Everything Nancy MacLean Doesn’t Like is a Conspiracy Theory

In her 2017 book Democracy in Chains, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean uses economist James M. Buchanan as a point of blame for all that she finds objectionable about modern American politics. The core of her story is a fantastical conspiracy theory that places Buchanan at the center of an alleged 1950s political alliance with segregationists to advance the cause of school vouchers – a claim that she recently expanded to also include economist Milton Friedman.

MacLean’s central thesis is without basis – indeed she fabricates this narrative out of thin air while neglecting (or intentionally omitting) clear evidence that Friedman and Buchanan objected to the segregationist Massive Resistance movement of Civil Rights-era Virginia. These objections extended to segregationist attempts to coopt school vouchers. “I deplore segregation and racial prejudice,” Friedman wrote in his seminal 1955 article on voucher theory. An advantage of vouchers, he continued, was that they would permit racially “mixed schools [to] grow at the expense of the nonmixed” until the latter dwindled away.[1] In 1964 Buchanan, along with his colleague Warren Nutter, called attention to “the case of private schools that exclude pupils on the basis of race.” They listed this condition among the “important non-economic reasons for excluding such schools from the tuition grant system” and similarly embraced federal court decisions that barred segregationists from accessing voucher money.[2]

MacLean nonetheless sets up these economists as villains to the true “heroes” of her story – the Virginia “school savers” movement that organized in 1956 to oppose Virginia’s hardline “Massive Resistance” laws – measures that attempted to circumvent Brown v. Board of Education by forcibly shuttering public schools under integration orders. Per MacLean’s telling, these entities used “grassroots organizing to reopen the schools and save public education from massive resistance” to Brown in Virginia. Their public face, MacLean continues, was the Virginia Committee for Public Schools (VCPS) – a “school savers” organization that was formed with the direct support of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s main teachers union.[3]

MacLean’s contention has a problem at its very core. While these organizations did indeed oppose the “Massive Resistance” school closure policies, they also shifted tack in 1959 at the exact moment that Buchanan and Friedman were making the case for school vouchers. That year, the VEA and VCPS both entered the voucher debate by embracing the explicitly segregationist anti-voucher crusade of John S. Battle, Jr., a leading attorney in the Massive Resisters’ fight against NAACP integration lawsuits.

I documented the little-studied history of Battle’s campaign in the Wall Street Journal in October 2021. To briefly recap, after courts ordered the schools reopened in January 1959, Battle devised an alternative scheme to maintain segregation by creating administrative obstacles to black student transfers into majority-white schools. While the courts would no longer allow school districts to deny such transfers on racial grounds, Battle proposed using enrollment caps, geographic zoning, and other regulatory impediments to keep integration to a bare minimum. “[T]he departure of white students will make integration much easier to accomplish,” Battle pleaded in a letter to Virginia Governor J. Lindsay Almond. “That would certainly be a disastrous result particularly, if at a later date, the private schools find themselves faced with the problem of integration, as can very well happen when they are supported with state funds.”[4]

Battle’s objections to vouchers arose from the exact same reasons that led Milton Friedman to support them. Furthermore, Battle correctly predicted that future federal court rulings would prohibit the use of publicly supported voucher money at segregated institutions – a fear that became reality in 1961 after federal district judge Oren Lewis barred another county in Virginia from accessing tuition grant money so long as their school system diverted it to segregationist uses.[5]

Battle’s influence on the opponents of vouchers is thoroughly attested in archival evidence. The son of a former Byrd Machine governor and brother of a future Democratic gubernatorial nominee, John S. Battle, Jr. operated at the highest ranks of Virginia politics. Although he failed to sway Almond to join his cause, Battle teamed up with University of Virginia law professor Hardy Dillard to press the “negro engulfment” argument in a bid to stave off desegregation. After the two went on public speaking campaigns in the spring of 1959, the message began to resonate in Virginia politics. One of their converts was Delegate Robert Whitehead, the chair of the Virginia Assembly’s education committee, who collaborated with Dillard directly and credited one of Battle’s speeches for convincing him that tuition grants would lead to greater integration.[6] When Whitehead announced his own conversion to Battle’s position in a May 1959 town hall meeting, Charlottesville school superintendent Fendall R. Ellis wrote to commend him: “You made a great speech last night at Lane. It is refreshing to hear the truth on the school question.”[7] Battle’s anti-voucher arguments clearly resonated, and the public school interests took notice.

