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Nancy MacLean Seems Unable to Understand What People Clearly Write

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

Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean misrepresents my criticism of her connecting the work of my late colleague James Buchanan to that of John C. Calhoun (“Nancy MacLean Responds to Her Critics,” July 19). My criticism is not that she “drew a parallel between Buchanan’s political economy and that of John C. Calhoun.” Instead, my criticism – as I say plainly in the essay linked in your report – is of her claim that the core ideas of Buchanan (and of others scholars who work in Buchanan’s tradition) come from John C. Calhoun. Had MacLean merely “drawn a parallel” between Buchanan’s efforts to study and compare different constitutional rules and Calhoun’s similar efforts, I’d have raised no protest. But by asserting in her interview with the New Republic that Buchanan’s ideas “trace back to John C. Calhoun” – and in her book describing Calhoun as the “intellectual lodestar” of Buchanan and others who work in the classical-liberal tradition – she is demonstrably mistaken.

First, Buchanan never mentions Calhoun in any of his vast writings. Second, in an appendix to The Calculus of Consent – his most famous book (co-authored with Gordon Tullock) – Buchanan not only explicitly identifies several political thinkers as inspiration (nearly all of whom, by the way, pre-date Calhoun), he also explains in detail how their works influenced his own; these explicitly identified precursors to Buchanan’s political thought include Johannes Althusius, Thomas Hobbes, Wilhelm von Humboldt, David Hume, James Madison, and Baruch Spinoza. Again, they do not include Calhoun.

Somehow overlooking Buchanan’s own very clear mention of the thinkers whose ideas he found to be especially influential, MacLean – contrary to all available evidence – claimed in her book and in her interview that the major inspiration for Buchanan’s ideas is Calhoun. That claim is not only unsubstantiated, it is preposterous.

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