On Nancy MacLean’s Thesis

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains continues to yield surprises. Just a few days ago, Phil Magness now shows a “typo” that plays a significant role in MacLean’s thesis.

Despite all these detailed scrutiny of her work, it is not clear that MacLean understand the type of error is being pointed out about her book. There are two types of errors regarding a thesis: (1) the thesis is correctly defined, but the proof is flawed, or (2) the thesis is incorrectly defined, in which case there is no need to test the thesis. What MacLean and her supporters don’t seem to realize is that Democracy in Chains is built on the second error, not on the first one. Instead of ignoring her critics, MacLean should be up to the academic game and engage accordingly. Her behavior is very telling. If her research is so solid, what’s the problem?

Consider he following example. Let’s say you find a book built on the thesis that Milton Friedman was a french communist who lived in the 18th century. You don’t need to read this book to know that the author is wrong on her argument. This book on Friedman is both factually (Friedman did not live in the 18th century and was not French) and theoretically (Friedman was not a communist) wrong. This is how wrong MacLean’s thesis on Buchanan is for anyone with some minimal exposure to his work and Public Choice.

There a few reasons why someone would still read Democracy in Chains. For instance, if the book is a preach to the choir To try to understand how such a misguided thesis can actually be supported by by an author with so little knowledge and expertise on Buchanan and Public Choice. Etc. But a reason why MacLean thinks that their critics are unwilling to consider her thesis is because she is unaware her error is the second one mentioned above. Her thesis is just wrong from the go.


On the Difference between Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Increasing Central Planning

Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.

What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.

On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.

The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London,  1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).

F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.

Inventions that didn’t change the world

Have you ever learned about an amazing invention–whether it was the Baghdad battery or the ancient Roman steam engine or Chinese firecrackers–and wondered why it didn’t do more to change the world? In this podcast, we examine a selection of curiosities and explore hypotheses for why their inventors didn’t use them to full effect.

We move VERY quickly through a range of fascinating examples and hypotheses, and therefore leave a lot up to discussion. We hope to see your thoughts, feedback, and additions in the comments section!

For any invention that you want to learn more about, see the links below:

Knossos’ toilets

In the 2nd millennium BC, a “palace” (now thought to be a building that served as administrative, trade, and gathering hub) had running-water toilet flushing. Much like the Roman Cloaca Maxima, likely a HUGE public-health benefit, but basically died out. Does this show that military protection/staving off the “Dark Ages” was the only way to maintain amazing inventions?

Link: http://www.nature.com/news/the-secret-history-of-ancient-toilets-1.19960;

The Nimrud lens

Whether it was a fire-starter, a magnifying glass, or (for some overeager astronomy enthusaists), the Neo-Assyrian ground-crystal Nimrud lens is an invention thousands of years out of place. While the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used lenses of different sorts, and glass-blowing was certainly popular by the 1st century BC in Roman Egypt, no glass lenses were made until the Middle Ages and the potential scientific and engineering uses of lenses–that can hardly be understated even in their 16th-to-18th-century applications–had to wait another couple millennia. Many devices like the Baghdad battery and Antikythera device are heralded for their possible engineering genius, but this seems like a simple one with readily available applications that disappeared from the historical record.


Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine

In the 1st century AD, Hero was a master of simple machines (that were mostly used for plays) and also invented a force pump, a wind-powered machine, even an early vending machine. However, he is likely most famous for his Aeolipile, a rotating steam engine that used heated water to spin an axle. The best attested use of this is for devotion to the divine and party tricks.


The ancient mechanical reaper

Ancient Gallo-Romans (or just Gauls) invented a novel way of grain harvesting: rather than using sickles or scythes, they used a mechanical reaper, 1700 years before Cyrus McCormick more than tripled the productivity of American farmers. This antiquated device literally but the cart before the oxen and required two men to operate: one man to drive the beasts, and another to knock the ears off the stalk (this reaper was obviously far less sophisticated than McCormick’s). This invention did not survive the Volkswanderung period.



Note: the horse collar (which allowed horses to be used to plow) was invented in 1600-1400 BC in China AND the Levant, but was not applied widely until 1000 AD in Europe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_collar.


