Art Carden on the Response to Nancy MacLean’s Fabulist Tale

by Don Boudreaux on August 4, 2017

in Books, Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

Art Carden nicely explains, in this short guest post at EconLog, the negative response to Nancy MacLean’s disgracefully careless book Democracy in Chains by scholars who knew Jim Buchanan and who know public choice.  A slice:

And then something interesting happened. Instead of responding to the criticisms and defending her findings as one might at a seminar or academic conference or upon receiving a critical referee report, MacLean issued an appeal to her ideological fellow travelers claiming that she was being “smeared” by Koch operatives. Suddenly, there were boatloads of five-star reviews of her book on that hundreds of people were finding helpful–and that a analysis showed to be largely unreliable.

And all the while, she and her defenders are not actually responding to her critics–critics who are exercised about this book because of the amount of publicity it has gotten, the serious problems of interpretation it presents, and the fact that it has the potential to do real, serious harm to the humane studies by slandering an entire body of scholarship as, somehow, a racist reaction to Brown v. Board of Education.

It’s amusing that, as Art reports, some of MacLean’s defenders think themselves to be scoring solid points on her behalf by pointing out that her book features lots of footnotes.  That it does!  Trouble is, a huge number of these footnotes are either irrelevant or otherwise fail to support the points MacLean makes in the text.

Here’s just one example.  On page xxxii of Democracy in Chains we find this footnoted claim:

The first step toward understanding what this cause actually wants is to identify the deep lineage of its core ideas. And although its spokespersons would like you to believe they are disciples of James Madison, the leading architect of the U.S. Constitution, it is not true.[37]

When I first read this passage I anticipated that when I went to footnote #37 I would find there a quotation or two from – or at least a citation to – an article, book, memo, or speech that gives us reason to question the truth of Buchanan’s and other public-choice scholars’ many claims that they look to James Madison as an important precursor.  But what is found instead at footnote #37 is this:

37. For a recent claim to the Madisonian mantle by a cause insider in the course of encouraging thoroughly un-Madisonian mass right-wing civil disobedience, backed by donor-funded legal defense funds, “to open a new front” in the “war” on the federal government in order to obtain what ordinary democratic politics has blocked, see Charles Murray, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (New York: Crown Forum, 2015), quote on 8.

MacLean, in short, does indeed footnote her charge that Madison did not really inspire public-choice scholarship.  However, she footnotes this charge not with pointers to evidence to support her charge but, instead, with simply another charge – namely, that among those who mistakenly claim the Madisonian mantle is Charles Murray.  (For the record, nothing in the main text of MacLean’s book following or preceding the footnoted claim on page xxxii offers evidence to support the claim.)

I challenge anyone to read MacLean’s book and find in it evidence – actual evidence – to support her charge that “it’s not true” that the ideas and ideals of James Madison inspired Buchanan and other public-choice scholars.  Readers will search in vain for such evidence.  It’s simply not there, despite all of MacLean’s many footnotes.


So far, other than a few lame assertions that it’s acceptable to quote people in ways that give a false impression of what those people actually wrote in the documents that are quoted, neither Nancy MacLean nor any of her champions have offered a substantive defense of her book.  None of the many substantive objections to her book have been countered – or, in most cases, even acknowledged in any detail.  Apparently, the best counter-arguments that MacLean and her champions have at their disposal are ad hominem assertions (which, in most cases, aren’t even true!).  By now, Democracy in Chains has been repeatedly, thoroughly, and devastainthgly revealed to be a disgraceful package of false claims and hallucinations tied together with ‘logic’ that would embarrass a kindergartner.

MacLean and her champions do not defend the substance of her book because, plainly, the book is utterly indefensible.  Viking / Penguin Random House, its publisher, should be deeply embarrassed at having published this laughable work of “scholarship.”


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