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Nancy MacLean Continues to be Reckless With the Facts

Here’s a second letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Saying that I gave her “a moment of levity” when I described her as linking the work of my late colleague James Buchanan with that of John C. Calhoun, Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean claims that she merely reported on a connection that my colleagues Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen identified in a 1992 paper (“Nancy MacLean Responds to Her Critics,” July 19).

MacLean should stop laughing long enough to pay attention to scholarly norms and to facts.

First, because Buchanan never once cited Calhoun – and because Buchanan explicitly identified as major influences thinkers such as Frank Knight, David Hume, James Madison, and Knut Wicksell – it is wildly inappropriate to use a paper written by two junior colleagues as sufficient evidence to conclude that Calhoun was the “intellectual lodestar” of Buchanan and of those who work in his tradition.

Second and more importantly – and contrary to what your readers are likely to suppose from MacLean’s remark – the point of the Tabarrok-Cowen paper is not to show that Calhoun inspired Buchanan specifically or public-choice scholarship generally.  Instead, it is a sober exploration of the extent to which Calhoun’s writings on constitutional rules and political decision-making did or did not anticipate public-choice scholarship on these matters.  In the end, while Tabarrok and Cowen identify some overlap between Calhoun’s writings and those of modern public-choice scholars, they conclude that “[u]nlike Buchanan, Calhoun does not subscribe to normative individualism and contractarianism.”  Because normative individualism and contractarianism were vigorously and openly embraced by Buchanan and play dominant roles in his life’s work, this fact about Calhoun is definitive proof that Buchanan was no Calhounite.

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

As my colleague Bobbi Herzberg reminds me, someone who is influenced by the constitutional thought of Calhoun is Harvard law professor Lani Guinier – hardly a conservative or libertarian free-marketeer.  This fact, let me be clear, does not imply that Prof. Guinier shares any of Calhoun’s odious views of slavery.  And yet, were MacLean consistent, if MacLean learns that Guinier is influenced and inspired by Calhoun’s proposals for constitutional rules, MacLean would immediately conclude (wrongly, of course) that Guinier is an enemy of democracy and all around evil person.