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Yet Another Inconsistency from Nancy MacLean

On page 120 of her fictional tale, Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean – in the course of explaining my late colleague Jim Buchanan’s role in the 1970s in trying to secure funding for academic programs to promote Virginia Political Economy – gives her readers what she regards to be a helpful reminder about Buchanan:

Remember, to him, venal self-interest was at the core of human motivation; the trick was to establish new providers.

I’m amused by MacLean’s “to him.”  MacLean wants her readers not to forget that Buchanan believed that people are motivated overwhelmingly by narrow material self-interest – and that, with this belief, Buchanan was seriously out of touch with reality.

I’ll here overlook MacLean’s failure to understand the use by public-choice scholars (and by non-public-choice scholars!) of the analytical device of homo economicus.  I’ll overlook also MacLean’s failure – as evidenced by the above quotation – to acknowledge Jim Buchanan’s own expressed reservations about, and qualifications on, the use of homo economicus.  Instead, I note the irony of MacLean criticizing Buchanan and other public-choice scholars for what she believes to be their incessant and mistaken belief that “venal self-interest was at the core of human motivation.”  After all, central to MacLean’s world view is the belief that anyone – anyone from a scholar such as Buchanan to a businessperson-philantropist such as Charles Koch – who supports free markets, private property, and the limitations on government necessary to preserve these institutions is motivated to do so by venal self-interest.  MacLean refuses to acknowledge that someone can sincerely believe that the social institutions that best serve all, even the poorest amongst us, include free markets, private property, and the constitutional limitations on government necessary to preserve free markets and the security of private property.

For MacLean, anyone who wishes to constrain the state’s power to tax, to spend, and to regulate reveals by that very wish that he or she is motivated by venal self-interest rather than by a sincere regard for the well-being of humanity.  I’m not here arguing that those of us who wish to severely limit the powers of government are correct in our positive analyses of the likely consequences of such limitations.  But I do here proclaim that we are genuinely sincere in our beliefs.

Nancy MacLean is not only ungenerous but also hypocritical to criticize free-market advocates, such as Buchanan, for allegedly believing that the only, or the overriding, human motivation is venal self-interest while she herself refuses to acknowledge any motivation other than venal self-interest as driving Buchanan, the Kochs, and many others to support liberty and constitutionally limited government.


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