Cutting MacLean Some Slack

by Don Boudreaux on September 3, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

Perhaps I too hastily criticized Nancy MacLean for her failure to find, or to report, the letters written by Jim Buchanan in the mid-1980s that supply powerful evidence against MacLean’s trumped-up charge that Buchanan was a racist.  Here’s an e-mail sent to me by my old friend Jeremy Shearmur; Jeremy is the person whose research uncovered the letters that Georg Vanberg recently reported at the Volokh Conspiracy; I share Jeremy’s e-mail, in full, with his kind permission:

I was interested to come across your reference to the Buchanan letters about which I wrote to Georg Vanberg.  The evidence is clear, but the material is not something that it would be easy to locate.  The IEA archive – at least when I consulted it, a good few years ago – is very large and was then ‘unprocessed’; i.e. the material was in much the state that they got it from the IEA.  It was arranged in a number of different sequences, and it was not indexed.  These Buchanan letters were located with material generated when Seldon contacted people about possible IEA publications; this material is arranged primarily by topic or title, not potential author or referee.  As a result, there was no way in which one would know in advance that there would be correspondence from Buchanan at this location.  I was  in the course of working through a lot of IEA material pretty systematically, and it was a matter of chance that I found Buchanan’s letters there.  Because of the size of the archive (and because there would be no reason to suppose that the archive material would contain Buchanan material at this point), while the letters interested me – just because it was striking that Buchanan voiced these objections to vouchers – is not reasonable blame someone for not finding them, unless they were engaged on comprehensive research into the IEA.  *If*, in the meantime, the archive has been indexed and processed, then the situation would be different (and my reference for the location of the material may under those circumstances no longer hold good!).  But my feeling about it is that while the letters are powerful evidence against her case, the author’s not coming across them does not in itself show that her scholarship is poor (although there seems to me evidence for this elsewhere in her book); e.g. in how she interprets some of Tyler Cowen’s work.

All good wishes,

Jeremy’s point is very good and it supplies a sound reason to believe that there is no cause to expect that MacLean was careless in not finding those particular letters.

This fact, of course, does nothing to excuse MacLean from accusing Buchanan of racism without any evidence that Buchanan was a racist.  The fact that MacLean presumably did not find the hard evidence (namely, these letters) against the charge that Buchanan was a racist – and that MacLean can be excused for not finding these letters – does nothing to excuse her reckless accusation, based on no evidence, that Buchanan was a racist.

UPDATE: Here’s Phil Magness over on Facebook:

She [MacLean] does cite other letters from Seldon, and the specific IEA collection at Hoover. So I wouldn’t rule it out at all that she searched this one. We can cut her some slack still. But the real question will be whether she updates her narrative with the new evidence accounted for. I predict she will not.


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