The Volokh Conspiracy

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Does 'Democracy in Chains' paint an accurate picture of James Buchanan? [with updates]


Nancy MacLean's new book, "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America," presents a sharply critical intellectual history of the libertarian right in America, with a particular focus on Nobel laureate James Buchanan, often credited as one of the founders of "public choice" economics. As MacLean tells it, Buchanan's work was profoundly anti-democratic and is responsible for much of the political dysfunction we witness today.

MacLean's book is receiving significant attention, not all of it positive. Glowing reviews have appeared in Slate, the Atlantic and the New Republic, and on NPR. The review on the Law & Liberty blog, on the other hand, was a more-than-a-bit more critical, and Daniel Mitchell has posted a sharply negative review of the positive reviews.

Disagreements about a book with a politically charged thesis are nothing new. More notable, perhaps, are allegations that MacLean has misquoted and misrepresented material to create a less flattering—but also less accurate—picture of her subjects.

Russell Roberts, for example, points to MacLean's treatment of Tyler Cowen. According to Roberts, MacLean has selectively quoted Cowen in a highly misleading way. His critique is followed by MacLean's response and Roberts's reply. Readers may judge who has the best of the exchange. Don Boudreaux comments as well.

Roberts is not the only one to raise such concerns. David Henderson points to another example of selective quotation, this time involving Buchanan. Phillip Magness alleges that MacLean concocts a connection between Buchanan and Southern Agrarian thinkers that simply did not exist. Boudreaux argues that MacLean misrepresents Buchanan's intellectual influences. There appears to be a pattern here, and it is not a good one. If MacLean responds to any of these allegations, I will post an update with links.

According to the various reviews—positive and negative—MacLean devotes substantial attention to those who have funded libertarian academic work, the Koch brothers in particular. Thus I had to chuckle when BHL's Jason Brennan pointed out that MacLean's book was funded, at least in part, by the federal government. So an attack on academics critical of government was funded by … the government. Were Buchanan still alive I suspect this would make him smile.

UPDATE: Ramesh Ponnuru comments on MacLean's exchange with Roberts.

Steven Horwitz has found another area in which MacLean appears to misrepresent (or misunderstand) what Buchanan wrote. Horwitz argues this is a "running problem with the book." He writes:

MacLean has, by her own admission, very little knowledge of economics. In addition, her knowledge of Buchanan's own work comes mostly from his autobiography Better than Plowing, The Calculus of Consent, and two secondary sources that are highly critical and have their own problems of good faith interpretation. In the most generous reading, she is misunderstanding arguments and chopping up quotes because she simply doesn't understand what Buchanan and his collaborators are up to. In the least generous reading, she has a theory and she's going to cut up the evidence to fit that theory. If one believes that modern libertarians are the enemies of democracy, progress, equality, and all that's good in the world, and MacLean clearly does, then the evidence will always be read, and sometimes constructed, in ways that support the argument on the side of the angels.

Unfortunately, anyone who takes the time to read the actual sources she's working from, or who understands public choice theory, can see this exercise for what it is: a travesty of scholarly standards (no, Charles Dickens' novels do not count as data about the economic conditions of the 19th century) and a smear job on one of the great minds of the 20th century.

SECOND UPDATE: My co-blogger David Bernstein finds more of the same. Indeed, it seems the more that people look, the more problematic MacLean's account becomes. No matter. The book is listed on as one of the 20 must reads of the summer.

THIRD UPDATE: David has more in a follow-up post, documenting numerous errors in MacLean's discussion of George Mason University.

Here's more from Phil Magness too, focusing on MacLean's effort to paint libertarians and public choice economists as fans of Calhoun.

And there's still more to come, as I've now seen several more examples that have yet to be written up.

It's becoming increasingly clear why this book was not published by an academic press.

FOURTH UPDATE: Michael Munger, former chair of Duke's Political Science Department, has written an extensive review and response to MacLean's book. It's understated, but fairly devastating. [Here, also, is a Cato podcast with Munger discussing the book.]

FIFTH UPDATE: David Boaz discovers he's been misquoted and misrepresented. Daniel Bier finds sloppy research. And Art Carden finds more of the same.

MacLean has not responded substantively to any of the critiques (save for her response to Russell Roberts linked above). If she does (or if others rise to her defense against the specific charges noted here), I'll post links. She has, however, posted a lengthy item on Facebook urging her fans to boost her book on Amazon and elsewhere (reproduced here).

