Here are Two More Instances of Nancy MacLean’s Inexcusable Sloppiness

by Don Boudreaux on July 19, 2017

in Books, Myths and Fallacies, Reality Is Not Optional

First, Phil Magness:

I’ll offer one more quick observation on the ongoing controversy about Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

In several recent interviews MacLean has presented her work as an “intellectual history” of James Buchanan. A few historians have come to her defense as well, taking a similar line and also suggesting that MacLean’s critics either don’t understand or are “misreading” the methods and “best practices” of intellectual history by focusing upon her thin documentation of the figures she presents as Buchanan’s intellectual influences.

This line of argument unintentionally reveals a critical oversight in MacLean’s treatment of Buchanan. It also shows that the claim about “intellectual history” methods is largely hollow. That oversight is the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

If you are even minimally familiar with the work of Buchanan, you should know that one of the most important, recurring, and indeed ubiquitous thinkers that he engages across his vast body of scholarship is Thomas Hobbes. I’d even go so far as to suggest that it’s impossible to accurately write an intellectual history of Buchanan without understanding the deep complexities of his decades-long engagement with Hobbes’ work and his adopted role as Hobbes’ frequent interlocutor (yes, there are other figures like Frank Knight and Knut Wicksell who warrant similar notice for their formative influences on Buchanan’s political economy. Hobbes is a central figure – both utilized and engaged – in Buchanan’s political theory).

Nor is any of this a big secret. Buchanan probably refers to Hobbes a hundred times or more in his collected academic works, and three of his major books centrally engage what he calls the Leviathan model of government in a direct and obvious reference to Hobbes’ famous work.

So where is Hobbes in Nancy MacLean’s purported “intellectual history” of James M. Buchanan? Almost completely absent. He appears only once – a passing reference on page 33, where he is quickly cast aside and replaced by a completely imaginary connection to the obscure segregationist Agrarian poet Donald Davidson as the supposed source of Buchanan’s Leviathan concept.

So not only does MacLean appear to have invented a non-existent connection to Davidson. In doing so she unintentionally jettisoned a central figure – Hobbes – from Buchanan’s corpus of scholarship.

DBx: I count in the complete Indexes (2002) to the Collected Works of James M. Buchanan 70 different page entries for Thomas Hobbes.  Because many of those entries are to multiple pages – for example,”383-385″ – and because on many of the pages on which Buchanan mentions Hobbes he does so multiple times, the number of times that Buchanan, in his Collected Works, references Hobbes is significantly more than 70.  In contrast, the number of page entries in the Indexes to John C. Calhoun, to Donald Davidson, or to agrarianism (southern or otherwise) is zero.

In the Indexes significant numbers of page entries appear also for Armen Alchian, Kenneth Arrow, Robert Barro, William Baumol, Gary Becker, Duncan Black, Geoffrey Brennan, Ronald Coase, Antonio de Viti de Marco, Anthony Downs, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, David Hume, W.H. Hutt, J.M. Keynes, Israel Kirzner, Frank Knight, Dwight Lee, Abba Lerner, Erik Lindahl, Charles Lindblom, James Madison, Alfred Marshall, Karl Marx, J.S. Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Richard Musgrave, Robert Nozick, Mancur Olson, Vilfredo Pareto, A.C. Pigou, Michael Polanyi, Amilcare Puviani, John Rawls (who is among the most-referenced, and usually quite favorably), David Ricardo, Lionel Robbins, Paul Samuelson, Amartya Sen, Henry Simons, Adam Smith, George Stigler, Andrew Whinston, and Knut Wicksell.  Again, though, none – nada – zilch – zero appear for either Calhoun or Davidson.

These facts – and they are as straightforward and as accessible as facts about a scholar’s work get – are completely at odds with Nancy MacLean’s thesis that major (or even minor, for that matter) influences on Buchanan’s ideals, thought, and work are Calhoun and Davidson.  Once again, the fact that Davidson taught at a college (Vanderbilt) that Buchanan never attended but which was in the same state where Buchanan was born and raised is not at all evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that Buchanan was influenced by Davidson’s teachings and writings.  Therefore, MacLean’s assertion that major influences on Buchanan were Calhoun and Davidson is not history or scholarship; rather, it’s fabrication, plain and simple.  She mistakes one of her hallucinations for the factual record.  This mischaracterization of Buchanan is all the more inexcusable given that it plays a key role in MacLean’s false narrative.

Second, here’s David Gordon who, apparently unlike Nancy MacLean, actually read carefully an article by Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen that MacLean mentions and – no surprise by now – that she utterly misunderstands and, hence, misrepresents:

As I mentioned in an earlier article, Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains has aroused controversy, in large part owing to her many inaccuracies and misleading remarks.  I’d like in this note to call attention to a few more of these.

She begins the book’s Prologue with a summary of an article by Alexander Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun.” These authors, colleagues of Buchanan at George Mason University, “have called the antebellum South Carolina senator ‘a precursor of modern public choice theory,’ another name for the stream of thought pioneered by Buchanan.” (p.1) So far, so good; but she goes on to say: “Both thinkers sought ways to restrict what voters could achieve together in a democracy to what the wealthiest among them would agree to.” (p.2) ) In fact, Tabarrok and Cowen  discuss Calhoun’s doctrine of the “concurrent majority” under which all the major interests in society have to approve legislation; but they do not say that Calhoun took the wealthiest to be among these interest groups. They further point out that Calhoun did not intend his unanimity criterion to apply literally to “every member of society.” She does have a footnote to her statement; and, since the paragraph consists of her summary of Tabarrok and Cowen’s article, one would anticipate a citation to this article. But the reference is to another article by Cowen, one that does not discuss Calhoun at all, and mentions Buchanan only in a footnote.  (p.245, note 4)

MacLean’s summary of the article also omits Tabarrok and Cowen’s conclusion that “Unlike Buchanan, Calhoun does not subscribe to normative individualism and contractarianism.” In their view, Calhoun’s “lack of ethical foundations shows up in his defense of slavery.” By omitting the authors’ conclusion, MacLean makes it appear that they agree with her that both Calhoun and Buchanan aimed to thwart the interests of the people in favor of a narrow elite of the wealthiest.

One twentieth-century economist who certainly qualifies as an elitist was John Maynard Keynes; but not in MacLean’s telling. According to her, Keynes ‘believed that for a modern capitalist democracy to flourish, all must have a share in the economy’s benefits and governance.”(p.xxix) Where does Keynes say that everyone must have a share in the economy’s governance? She offers no support for her surprising claim.

She says that Herbert Spencer was one of  “bitter establishment opponents of Populism” (p.118), but where does Spencer discuss the Populist movement? She does not tell us. Spencer, she also says, was among those who “pretended’’ that social power does not shape markets; but once more she offers no evidence. It seems unlikely that Spencer held the view she attributes to him. He was, after all, one of the founders of sociology.

DBx: Once again, if we practice what MacLean herself practices, then we can show that MacLean is an enemy of democracy.  But because no serious scholar practices the sort of careless making of history-by-hallucination that is practiced by MacLean throughout Democracy in Chains, we don’t actually tar her with the inaccurate accusation that she is a self-conscious enemy of democracy.


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