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Greg Weiner on Nancy MacLean on James Buchanan

Greg Weiner is decidedly unimpressed with Nancy MacLean’s interpretation of both the work and the influence of my late, great Nobel laureate colleague, Jim Buchanan.  (HT Mark Pulliam)  Some slices:

MacLean, the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, might better have entitled the work, which is pervaded with innuendo and guilt by association, Six Degrees of Jim Buchanan. His constitutional focus on veto points is similar to John C. Calhoun’s; Buchanan is therefore tarred by association with Calhoun’s racial views. Buchanan came to prominence in Virginia when the state was under the thumb of the segregationist U.S. Senator Harry Byrd. Byrd’s beliefs on voter suppression are unfurled in tandem with Buchanan’s story, inviting the reader to infer a phantom link between them. Likewise the implied association of Buchanan with the full range of the Virginia journalist James J. Kilpatrick’s views.

In MacLean’s telling, Progressivism is normal and anything to its right, being deviant, requires apology. It is thus “hard to imagine” why Charles Koch holds the views he does, so MacLean naturally turns to the “mysteries of individual human personality” shaped by a warped father-son relationship. Would George Soros receive a similar diagnosis? That Koch might actually have reached his conclusions intellectually does not appear to be within the range of possibilities. Because what MacLean calls “the right” cannot be rationally explained, only corruption, ill will or, failing those, neurosis can do the trick.

There is, for example, this gem on page 38: MacLean writes that the early members of the Mont Pelerin Society wanted to “shift the tide of history away from what they called ‘statism,’ or what we might call a strong role for government.” “They” and “we”—this from an author who accuses Koch of divisive tactics. Those included in this “we” are apparently the normal ones who accept statism.


MacLean’s account of Buchanan’s supposed subversion of democracy is equally unconvincing. It is also overwrought: Buchanan’s project is “haunt[ing],” and it is “gnawing.” The rhetorical questions are breathless, such as, “Could it be—and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully—a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance?” This must be the same hesitation and care that impel MacLean to describe her subjects with a succession of adjectives that ratchets from “radical right” to “capitalist radical right” to (the coup de grâce) “ultra-capitalist radical right.”

And what is the conspiracy in which Buchanan, whom MacLean variously describes (no, really) in terms of “evil genius” and “wicked genius,” is engaged? It is—draw the curtains—this: He wrote his ideas down in books, talked about them with politicians, communicated them to the public . . . and tried to convince others he was right.

Indeed, Charles Koch comes off in these pages as remarkably bad at corruption. Equipped with over $100 billion with which to influence the political process, Koch did—what, exactly? Bribed legislators? Bought voters?  No, the rascal is accused of spending his money to persuade people.


By way of concluding the book, MacLean drops the passivity of her biases, warning of the “horror” of the right-wing agenda and invoking Joseph Goebbels to explain how it is propagandized. It is objective fact—that is, “a large body of research” has “demonstrated”—that inequality “is in good part due to the outsized power of corporations and wealthy donors over our politics and public policy.” She provides a shocking exposé of the “slavery-defending-founders’ constitution,” which contains “egregious” provisions like the equality of states in the Senate and whose undemocratic features the Kochs seek to “exaggerate.”

There are mistakes, whether deliberate or not. MacLean calls the Liberty Fund, the publisher of this web site, “Koch-backed.” It is not. She attributes to Justice Clarence Thomas the view that the Senate should have considered the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court; the quotation MacLean cites actually pertains to dysfunction in Washington more broadly.

MacLean repeatedly refers to an undifferentiated judicial era of Lochner and Plessy, to which the advocates of judicial engagement—every one of whom today decries Plessy—are implied to want to return. She writes of “McCulloch v. Madison” and refers to Cato’s Letters, which were published in London, as an American Revolutionary text. She claims West Coast Hotel v. Parrish “enabled all federal regulation” under the Commerce Clause, which is pretty much true in practice, but still.

Do read the entire review.


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