Phil Magness Reviews ‘Democracy in Chains’ in ‘Modern Age’

by Don Boudreaux on October 22, 2017

in Books, Virginia Political Economy

Here’s Phil Magness’s thorough review, in Modern Age, of Nancy MacLean’s fabricated tale of Jim Buchanan and public choice.  Some slices (but do read all of Phil’s fine review):

For such a strong and inflammatory insinuation, MacLean’s evidence is shockingly flimsy. Although she made use of Buchanan’s personal papers shortly after his death in 2013, she uncovered no specific documentation that he ever stated a position on Brown [v. Board of Education] and nothing to suggest he harbored animosity toward black people. What follows instead is a three-hundred-page exercise in poisoning the well against both Buchanan personally and the broader public choice tradition, achieved by means of reckless innuendos that lead the reader to conclusions MacLean stops short of making herself.


But MacLean’s tale suffers from a severe evidentiary problem that even prompted Steven Teles and Henry Farrell, two left-leaning scholars, to observe that her cited sources fall far short of her depictions, including on the matter of segregation. A closer look at her footnotes bears this out, as many of the strong claims noted above are cited only to a generalized secondary literature that makes no mention of Buchanan. Others refer to letters that do not sustain the specific interpretation she supplies, and an unsettling number carry no citations at all.

Such flimsy and misused evidence might ordinarily spell the death of any historical thesis, absent the confirmation biases that have led many scholars of MacLean’s own political persuasion to accept her word uncritically. But overreading or misreading existing documents is only half the problem with Democracy in Chains. The other half derives from a body of evidence that MacLean either neglected to consider or simply omitted from her account. Far from taking its cues from the Byrd machine, Buchanan’s TJC [Thomas Jefferson Center] was actually an active sponsor of scholarly work that sought to unite antiracist principles with the emerging field of public choice theory.


But there we find another of MacLean’s mistakes. She is writing for the politics of the current moment—a moment of frenzied partisanship in which bias-affirming red meat is especially welcome to left-wing activists, who look forward to the approaching election cycle. The core of Buchanan’s intellectual contribution is thus entirely lost on MacLean, as he had little invested in such frivolous concerns. He was writing, as he so often reminded his students and colleagues, for the ages.

DBx: No conclusion about Nancy MacLean’s performance in Democracy in Chains is warranted other than that she is either a complete fraud or, as I believe, someone who, although employed at a prestigious university to teach history, should instead be enrolled in classes at a community college to learn remedial reading and elementary logic.


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