On Nancy MacLean’s Ignorance of Economics

by Don Boudreaux on July 15, 2017

in Economics, Myths and Fallacies, Not from the Onion

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

James Freeman reports on the sharp criticism aimed at historian Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains (“They’re Not All Crazy,” July 15).  As he notes, this criticism is justified: MacLean’s account of how the late George Mason University economist James Buchanan led racists and rich oligarchs in a stealth campaign to undermine democracy is utter fiction.

An unintentionally comical example of MacLean’s ignorance of the basic facts of her subject matter appears in an interview that she gave at Alternet.  There, she asserted that by naming his and Alex Tabarrok’s blog “Marginal Revolution,” my colleague Tyler Cowen was “gesturing” to a devious right-wing scheme to slowly undermine democracy.  In fact, the term “marginal revolution” refers to one of the most celebrated episodes in the history of economics – namely, economists’ discovery in the 1870s that the economic value of a good or service is determined not by the amount of labor used to produce that good or service but, instead, by the usefulness to human beings of an additional unit – a “marginal” unit – of that good or service.  If the amount of a good or service that’s available changes, its economic value changes.  This discovery of the importance of “marginal” changes reinforced economists’ more general understanding that thriving societies seldom change radically, in giant leaps, but instead gradually, as small change upon small change accumulate over time.

MacLean’s suggestion that an economist’s use of the term “marginal revolution” refers to a nefarious modern American political plot is no less ridiculous than had she suggested that a physicist’s use of the term “Newtonian revolution” refers to a plot to stuff all cookies with filling made of figs.

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


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