Free Minds & Free Markets

What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong About James Buchanan

Democracy in Chains mangles the facts beyond recognition. But the book still has something to teach us.

Amazon.comAmazon.comThe board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so: School segregation is just as wrong when it is imposed democratically as it is when it is imposed by suppressing the black vote.

So the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains—a book that contains many, many strange claims—may be how its author, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean, treats Brown. On one hand, she believes that those who want to bind majorities with preset constitutional rules are up to something sinister. Her chief villain on this score is James Buchanan, an economist and political philosopher who argued that government actors ought to be subject to built-in structural constraints. On the other hand, MacLean clearly thinks Brown was correctly decided. Indeed, she accuses Buchanan of working to undermine the ruling.

MacLean seems not to notice Brown is itself an example of the phenomenon MacLean is denouncing: a Constitution being used to overrule a democratic outcome in the name of protecting a minority.

It's an awkward start for a baroque conspiracy story, and it signals what a mess the book will be. The historian has little to no evidence for her history. She invents some when necessary, and will at times just make assertions to suit her narrative, mustering neither real nor phony evidence to back them up. Many of her factual and interpretive errors have already been covered elsewhere, in venues ranging from Vox to The Washington Post. Rather than get lost in the weeds of covering every false statement or misleadingly gerrymandered quotation in this book, I want to focus here on the core claims that it gets wrong:

MacLean fundamentally misunderstands Buchanan's intellectual project, treating his theories about politics as an apologia for the wealthy and powerful. This gives short shrift to a serious body of thought, and it fails to see that his arguments can indict the wealthy as much as anyone else.

She tries to tie Buchanan's work to the segregationist order in the South, even implying that his ideas arose from a desire to preserve it. She essentially invents links along the way.

She paints Buchanan as an important influence on Augusto Pinochet's repressive dictatorship in Chile. Not only does her evidence fail to support this, but she misses an important piece of counterevidence: a 1981 speech, delivered in Chile, in which Buchanan condemned dictatorial rule.

And finally, though Buchanan was neither an orthodox libertarian nor a central influence on the libertarian movement, she puts him at the heart of a Charles Koch–driven conspiracy to impose a radical libertarian agenda on the United States. In the process, she manages to misread both Buchanan and Koch in telling ways.

Public Choice, Private Greed?

Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his role in founding the "public choice" school of economics. This school's key idea, to quote the Nobel committee, was to seek "explanations for political behavior that resemble those used to analyze behavior on markets." The result was a body of work in which politicians and bureaucrats, no less than entrepreneurs and investors, often "act out of self-interest," driven not just by a vision of the common good but by a desire for votes or bigger budgets.

MacLean, by contrast, treats public choice as little more than an effort to question the good-heartedness of public servants. Its conclusions, she insists, have "no true research—no facts—to support them" and are rooted in "projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing." She takes it for granted that when public choice economists complain that special-interest groups profit from government, they're aiming to protect the rich from the poor; it never seems to occur to her that the interests who play this game successfully are much more likely to look like Boeing, General Electric, or Archer Daniels Midland than, say, the National Welfare Rights Organization.

Her accusation that there is "no research" in public choice also falls flat. While Buchanan's own work tended more toward pure philosophy, the tradition he launched in fact has produced decades of empirical work, much of it in the journal Public Choice.

The Nobel committee also pointed to Buchanan's "principle of unanimity," which led him to try to imagine the constitutional rules that all citizens could, should, or would unanimously agree to. Rather than marking him as a tool of moneyed interests, this makes him resemble the man who may be the most influential political philosopher among modern liberals, John Rawls. Needless to say, Rawls and Buchanan differed on what rules would lead to a just, universally agreed-upon constitutional structure. But the two men recognized that they were working on similar projects, and they debated their differences collegially and without imputations of villainy.

None of this comes through in MacLean's critique. Whenever she seems to be condemning Buchanan's method, she is actually attacking his policy conclusions. That's how she's able to both praise Brown and condemn restrictions on majoritarianism without any glimmer that Brown itself restricts majority rule.

