I’m sure that the irony has struck others whose wits are sharper and quicker than mine.
This morning my eyes happened upon my copy of Thomas Leonard’s excellent 2016 volume, Illiberal Reformers. It sat innocently on one of my bookshelves. In that book, Princeton economist Leonard documents the overt racism of “Progressivism’s” founders. Leonard documents the overt belief by early “Progressives” that genetically caused differences in ability justify repressive government measures to protect the better-abled from the less-abled – and especially from the economic competition that these less-abled posed. (Minimum-wage statutes, for example, were originally designed – and promoted by “Progressive” scholars – as fine mechanism for protecting white workers from having to suffer the competition of black and other non-white workers.) Human society was to progress as it is engineered by the state to improve the gene pool.
And now, a century or so later, “Progressives” are patting themselves on the back for having had nothing to do with the late Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan (1919-2013). The cause of this self-celebration, of course, is the recent publication of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, in which Buchanan is portrayed as a closet racist whose lifelong exploration of the nature of constitutional rules (and of democratic governance under such rules) was used by greedy plutocrats as ideological cover for their rapacious policies.
The trouble with MacLean’s story, however, is that – in the words of Phil Magness – “it appears to be completely made up.” Whether MacLean believes her narrative or not, everyone with any genuine knowledge of Buchanan’s works understands that her narrative is complete bunk. It is, as they say, “not supported by the facts.” Put differently, MacLean’s books appears to have about as much truth-content as any randomly selected 2:00am tweet from the current president of the United States. There is zero evidence, either overt or hidden, that Buchanan was a racist. He was anything but.
So if an ideology is to be damned because of its racist origins and uses, it is not the classical liberalism, or libertarianism, of Jim Buchanan – for as Jim’s (and my) long-time colleague David Levy (and Sandy Peart) point out, that ideology has an honorable history of opposing racism when opposing racism wasn’t cool. The ideology that we should damn – were we to follow the implied counsel of all of the “Progressives” who are praising MacLean’s book – is none other than “Progressivism.” That ideology, as Thomas Leonard documents with evidence (rather than innuendo), truly is rooted in racism.