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.

NEXT: Wiser Kids, Wiser Universities

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  1. It has long been curious how silent most professional historians have been. I had come to the conclusion that Nancy MacLean may have once been a good historian, but this book was so far beyond acceptable that other historians saw it as an aberration, so embarrassing that it was best to just ignore it, pretend it didn’t exist, and hope she’d fade away rather than even attempt to redeem her reputation with a new and unrelated book.

    Even that atrocious fabricated book on guns lost its history prize and publisher once it was outed. This one … crickets.

    1. I expect the issue is clash of institutions. The attacks are largely from the realm of political partisans, and engage on that level. MacLean did very badly when she tried her hand over there, and has since quit that field.

      But historians don’t operate over there, so why would they care? It’s like those e-mails physicists get from autodidacts that are sure they’ve proven some textbook or other wrong.

      For better or worse, not going through institutional channels will make an institution skeptical of you. And when you are as…vehement as what I’ve seen on this blog, well, that’ll do you no favors to stuffy historians either.

      1. This assumes that chaired professors of law, economics, and political science can be dismissed as “political partisans” if they are on the right, but long-time far left activist MacLean should be trusted because… well, she’s not on the right.

        Not to mention that many of the attacks you reference were discussed misquotations, misuse of publicly available sources, and text that doesn’t match footnotes, all things that a historian with even a modicum of curiosity could check in just a few minutes. And it surely wouldn’t have escaped any objective observer’s notice that while MacLean’s critics were citing actual source material to dispute her work, rather than defend her sources, MacLean responding with, well, nonsense and ad hominem.

        But you have unintentionally hit upon the problem: the vast majority of historians of America are left-wing, and have negative assumptions about fellow academics who are not on the left, to the extent of buying into idiotic conspiracy theories if the name “Koch” is mentioned.

        1. But you have unintentionally hit upon the problem: the vast majority of historians of America are left-wing,

          Affirmative action for conservative academics, to overcome our society’s general trends toward modernity, reason, and tolerance, must be the answer to this problem.

          1. Naw, you’re thinking to small Rev., to get rid of the problem of ideological and political indoctrination of our youth through the university system that is funded by taxpayer dollars, conservatives need to tax their endowments into oblivion.

            A better answer would be for the government to mandate a “post graduation SAT” that will show if anybody actually learned to reason, read, and write in a superior manner after to going to college. When the results won’t show much of an actual value of the college education, their market value will plummet.

            1. This insight concerning the ostensibly worthlessness of education is fascinating.

              1. Well, presumably you’ve graduated from some institution of higher education, but your reading comprehension is pathetic, so when it comes to “insight concerning the ostensibly worthlessness of education”, you’re leading the pack.

                What mad_kalak is postulating is that most “institutions of higher learning” merely provide indoctrination, rather than education. The fact that you couldn’t correctly parse two rather straightforward sentences is a strong argument that he’s right

            2. This insight concerning the ostensibly worthlessness of education is fascinating.

              1. No, not the worthlessness of education, but rather the worthlessness of college in providing an education.

                “A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.”

                CBS Story about a study related to college learning

                If they haven’t learned anything in two years, I doubt another two will change anything.

                1. Don’t send your children to college. Don’t attend college. Different strokes.

                  I will continue to arrange at least one graduate degree for every member of my family.

                  I am thankful because it appears my children and grandchildren will have the same opportunity I have had — to compete economically against the group that has become the Trump base.

                  1. Whew, whole lotta hot air there. I note how you discount that study. No hard feelings, but an appropriate retort is that the childless feminists and beta soy boys that you send for useless liberal arts degrees are lucky that they don’t drown in student loan debt due to your largesse, but in the end their barren wombs will be demographically replaced by Trump’s blue collar base. Your best hope is some form of amnesty to maintain political power.

                    Joking aside, some of the most successful and best educated people never finished college, and some of the stupidest people alive have zero expertise outside their PhD. It’s a crapshoot really.

                    1. I wish I could delete that last post, as it is too uncivil. Rev, take that comment as hindsight at least.

                    2. Joking aside, some of the most successful and best educated people never finished college, and some of the stupidest people alive have zero expertise outside their PhD. It’s a crapshoot really.

