Nancy MacLean Unraveled

by Don Boudreaux on July 14, 2017

in Books, Myths and Fallacies

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles write very critically, in Vox, about Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains.  (Will Prof. MacLean now allege that even Farrell and Teles are operatives in a demonic right-wing conspiracy against her?)  A slice from Farrell’s and Teles’s excellent article:

Public choice economics succeeded in part because it had valuable things to say. Politicians indeed sometimes care more about reelection than doing the right thing. Voters often fail to pay attention, allowing lobbyists to persuade politicians to enact regulations that favor the few rather than the many. These arguments may have been best articulated by right-wing thinkers, but they have value for the left too, because they identify real problems. When MacLean depicts people like Buchanan and Cowen as wicked monsters, out to destroy democracy, she excludes the possibility that she or her readers could learn from them.

Duke University political scientist Georg Vanberg carefully and eloquently explains why MacLean’s understanding of Jim Buchanan’s scholarship is deeply mistaken.  A slice:

What then, of “chains on democracy”? It is true that Buchanan did not think much of unfettered, majoritarian politics and favored constitutional rules that restrict majority rule. But the foregoing discussion should already make clear that this conclusion was not based on an anti-democratic instinct or a desire to preserve the privilege of a few. Instead, Buchanan’s careful analysis, originating in his seminal work with Gordon Tullock, “The Calculus of Consent,” led him to the conclusion that in choosing a political framework (“constitution”), all individuals will typically have good reasons to favor some restrictions on majority rule in order to protect against the “tyranny of the majority.” As he argued, democracy understood simply as majority rule “may produce consequences desired by no one unless these procedures are limited by constitutional boundaries” (Buchanan 1997/2001: 226). In other words, what justifies “chains on democracy” for Buchanan are his commitment to individual autonomy and equality, and his emphasis on consent as a legitimating principle for political arrangements. To paint his endorsement of constitutional limits on the use of political power as motivated by an anti-democratic desire to institute oligarchical politics is to fundamentally misunderstand Buchanan’s sophisticated, subtle approach to democratic theory, which was committed above all to the idea that political arrangements should redound to the benefit of all members of a community.

Steve Horwitz again takes on MacLean’s delusional belief that the many challenges to her book are evidence of a plot to discredit her and to hide the ugly truth that she believes herself to have so brilliantly brought to light.

Hartmut Kliemt has questions for Nancy MacLean.

George Leef doesn’t like James Kwak’s book, but understandably finds MacLean’s to be even worse.  A slice:

In fact, there has been so much criticism that MacLean feels the need to ask supporters to come to her defense. As we read in this July 12 Inside Higher Ed story, MacLean is said to have written, “I really, really need your help…. Koch operatives and the riders of their academic gravy train…are working hard to kill Democracy in Chains and destroy my reputation….”

So rather than admit she has written some indefensible things in her book, MacLean calls on loyal members of her “progressive” tribe to launch a counterattack to save her book and reputation. That’s not the way academics should operate. When their work is challenged, they should squarely face each challenge, not evade it with ad hominem attacks on the motives, operation, or funding of the critics.


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