Madhav, an Indian doctor, compiled hundreds of cures in his Nidana, including an inoculation against smallpox that showed an understanding of disease transmission (he would take year-old smallpox-infected flesh and touch it to a recently made cutaneous wound). However, the next 13 centuries did not see Indian medical understanding of viruses or bacteria, or even copied techniques of this, development. https://books.google.com/books?id=Hkc3QnbagK4C&pg=PA105&lpg=PA105&dq=madhav+indian+smallpox+inoculation&source=bl&ots=4RFPuvbf5Y&sig=iyDaNUs4u5N7xHH6-pvlbAY9fcQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwic8e-1-JXVAhUp6IMKHfw3DLsQ6AEIOjAD#v=onepage&q=madhav%20indian%20smallpox%20inoculation&f=false

At least, thank god, their methods of giving nose jobs to those who had had their noses cut off as a punishment survived: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rhinoplasty

The Chinese:

List of all chinese inventions:



Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists attempting to discover the elixir of life (irony, no?)



(maybe a good corollary would be Greek fire, which was used effectively in naval warfare by the Byzantines, but which was not improved upon and the recipe of which is still secret: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire)


The Chinese invented the printing press possibly as early as the 6th century. However, unlike the explosion of literacy seen in much of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe–see our last podcast), the Chinese masses never learned to read. In fact, in 1950 fewer than 20% of Chinese citizens were literate. Compare this to Europe, where some societies saw literacy rates of as high as 90% (Sweden, Male population) in some societies within a few centuries of the introduction of the printing press. Why? There may be several reasons–cultural, religious, political–but in our opinion, it would have to be the characters: 100,000 blocks were needed to create a single set.



They also invented pulped paper by the 2nd century BC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_inventions.

The compass

Invented by 200 BC for divination and used for navigation by the Song dynasty; despite this and the availability of easily colonizable islands within easy sailing distance, the Chinese did not colonize Indonesia, Polynesia, or Oceania, while the Europeans did within the century after they developed the technology and first sailed there.


The rudder

While they did not invent the rudder, they invented the “medial, axial, and vertical” sternpost rudder that would become standard in Europe almost 1,000 years before it was used in Europe (1st century AD vs 11th century).

Natural gas

The Chinese discovered “fire wells” (natural gas near the surface) and erected shrines to worship there.


They even understood their potential for fuel, but never developed beyond primitive burning and bamboo piping despite having advanced mining techniques for it by the 1st century BC.

Chinese miscelleni:

Hydraulic powered fan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_(machine)#History

Cuppola furnace for smelting and molding iron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_furnace.

Coke as a fuel source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

Belt-drive spinning wheel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

The Precolumbian wheel

The pre- and early Mayans had toys that utilized primitive wheels, but did not use them for any labor-saving purpose (even their gods were depicted carrying loads on their backs). This may have been because scaling up met with mechanical difficulties, but the potential utility of wheels in this case with a bit of investment literally sat unrealized for centuries.


The Tucker:


The following book contained some of our hypotheses:



The rest of our hypotheses were amalgamated from our disparate classes in economics and history, but none of them are our own or uncommon in academic circles. Thanks for listening!

The Deleted Clause of the Declaration of Independence

As a tribute to the great events that occurred 241 years ago, I wanted to recognize the importance of the unity of purpose behind supporting liberty in all of its forms. While an unequivocal statement of natural rights and the virtues of liberty, the Declaration of Independence also came close to bringing another vital aspect of liberty to the forefront of public attention. As has been addressed in multiple fascinating podcasts (Joe Janes, Robert Olwell), a censure of slavery and George III’s connection to the slave trade was in the first draft of the Declaration.

Thomas Jefferson, a man who has been criticized as a man of inherent contradiction between his high morals and his active participation in slavery, was a major contributor to the popularizing of classical liberal principles. Many have pointed to his hypocrisy in that he owned over 180 slaves, fathered children on them, and did not free them in his will (because of his debts). Even given his personal slaves, Jefferson made his moral stance on slavery quite clear through his famous efforts toward ending the transatlantic slave trade, which exemplify early steps in securing the abolition of the repugnant act of chattel slavery in America and applying classically liberal principles toward all humans. However, this very practice may have been enacted far sooner, avoiding decades of appalling misery and its long-reaching effects, if his (hypocritical but principled) position had been adopted from the day of the USA’s first taste of political freedom.

This is the text of the deleted Declaration of Independence clause:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another..”

The second Continental Congress, based on hardline votes of South Carolina and the desire to avoid alienating potential sympathizers in England, slaveholding patriots, and the harbor cities of the North that were complicit in the slave trade, dropped this vital statement of principle

The removal of the anti-slavery clause of the declaration was not the only time Jefferson’s efforts might have led to the premature end of the “peculiar institution.” Economist and cultural historian Thomas Sowell notes that Jefferson’s 1784 anti-slavery bill, which had the votes to pass but did not because of a single ill legislator’s absence from the floor, would have ended the expansion of slavery to any newly admitted states to the Union years before the Constitution’s infamous three-fifths compromise. One wonders if America would have seen a secessionist movement or Civil War, and how the economies of states from Alabama and Florida to Texas would have developed without slave labor, which in some states and counties constituted the majority.