SIXTH UPDATE (7/12): David Gordon and Jeff Tucker are the latest to find substantive problems in Democracy in Chains. Michael Giberson proposes a game: Fun with footnotes.

For those interested, Don Boudreaux highlights a Buchanan quote that summarizes public choice for the uninitiated. For MacLean's account of Buchanan's work, in her own words, here's a recent interview.

Ilya Somin notes the fundamental inconsistency buried within MacLean's normative critique of Buchanan.

David Bernstein comments on MacLean's missive alleging a coordinated campaign against her book, as does Boudreaux. Inside Higher Education also offered a report on the controversy too.

There has been a fair amount of commentary (especially on Twitter) about the attacks on Democracy in Chains, but relatively little substantive discussion of the book. I would gladly post links to and excerpts from substantive defenses of the books, but I have yet to find any. I am also reaching out to MacLean directly with an offer to post a response.

Finally, since MacLean and others have alleged I have a particular loyalty to the Kochs, perhaps due to some undisclosed financial interest, a bit of disclosure. I have spoken at various Koch-sponsored programs, for which I received modest honoraria, and have solicited and received grants for projects from the Charles Koch Foundation, the last of which was this roundtable eight years ago, for which I received no compensation. As longtime VC readers can attest, none of this prevented me from being quite critical of the Kochs when I thought they deserved it (as in my extensive serious of posts on the Koch-Cato dispute, many of which may be found here).

SEVENTH UPDATE (7/14): Henry Farrell and Stephen Teles—neither of whom is particularly libertarian— critique the "transparently flawed" Democracy in Chains at, noting the broader problem of adopting conspiratorial views of history and political movements. This is a must read for all who are interested in this controversy.

Other recent commentaries include a commentary from Duke University's George Vanberg and Don Boudreaux's response to IHE story noted above, and his commentary on an allegedly important Buchanan memo from 1973. Roderick Long also catches MacLean misrepresenting Murray Rothbard.

Steve Horwitz adds some thoughts on "When Academia Turns to Fight Club."

Finally, I'll note again that I've attempted to contact both Nancy MacLean and her publisher with the offer to publish a response to the criticisms of her book. I have yet to hear back from anyone.

EIGHTH UPDATE (7/17): I have still not heard back from Prof. MacLean or her publisher about a response to any of the critiques noted above. The offer remains open.

Two academics have risen to MacLean's defense, however: John Jackson and Andy Seal. I do not find either comment to be particularly compelling, but your opinion may differ. Both address, among other things, the extent to which Buchanan's work aided segregationists. I recommend perusing the comment sections of each post. On this specific question, I also recommend this post by Phil Magness.

On another front, Steve Horwitz found a review of one of MacLean's older books by noted historian J. Morgan Kousser. In this review, Kousser claims MacLean's arguments are "circular and ahistorical." Noting the praise the book received, he ponders in closing: "Does evidence count in history anymore?"

NINTH UPDATE (7/21): Nancy MacLean has finally responded to her critics, in an e-mail interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. A companion article in the Chronicle reports on the controversy. David Bernstein and I each offered comments.

Meanwhile, the criticism continues to mount. Here, for example, is a fairly devastating review by Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Free-Wheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Phil Magness has additional comments on MacLean's discussion of Buchanan's agrarian roots. Arnold Kling comments on "the ethical issue" raised by MacLean's work.

Steven Hayward notes that MacLean's even lost liberal historian Rick Perlstein, and suggests the publicsher may wish to withdraw the book. Hayward offers additional comments here. George Monbiot, on the other hand, offers a more favorable account of the book.

My offer to publish a substantive response to the criticisms of her book stands. Barring such a response by MacLean, here or elsewhere, I suspect this will be the final update.

TENTH UPDATE (8/30): Two lengthy, highly critical reviews of MacLean's book are now on SSRN: "Confirmation Bias Unchained" by Steven Horwitz and "Buchanan the Evil Genius" by Art Carden and Phillip Magness.

Two more sympathetic takes can be found in the Boston Review by Bethany Moreton and Marshall Steinbaum. The Boston Review has also published a critical essay by Farrell and Teles, "When Politics Drives Scholarship."

The NYT also offers this review, which notes MacLean's "overt moral revulsion at her subject can sometimes make it seem as if we're getting only part of the picture." As the above links should illustrate, that impression is quite justified.