Vouchers and Segregation

There are, to be clear, good reasons to criticize some segments of the libertarian community for how they acted in the aftermath of Brown. Consider (as MacLean does for many pages) the Richmond-based conservative journalist James Kilpatrick, who tried to justify segregation after Brown by arguing that the states should have power to "interpose" (that is, nullify) the ruling. It is true, and shameful, that the Volker Fund—a foundation that supported libertarian organizations and scholars, including Buchanan—also promoted and distributed The Sovereign States, Kilpatrick's racist 1957 book on the topic. When the libertarian magazine The Freeman covered Kilpatrick's book, its reviewer endorsed his arguments about federalism while pretty much ignoring any questions about black citizens' rights to equal treatment.

More broadly, many Southerners of the era who thought of themselves as staunch enemies of big government were also racist, or at the very least didn't consider blacks' civil rights a particularly important issue. MacLean doesn't mention it, but many Southerners who supported big government were also racist, or at the very least didn't consider blacks' civil rights a particularly important issue. Segregationist politicians were often staunch New Dealers, a fact that does not mean the New Deal was racist at its roots or that anyone who advocates New Deal–style programs is tainted with this original sin. Some intellectual traditions are deeply rooted in racism; others have elements that absorbed some of the racist atmosphere that everyone was moving in. If you're writing intellectual history set in Jim Crow–era America, you need to be able to distinguish one from the other.

Instead, MacLean more or less invents the idea that Buchanan derived his constitutional ideas from bigots, notably the 19th century Vice President John Calhoun. Both Buchanan and Calhoun, after all, believed that majoritarian rule should be constitutionally restricted, and she attributed to both the motive of wanting to protect the propertied from the huddled masses. But considering the long list of other people who have argued for a republic restricted in its powers, it is difficult to avoid the idea that MacLean zeroed in on Calhoun—someone who Buchanan literally never once mentioned in any of his voluminous writings—as the supposed founder of Buchanan's constitutionalist tradition solely because Calhoun was a notorious white supremacist.

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  • Last of the Shitlords||

    So...............shitty book by stupid progtard?

  • Nodnarb likes to 69||

  • timbo||

    "at the heart of a Charles Koch–driven conspiracy to impose a radical libertarian agenda on the United States."


    small government, liberty, leave me alone and I want to leave you alone, private property rights, and abide contract law - that is some radical shit

  • Wizard4169||

    Have you heard about the great libertarian conspiracy? We want to take over the world, and then leave you the hell alone. Spooky!

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    My nuts are in NO WAY numb pal. They are very tingly. Perhaps you should give them a fondling first next time, before you speak out of turn.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I'm fascinated by all these little libertarian hit pieces and books and lately. I still don't see us as a particularly powerful movement, yet we're seeing so much hatred towards us.

    Very strange.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    History teaches us that freedom must be stamped out while it is still a plantling.

  • MSimon||

    The ideas are catching on. And nationally Libertarians got 4% of the vote.

    And the Freedom Caucus is about 20% of House Republicans.

    Dangerous trends.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    And remember, it only took one man to stop Simon Phoenix. Could Rand Paul be our political demolition man?

  • Agammamon||

    First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

    And then you ignore them . . .

  • gaoxiaen||

    No, then you tell them STFU and DIAF, FYTW..

  • SchillMcGuffin||

    While it's been kind of taking a back seat lately to the "Russian hacking conspiracy", there's been a lot of resentment since the election toward anyone who didn't vote for Hillary against Trump -- who didn't give "Her" the all the votes she was "entitled" to.

    Realistically I expect that the Democrats suffered more "vote leakage" to third parties and write-ins than did the Republican. From a policy standpoint, therefore, the purpose of a book like this is to chasten any disgruntled Democrats who might consider voting Libertarian ("Hey, I'm for legal pot, demilitarized police, and non-interventionist foreign policy too! What could be the harm in...?), and not recognizing what a secretly racist/plutocratic conspiracy they're supporting. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Democrats see libertarianism as a threat, but when politics becomes a game of inches, they probably see a little damage control as being in order.

