Gene Epstein, who runs the Soho Forum in New York City, offered to pay Nancy MacLean a generous fee to debate Mike Munger on the thesis of her book Democracy in Chains. MacLean has refused.
Of course, it’s possible that MacLean has a long-standing policy of not doing debates. (I myself do not like this form of wrestling with ideas. I rarely accept such invitations.) But because MacLean has yet, with one weak exception, to offer even in writing and in interviews any substantive defenses of her book, it’s fair to wonder if her refusal to debate Munger springs from her correct realization that she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about. My guess is that MacLean is simply afraid to debate someone such as Munger – someone who actually knows the material that MacLean, despite her writing a book about such material, obviously doesn’t know and appears to be incapable of grasping.
MacLean’s one weak attempt at a substantive defense is her response to Russ Roberts’s revelation that she twisted Tyler Cowen’s words to make it appear that Tyler wrote that which Tyler did not write. Her defense of her misquotation of Tyler is an appalling mix of haughtiness, claims of bizarre academic norms, and juvenile illogic. As for her other so-called ‘responses’ to her critics, there’s nothing substantive about them. She whines and poses as a beleaguered and misunderstood victim. Mostly, she’s content to do no more than sling at her critics a barrage of ad hominem accusations.
So I challenge MacLean to offer, in whatever public forum she finds most comfortable, substantive defenses of her work. I challenge her, for example, to
– tell the world why, when as an historian she set out to write a book about a Nobel laureate economist who co-founded the subdiscipline of public choice, she failed to interview the leading still-living public-choice scholars who knew Buchanan (three of whom are literally on her own campus);
– assure us that her many sloppy small errors – such as wrongly implying that Buchanan used the term “gravy train” to refer to funds paid to academics by the Kochs – are no cause for us to question her larger factual claims;
– support with reason and evidence her argument that Jim Buchanan was influenced by the ideas and ideals of John C. Calhoun and the Southern Agrarian poet Donald Davidson (given that nowhere in his vast written works does Buchanan ever mention either of these two people); (Note: pointing out that Buchanan was born and raised in the same state in which Donald Davidson taught college is neither reason nor evidence for her claim.)
– offer evidence that Buchanan actually served as a stooge for Augusto Pinochet and applauded, or was at least indifferent to, Pinochet’s oppressions;
– show why Buchanan and other scholars are so dangerous given that the chief offense that she accuses them of is scheming to use funding from rich donors to change people’s minds though (gasp!) academic study and persuasion.
And I challenge also MacLean’s fans to offer substantive defenses of her work. (The one such defense that I’ve so far seen is quite weak.)
Do not dismiss us critics because of who some people imagine we are paid by. Meet us squarely in some intellectual arena with substantive responses and arguments. Until and unless such substance is offered, no one has any business treating MacLean’s book as being any more factual than, say, a cartoon featuring Wile E. Coyote.