Nancy MacLean, the Duke University historian who wrote Democracy in Chains, the deeply conspiratorial and much-criticized biography of public choice economist James Buchanan, told an audience in New York last week that Buchanan and other early leaders of the limited-government movement "seem to be on the autism spectrum."
According to MacLean, there is a connection between autism and libertarianism, and that connection is not feeling "solidarity or empathy," and having "kind of difficult human relationships sometimes." The implication is that libertarianism is similarly cold and unfeeling, and attracts people who don't care about others.
This decidedly unempathetic assertion was MacLean's answer to a question from the audience at NYC's Unitarian Church of All Souls: "Where do [Buchanan's] motivations lie? Are they ones of personal greed? It seems like it's a little grander, is it malevolence?"
Democracy in Chains, it will be helpful to know, makes the case that Buchanan, who won a Nobel Prize in 1986 for his work on public choice theory, was sympathetic to the segregationist cause; in MacLean's telling, Buchanan joined the burgeoning libertarian movement in the latter half of the 20th century because he wanted to safeguard the rights and property of white people. The evidence she provides is scant—and at times wholly flawed—which is probably why the historian Phil Magness, left-of-center academics Steven Teles and Henry Farrell, and many others, have thoroughly eviscerated her theory.
When asked whether "greed or malevolence" was the better explanation for Buchanan's desire to curb the power of the state, MacLean thanked the audience member for his "profound question." Then she confides in a low tone, "I didn't put this in the book but I'll say it here" and goes on to explain:
It's striking to me how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum. People who don't feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have kind of difficult human relationships sometimes.
In Buchanan's family, his grandfather had actually been a populist governor of Tennessee… he ended up a very bitter man but he was very well known, and Buchanan's own parents wanted him to go into politics and have a political career. Buchanan says in his memoir, "there were early misgivings about my personality." Like they knew he would never make it in politics. But who knows, this is speculation right? Part of me, since you've asked me in the way you have, part of me feels like there was this some kind of wound in him that he couldn't be this political figure, and then he made it his mission to kind of debunk the whole of politics to show that no one who was in it was good. But I don't know.
She should have begun with "I don't know," and ended there. MacLean is making two not-necessarily-related claims here: 1) that Buchanan's autism made him unsuitable for politics, spurring his opposition to government, and 2) autistic people are less empathetic, which is why callous, unfeeling libertarianism appeals to them.
These are remarkably bad-faith assumptions (about libertarian philosophy and autistic people) built upon an equally shaky foundation: MacLean presents no evidence that Buchanan was autistic, aside from that single anecdote in his memoir. Her book does make reference to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen's self-diagnosed autism (and how it inclined him toward "neither sentimentality nor solidarity"), but that's it. MacLean appears to have spun a single story into an entire theory that "many of the architects" of the libertarian cause are autistic.
"I've discussed how ableist people like MacLean use autism as a slur, but I don't think we've ever been accused of being the source of malevolent ideologies before," wrote Troy Earl Camplin, who blogs about living with Asperger's syndrome and having an autistic son. "If I lived anywhere near Duke University, I would be outside the History Department tomorrow protesting her."
Camplin also notes, "those of us on the spectrum know that we are certainly empathetic, as I myself have discussed several times—in some cases and ways, more so than others. I know that I have the ideology I do precisely because of my strong concern for the poor."
MacLean's comments were captured on video (skip to the one hour mark). In case there was any doubt about what she meant, another audience member asked whether Buchanan's ideas were spreading "to other universities and so that we've got this constant flow of libertarians, autistic libertarians." MacLean smiles and chuckles before responding.
MacLean did not respond to a request for comment.