Some dubious claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’

Duke University historian Nancy MacLean has published a new book, “Democracy in Chains,” that is getting a great deal of favorable attention from progressive media outlets and is selling quite well online. The theme of the book is that Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, a founder of public choice economics and a libertarian fellow-traveler, was the intellectual leader of a cabal ultimately supported by Charles Koch intent on replacing American democracy with an oligarchy based on constitutional protections for property rights.

When I first came across this book and interviews with its author, I was immediately skeptical. For one thing, I’ve been traveling in libertarian intellectual circles for about three decades, and my strong impression is that Buchanan, while a giant in economics, is something of a marginal figure in the broader libertarian and free-market movements. Sure, public choice theory has provided important intellectual support for libertarian views of government, but Buchanan was hardly the only major figure to work on public choice (which is basically applying economic theory to the study of politics). Many other leading public choice economists, some of whom, like Kenneth Arrow, whose work preceded Buchanan’s, were decidedly liberal in their political views. Even among the more free-market-oriented early public choice scholars, there is my late colleague Gordon Tullock (co-author of the book that won Buchanan the Nobel Prize; Tullock was stiffed because he was not formally trained in economics), George Stigler, Sam Peltzman, among others. Tullock’s famous article on what came to be called rent-seeking strikes me as more influential on mainstream libertarian thought than the entire corpus of Buchanan’s later work.

Buchanan’s work on constitutional political economy was of great interest to a subset of libertarian-leaning economists, but was sufficiently obscure and idiosyncratic to have had relatively little influence on the broader movement. I’ve met many libertarians who were brought to libertarianism by the likes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Charles Murray, Julian Simon, Randy Barnett and others; I’ve yet to meet anyone who has cited Buchanan as their gateway to libertarianism. Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism,” the best extant history of the libertarian movement, gives Buchanan approximately the attention I’d think he deserves, several very brief cameos, all relating to Buchanan’s foundational work in public choice.

The other reason I was immediately skeptical of MacLean’s take on Buchanan was because her portrayal of Buchanan did not mesh with my personal experience. I only met Buchanan once, at an Institute for Human Studies gathering for young libertarian academics around 20 years ago. The devil himself (Charles Koch) was there. Buchanan gave the keynote address. What did this arch defender of inequality and wealth talk about? He gave a lengthy  defense of high inheritance taxes, necessary, in his view, to prevent the emergence of a permanent oligarchy. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “Democracy in Chains” fails to note Buchanan’s strong support of inheritance taxes.

My confidence in the book did not increase when I saw that she tied the rise of the early libertarian movement to hostility to Brown v. Board of education, and libertarian ideology in general and public choice theory to the work of John Calhoun, which did not jibe with my own research and experience.

When the book arrived, I eagerly looked for her sources supporting the notion that modern libertarianism owes a massive debt to Calhoun, a theme on which she spends her entire prologue; later in the book, she claims that the libertarian cause traces its lineage to Calhoun. It turns out that she cites two articles noting similarities between Calhoun’s theories of political economy and modern public choice theory, and also cites to two pages of Murray Rothbard’s 1970 book, “Power and Market.” To put the two pages from Rothbard in perspective, I have in front of me a volume with the entire run of the New Individualist Review, a pioneering libertarian academic journal published at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. The index has multiple citations to Mill, Friedman, Hayek, Hobbes, Montesquieu, von Humboldt, Smith, Rand and other classical liberal and libertarian luminaries. Calhoun, meanwhile, does not appear in the index. Not once.

Meanwhile, in Chapter 3, MacLean claims that contemporary libertarians “eschewing overt racial appeals, but not at all concerned with the impact on black citizens, framed the South’s fight as resistance to federal coercion in a noble quest to preserve states’ right and economic liberty. Nothing energized this backwater movement like Brown.” MacLean identifies only two such libertarians, Frank Chodorov and and Robert LeFevre. I can’t check her citation to LeFevre, because it’s from private correspondence that I don’t have access to. But her citation to Chodorov fails to support her assertion.

The article she cites by Chodorov can be found here. In it, Chodorov praises Brown: “The ultimate validation of the Court decision,which undoubtedly ranks among the most important in American history, lies in the fact that it is in line with what is deepest and strongest and most generous in our historical tradition.” Chodorov goes on to point out that merely prohibiting segregated schools won’t lead to integration because of residential segregation, and concludes that hostility to integration may lead some southern states to open up publicly-funded education to competitive private schools, which would mean “what began as an attempt to evade an unavoidable change in an obsolete system of racial segregation might turn into an interesting educational experiment.” Chodorov does note that among opponents to Brown “there is a very genuine feeling that education is a matter reserved for the states,” but again this is in the context of him praising Brown. There is nothing in this piece remotely celebrating southern “resistance to federal coercion in a noble quest to preserve states’ right and economic liberty.” And there are more subtle errors as well. MacLean portrays Chodorov as being excited that Brown presented the opportunity to “do away with the public school system,” when in fact he specifically envisioned “a larger network of private schools, denominational and non-denominational, side by side with the general public school system.

More to come.

[I wrote this post before I saw co-blogger Jonathan Adler’s post detailing various other controversies over “Democracy in Chains.” I recommend that post, which anticipated a future post I planned.]

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