On page 148 of Democracy in Chains – Nancy MacLean’s fictional account of the work of my late Nobel laureate colleague Jim Buchanan and of the alleged role that his work played in modern libertarianism – MacLean writes that, in his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty, Buchanan
told his readers that the challenge ahead was to develop strategies for “keeping collective action within limits” – not, as one might expect from his previous history, for eliminating collective action.
Overlook MacLean’s poor, pleonasm-filled writing: “his previous history”?!! MacLean is here, yet again, demonstrably wrong: at no point in Buchanan’s career (at least not since he began, in 1949, to publish professionally) has he ever written anything that gives any reader reason to believe that he was ever “for eliminating collective action.” And to be crystal clear (although I doubt that MacLean is aware of the distinction between collective action and political action), not only did Buchanan never suggest that all collective action should be eliminated, he never suggested that all collective action through political means should be eliminated. Contrary to what MacLean’s readers are likely to infer from the above-quoted passage, Buchanan was never an anarchist. Buchanan did not adopt a position “between anarchy and Leviathan” (the subtitle of The Limits of Liberty) only in the 1970s when he wrote this book. Buchanan always staked out a position between anarchy and Leviathan. Nothing substantial about his position changed in the 1970s.
Read The Calculus of Consent (1962). Read Public Principles of Public Debt (1958). Read Public Finance in Democratic Process (1967). Read The Demand and Supply of Public Goods (1968). Read his famous article with William Craig Stubblebine on externalities (1962). Read his two famous 1954 Journal of Political Economy articles inspired largely by Kenneth Arrow’s work on collective choice (here and here). Read Buchanan’s very first professional publication, “The Pure Theory of Government Finance: A Suggested Approach” (1949). Read anything that you can lay your hands on by Buchanan, whether singly authored or co-authored – and whether written before the publication of The Limits of Liberty or afterward – and you will find nowhere even a faint whiff of Buchanan ever being “for eliminating collective action.” Throughout all of his work, from start to finish, Buchanan took the need for collective action and the need for government as a given. Indeed, the only occasion on which he systematically pondered a world without government was when working on The Limits of Liberty – a work in which he emphatically rejected anarchy. (I myself am not persuaded by Buchanan’s argument in this 1975 book, but that’s another matter altogether.)
So I publicly challenge Nancy MacLean to supply evidence that, sometime before the publication of The Limits of Liberty, Jim Buchanan argued “for eliminating collective action.” (She won’t do so, of course, because no such evidence exists.) That she writes such a thing about the chief subject of her book reveals that MacLean is not a scholar whose work is to be trusted.
Here we have yet more reason to conclude that MacLean (1) has not read carefully Buchanan’s works, despite her writing a book that pretends to be about these works; or (2) is too intellectually limited to understand Buchanan’s works, despite her writing a book that pretends to be about these works; or (3) is a liar. It’s one of the three (or perhaps a combination of these alternatives).