James Buchanan on racism


Ever since Nancy MacLean’s new book came out, there have been waves of discussions of the intellectual legacy of James Buchanan – the economist who pioneered public choice theory and won the Nobel in economics in 1986. Most prominent in the book are the inuendos of Buchanan’s racism.  Basically, public choice had a “racist” agenda.  Even Brad DeLong indulged in this criticism of Buchanan by pointing that he talked about race by never talking race, a move which reminds him of Lee Atwater.

The thing is that it is true that Buchanan never talked about race as DeLong himself noted.  Yet, that is not a sign (in any way imaginable) of racism. The fact is that Buchanan actually inspired waves of research regarding the origins of racial discrimination and was intellectually in line with scholars who contributed to this topic.

Protecting Majorities and Minorities from Predation

To see my point in defense of Buchanan here, let me point out that I am French-Canadian. In the history of Canada, strike that, in the history of the province of Quebec where the French-Canadians were the majority group, there was widespread discrimination against the French-Canadians. For all intents and purposes, the French-Canadian society was parallel to the English-Canadian society and certain occupations were de facto barred to the French.  It was not segregation to be sure, but it was largely the result of the fact that the Catholic Church had, by virtue of the 1867 Constitution, monopoly over education. The Church lobbied very hard  in order to protect itself from religious competition and it incited logrolling between politicians in order to win Quebec in the first elections of the Canadian federation. Logrolling and rent-seeking! What can be more public choice? Nonetheless, these tools are used to explain the decades-long regression of French-Canadians and the de facto discrimination against them (disclaimer: I actually researched and wrote a book on this).

Not only that, but when the French-Canadians started to catch-up which in turn fueled a rise in nationalism, the few public choice economists in Quebec (notably the prominent Jean-Luc Migué and the public choice fellow-traveler Albert Breton) were amongst the first to denounce the rise of nationalism and reversed linguistic discrimination (supported by the state) as nothing else than a public narrative aimed at justifying rent-seeking attempts by the nationalists (see here and here for Breton and here and here for Migué). One of these economists, Migué, was actually one of my key formative influence and someone I consider a friend (disclaimer: he wrote a blurb in support of the French edition of my book).

Think about this for a second : the economists of the public choice tradition in Quebec defended both the majority and the minority against politically-motivated abuses. Let me repeat this : public choice tools have been used to explain/criticize attempts by certain groups to rent-seek at the expense of the majority and the minority.

How can you square that with the simplistic approach of MacLean?

Buchanan Inspired Great Research on Discrimination and Racism

If Buchanan didn’t write about race, he did set up the tools to explain and analyze it. As I pointed out above, I consider myself in this tradition as most of my research is geared towards explaining institutions that cause certain groups of individuals to fall behind or pull ahead.  A large share of my conception of institutions and how state action can lead to predatory actions against both minorities and majorities comes from Buchanan himself!  Nevermind that, check out who he inspired who has published in top journals.

For example, take the case of the beautifully written articles of Jennifer Roback who presents racism as rent-seeking. She sets out the theory in an article in Economic Inquiry , after she used a case study of segregated streetcars in the Journal of Economic HistoryA little later, she consolidated her points in a neat article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public PolicyShe built an intellectual apparatus using public choice tools to explain the establishment of discrimination against blacks and how it persisted for long.

Consider also one of my personal idols, Robert Higgs who is a public-choice fellow traveler who wrote Competition and Coerciowhich considers the topic of how blacks converged (very slowly) with whites in hostile institutional environment. Higgs’ treatment of institutions is well in line with public choice tools and elements advanced by Buchanan and Tullock.

The best case though is The Origins and Demise of South African Apartheid by Anton David Lowenberg and William H. Kaempfer. This book explicitly uses a public choice to explain the rise and fall of Apartheid in South Africa.

Contemporaries that Buchanan admired were vehemently anti-racist

Few economists, except maybe economic historians, know of William Harold Hutt. This is unfortunate since Hutt produced one of the deepest and most thoughtful economic criticism of Apartheid in South Africa, The Economics of the Colour Bar This book stands tall and while it is not the last word, it generally is the first word on anything related to Apartheid – a segregation policy against the majority that lasted nearly as long as segregation in the South.  This writing, while it earned Hutt respect amongst economists, made him more or less personae non grata in his native South Africa.

Oh, did I mention that Hutt was a public choice economist? In 1971, Hutt published Politically Impossible which has been an underground classic in the public choice tradition. Unfortunately, Hutt did not have the clarity of written expression that Buchanan had and that book has been hard to penetrate.  Nonetheless, the book is well within the broad public choice tradition.  He also wrote an article in the South African Journal of Economics which expanded on a point made by Buchanan and Tullock in the Calculus of Consent. 

