If any open-minded and rational human being keeping track of the brouhaha over Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains still believes in the remote possibility that this book is not a work of fiction (albeit one that uses real names and places), he or she should read this brilliant review of the book by Brian Doherty. Below are a few slices but, please, do read the whole thing; it reveals that Nancy MacLean’s scholarship is not worthy of your trust. The woman simply, plainly, and emphatically doesn’t know what she’s writing and talking about.
The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education – the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so: School segregation is just as wrong when it is imposed democratically as it is when it is imposed by suppressing the black vote.
So the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains – a book that contains many, many strange claims – may be how its author, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean, treats Brown. On one hand, she believes that those who want to bind majorities with preset constitutional rules are up to something sinister. Her chief villain on this score is James Buchanan, an economist and political philosopher who argued that government actors ought to be subject to built-in structural constraints. On the other hand, MacLean clearly thinks Brown was correctly decided. Indeed, she accuses Buchanan of working to undermine the ruling.
MacLean seems not to notice Brown is itself an example of the phenomenon MacLean is denouncing: a Constitution being used to overrule a democratic outcome in the name of protecting a minority.
It’s an awkward start for a baroque conspiracy story, and it signals what a mess the book will be. The historian has little to no evidence for her history. She invents some when necessary, and will at times just make assertions to suit her narrative, mustering neither real nor phony evidence to back them up.
Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his role in founding the “public choice” school of economics. This school’s key idea, to quote the Nobel committee, was to seek “explanations for political behavior that resemble those used to analyze behavior on markets.” The result was a body of work in which politicians and bureaucrats, no less than entrepreneurs and investors, often “act out of self-interest,” driven not just by a vision of the common good but by a desire for votes or bigger budgets.
MacLean, by contrast, treats public choice as little more than an effort to question the good-heartedness of public servants. Its conclusions, she insists, have “no true research – no facts – to support them” and are rooted in “projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing.” She takes it for granted that when public choice economists complain that special-interest groups profit from government, they’re aiming to protect the rich from the poor; it never seems to occur to her that the interests who play this game successfully are much more likely to look like Boeing, General Electric, or Archer Daniels Midland than, say, the National Welfare Rights Organization.
Her accusation that there is “no research” in public choice also falls flat. While Buchanan’s own work tended more toward pure philosophy, the tradition he launched in fact has produced decades of empirical work, much of it in the journal Public Choice.
The Nobel committee also pointed to Buchanan’s “principle of unanimity,” which led him to try to imagine the constitutional rules that all citizens could, should, or would unanimously agree to. Rather than marking him as a tool of moneyed interests, this makes him resemble the man who may be the most influential political philosopher among modern liberals, John Rawls. Needless to say, Rawls and Buchanan differed on what rules would lead to a just, universally agreed-upon constitutional structure. But the two men recognized that they were working on similar projects, and they debated their differences collegially and without imputations of villainy.
Instead, MacLean more or less invents the idea that Buchanan derived his constitutional ideas from bigots, notably the 19th century Vice President John Calhoun. Both Buchanan and Calhoun, after all, believed that majoritarian rule should be constitutionally restricted, and she attributed to both the motive of wanting to protect the propertied from the huddled masses. But considering the long list of other people who have argued for a republic restricted in its powers, it is difficult to avoid the idea that MacLean zeroed in on Calhoun – someone who Buchanan literally never once mentioned in any of his voluminous writings – as the supposed founder of Buchanan’s constitutionalist tradition solely because Calhoun was a notorious white supremacist.
Similarly, in a single short passage in his memoir, Buchanan mentions the Southern Agrarian writers as fellow appreciators of a yeoman farmer’s life, even while acknowledging that this personal preference was somewhat at odds with his admiration for the market order. MacLean thinks this sufficient evidence to declare that one of the Agrarians, Donald Davidson – a man never mentioned in anything Buchanan wrote – “seemed most decisive in Buchanan’s intellectual system,” linking him to a vision that, in MacLean’s words, “was racially exclusive” and dedicated to “the highly strategic demeaning of African-Americans.”
Given the absence of references to Calhoun in Buchanan’s own work, it borders on historical malpractice to make him and segregation the launching point of her story, taking up around the first 76 pages of her book. Some of MacLean’s defenders have slyly stressed that Democracy in Chains includes no sentence explicitly declaring that racism drove James Buchanan to develop his limited-government vision. But the implications are clear
One of this book’s central contentions is that libertarians want to enchain democracy because they know they could never pass their policies democratically. Hence, MacLean’s interest in Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, which embraced both violent repression and a degree of market-oriented economic reforms. MacLean thinks she has found Buchanan’s fingerprints on some ugly parts of the constitution the country adopted in 1980, about midway through Pinochet’s reign.
