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Free Minds & Free Markets

The Great James Buchanan Conspiracy

A controversial attack on a libertarian-leaning economist mangles the facts beyond recognition. But the book still has something to teach us.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, Viking, 334 pages, $28

The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schoolswas 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 claimsmay 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?

AP Photo/Ron Edmonds. Horns added by Joanna Andreasson.AP Photo/Ron Edmonds. Horns added by Joanna Andreasson.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 researchno factsto 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 Funda foundation that supported libertarian organizations and scholars, including Buchananalso 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.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds; horns added by Joanna Andreasson

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  • macsnafu||

    I had seen the Mises Institute's take on Maclean's book, but this article was more interesting and more disturbing. Historical inaccuracies, falsehoods, and outright lies taken as gospel truth, and lauded?
    Brrr...

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