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Nancy MacLean Should Get Back In Touch With Reality

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Nancy MacLean is on the history faculty at Duke University.  Her book Democracy in Chains has received, and is still receiving, fierce rebuttals from many people, including me, who know the facts of her alleged story far better than she apparently knows them.  (Search, in the search bar to the right, “Nancy MacLean” and you’ll find links to most of these rebuttals.”)  MacLean’s recent response [2] to these criticisms is to accuse those who challenge her facts and thesis of being part of a Koch-led conspiracy to undermine the credibility of her book.  A long-time GMU colleague of mine from over in the law school, David Bernstein, has more on MacLean’s unscholarly reaction [3].

It ought to go without saying that historians should be interested in the facts.  Historians, as such, are not tellers of tales.  Yet MacLean’s narrative about Buchanan and the libertarian movement is a series of plain factual errors tied together by a thesis that springs largely from the author’s imagination – an imagination undisciplined by any grasp of economic and political theory.  MacLean appears to be uninformed also about the intellectual history of the subject about which she writes so breathlessly.

One would think that an author whose historical narrative is challenged as being false would not resort to accusations impossible to objectively disprove.  No conspiracy that I’m aware of is at work to prod anyone to criticize MacLean’s book.  I join David Bernstein in affirming that my critical responses, like David’s responses, to MacLean’s book are borne exclusively from my own disgust that a scholar whose work I respect so deeply has been maligned in ways that I know to be utterly false.  (Again, I do not accuse MacLean of intentionally defaming Jim Buchanan, but I do accuse her of recklessly misinterpreting his work in a way that fits her ideological priors.)  While a colleague several weeks ago casually suggested to me that I try to write a review of MacLean’s book for the Wall Street Journal – a request that, for various reasons, I declined immediately – no one has asked me to post on MacLean’s book.  No one has offered to me, or has given me, any compensation, in any form, for my criticisms of her book.  That MacLean leaps to the conclusion that criticisms of her book must be the consequence of some nefarious, coordinated plot speaks volumes about her mindset.

Here’s the plain fact: MacLean’s book is an unintentional work of fiction.  And in presenting her fiction as an account of historical events, she gets her history wrong.  When a book is as wrong as is MacLean’s – and when such a book maligns through misrepresentation, however unintentional, the work of a respected and influential scholar now in his grave and unable to defend himself – those of us who know far better than does MacLean the relevant facts, personalities, and scholarship naturally work to correct the errors and misunderstandings.

If Nancy MacLean is looking for any one to blame for the many sharp rebuttals to her book, she should look in the mirror.  And she should then commence to offering substantive defenses of her thesis rather than illogical inferences [4] and allegations of unprovable comic-book-like plots.

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