  • ||

    "I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Democrats see libertarianism as a threat............."

    Well, Schill! Good comment except for the above! In seeing how things have played out since the 2016 Election, I would have to say that a good majority of "DINOS"(to distinguish from the very few Democrats) view every other party as a threat to their ideology of which only they think they know what it is. In my view, it would only be a party similar to one which George Orwell wrote against.

  • DenverJ||

    You know who else wrote a book?

  • ThomasD||

    L. Ron Hubbard?

    Dr. Atkins?

    Herman Melville?

  • MSimon||

    Aleister Crowley?

  • Charles Easterly||

    Writers of books?

  • chemjeff||

    I know, I know... umm... Hillary Clinton?

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    Jesse Walker?

  • XenoZooValentine||

    Robert Heinlein?

    Ayn Rand?

    Whoever wrote It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Jack Herer?

  • chemjeff||

    This book was published, what, a month ago? And people are still bitching about it? I'm beginning to think that the entire point of the book was to troll the libertarians.

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    Trump was elected what, six months ago? And people are still bitching about it? I'm beginning to think that the entire point of Trump is to troll the liberals.

  • Eek Barba Durkle||

    I mean...yeah.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    It's not meant to be read by anybody. It's meant to be seen conspicuously sticking out of your backpack during intersectional mating rituals. Perhaps waved in somebody's face as you scream drunkenly at libertarians just before you get ejected from the coffee shop, and your friend uploads it as "Socialist DESTROYS Libertarian!" to be upvoted by people whose only understanding of capitalism comes from Facebook memes and/or crackwhores.

    So, it's a fashion accessory for willful ignorance by ironic neo-Soviet hipsters, and also ironically a great example of free markets giving the customer what they want good and hard.

    Makes me proud to be American.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I prefer Lonely Planet's Indian Himalaya.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    It's kind of like and Iron Cross or a Confederate Battle Flag; a self-obtained marker warning sane people they might not want to get too close.

  • ||

    In that case, it's not meant to be read at all! I love it-"ironic, neo-Soviet hipsters"! May I use that?

  • XenoZooValentine||

    Feel free.

  • John C. Randolph||

    I'm beginning to think that the entire point of Trump is to troll the liberals.

    I didn't vote for him, but if I had, that would be my #2 reason. #1 of course is the same as Obama: for all his faults, he's not Hillary Clinton.


  • GILMORE™||

    Trolling is when you make the people who respond to you look like idiots.

    Not "write work which is torn to shreds in public as academic fraud", have people demand you apologize for intellectual dishonesty, and have even your own political allies describe your work as "conspiracy theory in the guise of intellectual history"

    If this was attempted trolling, she's doing it wrong.

    The result has mainly been to raise the profile of the person she's trying to discredit, while damaging her own academic reputation. Lose-Lose.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    I think she's in that awkward "I was only pretending to be retarded" phase of trolling at this point.

  • Robespierre Josef Stalin||

    board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so:

    Why? It justified decades of very intrusive federal interference with the goal of desegregating schools. Since all government power is the worst thing ever and since private corporations can never and have never engaged in corruption how can you justify this as a libertarian. Why don't you take a flying leap, slaver?

  • chemjeff||

    Using coercive state power to desegregate the schools is better than using coercive state power to segregate the schools. But they are both examples of coercive state power. "Might makes right" isn't a particularly intellectually satisfying doctrine.

  • Robespierre Josef Stalin||

    What state power was used to enforce segregation? If like-minded affinity groups want to get together and teach children of all one race what business is it of government to intervene?

  • MSimon||

    The government made laws specifying who you could associate with and under what circumstances.

  • Robespierre Josef Stalin||

    They did? Where? Most segregation was done on an adhoc basis. It certainly didn't justify all of the terrible things that were done to make sure rich White children didn't have to sully themselves by attending school with the Negroes.

