Horwitz on MacLean

October 14, 2017

Here’s the Cato Journal version of Steve Horwitz’s devastating review of Nancy MacLean’s fabulist tale, Democracy in Chains.  Some slices:

But the argument for school choice has a long history outside the context of race. For example, it appears in nearly identical form in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) exactly 100 years earlier. Like Mill, Nutter and Buchanan genuinely believed that their proposed system would provide a better education for all students. Given the way integration had been so strongly resisted by state governments in the south, their proposal, with all of its imperfections, would have plausibly been better than the status quo at delivering more integration. This is consistent with Buchanan’s career-long objections to utopian policy proposals, preferring instead imperfect changes that have a more realistic chance of improving people’s lives on the margin, even if they fall short of an imagined ideal.


MacLean also claims that public choice theory involves no empirical work (p. 42), and that no empirical support exists for it, ignoring the vast quantity of empirical research in its flagship journal Public Choice, including in the very first issue. The irony here is that she employs zero quantitative or statistical data to back up any of the empirical claims she makes about the failures of free markets or the influence of ideas (e.g., the very questionable claim that James Buchanan was highly influential in bringing people to libertarianism). Her reference to Charles Dickens’s novels, which are fiction, as a way to “grasp the reality of unregulated capitalism” is both an abuse of literature and nothing resembling empirical evidence.

And, most important, Phil Magness (2017a, 2017b) has pointed out that neither John Calhoun’s nor Donald Davidson’s name appears anywhere in the index of the 20 volumes of Buchanan’s collected works. There is one mention of the Southern Agrarians in his autobiography, but not as an intellectual influence. Buchanan names his intellectual influences in several places in his work, and neither of those names appears in those lists. It is stunning to anyone reasonably familiar with Buchanan’s work to read MacLean’s passages in which she gives prominence to those thinkers. There is simply no evidence whatsoever to support that intellectual influence. They appear to be figments of her imagination. Finally, nearly absent from the book is Buchanan’s teacher at Chicago, Frank Knight. He appears briefly as she discusses Buchanan’s Chicago experience, but she has no discussion of his role as a deep influence on a number of aspects of Buchanan’s thought. This is an enormous omission on her part, as anyone even casually familiar with Buchanan’s work would recognize.


In addition, she is unable to correctly explain the idea of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in the context of public choice’s explanation of the growth of government. Her discussion of Buchanan’s Southern Economic Association presidential address “What Should Economists Do?” shows that she does not understand what economists mean by “allocation problems” — it’s not about “resource distribution” and inequality. She gets the message of Buchanan’s “The Samaritan’s Dilemma” article completely backward. She also completely misreads Buchanan and Tullock’s (1962) discussion in The Calculus of Consent about the tradeoff between external costs and decisionmaking costs in the context of the role of the Constitution in 1900 and 1960, claiming they argue the exact opposite of what they do, as the next sentence after her truncated quote shows (p. 80). She claims (p. 290, fn. 42) that Tyler Cowen’s (1998)In Praise of Commercial Culture “elaborated on old shibboleths” from Ludwig von Mises’s (1956)The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, which only demonstrates that she either did not read or did not understand either book, as their overlap is minimal and their major claims are completely orthogonal to each other. At some point, her consistent pattern of misusing and misreading her sources, and always in the same way, has to lead even a sympathetic reader to wonder whether there is something more at work here than confirmation bias resulting from having exceeded her intellectual limits.


Having had our work so deeply misunderstood and maligned, including our commitment to improving the lives of all citizens, it’s understandable how strongly so many public choice scholars, and libertarian academics more broadly, have reacted to the book. In turn, MacLean has accused those scholars of a “coordinated attack,” and, at one point, claimed that “Koch operatives” were trying to destroy her reputation and silence her. The truth is simpler: when you attack a well-respected and beloved scholar and the ideas that many other living scholars take very seriously, they aren’t going to roll over and play dead. The pushback against MacLean’s book has included very careful documentation of her errors and misrepresentations as summarized above. Her response has been not to address the particular criticisms but to, instead, maintain the rhetoric of being unfairly “under attack” by the forces of the right. Her unwillingness to respond to the chapter-and-verse criticisms of her misinterpretations, misuse of sources, and unsupported claims is further evidence that concern with the truth is not her primary objective.


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