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Early Buchanan contra MacLean

Earlier today I re-read – and for the first time since I read Nancy MacLean’s fabulist tale, Democracy in Chains – the first published article by my late Nobel-laureate colleague, Jim Buchanan.  That article is titled “The Pure Theory of Government Finance: A Suggested Approach“; it appeared in the December 1949 issue of the prestigious Journal of Political Economy.  In this article, Buchanan proposes a new approach to the study of public finance.  Here’s a passage from page 502 of the article, including the footnote 22:

This approach enables a general classification of fiscal systems to be made, comprising three major groups. First, those systems which tend to increase the inequality in the distribution of real income among individuals can be classified as “aggravative.”\22\

\22\ The use of the word “aggravative” here, of course, indicates the egalitarian “bias” of the writer.

Buchanan here says explicitly that he regards any fiscal system – any system of taxation and government spending – that increases income inequality as a fiscal system that worsens, that ‘aggravates,’ matters.  And he is clear that he holds this view because he has an “egalitarian ‘bias.'”

Who knows if Nancy MacLean actually read Buchanan’s 1949 paper?  (I’m guessing that she did not read it; the contents of this paper would have sailed way over her head.  Remember, for example, that MacLean exposed herself as being utterly clueless even about something as straightforward as what economists mean by the word “allocation”!)  But I offer the above from Jim’s early paper as yet further evidence that MacLean’s portrait of Buchanan as a pro-oligarchic elitist is completely, egregiously, and unsalvageably inaccurate.


MacLean’s book is now a finalist, on the non-fiction list, for the 2017 National Book Award.  Were it a finalist on the fiction list, there’d be no cause to object because, after all, Democracy in Chains is a fictional tale, albeit one featuring non-fictional characters.  But because Democracy in Chains is a finalist on the non-fiction list, one can only assume that those who judge such books are shockingly credulous.


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