance of the Buchanan/Nutter paper; there is no sign that he was working with them in any way. Buchanan and Nutter published the newspaper version of their article not in Kilpatrick's militantly segregationist Richmond News-Leader but in the rival Richmond Times-Dispatch, whose editor had in Magness' words "adopted a moderate stance on school desegregation that favored limited and gradual introduction of black students into white-majority schools."

• While MacLean's narrative suggests that Buchanan's advocacy of vouchers bears some moral blame for Prince Edward County's decision to essentially close its public school system for five years to avoid desegregation, Magness explains that for "most of the period of the Prince Edward school closure, students in the county were not actually using the state tuition grant program." Indeed, "From August 1961 until the reopening of the Prince Edward schools by Supreme Court ruling in 1964, Prince Edward County…had no access to the tuition grant program. Combined with the first year being funded through private contributions, the tuition grant program was only operational in Prince Edward County for one school year out of the five year closure period."

• In the mid-'60s, Buchanan's center brought in the anti-apartheid South African economist W.H. Hutt as a visiting professor. Hutt's presence on campus made the TJC "an active sponsor of scholarly work that sought to unite antiracist principles with the emerging field of public choice theory." As Magness explains, Hutt argued that "nondiscrimination was a necessary logical extension of Buchanan and [co-author Gordon] Tullock's argument. If the objective of a constitutional rule was to minimize the ability of a group to externalize the costs of its desired policy, it followed that the rule's primary function was to afford protection to political minorities and persons excluded from political participation."

• Perhaps most significantly, while some Virginians did indeed use the state's voucher-like tuition grants to go to private "segregation academies," there was also a substantial number of families who used them to move to integrated schools. The state's leading teachers union, the Virginia Education Association, reacted to this by reaching out to segregationists as allies against the grants. "[P]arents are using the grants to send their children to integrated schools," the union complained, "which the entire purpose of the legislation was to avoid." Meanwhile, a 1964 report from Buchanan's center on the grants did not at any point suggest that they should be used for segregation—and while generally using value-neutral statistical language, as was appropriate for the document's purpose, it implicitly critiqued those who insisted they not be used to attend integrated institutions.

If you're wondering how MacLean managed to put Buchanan in cahoots with Kilpatrick when it was Kilpatrick's competitor who published Buchanan's arguments, Magness has an amusing but credible theory: It may have stemmed from a typo. A 1998 essay by James Hershman (published in a collection called The Moderates' Dilemma) mistakenly states that the newspaper version of Buchanan and Nutter's paper appeared in Kilpatrick's paper. Hershman elsewhere and MacLean in her actual footnote do get the attribution correct. But Hershman's 1998 essay is, by MacLean's account, where she learned of the existence of James Buchanan for the very first time, and was essential in forming her views on him. Magness suggests that it shaped MacLean's whole project:

MacLean took the implications of that error and ran with them to fantastical lengths, writing Kilpatrick into the story as a crucial link between Buchanan and the segregationist Byrd machine. She devotes substantial attention to Kilpatrick in her text, making sure to highlight his pro-segregation writing and his interests in the political theories of John C. Calhoun. [MacLean's book dedicates its entire first chapter to linking Buchanan to Calhoun, even though Buchanan appears never to have written about Calhoun or to have cited him as an influence.] She also wildly speculates that Nutter and Buchanan were coordinating their paper's release behind the scenes with Kilpatrick and attempts to divine commonalities between it and editorials that Kilpatrick wrote for the News-Leader.

There's one more twist though. At some point while writing her book, MacLean apparently realized that the Nutter-Buchanan article actually appeared in the Times-Dispatch and properly cited it to the correct newspaper. Despite catching this citation error though, she retained the purported link between Buchanan and Kilpatrick anyway. She wrote her entire chapter as if the Hershman error from 1998 was accurate and presented Buchanan as an ally of the "massive resisters" even though she had no evidence for that claim.

MacLean never even bothered to investigate the article's actual route to publication through [Virginius] Dabney [editor of the Times-Dispatch]. But Dabney, who won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for editorializing against poll taxes and bus segregation in Richmond, does not allow the same salacious charges and insinuations that MacLean extracts from Kilpatrick. MacLean therefore retained an erroneous historical interpretation premised on Hershman's switching of the papers, even though she had sufficient information to correct that error.

MacLean, her publisher, and the National Book Award committee should all pay heed to the above. So far, they have not.