A Made-up Quotation by Nancy MacLean

by Don Boudreaux on July 30, 2017

in Books, Myths and Fallacies, Philosophy of Freedom, Virginia Political Economy

J.C. Bradbury finds not simply a quotation doctored by Nancy MacLean to make it appear as if the person she’s quoting wrote or said something entirely different from what that person actually wrote or said; he finds an actual fake quotation in MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. On page xxxii of her disgraceful book, MacLean quotes James Buchanan saying something that not only does not appear in the citation that she gives for the quotation, but nowhere else (at least nowhere else that Bradbury or I can find in the public record).

Here’s MacLean:

“I want a society where nobody has power over the other,” Buchanan told an interviewer early in the new century.  “I don’t want to control you and I don’t want to be controlled by you.”[36]

This footnote (#36) is here, in full:

36. James M. Buchanan, “Saving the Soul of Classical Liberalism,” reprinted in Cato Policy Report, March/April 2013, after his death, www.scribd.com/document/197800481/Saving-the-Soul-of-Classical-Liberalism-Cato-Institute-pdf. The same operative who spoke of ginning up hostility in Washington similarly portrays the cause’s goals in appealing language to attract the numbers needed to move the unstated antidemocratic agenda; Matt Kibbe, Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto (New York: William Morrow, 2014).

Here’s the link to Buchanan’s “Saving the Soul of Classical Liberalism.”  Check it out for yourself.  Buchanan doesn’t say there what MacLean reports him as saying.  (Nor is this item, contrary to MacLean’s report, an interview.  It’s an essay written by Buchanan.  So perhaps Buchanan did say, in an interview, the exact words that MacLean quotes him as saying, but, if so, she’s so careless in her scholarship that she gives a mistaken citation.

In this Cato Policy Report essay Buchanan does write (as J.C. Bradbury notes):

What else is there to know about the nature of liberalism’s soul? A motivating element in the liberal philosophy is, of course, the individual’s desire for liberty from the coercive power of others. But a second element in the liberal soul and spirit is critically important. It is the absence of desire to exert power over others.

MacLean’s misquotation of Buchanan here is, ironically enough, not an egregious misrepresentation of his normative position.  Like classical liberals and libertarians from long before Buchanan was born to those still living today, the goal – our goal – is for society to be as free as possible from coercion exercised by some over others.  Put in the first person, I want to be free from others coercing me and physically taking or damaging my property, and I have no interest in initiating coercion over others or in taking or damaging others’ property.  MacLean surely doesn’t share this normative stance, and that’s fair.  But for her to read something sinister into Buchanan’s perfectly innocent expression of it – for her to imply or suggest that Buchanan was here really saying that he wants to bind the People so that dastardly oligarchs can thereby be free to abuse them and their property – is an revelation either of her deep ignorance or her intention to falsely demonize Buchanan.

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is not a work of history; it’s a work of fiction.  And MacLean is either too lazy or too careless even to get her citations correct.


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