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Nancy MacLean Seems to Be an Historian Who Doesn’t Know the History About What She Writes

Here are two more devastating essays revealing some of the countless errors in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

The first is what will be at least two essays in The American Spectator by Jon Cassidy on MacLean’s fabulist tale.  The title of Cassidy’s essay is spot-on: “‘Democracy in Chains’ Is So Wrong It’s Funny“.  Here are some slices:

The book’s ostensible subject is the economist James Buchanan, Nobel laureate and filthy capitalist running dog. Also, it’s about some sort of secret plot/public movement by libertarians to bring back plantation ideology. “From the start,” MacLean writes early on, “the notion of unwarranted federal intervention has been inseparable from a desire to maintain white racial as well as class dominance.” Her proof: old John C. Calhoun resisted the federal government, and if you squint at his writings just right, there is one vague similarity to Buchanan’s work.

Usually, a fraudulent work reveals itself gradually. First you notice things are a bit off, and then you wonder if the author just misunderstands the subject, before finally noticing some examples of bad faith that can’t possibly be excused.

MacLean flips that, revealing her dishonesty in the prologue, where she puts words in Buchanan’s mouth without ever admitting what she’s doing. It turns out she knows two tricks: 1) speculate, and present the speculation as historical fact; 2) chop a quote into three- and four-word chunks, and present them as meaning the opposite what they actually do.

Then she gradually reveals the extent of her ignorance about economics, Buchanan’s work in public choice theory, and libertarian thought in general. By the time you’re 50 pages into it, you have nothing to do but notice just how off everything seems.

Here we are with Buchanan on a visit to Chile under Pinochet, and MacLean’s got the text of a speech he gave. Surely it’s a smoking gun. Buchanan says they should adopt “a constitution that requires a balanced budget.” The villain! As if sensing that her readers are heading for the exits, MacLean reminds us that balanced budgets were the “sacred” principle of Sen. Harry Byrd, whose racism she has already established for us. Later, “the economy crashed,” she tells us, wrecking a “nation that once stood out as a middle-class beacon.” Chile, of course, has become the wealthiest nation in Latin America. So what could she think any of this means?

You lose interest in looking up the footnotes to see how she’s misrepresenting the subject. You just assume she is, because her method is obvious: paragraph after paragraph of mini-quotes you can’t trust. Still, you plod onward to discover the bits so hilariously wrong that it doesn’t even matter why MacLean wrote them. On page 198, for example, she presents us with Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard, who in her words is a “top libertarian.” It’s merely funny that she thinks Ed Meese is a libertarian; that she adds in Kristol, whom movement libertarians regard as a warmongering neocon antichrist, is sublime.


[John C.] Calhoun absolutely denied the existence of individual rights. Libertarians, of course, base their whole philosophy on rights. What superficial resemblance could she find in philosophies that are so opposed to each other? Heck, her own views are closer to Calhoun’s than ours are. MacLean favors political rights, but she denies that economic rights are anything more than a pretext of would-be oligarchs trying to put “Democracy in Chains.” Just like Calhoun, MacLean believes in a benevolent political master with complete, unrestrained sovereignty over those under his jurisdiction. It’s just that Calhoun rested that authority with the slavemaster, while MacLean puts it with the state.

And here’s J.C. Bradbury.  Bradbury catches MacLean putting words in Buchanan’s mouth that Buchanan didn’t write in a 1983 Cato Journal article on Social Security:

In addition, Buchanan did not say that “they must alter the beneficiaries’ view of Social Security’s viability,” nor did he suggest the strategy of “divide and conquer;” yet, she is she adds these words in the midst of Buchanan’s, which makes them sound much worse.

DBx: So I’ve a question for MacLean and other historians: Is putting words in people’s mouth – is giving the appearance or impression that Smith said X when, in fact, Smith did not say X – among your profession’s ‘best practices’?  If so, you do not deserve to be called “historians.”  Instead, a more apt descriptor would be “fairy-tale tellers.”