Oh, wait, I forgot to mention the best part. Buchanan and Hutt were mutual admirers of one another. Buchanan cited Hutt’s work very often (see here and here) and spoke with admiration of Hutt (see notably this article here by Buchanan and this review of Hutt’s career where Buchanan is discussed briefly).

If MacLean wants to try guilt by (inexistent) association, I should be excused from providing redemption by (existent) association.  Not noting these facts that are easily available shows poor grasp of the historiography and the core intellectual history.

Simply Put

Buchanan inspired a research agenda regarding how states can be used for predatory purposes against minorities and majorities which has produced strong interpretations of racism and discrimination. He also associated with vehement and admirable anti-racists like William H. Hutt and inspired students who took similar positions. I am sure that if I were to assemble a list of all the PhD students of Buchanan, I would find quite a few who delved into the deep topic of racism using public choice tools. I know better and I did not spend three years researching Buchanan’s life. Nancy MacLean has no excuse for these oversights.


16 thoughts on “James Buchanan on racism

  1. Huh, what a small world! Lowenberg was one of my undergrad professors. I took his history of economic thought course. I regret not bugging him about his south African work.

  2. None of this goes very far in explaining why Buchanan suggested the Virginia privatize public schools in 1959–the very policy option that was eagerly urged by the hardcore segregationists. And how, when Prince Edward County DID privatize education in 1959, virtually none of Buchanan’s promised benefits occurred. And how he remained utterly silent about the disaster of Prince Edward County for the rest of his career.

    It doesn’t really help the case that public choice theory has done much to combat racism when one of the heros, Hutt, is completely forgotten by all but historians. Indeed, most of your examples are public choice theorists recasting historical events in terms of public choice theory. This is a much different exercise than showing public choice theorists have done anything to combat racism. It smacks of public choice theorists, by reconstructing the victories of others trough the lens of public choice theory, are trying to take credit for victories that are not theirs.

    Meanwhile, MacLean’s example of 1959 and school privatization simply cannot be read as anything else but Buchanan trying to use the segregation issue to further his own political agenda:


  3. So, there is no direct evidence of anything. But the only conceivable conclusion is that he was driven my motivations to support segregation…. and this is the well-thought. measured conclusion of a supposed historical expert?

    Wouldn’t an expert:

    – Look closely into the genesis of the idea(s) and the context, before concluding that there is no other potential basis than racism?

    – Look and be able to at least offer a truckload of circumstantial and ancillary evidence to show how racism and segregationist leanings are implicated in many other ideas or policy options that he advocated?

    Basically, the conclusions in MacLean’s book fit well within the bounds of the currently political climate: your motivations and intent can be found not in what you argue for or believe, but in what you do not argue for or do not espouse belief in… i.e., unless you agree and are an advocate with policies “intended” or “designed” specifically to do away with segregation, etc. you are a racist. Plain and simple.

    In this environment, it is impossible to even have a reasonable discussion. And it is a shame to see this framework now make its way into yet another academic discipline – history.

    It is amazing that a historian neglects the long history and span of libertarianism across the political spectrum (Penn Jillette is a Kochie?) and castes it as a conservative conspiracy.

    Let’s face it. This book started with a conclusion. It was not an exercise in exploring the genesis and development of Buchanan’s intellectual thought. It started with a story line and sought to fill it out.

    • Regarding your two bullet points:

      “– Look closely into the genesis of the idea(s) and the context, before concluding that there is no other potential basis than racism?”

      Well, that is not MacLean’s conclusion nor is it mine. In fact, I specifically quote her in the blog entry I posted disavowing the view you ascribe to her. You must have missed it because otherwise you’d recognize the strawman argument you are offereing here. Here is MacLean: :

      ““It is true that many observers at the time, and scholars since, have reduced the conflict to one of racial attitudes alone, disposing too easily of the political-economic fears and philosophical commitments that stiffened many whites’ will to fight. So a ‘both/and construction would be reasonable.” (p. 69)

      In other words, she is NOT arguing that Buchanan was motivated by racism but by his “political-economic views.” In 1959, those views coincided precisely with those of the segregationists. Buchanan urged the exact policies that the most hardline segregationists of 1959 Virginia urged: the privatization of schools. When Prince Edward County DID privatize their schools African-American students went without schooling for five years. In those years, the segregationists were delighted and Buchanan assured a correspondent that Virginia had “largely resolved her own problems” in education (MacLean, p. 73). While he may or may not have been a racist, Buchanan was perfectly willing to ignore the welfare of African American students to advance his political agenda of privatizing schools.

      “– Look and be able to at least offer a truckload of circumstantial and ancillary evidence to show how racism and segregationist leanings are implicated in many other ideas or policy options that he advocated?”

      You do not understand MacLean’s argument. It is not that Buchanan was particularly interested in advancing segregation and racism: it is that he simply didn’t care if the policies he advocated hurt African-American communities. The response that one of his associates (Hutt) was an opponent of apartheid does nothing to excuse Buchanan’s actions of 1959.