  • Calidissident||

    There were certainly a lot of people that didn't need to be compelled by the government to segregate or discriminate, but there were absolutely were a plethora of laws that made it illegal for businesses, public accommodations, etc. to not segregate, not to mention laws outlawing interracial marriage and sex, etc. You're frankly displaying incredible historical ignorance here. On top of that, your comments make no sense either way in the context of Brown, a case about segregation in public schools, which are (obviously) run by the government.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    "You're frankly displaying incredible historical ignorance here."

    In other words, AmSock is being AmSock.

  • Sevo||

    Robespierre Josef Stalin|7.20.17 @ 10:48PM|#
    "...Most segregation was done on an adhoc basis...."

    Cite missing, lefty scumbag.

  • Agammamon||

    You've never hear of 'Jim Crow'? That segregation was imposed even at the Federal level - that the Pentagon was constructed with segregated restroom facilities to comply?

  • Brian||

  • See.More||

    They did? Where? Most segregation was done on an adhoc basis...

    Ignorant or revisionist? Segregation was institutional, and enforced, under Jim Crow laws.

    School Segregation in the United States
    A Century of Racial Segregation

  • DesigNate||

    You do understand that public schools are run by the government, right?

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Statements like that are triggering.

  • Sevo||

    "Why? It justified decades of very intrusive federal interference with the goal of desegregating schools. Since all government power is the worst thing ever and since private corporations can never and have never engaged in corruption how can you justify this as a libertarian. Why don't you take a flying leap, slaver?"

    Oh, look! The imbecile known as commie-kid invents another strawman!
    Fuck off, slaver.

  • ||

    I have been watching this unfolding train wreck with delight.

    This may be one of the best things to happen to libertarianism in a while as these bizarre accusations are unraveled before the eyes of their eager audience who do not know what libertarianism is. Sure, it won't sink in to the true disciples of the left, but anyone who wonders or wanders beyond the pages will learn more than they ever would had this book not been published.+

    I would also note that it is very striking that NPR hasn't discussed this book at all aside from a single review, only in print, from a science fiction author. This Jane Mayer-esque tripe is exactly what the listeners of Fresh Air would go for, but someone high up must be familiar enough with libertarianism to recognize that Democracy in Chains is, at best, completely wrong.

  • DenverJ||

    Ira Glass? It's Ira Glass, isn't it?

  • MarkLastname||


  • Robespierre Josef Stalin||

    Seems pretty right to me...

    Nancy MacLean:

    Leading libertarian thinkers concluded they could never win over the majority to their agenda. Therefore, they decided to achieve their utopia by attempting to radically change the rules of governance in order to change society.

    In their writings, Buchanan and other libertarian thinkers lay out a vision for a certain kind of society. It's a society where capitalism has free rein and the rights of the wealthy few are protected, while the many are prevented from exercising countervailing power. It's a society where government is so shrunken as to be unrecognizable. In the country they envision, most protections that benefit average Americans have vanished: Social Security has been abolished, worker and public-health protections are gone, and public schools are shuttered in favor of private education. It's a country where national parks and water supplies are sold to the highest bidder.

    That's not a country most Americans would recognize. And it's not a country most of us, from any political party, would want to inhabit. Yet it's the America Charles Koch and his fellow donors dream of bringing into being by applying Buchanan's insights. It's critical to bring this vision out into the open, so we can have honest debate about the kind of country we want. That's why Buchanan's vision of enchaining democracy — and the frightening degree to which it has become a reality — is a central focus of my book.

  • Sevo||

    Robespierre Josef Stalin|7.20.17 @ 10:43PM|#
    "Seems pretty right to me..."

    Which means any sentient being will find the opposite.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    This article (and many others like it) comprehensively fisks the book, but if he just reposts the intro that'll fix it!

    Does he know we can read?

  • Sevo||

    He's hoping for others as stupid as he is. And not finding them here.