                      The race does not necessary go to the swiftest, nor the contest to the strongest, nor the debate to the better argument.

                      But that is how the smart money bets, and generally wins.

                      Show of hands among the Conspirators: How many will steer their children away from college? How many will prefer conservative-controlled colleges and universities for their children? How many will prefer strong liberal-libertarian campuses for their children.

                      Watch what they do, Conspiracy fans . . . not what they write for a polemical partisan blog.

                    3. I’m on the fence as to whether or not I’ll send my children to college. It’s currently highly overpriced, and the “value” it offers is currently lacking.

                      At the very least, I’m going to strongly discourage the seeking of any degree that doesn’t have a heavy foundation in mathematics — and, for this purpose, statistics doesn’t count, unless the child wants to become an actuary.

                      I’ve also wondered about the possibility of extending home-schooling into college, perhaps even up to the PhD level….

                      As I see the market, it’s currently far too easy to get gobs of debt, and far too difficult to get a good-paying job afterwards, to justify college, particularly if it’s for a soft degree.

                    4. (I should add that yes, my having gotten a PhD in math, and gone on to work in software development, has strongly affected my views on college. I appreciate the math that I learned, but I wish my education would have done more to serve me in searching for an income.

                      And I consider myself lucky — “only” $115k in student loan debt, with a degree that *ostensibly* is in high demand. I shudder to imagine the plight of those with $300k and degrees in soft sciences and humanities, whose only employment options seems to be “adjunct professor” or “Starbucks barista”, along with the challenge to figure out which pays more….)

                  2. NYT agrees.


                    But Rev won’t read the article. He’s too dumb and ignorant. His chosen state.

                    1. I’m dumb and ignorant.

                      JesseAz is bigoted and backward.

                      We all have our crosses, but at least I’m libertarian.

            3. “Don’t send your children to college. Don’t attend college. Different strokes.”

              Don’t raise my taxes to pay for college.

              Don’t have a legal system that allows schools to test for intelligence, but that doesn’t allow businesses to do the same.

              Because if businesses can just test for IQ, and promote based on that, they won’t need to require a college degree of their hires.

        2. “the vast majority of historians of America are left-wing”

          I’m intrigued: What is your definition of left wing and what evidence do you have that the majority of Americanists are left wing? Note: just being left of you is not an acceptable answer to the first question. Further helpful hint: liberal is not left wing, save for in the frothing rage of libertarians and authoritarian conservatives.

          Seriously, if you believe a “vast majority” of Amrericanist historians are left wing, you betray a deep ignorance of political philosophy and/or the composition of history departments. It might also explain why people like Nancy MacLean can dismiss your fist-shaking out of hand?you have zero credibility as a critic if you see academia as dominated by actual left wingers.

          1. “Conversely, history is by far the least conservative-friendly department, where liberals outnumber conservatives by a 33 1/2-to-1 ratio.”


          2. By the way Hook… that well known fact took under 3 seconds to find. Try curiosity instead of ignorance next time.

            1. Liberal is not the same as left wing. If you can’t appreciate the difference, perhaps you shouldn’t wag a finger about ignorance.

              1. Hilarious. This would have been much better off for you if you could have stuffed your credibility into a ball and burned it for heat in the coming winter.

          3. Mr. Hook, that is about right, but masquerade history floating around makes it hard for historical laymen to know what even counts. For reasons which remain mysterious to me, history seems to enjoy a bit of status even among its critics?more so than most other liberal arts.

            Writers on law and politics especially are sensitive to that status advantage, and try to couch their offerings in a kind of historified garb, to take advantage. One result: not only are professional historians the people best qualified to write history, they now turn out to be almost the only people who can readily pick real history out of the mess of differently founded political tracts, legal musings, and philosophical vaporings about how we got this way.

            Advice for non-historians: if you have found purported history which delivers dynamite support for your preferred modern ideology, or shows where it came from, what you found is likely mostly made-up, fake, bogus. Or even if partly true, the supportive part, the part you prize the most, will not be based on historical reasoning.

            You can know that, because history doesn’t transcend time. What can you do now which will cause anything at all 100 years hence? Attribution of intent can leap that gap of intervening time only backward. That means ascribing causality to history is simply a mistake. It always results in smuggling modern ideas into the past. Doing that tells you nothing accurate about the past at all.