These ideas form a core moral principle for most Americans today, but they are not hypothetical or irrelevant to modern debates about liberty. Though America and the broader Western World have brought the slavery debate to an end, the larger world has not; though countries have officially made enslavement a crime (true only since 2007), many within the highest levels of government aid and abet the practice. 30 million individuals around the world suffer under the same types of chattel slavery seen millennia ago, including in nominal US allies in the Middle East. The debates between the pursuit of non-intervention as a form of freedom and the defense of the liberty of others as a form of freedom have been consistently important since the 1800’s (or arguably earlier), and I think it is vital that these discussions continue in the public forum. I hope that this 4th of July reminds us that liberty is not just a distant concept, but a set of values that requires constant support, intellectual nurturing, and pursuit.

Adam Smith on the character of the American rebels

They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world. Five hundred different people, perhaps, who in different ways act immediately under the continental congress; and five hundred thousand, perhaps, who act under those five hundred, all feel in the same manner a proportionable rise in their own importance. Almost every individual of the governing party in America fills, at present in his own fancy, a station superior, not only to what he had ever filled before, but to what he had ever expected to fill; and unless some new object of ambition is presented either to him or to his leaders, if he has the ordinary spirit of a man, he will die in defence of that station.

Found here. Today, many people, especially libertarians in the US, celebrate an act of secession from an overbearing empire, but this isn’t really the case of what happened. The colonies wanted more representation in parliament, not independence. London wouldn’t listen. Adam Smith wrote on this, too, in the same book.

Smith and, frankly, the Americans rebels were all federalists as opposed to nationalists. The American rebels wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom because they were British subjects and they were culturally British. Even the non-British subjects of the American colonies felt a loyalty towards London that they did not have for their former homelands in Europe. Smith, for his part, argued that losing the colonies would be expensive but also, I am guessing, because his Scottish background showed him that being an equal part of a larger whole was beneficial for everyone involved. But London wouldn’t listen. As a result, war happened, and London lost a huge, valuable chunk of its realm to hardheadedness.

I am currently reading a book on post-war France. It’s by an American historian at New York University. It’s very good. Paris had a large overseas empire in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. France’s imperial subjects wanted to remain part of the empire, but they wanted equal representation in parliament. They wanted to send senators, representatives, and judges to Europe, and they wanted senators, representatives, and judges from Europe to govern in their territories. They wanted political equality – isonomia – to be the ideological underpinning of a new French republic. Alas, what the world got instead was “decolonization”: a nightmare of nationalism, ethnic cleansing, coups, autocracy, and poverty through protectionism. I’m still in the process of reading the book. It’s goal is to explain why this happened. I’ll keep you updated.

Small states, secession, and decentralization – three qualifications that layman libertarians (who are still much smarter than conservatives and “liberals”) argue are essential for peace and prosperity – are worthless without some major qualifications. Interconnectedness matters. Political representation matters. What’s more, interconnectedness and political representation in a larger body politic are often better for individual liberty than smallness, secession, and so-called decentralization. Equality matters, but not in the ways that we typically assume.

Here’s more on Adam Smith at NOL. Happy Fourth of July, from Texas.

Against Guilt by Historical Association: A Note on MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains”

It’s this summer’s hottest pastime for libertarian-leaning academics: finding examples of bad scholarship in Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains. For those out of the loop, MacLean, a history professor at Duke University, argues in her book that Nobel-prize winning public choice economist James Buchanan is part of some Koch-funded vast right-libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy as inspired by southern racist agrarians and confederates like John Calhoun. This glowing review from NPR should give you a taste of her argument, which often has the air of a bizarre conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, to make these arguments she’s had to cut some huge corners in her federally-funded research. Here’s a round-up of her dishonesty:

  • David Bernstein points out how MacLean’s own sources contradict her claims that libertarian Frank Chodorov disagreed with the ruling in Brown v. Board.
  • Russ Roberts reveals how out-of-context Tyler Cowen was taken by MacLean, misquoting him to attribute to Cowen a view which he was arguing against.
  • David Henderson finds that she did the same thing to Buchanan.
  • Steve Horwitz points out how wildly out-of-context MacLean took a quote from Buchanan on public education.
  • Phil Magness reveals how much MacLean needed to wildly reach to tie Buchanan to southern agrarians with his use of the word “Leviathan.”
  • Phil Magness, again, reveals MacLean needed to do the same thing to tie Buchanan to Calhoun.
  • David Bernstein finds several factual errors about MacLean’s telling of the history of George Mason’s University.

