Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 24, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

… is from pages 26-27 of Vol. 19 (Ideas, Persons, and Events [2001]) of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan; specifically, it’s from Jim’s 1992 autobiographical essay ”From the Inside Looking Out”:

I resist, and resist strongly, any and all efforts to pull me toward positions of advising on this or that policy or cause.  I sign no petitions, join no political organizations, advise no party, serve no lobbying effort.  Yet the public’s image of me, and especially as developed through the media after the Nobel Prize in 1986, is that of a right-wing libertarian zealot who is anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, and anti-scientific.  I am, of course, none of these and am, indeed, the opposites.  Properly understood, my position is both democratic and egalitarian, and I am as much a scientist as any of my peers in economics.  But I am passionately individualistic, and my emphasis on individual liberty does set me apart from many of my academic colleagues whose mind-sets are mildly elitist and, hence, collectivist.  And to these colleagues, I can never be forgiven for having contributed to the development of a sub discipline, public choice, that has exposed the operation of collective political institutions to serious scrutiny for the first time in well over a century.

DBx: Of course, someone such as Nancy MacLean can assert that Buchanan’s description of himself is inaccurate.  Indeed, much of MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is effectively one long such assertion.  But as pointed out by many people who knew Buchanan – and who know his work (and the contexts of his work) far better than MacLean does – MacLean supplies no credible evidence to support her case.  Her book isn’t history; it’s a wild and reckless mash-up of words – a mash-up concocted by someone who appears to have been already set on the meal she’d cook and who then went looking for bits and pieces of evidence, nearly all of it out of context and much of it simply over her head, that she could stir into a stew that would be tasty only to those hungering for an ideologically intoxicating, if poisonous, intellectual meal.

MacLean, for example, misunderstands the meaning that Buchanan and all economists attach to many of the terms used by professional economists (such as “allocation”) – misunderstandings that often result in unintentionally hilarious misinterpretations of Buchanan’s meaning.  She also, having gained access to some of Buchanan’s unpublished private papers, pulls from these memos and other materials this phrase and that word – those passages and these ruminations – that, out of context, help to persuade a credulous public that Buchanan was a racist, unscientific, and anti-democratic ideologue who played a major role in a “stealth” conspiracy to make the world safe only for evil oligarchs.  Evidence contrary to MacLean’s tale is ignored (or misunderstood and, hence, misrepresented).  And any lack of evidence is simply filled in by MacLean’s hallucinations.

Many people have written to me over the past few weeks to upbraid me for not calling MacLean a fraud and a liar.  But I have no hard evidence that she is such (although the facts surrounding her book would indeed support a strong case for that accusation).  Perhaps naively, I continue to believe that MacLean is no liar but, instead, a woman whose combination of dense ideological blinkers and deep intellectual deficiencies lead her sincerely to believe all that she has written about Buchanan and the “stealth” scheme that is purely the product of her hallucinations.


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