            1. “For reasons which remain mysterious to me, history seems to enjoy a bit of status even among its critics?more so than most other liberal arts.”

              Theoretically it’s an objective discipline; Some events did happen, some didn’t, so history can be objectively right or wrong. That elevates it above most liberal arts, which are mostly about opinions.

              The problem is that history has political valance, and anything that can have an impact on the outcome of political fights gets corrupted by politics.

              1. This is a common misperception amongst non-historians and why so many feel qualified to critique historical work in ways they wouldn’t other disciplines. History is not reportage, nor is it science, regardless of the hopes and pronouncements of nineteenth-century historical scholars. It is interpretive. It is akin to philosophy, not physics. It seeks meaning from the past, not banal reconstruction. That’s not licence to fabricate evidence, but it does mean that no piece of historical evidence speaks for itself. So, no, not even theoretically is history objective. It’s that fundamental ignorance that encourages such contempt for what historians do?that idea that “doing history” is easy because it’s just digging in the archives and reproducing what is found.

                1. Mr. Hook, the need to interpret facts from the past — subjectively but honestly — should not be confused with the requirement to report all relevant facts objectively. Historians are not entitled to their facts, they must take them as they find them. The proper methodology is to begin with a thesis, carefully examine all factual evidence for and against, and then draw a balanced conclusion, making clear where subjective interpretation is used in assessing the weight of the evidence. The problem with the substandard work of Nancy MacLean is that she began with a conclusion — not a thesis — and then selectively picked the facts that suited her purpose, misstating other facts, inventing convenient facts, and ignoring or misstating any facts that contradicted her conclusion. How anyone can defend such a shoddy methodology is beyond reason; in fact, the silence of many of her colleagues speaks volumes about the poor state of affairs in intellectual history in US academia. For shame, Mr. Hook.

                  1. While I appreciate you taking the time to explain to me how a historical argument is constructed, I’m rather well versed on the subject, between my own work and teaching American history at a university. As for MacLean, don’t confuse me as someone invested in defending her book. It has some interesting aspects?the Calhoun chapter, mainly?but on the whole I find it too unsubtle for my tastes. But it’s also written for a general audience, so I understand those decisions of presentation.

                    That said, in her introduction, she explains how her project came about while pursuing research on post-Brown education vouchers in Virginia. She was reading Friedman and came across Buchanan in some footnotes and, having never heard of him, investigated further. That led her to Buchanan’s papers where she found documentation leading to the Kochs. And there you have it?a curiosity piqued, initial examination of evidence, the early outlines of a thesis, more research, interpretation, etc. You can call her a liar if you want?again, I’m not all that invested in her or her book?but her description doesn’t sound like someone starting with a sinister conclusion and then working backwards, looking for evidence to support it. How she treated her evidence is, of course, what divides her defenders and her critics, but that’s a different question.

                  2. The proper methodology is to begin with a thesis, carefully examine all factual evidence for and against, and then draw a balanced conclusion, making clear where subjective interpretation is used in assessing the weight of the evidence.

                    If by, “proper methodology,” you mean proper methodology for the practice of history, you are mistaken. To begin with a thesis is to smuggle present thinking into the past, perhaps then to discover it there, and pronounce the past the source for your thesis.

                    The proper methodology is to read the historical record, for its own sake. To try, insofar as possible, to educate yourself in the thought and circumstances of the period you study, and to do so exclusively by means available to people who lived then. That means studying sources available to them, or encountered in the course of day to day living. And, conversely, it means excluding systematically everything which came later, during the interval between then and now?because the historical figures you study had no access to any of that.

                    That last part is what makes the practice of history all but inaccessible for folks not trained to do it. Those begin, like everyone not specially trained, with only present notions in their heads. And they conclude, apparently to them reasonably, that they can assemble from those notions theses about the past, and then check the historical record for confirmation. That method guarantees erroneous thinking about the past.

