≡ Menu

Nancy MacLean Seriously Misrepresents Jim Buchanan’s Tax Criterion

As many knowledgeable readers of Nancy MacLean’s fabulist tale, Democracy in Chains, have pointed out, few are the pages of her book that don’t contain either a demonstrable error or a presentation by MacLean of one of her many hallucinations as if that hallucination were a fact.  Here’s a rather routine example from her book (page 149; footnote excluded; original emphasis):

But for [James] Buchanan, once again the issue was personal. “Why must the rich be made to suffer?” he asked pointedly. If “simple majority voting” allowed the government to impose higher taxes on a dissenting individual in the minority – “the citizen who finds that he must, on fear of punishment, pay taxes for public goods in excess of the amounts that he might voluntarily contribute” – what distinguished that from “the thug who takes his wallet in Central Park?” Why should the well-off, he was asking, be forced to pay for those people, as the popular euphemism put it?

Notice the trick MacLean pulls here.  Buchanan (actually, Buchanan and co-author Geoff Brennan) here asks a question designed to motivate a serious inquiry into the appropriate norms for guiding tax reform.*  Yet immediately after quoting Buchanan, MacLean asserts that Buchanan was asking something that Buchanan was certainly not asking.  Contrary to MacLean’s assertion, the question Buchanan asked was not motivated by any wish to protect only “the well-off” from “those people.”  Buchanan asked how can taxes be reformed to create a better alignment between the value that any taxpayer receives from the state (in the form of the provision of public goods) in return for whatever amount of money he or she is obliged to pay in taxes.  Put differently, Buchanan asked, in effect, ‘How can taxes be made less predatory and more akin to the prices that people voluntarily pay in commercial markets?’

It is acceptable to disagree with Buchanan’s chosen normative criterion for assessing the fairness and efficiency of taxation.  But it is not acceptable to infer from the criterion that Buchanan chose that his ideal tax system is one designed to protect the ‘rich’ from the ‘non-rich.’  Buchanan’s aim was to make taxes more fair and efficient for every taxpayer.  (Yes, yes: it’s true that the bulk of taxes are today – and in 1980 [the year of the above Buchanan-Brennan] quotation – paid by the rich.  Therefore, it might be true that the rich stand to gain disproportionately from any Buchanan-inspired tax reform – because they are harmed disproportionately by the pre-reform tax system.  Yet this fact does not itself render Buchanan’s criterion for tax fairness and efficiency either unjust or ‘pro-rich.’  Whether correct or not, Buchanan sincerely believed that the closer a tax system comes to meeting his criterion for fairness and efficiency, the more productive the private economy would be for everyone and the less wasteful the public sector would be.)

Moving on: it is triply unacceptable for MacLean to suggest that Buchanan thought of the non-rich, or of those who are net tax recipients, as “those people.”

That MacLean would write about Jim Buchanan in a way that gives her readers the impression that Buchanan ever did, or even ever would, think of the non-rich as “those people” indicates one of three possibilities.  (1) MacLean has not read very much of the writings of the scholar – Buchanan – about whom she nevertheless wrote a book; (2) MacLean has indeed read a great deal of Buchanan’s works but lacks the brainpower to grasp what she read; or (3) MacLean intentionally misrepresented Buchanan’s attitude toward the non-rich.  No fourth alternative is possible.

None of these three possibilities speaks highly of MacLean.  She’s recklessly irresponsible, or she’s hopelessly stupid, or she’s a liar.  Whatever the case, she’s not a scholar whose works are to be trusted.


* Is it not important for any advocate of taxation to ask and answer the question: what distinguishes the state using force to take Smith’s money from a common thief using force to take Smith’s money?  Political philosophers of many different ideological stripes have long understood the fact that the state’s existence and actions – actions which often include those that are prohibited in the private sector –  must be normatively justified.  Merely to assume that the state is justified in doing that which individuals in the private sector are prohibited from doing is to reject the need for political philosophy.