The evidence here is some correspondence between Buchanan and Chileans regarding five meetings he had that year with that nation’s minister of finance and representatives from a Chilean business school. MacLean does an interesting, if confusing, sleight of hand here. She discusses the usual Buchananite free market ideas that he suggested the Chileans consider for their new constitution. (Some of these – a balanced-budget requirement, de jure independence for the central bank – did make it in.) She then segues to aspects of the eventual constitution that cemented Pinochet’s power and tyrannically restricted political participation, without giving proof that Buchanan suggested any of them. (There is no reason to believe he did.)
MacLean’s book was doubtless finished before she could digest the lengthy account of Buchanan’s dealings with Chile that Andrew Farrant and Vlad Tarko presented at a March 2017 meeting of the Public Choice Society, but readers who care to understand the meaning of Buchanan’s actions in Chile should be interested in it. The two economists analyzed a speech about democracy that Buchanan gave at a 1981 Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Viña del Mar – a speech that had never been published in English.
Farrant and Tarko found that “Buchanan publicly upbraided those [Mont Pelerin] colleagues who appeared to favor military dictatorship” in Chile. The newspaper El Mercurio reported that Buchanan had spoken at the meeting about “the moral obligation that we have as people who love freedom to look for ways of improving democracy without falling into the naive belief that dictatorships are the only or the best way of establishing a free economy.” Analyzing his speech within the context of Buchanan’s views about how social decisions are best made, Farrant and Tarko show that he advocated universal suffrage in Chile and opposed, in Buchanan’s own words, “any form of government by an elite, whether…an aristocracy…hereditary monarchy…ruling class, or ruling committee.”
Buchanan’s opinion of dictatorship, expressed publicly on a dictatorship’s own soil, turns out to be the exact reverse of MacLean’s contention.
In 1998, Koch money helped set up at a consolidated center for various pre-existing free market groups at George Mason University, where Buchanan had already been teaching for many years. This new institution was dubbed the James Buchanan Center for Political Economy. Buchanan, in MacLean’s telling, quickly became annoyed with the center’s fundraising style, which he apparently saw as overly political. After butting heads with other figures in the Koch orbit, he walked away from the project, and the “alliance” fell apart almost instantly.
Of course, Buchanan’s ideas can still influence Koch even if the two aren’t getting along. But MacLean provides no specific analysis showing that some idea uniquely attributable to the economist – as opposed to ordinary free market libertarianism—suddenly appeared in Koch-funded organizations around this time. Her actual evidence for Buchanan’s supposedly central role is wafer thin. It consists entirely of some things Koch said in “Creating a Science of Liberty,” a speech he gave at a 1997 Institute for Humane Studies research colloquium.
For MacLean, this talk proves that Koch found in Buchanan’s work “the set of ideas he had been seeking for at least a quarter century…the missing tool he had been searching for, the one that would produce ‘real world’ results.” Summarizing the speech, MacLean writes: “James Buchanan’s theory and implementation strategies were the right ‘technology,’ to use Koch’s favored phrase. But the professor’s team had not employed the tools forcefully enough to ‘create winning strategies.'”
The full speech makes it abundantly clear that Koch did not say or even imply what MacLean has him saying. The “technology” to “create winning strategies” that Koch spoke of is not public choice or anything else related to Buchanan. It was “market-based management,” Koch’s philosophy of applying incentives and knowledge-seeking processes to his business and philanthropic endeavors.
Indeed, the speech that supposedly marks Koch’s adoption of Buchanan as his guru reveals that the actual fresh influence moving Koch in the late ’90s was Michael Polanyi, a scientist and social philosopher whose ideas are beyond the scope of this review except to note that he (a) isn’t James Buchanan and (b) isn’t mentioned by MacLean at all.
Buchanan’s name comes up exactly twice in the speech, once because he had spoken the previous day at the same colloquium, neither even hinting that Koch had suddenly embraced Buchananism as his new tool. That whole key part of MacLean’s narrative, her connection of Buchanan with everything the Koch network has been doing in the 21st century, is pure invention.
To sum up: In this curious book, MacLean’s emphases are often irrelevant to her ostensible topic, and they frequently serve only to smear. Her reading of her sources is hostile and tendentious to the point of pure error. The historical story she claims to have uncovered – that Buchanan and his ideas are the secret, conspiratorial core of Charles Koch’s political activity – is a product of her imagination. She is a startlingly bad historian.
DBx: Again, do read all of Brian’s review.