Art Carden’s and Phil Magness’s Review of Nancy MacLean

by Don Boudreaux on October 3, 2017

in Books, Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

The Fall 2017 issue of Regulation is – as is typical of that publication – filled with excellent material.  But the book reviews in this issue are especially splendid.  They include – among other gems – Bruce Yandle’s review of Tom Hazlett’s The Political Spectrum, Dwight Lee’s review of Vanessa Williamson’s Read My Lips, George Leef’s review of my GMU Econ colleague Jim Bennett’s Paid Patriotism, and Art Carden’s and Phil Magness’s review of Nancy MacLean’s fusillade of fallacies, Democracy in Chains.

Here are some slices from Art’s and Phil’s completely devastating review of MacLean’s fabulist tale:

MacLean opts for a conspiratorial interpretation, though, in which [John C.] Calhoun assumes the role of an unspoken ur-text to The Calculus of Consent. Her portrayal immediately encounters a substantial evidentiary obstacle: Buchanan does not appear to have ever cited, referenced, or commented upon Calhoun in his academic career of over half a century. He does, however, make frequent references to Madison.

Undeterred, MacLean enlists a six-degrees-of-separation game to shoehorn Calhoun into Buchanan’s system of thought. She offers an incomplete reading of Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok’s 1992 paper, “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun,” which notes Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s distinct but sometimes similar developments of Madisonian theory, as further evidence of the conspiracy.

Perhaps aware of the flimsiness of this argument when taken alone, she next notes that the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard discussed Calhoun’s emphasis on the conflict between the taxers and the taxed in his own 1960s work. While Rothbard supposedly demonstrates a libertarian affinity for Calhoun at the time Buchanan was developing his theory, MacLean either neglects to note or – more likely – is unaware that Buchanan and Rothbard were each quite critical of the other. Rothbard in particular panned the very book that MacLean cites as an esoteric dialogue on Calhounism, writing in a commentary that “I am so out of sympathy with James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent that I don’t think a particularly detailed critique to send to them would be worthwhile.” In the end, the link that MacLean posits between Buchanan and Calhoun simply isn’t there.


MacLean also charges that Buchanan was not an empiricist. In a narrow sense, she is correct. He employed a largely theoretical style that reasoned from starting principles, such as a constitutional rule or a stated assumption about voting behavior. From this position she leaps to the conclusion that public choice ideas are unsupported empirically. But an empirical study appears in the very first issue of the journal that became Public Choice, and Buchanan the theorist inspired legions of empiricists. In a 2012 appreciation of Buchanan that appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Elinor Ostrom – a Nobel economics laureate and as fine an empiricist as there has ever been – wrote, “There is substantial empirical work now that strongly supports his ideas.” On the basis of this empirical evidence, we reject MacLean’s hypothesis that there is no empirical evidence to substantiate public choice theory.


At one point she accuses Buchanan of providing “in-person guidance” to the Pinochet regime (p. 157), before immediately transitioning into a list of its arrests, political assassinations, and other acts of brutality. The juxtaposition is plainly intended to tar Buchanan with those crimes, even as she has no actual evidence linking the two. Her footnotes are illustrative of the scholarly deficiencies of this chapter. To document the Pinochet regime’s brutalities she cites an assortment of easily accessible newspaper articles and secondary literature about Chile, not one of which mentions Buchanan. She then pivots to Buchanan’s attendance at a weeklong academic conference in Chile where he committed the offense of speaking to other economists who worked for the Chilean government. The “archival” finds she enlists to demonstrate this nefarious collaboration include such items as a common thank you note for a lunch at the conference (p. 161) and the fact that some of Buchanan’s books were translated into Spanish in the early 1980s (p. 157).

MacLean then pivots right back to Pinochet’s authoritarian thuggery to implicate Buchanan, by association, in the same. What she does not do, though, is perform even a cursory review of the existing literature on the tensions between the Pinochet regime and classical liberalism. John Meadowcroft and William Ruger’s 2014 article in the Review of Political Economy is an excellent starting point on this subject. In particular, it documents how Buchanan’s eschewing of politics and his individualist notion of liberty chafe with both the Pinochet regime and other classical liberals – Hayek among them – who could be legitimately criticized for negligence or credulity in their own treatments of the Chilean dictatorship. As with other examples though, MacLean appears to be fundamentally uninterested in investigating Buchanan’s ideas, let alone accurately portraying them.

Conclusion / MacLean extends no scholarly charity to Buchanan, Tullock, or the entire subfield of public choice economics. Instead, she treats them with contempt. Democracy in Chains was an opportunity for serious cross-disciplinary inquiry, but that opportunity was missed. Instead, the book is the perfect symbol of these times, fumbling the facts and ignoring ideas in order to titillate one’s tribe, provoke the paranoid, and exclaim that The End is Nigh. The book makes no serious contribution to our understanding of public choice theory or the evolution of classical liberal ideas in the late 20th century. We fear, though, that readers will come away from critical reviews like this one even more convinced that there is an insidious conspiracy. And indeed, maybe the truth is out there. But Democracy in Chains certainly isn’t it.


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