  • MarkLastname||

    That's because syphilis has addled your brain. Maybe you and her have the same strain.

  • sarcasmic||

    Yeah, totally.
    I mean, what is more evil than wanting people to keep what is theirs?
    And what is more moral than theft in the name of justice?

    Libertarian support people keeping their own property and oppose using the instrument of justice as a means of injustice. You're like so totally right. Libertarians are so evil. Those who support theft in the name of justice are the only good people in society. Like, you know?

  • DesigNate||

    The number one problem is her (and your's too, apparently) conflation of "Libertarianism" and "Alt-Right".

  • NoVaNick||

    You can thank Ron Paul for that...

  • Calidissident||

    When I read the headline I thought it was talking about the president (I'm apparently out of the loop on this book).

  • damikesc||

    So did I. I was thinking "Who the fuck cares about our 'bachelor' President"?

  • Libertarian||

    Update on a year-old story.*

    Felarca was captured on video hitting a member of the Traditional Worker's Party, a white supremacist group that had taken out permits for a rally on the west steps of the state capitol. Felarca, a member of the group By Any Means Necessary, and other counter-protesters blocked the rally by chasing and hitting and even stabbing members of the Traditional Worker's Party.

    *I often wonder, "whatever happened to . . . . ." when it comes to big stories that fade away. BTW, does anyone know whatever happened to the big shootout with the bikers in Waco last year?

  • Agammamon||

    Its still 'under investigation'.

    Its pretty much taken as given by this time that 99.99999999999999% of the rounds fired were by law enforcement. In response to a single gunshot they perpetrated a massacre. Or tried to. Not competent enough to pull it off, I guess.

  • damikesc||

    I got not problem with Felarca betting smacked around. Sargon of Akkad had a LONG video basically ripping her asunder.

    When BERKELEY is saying your teaching is way too far to the left, you're doing something criminally wrong.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    Watching this derpy propaganda tract get kicked around the block a few times has been an uplifting experience.

    It reminds of the big dumb agitprop that assholes like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Micheal Moore peddled back in the day. Debunking their bullshit became a cottage industry for a while. There was so much wrong that you'd never run out of things to correct; the hardest part was deciding where to begin. The worst parts weren't the parts that were wrong, it was the irrelevant hallucinations passed off as conclusions with an "of course" and a smirk.

    Oh, and now that she's been exposed as a fraud, she's crying that the Kochopus is coming to get her, presumably in the hope that the white knights at the clickbait sites will saddle up their little ponies and ride to her rescue. "See? Libertarian fucking conspiracy! Why else would so many different people think I'm full of shit? Somebody save me!"

    Is she trolling us? Doesn't matter. I suppose somebody will inevitably make the same stupid Kafkatrap arguments that we wouldn't be talking about her unless we had something to hide, and of course anybody not talking about her is remaining silent because they have something to hide, etc. But she's really only interesting to libertarians in the same way the turkey is interesting to Thanksgiving guests. Enjoy that fifteen minutes of fame, I guess.

  • Sevo||

    You can add Piketty to that list; assertions claiming to be arguments, etc...

  • XenoZooValentine||

    It's a long list to be sure.

    This may be the biggest academic agitprop fuckup since Arming America had the Bancroft Prize taken away.

    Speaking of which, it's garbage day, so I'm going to go take out the trash. Be back later.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Don't forget to shitcan Jeff Sessions. The Ultimate White Trash.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    At this rate he may end up resigning.

  • MarkLastname||

    Maclean has given me a new respect for Piketty: mostly he's just wrong and bad at math.

    Maclean isn't just a bad historian; she's a pathological liar if not genuinely delusional.

  • B.P.||

    In response to DenverJ's rhetorical question above, Naomi Klein wrote a book called the Shock Doctrine, which sounds like it dovetails with the present book under indictment, right down to the Pinochet argle bargle. I've not read McClean's book, but I did read the Klein book and it is a mess. Shocking I know.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    They covered Shock Doctrine here too at some point. The funniest (to libertarians) assumption in the entire book is that economic disasters are somehow useful to libertarians to push their agenda, and engineered by us for that very purpose.

