Steve Horwitz Explains the Responses to Nancy MacLean’s Work of Fiction

by Don Boudreaux on July 13, 2017

in Books, Myths and Fallacies, Truth-seeking & ideology

Commenting on an Inside Higher Ed article titled “Stealth Attack on Liberal Scholar?”, GMU Econ alum, and former student of Jim Buchanan, Steve Horwitz writes (link added):

As one of those critics [of MacLean’s Democracy in Chains], I note the following:

1. No conspiracy. Just a bunch of scholars doing what scholars do when confronted with a book with deep flaws.

2. One reason many of us who have responded are not historians is that the deepest problem with the book is that MacLean does not understand the social science she’s grappling with. We are pointing out, with textual evidence, her misreadings and misrepresentation of public choice theory. That is a job for economists and political scientists. See [Michael] Munger’s review for more on this.

3. To the extent we have criticized her historical methods, one key point is her refusal to walk across her campus and have a conversation with the three current or former presidents of the Public Choice Society who teach in Duke’s political science dept. Who writes a book about an intellectual tradition and can’t be bothered to have such a conversation?

4. I have a long association with Koch funded organizations, though income from them is a very small fraction of my total. However, there is no obligation to disclose a conflict of interest here because none of us are defending anything that relates to the Kochs’ business affairs. Defending Buchanan and public choice theory is an intellectual exercise not lobbying. The fact that MacLean’s defenders can’t see that difference is a perfect example of the question begging nature of her whole enterprise. She knows libertarianism is wrong, and she went on a big confirmation bias exercise, topped with sloppy history, to “prove” it.

5. This is not about the acceptable historical strategy of condensing quotations. This is about claiming sources say things they don’t and about selectively quoting snippets to create a meaning precisely the opposite of the author’s clear intent elsewhere in the same source. I encourage IHE readers to read the links in the piece.

6. Until MacLean and her defenders respond to the chapter and verse criticisms with something more than the argument ad kochum version of the ad hominem fallacy, they will have failed the basic test of scholarly response and engagement.

The critics don’t want to silence MacLean. We want to hear from her. The only conspiracy here is her conspiracy of silence.

Brilliant.  I add only that nothing about Steve’s, Munger’s, Ilya Somin’s, or anyone else’s ‘attacks’ – actually, responses to – MacLean’s book is “stealth.”  Each of these responses is widely available on-line.  (In the search box to the right of this post type “Nancy MacLean” and you’ll find many of the responses.)  None is written under a pseudonym.  And none pretends to be something other than a response to MacLean’s gargantuan inaccuracies, illogical arguments, and unwarranted inferences.

More generally on this point, it’s amusing that so many people – on the right and on the left – upon encountering features of a social or political movement that they dislike and do not understand are prone to call such features or such movements “stealth.”  Even when the features and the movement are wide-open, highly visible, and very vocal, accusing them of being stealthy must somehow give to those who do not understand the features and the movement a false sense of better understanding.  Of course, calling that which you do not like “stealthy” also assists in demonizing it.


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