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.

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Public choice and market failure: Jeffrey Friedman on Nancy MacLean

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Jeffrey Friedman has a well-argued piece on interpreting public choice in the wake of Nancy MacLean’s conspiratorial critique of one of its founding theorists, James Buchanan. While agreeing that MacLean is implausibly uncharitable in her interpretation of Buchanan, Friedman suggests that many of Buchanan’s defenders are themselves in an untenable position. This is because public choice allows theorists to make uncharitable assumptions about political actors that they have never met or observed. In this sense, MacLean is simply imputing her preferred own set of bad motives onto her political opponents. What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander.

I think Friedman’s arguments are a valid critique of the way that public choice is sometimes deployed in popular discourse. A lot of libertarian commentary assumes that those seeking political power are uniquely bad people, always having self-interest and self-aggrandisement as their true aim. Given that this anti-politics message is associated with getting worse political leaders who are becoming progressively less friendly to individual liberty, this approach to characterising politicians seems counterproductive. However, I don’t think Friedman’s position is such a good fit for Buchanan himself or most of those working in the scholarly public choice tradition.

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BC’s weekend reads

  1. I thought the Nancy MacLean’s book attacking James Buchanan was great for present-day libertarianism, in that it only weakens the already weak Left. Henry Farrell and Steven Teles share my sensibilities.
  2. What is public choice, anyway? And what is it good for?
  3. One of the Notewriters reviews James C Scott’s Seeing Like A State
  4. Aztec Political Thought
  5. Turkey dismisses 7,000 in fresh purge
  6. 10 Chinese Megacities to See Before You Die

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.

James Buchanan on racism

McLean

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.