I’m sure there is more to come. But, poor scholarship and complete dishonesty in source citation aside, an important question needs to be asked about all this: even if MacLean didn’t need to reach so far to paint Buchanan in such a negative light, why should we care?

I admittedly haven’t read her book yet (so could be wrong), but from the way even positive reviewers paint it and the way she talks about it herself in interviews (see around 15:30 of that episode), one can infer that she is in no way interested in a nuanced analytical critique of Buchanan’s public choice models or his arguments in favor of constitutional restrictions on democratic majorities. Her argument, if you can call it that, seems to be something like this:

  1. Democracy and majority rule are inherently good.
  2. James Buchanan wants stricter restrictions on democratic majority rule, and so did some Southern racists.
  3. Therefore, James Buchanan is a racist, evil corporate shill.

Even if she didn’t need to establish premise 2, why should we care? Every ideology has elements of it that can be tied to some seedy elements of the past, it doesn’t make the arguments that justify those ideologies wrong. For example, the pro-choice and women’s health movement has its roots in attempts to market birth control to race-based eugenicists (though these links, like MacLean’s attempts, aren’t as insidious as some on the modern right make them out to be), that does not mean modern women’s health advocates are racial eugenicists. Early advocates of the minimum wage argued for wage floors for racist and sexist reasons, yet nobody really thinks (or, at least, should think) modern progressives have dubious racist motives for wanting to raise the minimum wage. The American Economic Association was founded by racist eugenicists in the American Institutionalist school, yet nobody thinks modern economists are racist or that anyone influenced by the institutionalists today is a eugenicist. The Democratic Party used to be the party of the KKK, yet nobody (except the most obnoxious of Republican partisans) thinks that’s at all relevant to the DNC’s modern platform. Heidegger was heavily linked to Nazism and anti-Semitism, but it’s impossible to write off and ignore his philosophical contributions and remain intellectually honest.

Similarly, even if Buchanan did read Calhoun and it got him thinking about constitutional reform, that does not at all mean he agreed with Calhoun on slavery or that modern libertarian-leaning public choice theorists are neo-confederates, and it has even less to do with the merits of Buchanan’s analytical critiques of how real-world democracies function. In fact, as Vincent Geloso has pointed out here at NOL, Buchanan has given modern scholars the analytical tools to critique racism.

Intellectual history is messy and complicated, and can often lead to links we might—with the benefit of historical hindsight—view as situated in an unsavory context. However, as long as those historical lineages have little to no bearing on people’s motivations for making similar arguments or being intellectual inheritors of similar ideological traditions today (which isn’t always the case), there is no relevance to modern discourse other than perhaps idle historical curiosity. These types of attempts to cast guilt upon one’s intellectual opponents through historical association are, at best, another intellectually lazy version of the genetic fallacy (which MacLean also loves to commit when she starts conspiratorially complaining about Koch Brothers funding).

Just tell me if this sounds like a good argument to you:

  1. Historical figure X makes a similar argument Y to what you’re making.
  2. X was a racist and was influenced by some racists.
  3. Therefore, Y is wrong.

If it doesn’t, you’re right, 3 doesn’t follow from 2 (and in MacLean’s case 1 is a stretch).

Please, if you want to criticize someone’s arguments, actually criticize their arguments; don’t rely on a tabloid version of intellectual history to dismiss them, especially when that intellectual history is a bunch of dishonest misquotations and hand-waving associations.

Adam Smith: a historical historical detective?


Adrian Blau at King’s College London has an on-going project of making methods in political theory more useful, transparent and instructive, especially for students interested in historical scholarship.

I found his methods lecture, that he gave to Master’s students and went onto publish as ‘History of political thought as detective work’, particularly helpful for formulating my approach to political theory. The advantage of Blau’s advice is that it avoids pairing technique with theory. You can be a Marxist, a Straussian, a contextualist, anything or nothing, and still apply Blau’s technique.

Blau suggests that we adopt the persona of a detective when trying to understand the meaning of historical texts. That is, we should acknowledge

  • uncertainty associated with our claims
  • that facts of the matter will almost certainly be under-determined by the available evidence
  • that conflicting evidence probably exists for any interesting question
  • that interpreting any piece of evidence through any exclusive theoretical lens is likely to lead us to error

To make more compelling inferences in the face of these challenges, we can use techniques of triangulation (using independent sources of evidence together). This could include arguing for an interpretation of a thinker’s argument based on a close reading of their text, while showing that other people in the thinker’s social milieu deployed language in a similar way (contextual), and also showing how helpful that argument was for achieving a political end that was salient in that time and place (motivation).

Continue reading