    Yeah, sure, that's exactly how it works. It's not like governments almost always use emergencies (which they often create through their own fuckery) as an excuse to let progressives rewrite the law to control the economy..

    Which side "never let a crisis go to waste" again? Hint: Not us. In practice, failed big government is always an excuse for bigger government, until the next big failure. Rinse and repeat.

  • Sevo||

    "...Duke historian Nancy MacLean makes numerous controversial claims, often with little evidence to back them up..."

    Pretty sure she trolls here on a regular basis.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    She's also Tulpa?

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Tulpa is everyone. And everyone is Tulpa.

  • MarkLastname||

    Actually, if Tony ever decides to (learn to read, so that he can eventually) write a book, this is probably what it would looks like.

  • ||

    Oooo. Stealth.

    I feel like libertarians need capes or something.

  • XenoZooValentine||

    You don't have one?

  • Freedomist||

    Hey, if Mormons can have secret magic underwear, why can't libertarians have capes?

  • JeremyR||

    Pinochet, literally the only dictator in history that lefties don't love

  • JeremyR||

    D'oh. I forgot the Shah of Iran.

  • NoVaNick||

    The Shah was actually quite progressive compare to who they have now, especially for women's rights.

  • ||

    The Shah used Stalinist totalitarianism to impose western modernism on Iran. Unfortunately it wasn't what the people wanted.

    In Turkey, Atatürk used pretty much the same approach and it was successful until recent times.

    In the end Islamism seems to have won out.

  • ||

    Or rather, in the end Islamism seems to be winning. It remains to be seen whether western thinking will prevail.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Saddam has a Sad.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Okay. Had a sad.

  • Fooseven||

    This is essentially fiction. Put it next to the info wars book about abortion rights being racist because Sanger was pushing eugenics 80 years ago

  • NoVaNick||

    My guess is that MacLean wrote most of this book back when nobody predicted that one of the biggest anti-libertarian turd in history would become the leading GOP candidate and sit in the white house. The proggies were very worried that libertarianish Rand Paul would be on the ticket, so they had to cobble something together to make libertarianism seem more evil than fascism.

    Meanwhile, the shining example of progressive egalitarianism, Venezuela, is doing just swell...

  • ||

    As far as the Democrat liberal left* is concerned Trump is the triumph of the libertarian conspiracy.

    *I use this term rather than "progressivism", because historically Progressives did not advocate anything like what the Democrats do today. This is not to say that historical Progressives advocated a "good" program, it's just that historically the Progressive movement did not stand for anything like the modern DNC platform.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||


  • josh||

    Public choice theory is common fucking sense. The years of study behind it, while reinforcing it, were as needed to confirm the theory as a study showing how people make poor decisions when on a controlled substance.Of course, if common fucking sense were a staple of humanity, much less our politics, we might not need to reward Nobel's for common fucking sense.

  • Freedomist||

    Kudos to author Brian Doherty for an excellent in-depth article.

  • m.EK||

    We are a Constitutional Republic under LAW.
    The 9th Amendment clearly states that the Federal Government can ONLY do what they have been granted to do and NOT violate the clear LIMITS that are the first 10 Amendments.
    This argument about whether the case of Brown was adjudicated correctly should be moot. Are we talking about PERSONS? If so, then a person should not be harmed or forced to do anything they do not want to do.
    While I honestly don't think the 14th was fully ratified, that said, the "legal" framework for the United States was altered radically with that "Amendment". This has allowed such agreigious harm to Persons and Property Rights as to make the Founders nausous.
    What is missing is a base code of LAW. All that nonsense and political horseshit that comes out of Congress for the past 160 years is the example.
    Really, how is society in your view? A society's economics and Liberty are a reflection of the underlying legal code.

  • Sevo||

    "the first 10 Amendments."

    The first Amendment suggests we don't give a shit about your superstitions.

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