In drawing attention to Battle’s segregationist anti-voucher campaign, I apparently provoked the ire of Nancy MacLean. Earlier this week she published what can only be described as an unhinged, conspiracy theory-laden screed against me on the far-left Institute for New Economic Thinking’s blog. MacLean takes umbrage at the very suggestion that Friedman intended for vouchers to break down segregation. Like MacLean’s prior work in Democracy in Chains, the piece itself is riddled with historical errors as well as misrepresentations of the documents she presents. But one passage in particular stands out. Responding to my article about Battle’s racist anti-voucher crusade, she seeks to dismiss him entirely:

Seeking to make his reductionist public choice logic work, Magness asserts that the cause he seeks to malign “traces its origins” to a particular Charlottesville elementary school in 1958. This is impossible to take seriously. He adduces one school board attorney there, John S. Battle, Jr. and offers up some racist quotes from this individual to have us believe that he has identified the missing mastermind speaking for the public schools. Magness maintains that those who were defending public education were doing so not only to line their own pockets but also to ensure segregation.”

She goes on to accuse me of a “sleight of hand” and a “bait-and-switch gambit” to obscure my readers’ attention from “the actual advocates of Massive Resistance who won the voucher program in 1956.” Here we find the first of MacLean’s many historical errors in her confusion of the basic timeline. Friedman and the other voucher advocates were not involved in the Massive Resistance program of 1956 – indeed, they denounced it and wanted nothing to do with it. “Virginia’s massive resistance policy is up a rather dead end now,” Buchanan wrote his mentor Frank Knight in 1958, shortly before the courts overturned the school closure policy. Whenever asked, Friedman unequivocally stated that he opposed any effort to overturn Brown v. Board. 

There’s simply no evidence connecting either individual to the 1956 Massive Resistance program, leading one to wonder whether MacLean’s errors about the date involve intentional acts of deception on her part. It would not be the first time that she lied or manipulated historical evidence to advance her peculiar narrative.

Rather than the 1956 Massive Resistance legislation of MacLean’s confusion, Friedman’s comments on Virginia’s voucher program pertained to a different tuition grant bill adopted in 1959 – the very same law that provoked Battle’s ire. This measure’s legislative history is a matter of complex parliamentary maneuvering, but it was a key provision of a legislative flanking move in which an unusual coalition of anti-segregationists such as Sen. John A.K. Donovan and Del. Kathryn Stone, moderate segregationists who broke from the hardliners over school closures such as Sen. Mosby Perrow, and business-minded legislators such as Sen. Eugene Sydnor, who saw the economic damages being done to the state by the Massive Resistance movement. These legislators came together in the spring of 1959 to flank the Massive Resistance faction after hardline segregationists resolved to continue the school closures in defiance of federal court rulings.

Lieutenant Governor A.E.S. Stephens, one of the architects of the flanking move, recounted the 1959 tuition grant program’s origins as a move to outmaneuver House Speaker E. Blackburn Moore, the Massive Resisters’ most powerful figure in the Virginia Assembly. As Stephens explained, Moore “attempt[ed] to block the reenactment of the tuition grant after our massive resistance laws had been stricken down” by using parliamentary procedures after he realized that he lacked the votes to beat the aforementioned flanking coalition. Stephens in turn held the Senate in session to force the House into a vote, outmaneuvering Moore and the Massive Resisters.[8]

MacLean is thus not only confused about the dates and intricacies of Virginia legislative history – she has also somehow managed to attribute the 1959 tuition grant program to the wrong faction of the Virginia assembly. Indeed, the legislative subcommittee that drafted the race-neutral text of the tuition grant program included the aforementioned Sen. Donovan – one of the few vocal opponents of the 1956 “Massive Resistance” laws and a defender of the NAACP during the school desegregation fight.

Returning to MacLean’s dismissive assessment of Battle’s anti-voucher crusade though, we quickly find another motive at play. Recall that in Democracy in Chains, MacLean lavishes praise upon public “school saver” interests such as the VEA and the VCPS, presenting them as heroic foils to both the segregationist Massive Resisters and the voucher-supporting economists.

Unfortunately for MacLean’s thesis, John S. Battle, Jr. presents a direct complication for her political narrative. After the federal courts overturned the school closure measures, those very same “school saver” interest groups threw in their lot with Battle in a bid to restrict and ultimately defund the tuition grant program.

