Yet More Careless Mischaracterization by Nancy MacLean

July 23, 2017
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Yet More Careless Mischaracterization by Nancy MacLean

On page 290 of Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes the following:

[Tyler] Cowen’s first book, The Theory of Market Failure: A Critical Examination, was a collection of essays copublished by the Cato Institute and designed to refute the key argument for government intervention: that markets often fail. Offering tribute to public choice economics, it showcased nonscholars on the payrolls of three different Koch-funded nonprofits.

Wow!  Seems as though this book is filled with hack works by hack writers.  It must be a book devoted, in good part, to ‘showcasing’ nonscholars doing dirty work for evil oligarchs.

Let’s take a look at the “nonscholars” whose papers are collected in this book (listed below in order of appearance in the book) and where their papers originally appeared:

  • Tyler Cowen (at the time an assistant professor of economics at U.C.-Irvine) [publication original to this volume]
  • Paul Samuelson (first American to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Science) [Review of Economics and Statistics]
  • Francis Bator (professor of political economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School) [Quarterly Journal of Economics]
  • Kenneth Goldin (professor of economics, Cal.-State at Fullerton) [Public Choice]
  • Earl Brubaker (professor of economics, Naval Postgraduate School) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Harold Demsetz (professor of economics, UCLA) [Journal of Law & Economic]
  • Andrew Schotter (associate professor of economics, NYU) [from Schotter’s 1981 Cambridge University Press book, The Economic Theory of Social Institutions]
  • Charles Tiebout (professor of economics till his 1969 death, University of Washington) [Journal of Political Economy]
  • James M. Buchanan (professor of economics, George Mason University; 1986 Nobel laureate) [Economica]
  • Carl Dahlman (economist, U.S. Dep’t. of Health and Human Services) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Robert Axelrod (professor of political science and public policy, University of Michigan) [from his highly regarded 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation]
  • Ronald Coase (professor of law, University of Chicago; 1991 Nobel laureate) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Steven N.S. Cheung (professor of economics, University of Hong Kong) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Robert Poole (president of the Reason Foundation) [from the 1980 book Cutting Back City Hall]
  • Robert J. Smith (Competitive Enterprise Institute) [publication original to this volume]
  • Jack High (professor of economics, George Mason University) and Jerome Ellig (Citizens for a Sound Economy) [publication original to this volume]

Looks like a pretty scholarly group to me.  This list plainly belies MacLean’s description of the 1993 Cowen-edited volume as one that “showcased nonscholars.”  Anyone who knows anything about the market-failure literature knows that most of these contributors are very well-known and highly respected scholars.

Of course, not all contributors are as well-known as Buchanan, Coase, and Samuelson.  And, indeed, the least well-known of the group (Poole, Smith, and Ellig) are the ones connected to “Koch-funded nonprofits.”  But this fact does not mean that these three men are “nonscholars.”  (I don’t know about Bob Poole or Robert Smith, but I know that Jerry Ellig has a PhD in economics, from GMU, and has written several scholarly journal articles [one with me, long ago, in the Journal of Air Law & Commerce]).  Moreover, anyone who reads their contributions to this volume will see clearly that these are papers written by genuine scholars.  And does the placement of the papers by Poole, Smith, and Ellig suggest that Tyler “showcased” these papers?  Does the array of contributors, and their order of appearance in this collection, justify MacLean’s description of the book as one that “showcased nonscholars”?  I think the answer is no, but you, dear reader, judge for yourself.

(I believe that the “Koch-funded nonprofits” that MacLean has in mind are Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation.  Authors associated with these nonprofits are responsible for three of the 16 papers in this collection.  I know too little about the now-defunct Citizens for a Sound Economy to pronounce on it.  But I’m quite certain that, while both the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Reason Foundation likely did – and perhaps still do – receive some contributions from one or both of the Koch brothers, those contributions did not, and do not, come close to being the principal source of funding for either organization.  So MacLean’s manner of referring to these organizations as “Koch-funded” is misleading given that this reference – especially in the context of what MacLean would describe as the “totality” of her book – seems to suggest that these organizations are puppets of the Kochs.)

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