More MacLean Mistakes

by Don Boudreaux on June 27, 2017

in Antitrust, Books, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter to The New Republic:

In her interview with you, Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean says about my late Nobel-laureate colleague, James Buchanan, that his market-oriented worldview “does not recognize that private, economic power has a capacity to coerce” (“The Right’s War Against Liberal Democracy,” June 27).  For someone who is credited in some circles for having produced, in Democracy in Chains, an “intellectual biography” of Buchanan, it’s astonishing that Prof. MacLean missed Buchanan’s long support for active antitrust enforcement – that is, his support for a government policy that Buchanan believed was necessary to counter private, economic power with the capacity to coerce.

Even more astonishing is MacLean’s assertion that Buchanan-style libertarians’ “fundamental core concepts” come from John C. Calhoun.  Her only evidence for this claim – namely, that Calhoun was mentioned as an influence by the libertarian Murray Rothbard – isn’t evidence at all.  Buchanan was no great admirer of Rothbard, and the number of times that Calhoun is cited in any of Buchanan’s published works is zero.  As in “never.”  Not once.*  (I knew Buchanan for the last 28 years of his life and I do not recall ever hearing Jim mention Calhoun.)

The scholars that Buchanan did admire and cite most frequently, and who truly are major sources of the ideas that form the core of Buchanan-style libertarianism, are Adam Smith, James Madison, the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell, the American economist Frank Knight, and the Austrian-British economist F.A. Hayek.  (Buchanan had pictures of only two people hanging in his office: one of Wicksell and the other of Knight.)  That MacLean attempts to tarnish the scholarship and motives of Jim Buchanan by suggesting, without a shred of evidence, that his understanding of, and support for, private property rights spring from the ideas of an infamous apologist for chattel slavery is reason enough to dismiss anything that MacLean writes about Buchanan personally or about the classical-liberal tradition that Jim did so much to strengthen.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* Confirmed by checking the full index to The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan and the index of a volume of Jim’s works (Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative) published after the completion of Jim’s Collected Works.

I disagree with Jim’s support for antitrust enforcement, but that he believed in the usefulness of this particular government policy is clear.

UPDATE: Tom Palmer reminds me that Buchanan was also heavily influenced by the Italian economists Giovanni Montemartini and Amilcare Puviani.

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