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Unbelievable – and Unbelievably Disappointing

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Aeon Skoble describes Peter Temin’s discussion of my late colleague James Buchanan as “libelous.”   Here’s the offending passage, which I learn of from this tweet by Phil Magness [2]:

Buchanan … worked with the Koch brothers to undermine people’s faith in public institutions and divert attention from the growing inequality of income and wealth that is the focus of this book.

This passage is from Temin’s new book, The Vanishing Middle Class.  And what is Temin’s source for this serious charge against a Nobel-laureate economist whose first academic paper [3] was published in 1949 – a paper in which can be found the roots of nearly everything that Buchanan wrote over the remaining 63 years of his life [4]?  Answer: Nancy MacLean’s fictional-tale-masquerading-as-nonfiction, Democracy in Chains.

Aeon’s description of Temin’s outrageous assertion is actually too kind.  Libelous, yes it is.  But it’s also unscholarly as well as evidence that Temin is slipping badly as an historian.  Historians, of all people, should be especially careful with the facts.  Yet Temin, it seems, simply takes MacLean’s word and work at face value – word and work that has been exposed by Phil Magness, Art Carden, and Vincent Geloso [5], by Mike Munger [6], by Russ Roberts [7], by Art Carden [8], by Steve Horwitz [9], and by many others as being a pack of fallacies and fairy tales.  The portrait that MacLean paints of Buchanan in particular, and of public-choice scholarship in general, is so false, so distorted, so vile that if Buchanan were still alive he would have a strong prospect of winning a lawsuit against MacLean for libel.

And yet a senior and prominent economic historian, one at MIT no less, takes such a book at face value.  What a sorry and disappointing performance by Temin.  He should be ashamed.  But he won’t be.  His childish accusation fits the childish narrative of many people on the left, which goes something like this: ‘Buchanan, as a public-choice scholar, argued that in reality democratic government is more flawed than it is typically assumed to be both in the popular mind and in the academy.  Therefore, because we on the left hold to the True Faith that democratic government is the only means of refashioning society in our image – and because we are good people, our image of society is splendid, and our Faith in nearly unrestrained democratic governance unwavering – anyone who casts doubt on the means that we simply assume to be ideal for achieving our ends must be an evil person who shares none of our ideals.  Because we favor equality, those who question our means must favor inequality.  Because we favor fairness and justice and truth and beauty and peace, those who question our decision to use democratic governance to achieve these outcomes obviously oppose fairness and justice and truth and beauty and peace.’

Anyone who reads more than a smattering of Jim Buchanan’s work learns that Buchanan’s goal was not chiefly to warn people of the typically overlooked flaws in democratic decision-making.  Buchanan’s larger goal in making people aware of the realities of democratic decision-making was to inspire and help to guide them in refashioning democratic rules and procedures so that democracy would better live up to its reputation as giving equal voice to all.

One might legitimately disagree with Buchanan’s diagnoses of democracy and with his recommendations for how to improve it (or with both).  But to interpret this scholar’s long, deep, and careful work as an effort to disenfranchise the poor and the powerless in order that the rich and the powerful might become even more rich and more powerful is, at best, to reveal an utter misunderstanding of Buchanan’s scholarship.  More likely, it is to reveal a willful, or at least a reckless, effort to lazily further one’s own narrative at the expense of the reputation of a scholar whose works, were they to be seriously engaged, would make the childish fables told about Jim Buchanan by MacLean and Temin impossible to tell.

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