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Some More MacLean Links

Here’s the second of Jon Cassidy’s devastating reviews of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.  Some slices:

MacLean has been caught distorting quote after quote to suit her purposes. (Jonathan Adler is keeping a tally.) She seems to think the methods of a deconstructionist can be applied to history, that she is free to slice and dice source text to mean whatever she wants. One of her most common tricks is to take a descriptive statement and pretend that it’s a normative one. For example, James Buchanan once explained that classical liberalism (libertarianism) and George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” were categorically incompatible due to the question of paternalism, i.e., one’s attitude toward his fellow man. Either “other persons are to be treated as natural equals… or they are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to that accorded animals who are dependent.” Buchanan, for his part, thought others were equals.

MacLean gives him Bush’s position: “People who failed to foresee and save money for their future needs, Buchanan wrote in 2005, ‘are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to… animals who are dependent.’” This is exactly backwards, but the real intent is worse than mere distortion. She wants to portray Buchanan as a slavemaster at heart.

The sad thing is that all this dishonesty is in pursuit of a theory that is laughable on its face. Who is dumb enough to believe that a philosophy based on the most profound respect for human rights came from a peculiar institution that utterly negated them?


Still, it’s fair to say that MacLean’s general idea of politics is something close to democratic absolutism, with courts occasionally stepping in to uphold the latest fashions in social justice. When libertarians talk about restraints on the majority, they usually have in mind an expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights. When MacLean talks about restraints on the majority that she’d like to get rid of, she starts with “our grossly malapportioned Senate,” lamenting that “because the apportionment of U.S. Senate seats is written into the Constitution, in the one section that cannot be amended, the remedy cannot be applied nationally.” She blames our republican safeguards — vetoes, the Electoral College, federalism, and the rest — for “income inequality” (which Democrats still haven’t figured out is a perverse dysphemism for success), and moans that what “makes the U.S. system ‘exceptional,’ sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority.”

So great, you figure, she’s no Madisonian. It’s no crime to prefer a unicameral parliamentary system with no Constitution. Whatever. But then she says on the next page that “In the dream vision of the apparatus Charles Koch has funded” — yes, she really writes like that — “it would be all but impossible for” blabeddy blah oligarchs blah. You see, “the operatives of the apparatus tell themselves and those in their listening audience that they are restoring the founders’ vision. Some even call themselves ‘Madisonians.’ That, too, is misinformation.”

Now, forgive the interjection, but that one sentence actually features a pleonasm within a pleonasm, which is a truly rare feat of windbaggery. My hearing ears started to bleed at the redundancy of “listening audience,” but the whole eight-word phrase from “tell” to “audience” means nothing more than “say.” Bravo!

Her point, however, is preposterous and contradictory. Didn’t she just finish complaining about all the “stumbling blocks” and “obstacles” to democracy Madison wrote into the Constitution? And isn’t she complaining that libertarians want the same? Then what game is she playing here, other than trying to deny libertarians any sort of patriotic legitimacy for their ideas?


MacLean also tries to link Buchanan to an obscure segregationist Southern poet named Donald Davidson by the thinnest thread: Buchanan used the term “Leviathan” to describe the government, and so did Davidson. I almost felt embarrassed for MacLean here; she eventually acknowledges Thomas Hobbes, but my first impression was of a late save by an editor, saying, “You know, Nancy, actually…” The effect is a bit like hearing someone ignore Michael Jordan while insisting that the kids all started wearing Nikes because they wanted to be like Kurt Rambis. You could look up what Rambis wore… if you really want to… Jeffrey A. Tucker and Phillip Magness both had a lot of fun with the absurdity of the claim.

Here’s Bill Woolsey.  A slice:

Her [MacLean’s] status as an award winning historian at an elite university is more damaging for the reputation of academic history than to Buchanan.   The more historians and humanities academics who defend her–even claiming that making things up is good practice–the more they destroy their credibility.

And here’s a log of many of the on-line responses that Phil Magness has offered to defenders of MacLean’s fictional tale.  A slice:

A pertinent excerpt from W.H. Hutt’s article on Buchanan & Tullock’s book “Calculus of Consent” –

“Those who accept the logical content of the C[alculus] of C[onsent] may well differ widely in their forecasts of the exact sphere in which, under the unanimity they envisage, legislative edict or the discretion of officialdom should be allowed to decide either ends or means. But all who really understand the argument must, we feel, accept the principle that collective decisions should be non-discriminatory, except with the prior consent of those discriminated against. Unless this condition is fulfilled, laws of any kind which, directly or indirectly, discriminate in favour of or against any particular group (whether on the grounds of race, colour, ancestry, creed, sex, occupation, district, property or income) should be ruled unconstitutional and void.”

This was written in 1966 while Hutt was a visiting professor at UVA’s Thomas Jefferson Center. Kinda puts a damper on MacLean’s goofy and ahistorical argument that CofC was intended to prop up segregation.