      You write: “I am sure that if I were to assemble a list of all the PhD students of Buchanan, I would find quite a few who delved into the deep topic of racism using public choice tools.” I don’t share your confidence, but I’m perfectly willing to be shown the error of my ways. Once you have assembled a list of citations, I will certainly take a look. Until then, however, all we have is MacLean’s book and your assurance that what she says can’t be the case. Some evidence to that effect would help your refutation.

      • John,

        Maybe you missed the Washington Post‘s article refuting the accusation (a baseless one, as it turns out) that Buchanan “simply didn’t care if the policies he advocated hurt African-American communities”?

  4. Brandon Christensen: I had missed it, thank you for the link!

    It is nice to know that, a quarter century after he first recommended vouchers, he began to see the possible problems and voiced them in a private letter. You’ll note he did not do so publicly by contributing these views to the proposed volume, where his views may have done some good. We could posit that, if he really cared about African-American communities, he would have spoken out publicly, or done some research to show how such a commitment to diversity could have been achieved through a voucher program. Of course, he apparently never did so. And such a letter, 25 years after the Nutter and Buchanan paper of 1959 does nothing to inform us of Buchanan’s views of the late 1950s.

    There are three larger issues. First, of course, is that Bernstein’s article, is based on the wrong premise. No one is arguing that Buchanan was a closet racist who attempted to stymie racial justice at every turn. The argument is that Buchanan was interested in advancing his own political agenda and was willing to ignore racial justice when he thought doing so would advance his agenda, such as his actions in 1959. When embracing some form of racial justice would advance his agenda, he was willing to embrace it (although, as in that letter, he seemed to do so very weakly). Buchanan seems a textbook example of Derrick Bell’s notion of “interest convergence” in racial matters.

    Second, Bernstein, and others, have this rather bizarre notion that a single piece of counter-evidence somehow “falsifies” MacLean’s entire book. This is simply bad historiography. Bernstein seems to argue that because he discovered a letter from 1984 that somehow “proves” that Buchanan’s actions of 1959 weren’t morally reprehensible. Nor does he sponsorship of Hutt’s visit to Virginia some years later. People are complicated, their actions are often overdetermined. They sometimes act inconsistently.

    Third, why exactly are Buchanan’s defenders SO committed to trying to rescue him? If you look at Alvin Felzenberg’s recent biography of William F. Buckley Jr., Felzenberg, an admirer of Buckley, does not pull any punches regarding Buckley’s segregationist views before 1965. Felzenberg notes that there is nothing admirable about Buckley’s (or the NATIONAL REVIEW’S) racial views between 1955 and 1965; they were wrong to suggest segregation was justified and wrong in their views on white supremacy. Why do Buchanan’s supporters not simply do the same? Why do they feel the need to dredge up a few paragraphs in a private letter sent 25 years after the events as somehow exculpating Buchanan’s actions in the 1950s? It is very strange and I have no explanation for it. Even if they admire Buchanan, or he was their friend, it seems much more honest to admit that he, like many white southerners of the time, made serious mistakes in the era of Massive Resistance. Felzenberg’s admiration for Buckley does not seem diminished by his recognition that his hero made mistakes.

    • John,

      I don’t think your argument has any merit. For instance, your statement that MacLean’s “argument is that Buchanan was interested in advancing his own political agenda and was willing to ignore racial justice when he thought doing so would advance his agenda, such as his actions in 1959” has no proof that I know of.

      I think you and other Leftists are engaged in a witch hunt rather than looking for scholarly Truth. Your bizarre paragraph about National Review only furthers my hunch. Felzenberg condemned NR‘s defense of segregation because NR defended segregation. Buchanan’s defenders are pointing out that MacLean has no proof for her argument (whatever it may be at this point). What does that have to do with NR‘s defense of segregation?

      I don’t think we’re going to see eye-to-eye on this. I’ll never read MacLean’s book. It’s not a topic I’m interested in and it sounds like an Ann Coulter knock-off for Democrats. I came across some of James Buchanan’s work as an undergrad for a couple of courses I took in polisci. I had never heard of Nancy MacLean until the libertarian blogosphere took interest in her book. Buchanan won a Nobel Prize. His work will be around for awhile. Will MacLean’s? Possibly, but it will probably be for the stuff she did that earned her tenure rather than for a book that cashes in on the Evil Koch Brothers theme.

  5. Most of the libertarian critiques of MacLean betray their ignorance of history and historical argumentation. Absent a statement from Buchanan that literally says: “I”m a racist and I love segregation and my program is designed to further racist policies!” they claim their MacLean has no evidence. This is ridiculous, and I’ll note that their requirements for evidence only apply to MacLean, not to their own positions. For example, the OP has this paragraph:

    “Oh, wait, I forgot to mention the best part. Buchanan and Hutt were mutual admirers of one another. Buchanan cited Hutt’s work very often (see here and here) and spoke with admiration of Hutt (see notably this article here by Buchanan and this review of Hutt’s career where Buchanan is discussed briefly).”

