The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Another Devastating Review of "Democracy in Chains"


As readers may recall, Democracy in Chains by Duke History Professor Nancy MacLean is a very badly-flawed account of the life, career, and influence of the late Nobel Prize winning economist, James Buchanan. Despite the fact that the book has been shown to be replete with errors, exaggerations, and misinterpretations, it was a finalist for a National Book Award and more recently received honors from the Los Angeles Times. Most disturbingly, despite serious allegations of academic malfeaseance, MacLean is the plenary speaker at the AAUP's annual conference this Fall.

MacLean has refused to respond to any of the substantive critiques of the book, beyond to claim that her critics are almost all somehow associated with the Charles Koch Foundation, and thus somehow tainted. (In the book, she grossly exaggerates the influence of Buchanan on Koch, but the critics do not focus on that point, as there are so many other errors to deal with.)

A review by Alain Marciano of Université de Montpellier and Jean-Baptiste Fleury of the University of Cergy-Pontoise, forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Literature should, but almost certainly won't, be the final nail in the book's coffin:

This essay develops three main points. One, MacLean's general narrative puts too much emphasis on Buchanan, and largely neglects the many other important characters who contributed to the intellectual criticism of government intervention. Two, MacLean's account is marred by many misunderstandings about public choice theory, for instance about the role that simple majority rule plays in constitutional economics. Third, in the midst of abundant archival material, her historical narrative is at best sketchy, and is replete with significantly flawed arguments, misplaced citations, and dubious conjectures.

The authors are very polite and restrained, but basically the review amounts to a devastating critique of the book. If one reads it along with Brian Doherty's review for Reason, this review by Steve Horwitz, and these responses by Art Carden et al., and this review by Michael Munger, I think it would be difficult for an objective observer to conclude anything but that the book is academic trash.

Carden wrote on Facebook that at this point the issue is whether truth matters any more. My conclusion is that in large swathes of the history profession, it does not. Thus far, not a single one of the many critiques of MacLean's book has come from a member of a history department at an American university. Various historians have instead defended her book, based on some combination of argument-from-authority, hostility to libertarians, and the bizarre notion that because MacLean is a social historian, non-social historians must accept her interpretation of the facts, because reading lots of stuff and then coming to conclusions is what social historians do. Seriously.