MacLean on Madison – and Madison on Property Rights

by Don Boudreaux on July 30, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Property Rights, Virginia Political Economy

Here are the final lines of Nancy MacLean’s Introduction (titled “A Quiet Deal in Dixie”*) to her fabulist tale, Democracy in Chains.

The first step toward understanding what this cause actually wants is to identify the deep lineage of its core ideas. And although its spokespersons would like you to believe they are disciples of James Madison, the leading architect of the U.S. Constitution, it is not true.[37] Their intellectual lodestar is John C. Calhoun. He developed his radical critique of democracy a generation after the nation’s founding, as the brutal economy of chattel slavery became entrenched in the South—and his vision horrified Madison.

By now, MacLean’s argument that Jim Buchanan, the scholar, and public choice, the body of scholarship, were influenced chiefly, or even at all, by John C. Calhoun has been totally discredited.  But what about MacLean’s argument that James Madison was horrified by Calhoun’s vision and, therefore by MacLean’s suggestion, would be horrified by Buchanan and public choice?

It’s true that Madison – who was still alive and active when Calhoun was making his case for “concurrent majorities” – strongly opposed Calhoun’s insistence that the U.S. Constitution reserved to each state the right individually to nullify national-government statutes.  (I’m no expert on this Calhoun-Madison debate; it’s likely that Madison disagreed – and strongly so – with other of Calhoun’s arguments and specific proposals.)  It does not follow, however, from Madison’s opposition to Calhoun’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution – or from Madison’s opposition to Calhoun’s specific proposals to check the power of democratic majorities – that Madison was therefore a proponent of unlimited majoritarianism à la Nancy MacLean.

Madison’s 1792 essay “Property” is one of his most famous (other than his essays in The Federalist).  I doubt that MacLean has read this essay by Madison, for had she done so she would see that Madison’s view of property rights was far closer to that of James Buchanan than it is to Nancy MacLean’s.  Here’s a slice from Madison’s splendid essay (original emphasis):

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

Madison’s words here sound nearly identical to many of the quotations that MacLean finds in Buchanan (and in other libertarians) and presents as evidence that Buchanan and libertarians are anti-Madisonian radical freaks involved in a “stealth” scheme to undermine all that is good about America so that evil oligarchs will rule.

Not only does MacLean not understand the works of Jim Buchanan, she doesn’t understand the works of James Madison.  Her book is pure fantasy.


* In addition to being a poor historian, Nancy MacLean is a poor geographer: Charlottesville – the scene of her fictional “quiet deal” – isn’t close to Dixie.


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