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James Devereaux Reviews Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains

Over at Medium, James Devereaux reviews the fabulist tale told by Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains.  Some slices:

Unfortunately for MacLean, and those heaping praise, it is clear this tale rests on ransom-note-style citations, cutting and pasting together portions of phrases to change the meaning and support her narrative. In certain places it appears she has woefully misunderstood the source material or did not care- the notes do not match the claims. By cobbling together this mish-mash of selective quotes and speculation MacLean errs twice: first in describing Buchanan’s views and second in describing the motives of Buchanan and anyone sympathetic to his view.


MacLean’s inability to remove her bias has made a mess of the primary sources and does a disservice to her profession and discipline. The art of creating good credible academic work is piecing the source material together in a manner which both provides accurate representation of the sources and contains original and thoughtful insight into the subject matter. MacLean fails on both accounts, she provides numerous endnotes, many of them appear interesting- I was left wanting when I consulted them- but they fail to buttress most of her claims. Overall the book does not provide new insight, as it is mostly inaccurate, and relies on the common political caricature proffered by talking heads.

Even without what borders academic fraud, this book lacks any argumentative nuance and continuously attempts to tie Buchanan and other libertarians to historical figures such as Calhoun or the Southern Agrarians without supporting evidence.


To support her view of markets and economics, without any irony, she quotes Richard T. Ely, co-founder of the American Economic Association, progressive, racist, and eugenics enthusiast, to explain laissez-faire economics as a “tool in the hands of the greedy and avaricious for keeping down and oppressing the laboring classes” (page 164). Strangely absent from her endorsement of Ely’s view on economics is any recognition of his advocacy of discrimination against those he considered inferior. Ely, and many of his progressive compatriots, saw economics as a two-edged sword of benefit and burden wherein the economist stood on high employing the tools of science to distribute and choose who deserved to receive. He was quite clear on who he thought worth the favor.


This is the reality of her book. It ignores facts, it lacks nuance, it vilifies where disagreement was sufficient, it mischaracterizes or does not understand the work of economics, and it fails to distinguish- both in her own views and those of others- between the positive and normative. Her analysis of events reflects that failure and depends on fallacies to make her case instead of building it through rigor and care. One is inclined to believe that she failed to grasp public choice economics as a method of analysis and instead thought ad hominin would suffice as a critique of the discipline.


This book belongs in the tradition of polemics and muckrakers not as a serious academic work, and certainly not as a contender for the National Book Award. No number of endnotes redeems the misrepresentation of those very notes, and we should be careful to distinguish between the serious and the seriously misleading.

DBx: The sheer, unalloyed ignorance displayed by MacLean – her complete and utter failure to grasp any relevant element of any relevant person, event, or doctrine mentioned in her book – is truly breath-taking.  Democracy in Chains is a stunning work of monumental illogic, incomprehension, and incompetence.