Mike Munger Reviews “Democracy in Chains”

by Don Boudreaux on June 30, 2017

in Books, Economics, Myths and Fallacies

Mike Munger’s review of Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is simultaneously scholarly and devastating.  Here are some slices (but do read the whole review):

But decoding and paraphrasing, rather than charitable quoting, is the organon of MacLean’s book. Not of her other work, however, which as I have said is admirably academic and careful. Just this book. She examined some documents from the Buchanan archives, which by her own account (xvii–xx) were so poorly organized that no systematic review was possible.

MacLean decided a systematic review wasn’t necessary, because she found what she needed. For example, on page 66 of Democracy in Chains, we learn of the attempt by segregationist forces to support vouchers. MacLean says, “The economists made their case in the race-neutral, value-free language of their discipline, offering what they depicted as a strictly economic argument—on ‘matters of fact, not values.’” MacLean quotes nothing that would cleanly support the claim that Buchanan advocated vouchers for the purpose of achieving segregation.


It happens that Duke University’s Department of Political Science is located on Duke’s main campus, in Durham, N.C., and is listed in the phone book. Anyone at Duke who wanted to find it would have no difficulty doing so. Further, the department has important resources for any scholar with a serious interest in researching James Buchanan. The department has two past presidents of the Public Choice Society (Geoffrey Brennan and Michael Munger), and one current president (Georg Vanberg). We are not fringe members of the Duke community; I was chair of Political Science for ten years, Vanberg is the current chair, and Brennan was the long-time Director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Geoff Brennan was the long-time associate of Buchanan, producing three major coauthored books, more than ten journal articles, and two major edited works that dealt with Buchanan’s overall contributions to political science and philosophy.

In short, I would expect that a sophomore undergraduate who was writing a paper on Buchanan, even a one-off paper for a classroom assignment, would have recognized the value in consulting Brennan, at a minimum, and probably also Vanberg (who was a family friend of Buchanan since childhood). But neither Brennan nor Vanberg were ever consulted, nor even contacted, by MacLean. Nor, if it matters, was I.

The reason this matters is that all three of us, Brennan, Munger, and Vanberg, can attest that Buchanan was extremely cautious about the propriety of taking money from sources that attached any kinds of strings or conditions to a grant. Most particularly, in terms of the narrative in Democracy in Chains, James Buchanan never accepted funds directly from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, if those funds had any sort of ideological condition or litmus test.

The reason that this point is important is that the new favorite parlor game of the academic political left is “Six Degrees of Charles Koch” (much like the Kevin Bacon version but not nearly as fun). If it can be shown that the Koch Foundation contributed to an organization, which gave a donation to another group, which in turn supported yet another . . . well, you get the idea. If a researcher can establish that there is any connection between a scholar and “Koch money,” that scholar can simply be dismissed. Notice how problematic this trope is: one doesn’t have to react to the ideas or arguments of the opponent, if she can establish “Six Degrees of Charles Koch.”

To see how silly this game is, consider: Duke University has received a wide variety of different kinds of support from the Charles Koch Foundation over the past decades, and the total amount received is considerable. This means that Professor Nancy MacLean works for a “Koch-Funded Institution” called Duke University. (In the game, Koch funding, no matter what the amount, taints the whole institution.)

But then, by the rules, Democracy in Chains should be readily dismissed, because it was produced by a scholar at a Koch-funded institution. Now, MacLean would (plausibly) object that you can’t dismiss all the work just because of one source of support. You would have to read the work to decide if it had merit. Anything else would be embarrassingly shoddy scholarship.

Yet it is quite clear that MacLean has not read Buchanan’s substantive work. To be fair, few people have; Liberty Fund’s Collected Works of James Buchanan (2001) runs to nineteen large volumes. To be fair, however, many people have pretended that they can read the mind of a scholar without reading the work of that scholar, based simply on the source of funding. But you can’t have it both ways: either “Koch-Funded” is cause for dismissal, in which case MacLean’s book is useless right-wing propaganda, or you do have to read the work, and “Koch-Funded” tells you nothing about the content of the work or its merit.


The misuse of the cut-and-paste feature of MacLean’s word processor is not accidental, and it is not intended ironically. MacLean knew perfectly well that the main points of Public Choice are that checks and balances are actually crucial, and that “social consensus in favor of the Constitution” is good, not bad, for Public Choice scholars. Thus, it is not “fair to say” that [Tyler] Cowen was writing a handbook for fifth-column subversion. But the truth is rather boring, and that just wasn’t the story she wanted to tell here. As you read the book, you may notice that when something like “fair to say” is used for a paraphrase, that paraphrase is destructive of the meaning the person being quoted actually intended.


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