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.

Stock markets and economic growth: from Smoot-Hawley to Donald Trump

In a recent article for the Freeman, Steve Horwitz (who has the great misfortune of being my co-author) argued that stock markets tell us very little about trends in economic growth. Stock markets tell us a lot about profits, but profits of firms on the stock market may be higher because of cronyism. Basically, that is Steve’s argument. He applies this argument in order to respond to those who say that a soaring stock market is the proof that Donald Trump is “good” for the economy.

I know Steve’s article was published roughly a month ago, so I am a little late. But I tend to believe it is never too late to talk about economic history. And basically, its worth pointing out that there are economic history examples to show Steve’s point. In fact, its the best example: Smoot-Hawley.

Bernard Beaudreau from Laval University has advanced, for some years, an underconsumptionist view of the Great Depression (I consider it a “dead theory”). While I am highly unconvinced by this theory (in both its original and current “post-keynesian” reformulation), Beaudreau tries hard to resurrect the theory (see here and here) and merits to be discussed. In the process, Beaudreau attempted to reestimated the effects of of Smoot-Hawley on the stock market with an events study. Unconvinced about the rest of his research, this is a clear instance of sorting the wheat from the chaff. In this case, the wheat is his work (see here for his article in Essays in Economic and Business History) on Smoot-Hawley.

Basically, Beaudreau found that good news regarding the probability of the adoption of the tariff bill actually pushed the stock market to appreciate. Thus, Smoot-Hawley -which had so many negative macroeconomic ramifications* – actually boosted the stock market. Firms that gained from the rising tariffs actually saw greater profits for themselves and thus the firms on the stock market would have been excited at the prospect of restricting their competitors. If that is true, could it be that Donald Trump is the modern equivalent (for the stock market) of Smoot-Hawley.

*NDLR: I believe that Allan Meltzer was right in saying that the Smoot-Hawley might have had monetary ramifications that contributed to the money supply collapse. It was a real shock that precipitated the collapse of weak banks which then caused a nominal shock and then the sh*t hit the proverbial fan.

I wish I could just list every idea I’ve encountered then never cite anything…

Steve Horwitz has a great piece in the Freeman that I wish I’d written. The tl;dr: Voting isn’t all there is to political participation. This is an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head as I’m constantly remound that I’m now an American citizen (sorry everyone else in the world…) and that this November I’ll be eligible to vote for who I think should foster anti-American sentiments internationally (Republicans) or  domestically (Democrats).

The other day I said I’d consider voting but I couldn’t recall whose name I’d write in (turns out it’s Willie Nelson*). But my usual response to any question about whether I’ll vote is “No, it just encourages the bastards.” When that’s countered with “blah blah blah civic engagement blah blah” I retort with,essentially, Horwitz’s point: My vote is not going to change the outcome**, but I can contribute value by trying to convince my students that economics matters and that a vote for third party candidate (even a Green Party vote) does more good than a vote for the big two.

I don’t know where I picked up that idea, but if I’d remembered, I would have posted his piece here before he did. Even better would be if I could just list a repository of everything I’ve ever read (or heard) in some public place and just write and write without worrying about citing anything.

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Aging Hippies Aren’t So Hip

This is not new to anyone under the age of 40, but this New York Times article is a nice nail in the coffin of the pernicious myth that hippies are somehow radical Leftists. It talks about how young people are becoming more fiscally conservative and socially liberal. That is to say, that most people are becoming more libertarian. The NYT doesn’t mention the “l” word, of course, but the libertarian streak is easy to see nonetheless.

Economist Steve Horwitz has a great take on this on his Facebook page. He wrote:

This is good thing. A more socially progressive GOP is a better GOP. Of course these kids are really libertarians and don’t know it. But if you really want some laughs, read the comments. See how old-fart, un-hip leftists are mystified that young people might think leftist ideas have failed and genuinely believe that there are better ways to improve the world. See the hate, see the befuddlement, see the frustration. Try some new ideas folks, maybe the young’uns will then think you’re hip again.

‘Nuff said.

The Champions of Los Angeles.

Socialism and Empire, Not Immigration, Are Destroying America.

Status Quo Biasing and Conformity Signaling.

A Few Good Debates

I have often thought that debating other people is just as good (if not better) for learning about other how other people think (and imagine things) as reading a book on a subject.  In this spirit, I thought it’d be cool to point out some of the great debates I’ve had a pleasure of being a part of either though participation or simply as an observer.

Cato Unbound is by far the best place to go if you want to get a good, scholarly, but still colloquial, debate on a topic.  This month’s lead essay is on ‘Bleeding Heart Libertarianism’ and features responses from a number of prominent academics.  I highly recommend taking some time to read through the whole symposium.

Over at the blog Coordination Problem, economist Steve Horwitz takes a grad student (Daniel Kuehn) out for a beating in the proverbial woodshed in the ‘comments’ section.

Again in the ‘comments’ section, I take Jacques Delacroix to school on matters of foreign policy and the law.

And at MarginalRevolution, co-bloggers Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok go at it on banking institutions.  Here is Part 1 (by TC), Part 2 (AT), Part 3 (TC), and Part 4 (AT).

All of these are tough reads with lots of top scholars debating big ideas (save for me, though Jacques is a world-renowned scholar on international trade and development), so you might want to come back to this post and click around a little bit at a time.  All of the debates are highly, highly recommended.

Oh, and the Mises Institute has their new blog up and running (it’s very good): The Circle Bastiat