Devastating Review of Nancy MacLean’s Fictional Work “Democracy in Chains”

by Don Boudreaux on December 12, 2018

in Books, Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

The December 2018 issue of the prestigious Journal of Economic Literature contains a lengthy, in-depth, and devastating review of Nancy MacLean’s 2017 work of fiction (masquerading as a work of history), Democracy in Chains. The review – titled “The Sound of Silence: A Review Essay of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” – is written by Jean-Baptiste Fleury and Alain Marciano. Here’s the abstract:

This essay reviews Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, which triggered a huge controversy that virally spread on the Internet and in various journals. We will evaluate MacLean’s almost biographical account of James Buchanan, which portrays the 1986 Nobel Prize laureate as the mastermind behind today’s attacks, by the foot soldiers of the radical right, on American democracy. This essay develops three main points. One, MacLean’s general narrative puts too much emphasis on Buchanan and largely neglects the many other important characters who contributed to the intellectual criticism of government intervention. Two, MacLean’s account is marred by many misunderstandings about public choice theory, for instance about the role that simple majority rule plays in constitutional economics. Third, in the midst of abundant archival material, her historical narrative is, at best, sketchy, and is replete with significantly flawed arguments, misplaced citations, and dubious conjectures. Overall, MacLean tends to overinterpret certain aspects in Buchanan’s life and thought, while she overlooks others that are equally important in understanding his work and in uence. In particular, we stress that Buchanan was, rst and foremost, a scholar, not a political activist, who gave significant attention to ethical considerations in his analysis of markets.

And below the fold are some slices from the text of the review:

In the 1950s, a number of economists with different political leanings defined the public interest in reference to individual preferences, rather than as a common good that would exist independently from individuals (see Cherrier and Fleury 2017, Amadae 2003). Buchanan (1949, typically) ranked among them, but so did economists Kenneth Arrow (1951) and Paul Samuelson (1954) or political scientists Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom (1953). Thus, during the decade that preceded the publication of The Calculus of Consent, several economists, Buchanan being only one, discussed the properties, consequences, and merits of particular decision-making rules such as majority voting. And, a number of economists interested in the topic already recognized that democracy might be an imperfect system for representing the will of the people. It may, for instance, satisfy the preferences of only the median voter, or it may fail to correctly aggregate individual preferences. Furthermore, it was not Buchanan, as MacLean would have readers believe, but a student of Arrow’s, Anthony Downs (1957a, 1957b), who was one of the first to introduce the assumption that politicians and voters were rational, self-interested individuals who traded votes on a political market. He and others such as William Riker (1958, see also 1961) had already discussed if and how the search for majority coalition, instead of the satisfaction of the common good, may bring instability to the political regime.


MacLean’s characterization of public choice and the way she ties Buchanan to the field is so vague that it ends up being deeply misleading.


MacLean (p.xxii) criticizes Buchanan for preferring unconditionally—and “with every fiber of his being”—unanimity over majority. This is the very reason for which, according to MacLean, he is antidemocratic. Buchanan’s focus on unanimity is presented as an attempt “to protect an elite minority against the ‘exploitation’ by the majority of their fellow citizens” and “to restrict what voters could achieve together in a democracy to what the wealthiest among them would agree to” (p. 2, see also p. 79). MacLean even insists that Buchanan would consider a public decision to, say, raise taxes, made with simple majority voting, as “mob attempts to take by force what the takers had no moral right to do” (p. xxii). What is missed, sadly, is that, to Buchanan (1981, p. 12), the majority is nothing more than a “means of reaching collective decisions” and, as such, could be used in any kind of institutional setting, including nondemocratic ones. Rules of collective decision making per se do not mean much, and cannot be evaluated without reference to a constitution.


By failing to address fully the distinction between constitutional and post-constitutional decision making, MacLean cannot really discuss the relevance and originality of Buchanan’s analysis, and is unable to engage in a fruitful discussion and criticism of Buchanan’s thought, notably because she fails to provide a detailed view of what she thinks democracy is or should be. The reader is left with the feeling that MacLean simply equates democracy with the generalization of a single rule, majority voting, along with the feeling that MacLean understands Buchanan’s thought and activism as an attempt to replace majority voting with unanimous consent at the post-constitutional stage of collective decision making, which, as we saw above, is not true.


No wonder, to MacLean, that John Buchanan and, after him, his grandson James were affected: “[g]randfather Buchanan never got over his loss,” MacLean concludes (p. 31). According to MacLean, quoting James Buchanan’s memoirs (1992, p. 21), he was himself perfectly aware of this: “he described [his grandfather] as ‘psychologically tarnished’ by his defeat.”

Sadly, the quotation is misrepresented. Buchanan (1992, p. 21) did write that his grandfather was “psychologically tarnished,” but it was not by his defeat, as MacLean claims. Much to the contrary: He “had been psychologically tarnished by his too-early successes in state politics,” wrote Buchanan (1992, p. 21; emphasis added). A surprising slip—not the only one in the book—and a powerful rhetorical move enabling MacLean to link Buchanan and his grandfather’s grudges about democracy to the defeat, as well as to claim that the defeat “had led [Buchanan’s grandfather] back to the repressive Democratic Party he had earlier denounced” (p. 31).

[DBx: This instance is not the only one in which MacLean puts words into her subjects’ mouths in ways that give the appearance that her subjects believed things quite the opposition of what they actually believed. Such “scholarship” isn’t scholarship at all, of course; it’s fraud.]


Therefore, although there is no doubt that strong political and methodological considerations were intertwined in Buchanan’s social scientific agenda, no historical or factual evidence allows one to reach the conclusion that Buchanan was a self-aware political extremist who sought to organize his activism under cover of science.


While the story puts forward certain aspects of Buchanan’s work, MacLean never seems to really consider that Buchanan (nor any other of the scholars she talks about in her book) was primarily a scholar. Apart from a discussion of the Calculus of Consent (Buchanan and Tullock 1967 [1962]) and a few references to The Limits of Liberty (Buchanan 1975a), she ignores Buchanan’s academic work, a work that was sufficiently rich to fill twenty volumes of collected works. Buchanan was a more complex, subtle, and altogether different character than the one MacLean depicts.


This leads to a second dimension, namely MacLean’s silence in her lack of evidence. MacLean does not provide convincing proofs to sustain the accusations she makes. Determined as she is to portray one man as the mastermind of her story, MacLean tries to make everything fit into that implausible assumption, no matter the cost. This gives an account marred by imprecisions, mistakes, distortions, unproven assumptions about the motives behind each character’s actions, and sometimes a surprising lack of rigor. Sadly enough, it is only by misrepresenting her main characters that MacLean can construct the story she insists on telling and that, in the end, proves unconvincing.


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