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Looking Back on a Disgraceful Academic Performance of Five Years Ago

My latest column for AIER is the first of a two-part series looking back on the publication, five years ago this month, of a notably disgraceful example of so-called ‘scholarship.’ A slice:

Five years ago there appeared the most appalling instance of academic malpractice that I’ve ever personally engaged with. In her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, published in June 2017, Duke University “historian” Nancy MacLean purports to reveal that my late Nobel-laureate economist colleague, James Buchanan, was a white supremacist who throughout his long tenure in the academy aimed to undermine democracy and to oppress the poor and working classes, and who eventually became a willing tool of rapacious oligarchs.

No one who knew Jim Buchanan personally, or who even just read relevant parts of his vast scholarly output, recognizes the fictional “Buchanan” who appears in MacLean’s book. Thus in the previous paragraph I put the descriptor “historian” in quotation marks to reveal up front my low assessment of the quality of MacLean’s historical research and reporting on Buchanan’s work. Her book is a screed of fiction passed off as a work of fact.

Long-time readers of my blog, Café Hayek, know that I spent a great deal of time and energy during the Summer and Fall of 2017 exposing some of the countless fallacies and grotesque misimpressions that constitute the substance of MacLean’s book. My efforts are surely less thorough and effective than are those of more talented scholars, including AIER’s own Phil Magness, who joined in the effort to set the record straight against MacLean’s fabrications about Buchanan, and about the school of public-choice research that Buchanan co-founded with his brilliant long-time colleague and co-author Gordon Tullock. (Disclosure: I was, for many years at George Mason University, a colleague also of Gordon Tullock.)

I share here – as I will in my next column – some of my many efforts to expose the errors that run throughout MacLean’s book, as well as throughout some of the attempts by others to defend her fictional tale.

First is this (slightly amended) June 28, 2017, letter to New Republic News Editor Alex Shephard:

Mr. Shephard:

In the introduction to your interview of Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean, you write that my late Nobel laureate colleague James Buchanan insisted “that democracy and liberty – defined as free market capitalism – were incompatible and that it was necessary to limit participatory democracy to protect the property rights of the extremely wealthy. Though he did no empirical work, he was remarkably influential in the field of public choice theory, which essentially argued that markets could never fail and governments always did.”

Your characterization of Buchanan verges on libelous. For starters, Buchanan did not believe that “markets could never fail.” Here’s just one of many quotations from Buchanan’s published works that disprove your accusation: “Markets fail; governments fail.” (This quotation is from page 130 of Jim’s 1976 paper “Methods and Morals in Economics” as this paper is reprinted in volume 19 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan.) Much of Buchanan’s work is a careful comparison of what he always insisted are the imperfect outcomes of markets with the imperfect outcomes of politics. It’s true that Buchanan’s comparisons of politics with markets led him to conclude that imperfect markets outperform imperfect politics more often than most people suppose. But it is emphatically untrue that he believed that “markets could never fail and governments always did.”

Worse is your assertion that Buchanan believed that democracy and liberty are incompatible. Although Buchanan – like every other serious person who’s pondered the matter – opposed unlimited majority rule, throughout his life he sought ways to ensure that each and every adult has an equal voice in the political arena. Jim understood that a key benefit of such political equality is the maximum possible protection of individual liberty.

Finally, even if we ignore Buchanan’s proposal for confiscatory inheritance taxation, it is grotesque of you to suggest that Buchanan wished to protect the private property rights only of “the extremely wealthy.” Jim advocated strong and equal protection of everyone’s private property rights. So I challenge you (or Prof. MacLean, or anyone else) to put your money where your mouth is: search for passages in Buchanan’s writings showing that he wished to protect only the property rights of the rich, and that he was hostile, or even indifferent, to the property rights of the non-rich. For each such passage you find I’ll pay you $1,000. But if you’re unable to find any such passage you pay to me $100. Deal?


Donald J. Boudreaux

Shephard did not respond to the above letter.