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Volokh Conspiracy

Another Brutal Review of Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains

Stanford historian Jennifer Burns' long march through a terrible book


As readers will recall, Duke history professor Nancy MacLean wrote a widely-publicized book, Democracy in Chains, that purports to be an intellectual history of the late public choice economist James Buchanan, and his asserted vast influence on current American politics. Critics, most but not all of them libertarians initimately familiar with Buchanan's life and legacy, have been harshly dismissive.

MacLean and her defenders have suggested that she and her book have the victims of a Koch-inspired libertarian ideological campaign, and that "real historians" would support MacLean. (MacLean, by the way, while dismissing her critics as ideologically motivated libertarians, never mentions her decades-long activism with the far-left International Socialist Organization, for which she wrote an article as recently as 2012.)*

Thus far, "real historians," as in Ph.D. historians with positions in academic history departments, have been, to their shame, almost entirely silent in the face of this controversy. So I was pleased to hear that Stanford's Jennifer Burns, author of a well-written and, more imporant, informative and fair biography of Ayn Rand, had a review of Democracy in Chains forthcoming. I expected at the very least a fair review, but understood that academic norms are such that it might not be as negative as I think is justified.

Welp. The review is brutal (but you will need an account with an academic library to view it). A few choice excerpts:

"heated, partisan, and shallow"

"rife with distortions and inaccuracies"

"tends to attribute too many of Koch's ideas to Buchanan's influence," but "gives almost no attention to the areas in which Buchanan did have deep influence"

"tends to misinterpret what Buchanan is doing"

"Nor is MacLean interested in economics, the discipline in which Buchanan trained"

"MacLean largely ignores the historical figures that Buchanan cited in his work"

"In fact, MacLean pays little attention to Buchanan himself"

"What does interest MacLean is an ostensible connection between Buchanan and John C. Calhoun, the nineteenth-century politician best known for defending slavery and propounding the doctrine of nullification. It is this connection that has most mystified critics of MacLean. There is no evidence that Calhoun was an important thinker for Buchanan, and MacLean strains to make the connection…. MacLean is working at the edge of accepted historical methodology, relying on assertion and suggestion rather than evidence."

"Because MacLean roots public choice so deeply in the segregationist South, and neglects the broader intellectual context in which it developed, she makes it difficult to understand the appeal of Buchanan's ideas to anyone who is not a Southern segregationist…. When twinned with her equally thin treatment of libertarian ideas, what emerges is a simplified portrait of social and political change driven by all-powerful elites…. This simplified history is underwritten by an equally simplistic glorification of democracy."

"With the exception of privatizing Social Security, MacLean pays little attention to the actual public policy reforms Buchanan proposed: a balanced budget amendment and confiscatory estate taxes." [Bernstein: actually, MacLean never mentions that Buchanan favored confiscatory estate taxes, assumedly because it would undermine both her claim that he was the svengali of the libertarian movement, and that he favored oligarchy.]

"Her sloppiness with sources leads to arguments that are at variance with her evidence, as when she claims, in perhaps the most widely noted example, that libertarian Tyler Cowan [sic] explicitly 'recommended' changing American political institutions and weakening constitutional checks and balances. Rather than reading her sources, MacLean is read by them: her exegeses make clear the assumptions which guide her approach."

"Historians should have more to offer in this moment than spite and bile."

"hyperbolic and breathless introduction and conclusion"

And the coup de grâce:

In the end, Democracy in Chains is characterized by a fundamental lack of curiosity. The book is disconnected from not just economics or political theory, but from all social sciences. Its citations draw almost exclusively from recently published books about American social or labor history. As such, it bears witness to an alarming parochialism. The narrative of American history it presents is insular and highly politicized, laying out a drama of good versus evil with little attention paid to the larger worlds—global, economic, or intellectual—in which the story nests. Ultimately it is not a book of scholarship, but of partisanship, written to reinforce existing divides and confirm existing biases. As such it will not stand the test of time, but will stand rather as testimony to its time.

UPDATE: A reader pointed out to me that MacLean's 2012 article was a reprint of an article she wrote in 1985. Wikipedia lists her as a current member of the ISO, but links to a story from 1992 in which she stated that she had "politically active in the International Socialist Organization since 1980." So it's not clear when, if ever, she ceased her activism with ISO.