So Much for MacLean’s Accusation that James M. Buchanan was a Southern Agrarian Racist

by Don Boudreaux on July 25, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies

Art Carden, Vincent Geloso, and Phil Magness have just written a paper that explains in great detail why Nancy MacLean’s assertion that Jim Buchanan was a southern-agrarian racist is utterly without merit. One nice feature of this new paper by Carden, et al., is that, in addition to destroying MacLean’s dark fable of Buchanan-the-racist, it supplies additional evidence of Buchanan’s hostility to racism (or, indeed, to any ‘ism’ that classifies some groups of people as less-worthy than other groups of people).  Here are some slices:

The hypothesis that Buchanan’s intellectual system was influenced by the Agrarians does not fare well. Buchanan does not cite or discuss [Donald] Davidson. Nor, for that matter, does he cite or discuss any of the other contributors to [the 1930 Southern Agrarian manifesto] I’ll Take My Stand.

Buchanan mentions, for example, his and Frank Knight’s mutual affinity for the poetry of Thomas Hardy, but the major contributors to the Southern literary tradition are essentially absent from Buchanan’s work and recollections. Of the authors represented in The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, the only two names appearing in Buchanan’s Collected Works and Better Than Plowing are Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Jefferson in several places because of his thinking on the institutions of governance, King in a section in which Buchanan pointed out that “(t)he local [segregation] statutes that were violated by the restaurant sit-ins of the early 1960’s were ‘Southern’ laws, of course, and properly and universally condemned as ‘unjust’” (Buchanan 1968:668).


Buchanan is a fascinating character for his contributions to philosophy, politics, and economics, but he is also fascinating given his rural southern upbringing and his defiant rejection of what he called “the establishment.” Attempts to situate him within the pantheon of 20th century thinkers and contributors to a Southern tradition specifically are very interesting; however, the evidence suggests that Buchanan’s formative intellectual influences came from the European Enlightenment, the American founding, early- and mid-twentieth century Italian public finance, and two economist in particular: Frank Knight and Knut Wicksell.

MacLean’s effort to situate Buchanan within the segregationist- conservative tradition in Tennessee and Virginia, while interesting, runs aground on the evidence contained within Buchanan’s corpus. We note that some of Buchanan’s papers are still being processed and made available for research thus we cannot completely preclude new discoveries that would alter our findings. We consider this unlikely though, given the conspicuous absence of distinctively southern intellectual traditions in his voluminous known works. As things stand right now, there is little in the documentary record to connect him to the Southern Agrarians and other Southern conservatives.


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