    I invite you to go read the provided links. Hutt’s work on apartheid is mentioned in single sentence in the review of Hutt’s career (in a 32-page paper). NONE of the cited sources written by Buchanan make any mention whatsoever of Hutt’s work on apartheid. Nothing. These are the papers that supposedly show us that Buchanan brought Hutt to Virginia to attack segregation. I think they prove the exact opposite thing: that Hutt was brought to Virginia for other reasons (like critiquing unions), since those are the things that Buchanan actually cared about. My evidence for my claim are the very papers provided by the OP which make a single passing reference to Hutt’s work on apartheid (which was not even written by Buchanan) and a LOT of discussion of everything else he did. And let’s remember, this is the “best” part according to the OP.

    This is MacLean’s case:

    1 During massive resistance hardcore segregationist consistently urged that VA shut down its public schools and go to private schools to preserve racial segregation.

    2. In 1959, just before an important vote on privatization of schools, Nutter and Buchanan circulated a report telling legislatures of the great virtues of private schooling. They would be cheaper, there would be a great diversity of offerings of different types of education, the schools would meet the state’s obligations to provide the education needed for democracy. This was not a scholarly paper they prepared for a journal, this is a report they specifically wrote for the legislature for the EXPRESS purpose of intervening in the segregation issue. And it recommended the very path suggested by segregationists.

    3. Nutter and Buchanan then publish portions of that same report in the Richmond paper. These publications emerge even closer to the vote on privatization vote long urged by the segregationists. They repeat all their claims about private schools and *explicitly* claim they are publishing this report for the *precise* purpose of intervening in the “school crisis” debate.

    4. The state legislature rejects the privatization option. Nutter and Buchanan fail in their efforts to get the state to abandon public education.

    5. Prince Edward County *does* privatize their schools to the delight of segregationists. *None* of Nutter and Buchanan’s promised benefits emerge. African American students go without schooling completely. Buchanan makes no attempt to comment on the failure of his predictions or how his suggestions led to an incredible decrease of freedom for African Americans. He never speaks of it at all, though it happens about a hour drive from his home. In 1960 he writes a letter assuring the reader that Virginia has “solved” its segregation problem.

    MacLean’s critics would have us believe believe that the timing of #2 is, I dunno, just a coincidence? I actually have no idea why they think N & B would do those actions at that time. They would have you believe that Nutter and Buchanan’s *announced* intention to intervene in the “school crisis” (#3) did not happen. They are literally denying that the words that Nutter and Buchanan wrote in those articles right on the brink of the political decision to privatize all of Virginia’s schools. MacLean clearly has a much, much stronger case than libertarians who offer Hutt up as a counterexample when their own evidence shows Buchanan’s utter disinterest in Hutt’s work on race.

    You have no idea if I’m a “leftist” or not. I have no idea who counts as a “leftist” in your book. It is completely irrelevant to the issues at hand in any case. Let’s keep the discussion focused on the issues at hand rather than trying to guess each other’s political affiliations.

    • There is no issue, John.

      No evidence, no issue. (That’s how it works!) MacLean’s opportunistic book is just a good ol’ fashioned Leftist dog whistle. There’s no scholarly inquiry being undertaken.

      Consider, first, the following admission of guilt: I am a libertarian. To be fair and open with each other, you are a _______? (Fill in the blank.)

      Once you answer that simple question, please, answer this one: Is James Buchanan’s work on public choice a good framework for fighting racism?

      • At this stage, I wonder how you can be so sure there is no evidence since you haven’t read the book: “I’ll never read MacLean’s book. It’s not a topic I’m interested in.” Your statement “No evidence, no issue. (That’s how it works!) MacLean’s opportunistic book is just a good ol’ fashioned Leftist dog whistle. There’s no scholarly inquiry being undertaken” is from someone who has willingly embraced ignorance rather than trying to examine the issue or the evidence.

        When I outline the basics of MacLean’s argument (my 1-5 above) you ignore it and instead want to seek out my own political leanings. No. If you want to discuss, MacLean’s book, you need to go read it. I don’t want to discuss my own political leanings instead, thanks anyway. I suggest you go read the first 75 pages of MacLean’s book since that is all we’ve been discussing anyway.

        Is public choice theory a good framework for fighting racism? I dunno, no one has produced evidence to show me that it is. Given the public choice libertarians refusal to even SEE racism (as evidenced by our conversation) or to give a fair hearing to MacLean, I’d have to say that it probably isn’t.

        Let me know when you’ve read MacLean and can comment on it.

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