Does ‘Democracy in Chains’ paint an accurate picture of James Buchanan?

Nancy MacLean’s new book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” presents a sharply critical intellectual history of the libertarian right in America, with a particular focus on Nobel laureate James Buchanan, often credited as one of the founders of “public choice” economics. As MacLean tells it, Buchanan’s work was profoundly anti-democratic and is responsible for much of the political dysfunction we witness today.

MacLean’s book is receiving significant attention, not all of it positive. Glowing reviews have appeared in Slate, the Atlantic and the New Republic, and on NPR. The review on the Law & Liberty blog, on the other hand, was a more-than-a-bit more critical, and Daniel Mitchell has posted a sharply negative review of the positive reviews.

Disagreements about a book with a politically charged thesis are nothing new. More notable, perhaps, are allegations that MacLean has misquoted and misrepresented material to create a less flattering — but also less accurate — picture of her subjects.

Russell Roberts, for example, points to MacLean’s treatment of Tyler Cowen. According to Roberts, MacLean has selectively quoted Cowen in a highly misleading way. His critique is followed by MacLean’s response and Roberts’s reply. Readers may judge who has the best of the exchange. Don Boudreaux comments as well.

Roberts is not the only one to raise such concerns. David Henderson points to another example of selective quotation, this time involving Buchanan. Phillip Magness alleges that MacLean concocts a connection between Buchanan and Southern Agrarian thinkers that simply did not exist. Boudreaux argues that MacLean misrepresents Buchanan’s intellectual influences. There appears to be a pattern here, and it is not a good one. If MacLean responds to any of these allegations, I will post an update with links.

According to the various reviews — positive and negative — MacLean devotes substantial attention to those who have funded libertarian academic work, the Koch brothers in particular. Thus I had to chuckle when BHL’s Jason Brennan pointed out that MacLean’s book was funded, at least in part, by the federal government. So an attack on academics critical of government was funded by … the government. Were Buchanan still alive I suspect this would make him smile.

Originally Found On:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s