          4. An actual liberal (believer in individual rights, and individual merit, not group rights / merit) is right wing.

            If you vote Democrat, or give money to Democrats, or believe that “affirmative action” isn’t racism, then you are on the Left

        3. While it is true that most historians are on the left (and thus might be more inclined to have confirmation bias in favor of the book), it usually takes more than a year for most history books to get reviewed in the major journals. So, I think it’s perfectly normal that we haven’t yet seen many reviews from historians.

          To confirm, I just searched my library’s catalog for “review “Democracy in Chains”” and came up with no hits from any major history journal but several from the fields of economics, public policy, labor studies, and women’s studies.

          So, time will tell where the discipline comes down on the book. Burns’ review could herald a trend, or it might not.

          1. The book came out in 2017… It’s been a year.

            1. He did say “more than a year”. It’s been 15 months. *shrug*

        4. Regardless of the merits of your arguments,
          I posit that the fact that you’re framing your failure to engage this institution as being fueled by partisanship is part of why you are failing to engage.

    2. You would like to think this book was ignored… but it actually won awards.…..5xk_ehKiUk

  2. @ 11:02 this post hit the web. I’m setting my timer until the first “only historians know how to do history” comment pops up.

    As for that biography of Ann Rand, Russ Roberts over at Econtalk interviewed the author. Worth the listen. Russ Roberts interviews Jen Burns about Rand

    1. Apparently libertarians are also experts.

      “Critics, most but not all of them libertarians initimately [sic] familiar with Buchanan’s life and legacy, have been harshly dismissive.”

    2. And I’m setting my timer to see how long it takes Arthur “The Dancing Monkey” Kirkland to say that because Prof. Bernstein said it then it can’t be true. A even if it is true it’s okay because some unspecified, nameless, people that The Dancing Monkey hates did it as well.

      Two hours and it hasn’t happened yet.

      1. By publicly stating what we are doing the measuring, we are in fact (likely) altering the outcome. I was going to look back and see how long it took on the last thread about this same topic. Then I was going to see how long until the “law office history” comparison was brought up too. Such fun is this blog!

    3. Okay, mad_kalak, hit the button and stop the clock.

      Of course “only historians know how to do history.” It’s a truism. The activity of doing history correctly (and not any academic title you hold), is what defines an historian. That in no way implies that all academically titled “historians” do history correctly. Many don’t. But neither does almost anyone untrained achieve even minimal competence.

      Learning to do history correctly is time consuming, counter-intuitive, and almost never achieved without professional training. It’s a terrible field for auto-didacts, made trickier because from the outside it looks more approachable than, say, mathematics?an imposing discipline which has nevertheless been accessible to, if not largely invented by, inspired auto-didacts.

      That said, what does it mean for the OP? Mainly this?whether or not either MacLean or her critic, Jennifer Burns, qualify as good historians, neither one of them is really practicing history in this instance. Both are practicing politics, a different activity governed by different rules, and calling for different skills.

      1. “Of course “only historians know how to do history.” It’s a truism.”

        Boy, it’s really a shame you’ve spent so much time talking about law here then.

        1. Haven’t you noticed, Careless? Except in one or two instances where life experience led me into extensive consultations with legal experts, and I had to develop a bit of expertise myself, I don’t talk about law, per se. I leave the practice of law to lawyers, and don’t opine, for instance, on precedent.

          My comments mostly address policy, or practical insights from activities I have practiced professionally. See if you can find exceptions, except with regard to copyright and defamation, where my background in publishing required me to get educated by legal experts in those subjects.

  3. David,
    Relax man. No one has read this book. No one has heard about this book except from this blog. Just like no one reads D’Souzas book Liberals are the Real Nazis, and Communists…. Communazis, or Ann Coulter’s books Camel Jockeys and The Liberals Who Smell Like Them. Just let the book fall into the pile of politically partisan nonsense move onto the rest of your day.

    1. He didn’t do much in this post except except large portions of a professional historian’s review. Do you advocate not playing defense against ideas contrary to thine own?

    2. Unfortunately, it’s already making its way into college syllabi. I’ve never done a survey, but I’m guessing that Dinesh D’Souza’s silly book isn’t being assigned pretty much anywhere, nor, unlike MacLean, is he being invited to give academic lectures, nor honored by the AAUP.

