These are Nancy MacLean’s Actual Words

by Don Boudreaux on July 13, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Reality Is Not Optional

(Read this Cafe Hayek post only if you commit to read it in its entirety.)

In her response to Russ Roberts’s post on her allegation that Tyler Cowen is an enemy of democracy, Nancy MacLean wrote

I support and would … be involved in any attempt to overturn the American democratic system of majority rule.

Wow!  Who knew that Nancy MacLean wants to put democracy in chains?!

(Of course, in offering the above quotation I naturally used the standard and well-known practice of editing someone’s words for considerations of space and clarity.)

Now in truth, if you read all that Prof. MacLean says – in her response to Russ and elsewhere – as well as take account of the context of her words, it’s clear that she has no wish to “overturn the American system of democratic rule.”  MacLean’s real view is precisely the opposite of the view that the unsuspecting reader would take away from reading only my above quotation of her.  But my above intentional misquoting of her is no different from her careless misquotations of Tyler and of Jim Buchanan (or of David Boaz) – her misquotations of these scholars that give her readers reason to believe that Tyler and Buchanan (and Boaz) each wrote things that are precisely the opposite not only of the thoughts that each scholar intended to convey but the opposite also of what each scholar actually wrote.

A major theme of Jim Buchanan’s life work is the importance of rules.  Everyone, he believed, ought to have an equal say in making the rules, and everyone who agrees to play by certain rules should play by them and expect everyone else who agrees to play by those rules to play by those rules.  Among Nancy MacLean’s rules seems to be this: “It’s acceptable to misquote someone in order to make it appear as if that someone believes exactly the opposite of what that someone really believes.”  So, under that MacLeanian rule, I would have been perfectly justified in ending this blog post immediately after my above quotation of her.  She would have had no just cause for complaint.

Alas, though, I do not agree to play by that rule.  It’s a bad rule.  The rule I prefer is that authors should be quoted accurately and in ways that convey as fully and as unambiguously as possible their real meaning.  Fortunately, the rule that I prefer is the rule that the vast majority of scholars and writers prefer and follow.  But beware: Prof. MacLean does not play by this standard rule of accurate quotation.  Her rule seems to be that inaccurate and misleading quotations are acceptable.  As David Bernstein says in this comment on an earlier Cafe Hayek post:

As much more of a historian than an economist, I am more impressed with her misuse of historical sources. Every time I found something in the book that didn’t sound right, and I was able to check the sources, the sources don’t say what she says they say.


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