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James Buchanan Was Not Referring to Koch Contributions

Here’s a letter to Inside Higher Ed (links added):

Democracy in Chains author Prof. Nancy MacLean pleads for fellow progressives to help protect her from the many negative reviews that her book is receiving (“Stealth Attack on Liberal Scholar?” July 12).

It’s true that negative responses are coming fast and furiously from those of us who actually knew the subject of her book (the late Nobel laureate James Buchanan) and who know the subject-matter (public-choice economics) that MacLean bizarrely alleges to be part of a racist plot to silence the many for the benefit of the privileged few.  But MacLean goes totally off the rails when she writes that “the Koch operatives and the riders of their academic ‘gravy train,’ as James Buchanan called it, are working very hard to kill Democracy in Chains – and to destroy my reputation.”

First, none of us are “Koch operatives” (whatever that term might mean).  Second, our goal is not to destroy MacLean’s reputation but to protect Buchanan’s from her wildly inaccurate portrayal.  Third, contrary to MacLean’s claim, Buchanan used the term “gravy train” to refer neither to the Kochs’ contributions to higher education nor to any benefits that market-oriented professors generally might receive from the contributions of private donors.  The “gravy train” quotation – the source of which MacLean footnotes on page 270 of her book – is from an unpublished, informal 1973 memo written by Buchanan in which he suggests that one way to attract more graduate students and freshly minted PhDs (“New young scholars”) to do the kinds of social-science research that he believed should be done was to increase the size of their academic stipends and honoraria.

It is deeply disturbing that a professor of history who presents herself as having written a factual account of the life’s work of Jim Buchanan misquotes him in a way to give readers the impression that he said something that he quite emphatically did not say.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030