      1. Exactly! Prof. Bernstein and others are doing this so the 19 year old kid who wants to do a research paper on what he thinks is an edgy topic about libertarians and their connection to slavery in his first semester at liberal arts college XYZ, will at the very least, find a plethora of information from a simple internet search that shows the book has some fatal flaws, and instead move onto doing a paper on how the Trump candidacy was secretly funded by Russia through white supremacist intermediaries, which as a topic has about the same amount of truth to it as MacClean’s book has.

        1. Considered purely as history, MacClean’s book is too methodically spotty to be a suitable source for a first-semester history research paper. I disagree about “fatal flaws.” In spots, some of the historical work looks sound. For instance, MacClean has put her critics on their mettle to show that Buchanan’s involvement in the Virginia desegregation crisis was not objectively racist behavior.

          MacClean shows beyond question from his own records that Buchanan took initiative to ally himself with vicious racists. They advocated a policy which would deny any public education at all to blacks. Buchanan was right there to say (privately) to them, in effect, “Just tell the world you are following my economic rationale, and you can escape legal censure and get it done.” That stands as a brilliant beacon of racism. To this very day, it attracts toward destruction more than a few heedless libertarians. They show in their attempts to rehabilitate Buchanan a tolerance for any amount of racist behavior at all, if it tends toward promotion of their ideology.

          Come to think of it, a first semester research paper based on that piece of the book ought in principle be able to pass muster for a high grade. For some political spin, the student could point out the snare MacLean has set to catch up so many of today’s libertarians.

          I wish we could access the review cited in the OP. Maybe Jennifer Burns is among the libertarians thus ensnared.

          1. That said, of course setting snares for political opponents is no proper part of practicing history. The critique that MacLean was not, at least with this book, acting as an historian must be acknowledged. MacLean was mostly practicing politics. That raises a question an alert critic ought to be asking: “As politics, is it working?” This endless agonized series of posts from Bernstein suggests that it is.

          2. “MacClean shows beyond question from his own records that Buchanan took initiative to ally himself with vicious racists.” No, she doesn’t. See https:

  4. Hoover Institution in the house!

    1. I wonder why a historian at Stanford who studies the history of American conservatism, and who is writing a book about long-time Hoover Institution Senor Fellow Milton Friedman, would want a research affiliation with the Hoover Institution? It must be because she’s secretly part of the Koch conspiracy.

      1. It is understandable that this professor wishes to be associated with the Hoover Institution.

        It also is relevant to this context.

  5. Reminds me of the story about the Amish guy in northern Maine (there are a lot of them there now) who heated his workshop with a wood stove. Some well-meaning person had donated to him a bunch of those Amish Romance novels from the shelves of Walmart. About them he said “they get the stove going quickly in the morning”.

    1. Amish romance novels?

      What a world.

  6. There goes her academic career…..

    1. She likely has tenure as an associate professor, but making full professor…yea, might take a bit longer.

  7. Quote from the review: 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.

    That’s not true. In particular, the most damning evidence against Buchanan in the book is cited from . . . Buchanan.

    It’s also a bit peculiar for an historian to suggest that correct historical interpretation requires reference to economic theory, or political theory. If, as in Buchanan’s case, the subject is engaged in economic or political theorizing, then that engagement should be noted forthrightly, and in sufficient detail.

    It is, however, no job of the historian to gauge the validity of the theories themselves, either in the past, or in the present. If theories can be shown to have been consequential in the past, those consequences are proper subjects for historical focus. But that doesn’t seem to be what Burns’ criticism targets. Instead, she seems to be demanding MacClean defer to ideology as if it were historical truth. Maybe I’ve misunderstood that part, but with just the excerpts to go on, that’s what it looks like to me.

    1. I think the point wasn’t that the book needs to defer to ideology, but rather than a book on Public Choice Theory ought to at least intellectually engage with it.

    2. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the reviews discussing Buchanan’s “damning” quotes, but I seem recall that they were only damning because they were taken out of context, and then unfairly associated with quotes from unsavory people that didn’t really have the connections she implied.

      If this really is work only trained historians can do, then I see no reason to hold the “discipline” in high regard.

  8. Seeing who wrote this review explains a lot. Mr. Bernstein biased opinion says it all

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