One of the main converts to Battle’s “negro engulfment” campaign was Robert F. Williams, the general secretary of the VEA teachers union.[9] After receiving a transcript of one of Battle’s racist anti-voucher speeches, Williams had it reproduced and circulated to every white public school superintendent in the commonwealth. He commended its message for the guidance it provided during the “grave problem with which we are now confronted,” namely school integration.[10] Over the next several years, Williams became one of the commonwealth’s most vocal opponents of the tuition grant program, repeatedly using the VEA’s in-house newsletter to denounce its alleged “misuse” for integrationist purposes. When new statistics about the voucher program’s performance became available in 1964, Williams reacted in horror at the revelation that tuition grants were being “used in private schools, many of which were integrated, and 1,415 were used in public schools, many of which were integrated.” Calling on the legislature to restrict access to the program, Williams complained that “parents are using the grants to send their children to integrated schools which the entire purpose of the legislation was to avoid.”[11]

In a fascinating twist of irony, Milton Friedman observed and celebrated the same pattern that horrified Williams. “I have been told that one of the first requests for a voucher to finance a change of school was by a parent transferring a child from a segregated to an integrated school,” Friedman wrote in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom. If this pattern continued, Friedman predicted, “we should see a flowering of the schools available in Virginia, with an increase in their diversity.” Expanding vouchers nationwide, he further predicted, would result in an “appreciable decrease in segregation, and a great widening in the opportunities available to the ablest and most ambitious Negro youth.”[12]

MacLean scoffs at Friedman’s prediction, even though it was the very same integrationist result that horrified the segregationist union bosses at the VEA. The determinant factor in her assessment, it appears, is ideological. As a political supporter of the VEA, she cannot bring herself to reckon with the fact that the teachers’ interests threw their weight behind Battle and the segregationist hardliners in a bid to overturn the tuition grants.

Turning to the VCPS “school savers” group that MacLean similarly praises in her book, we find direct evidence of their complicity in Battle’s racist anti-voucher crusade. The key document here comes in the form of a March 1959 strategy memorandum by the VCPS’s Charlottesville chapter – effectively ground zero for the school integration fight at the time, and one of the main communities directly affected by the “Massive Resistance” school closures. In fact, Battle first delivered his “negro engulfment” speech against vouchers at Charlottesville’s Venable Elementary School, one of the shuttered schools facing an integration order. The local VCPS chapter took interest.

In the March 1959 strategy memorandum, the VCPS affiliate’s leadership presented a plan for “containing integration, as outlined by John S. Battle, Jr.” at his recent Venable Elementary speech. Directly echoing Battle’s talking points, the Charlottesville chapter warned that tuition grants amounted to an “[a]ttempt to get as many pupils as possible so that integration will be as extensive as possible, thus making the public schools unacceptable to as many people as possible.” To combat this trend, the strategy document proposed a propaganda campaign aimed at “holding integration to the barest minimum possible” by dissuading parents from transferring their students to other schools.[13]

Within days, the Charlottesville VCPS chapter printed leaflets containing a transcript of Battle’s anti-voucher “negro engulfment” speech.

The leaflet, depicted above, proudly displayed the name and post office box of the Charlottesville VCPS chapter. Private correspondence from the organization further revealed its political alignment with Battle’s cause, even as it publicly claimed to “only” seek the reopening of the shuttered schools. The organization solicited Battle’s guidance in crafting their message and even adopted a resolution extending its “grateful thanks for the wonderful service you have rendered this community over the past months.”[14] The referenced “service” was Battle’s role as the paid counsel for the Charlottesville school system in its unsuccessful bid to block a NAACP lawsuit for the integration of Venable Elementary.

So how does Nancy MacLean reconcile her position with the overt embrace of John S. Battle, Jr.’s segregationist attacks on school vouchers? She attempts to excuse it away. After accusing me of “conjur[ing] up ‘Virginia’s racist antivoucher movement’” by highlighting Battle’s campaign, she inadvertently concedes that the very same campaign implicates some of the aforementioned heroes of her book. MacLean’s own words are stunning:

Those seeking to rescue public education from the wrecking ball of Massive Resistance knew all too well two key things about the enfranchised white voters they had to persuade: that most believed in public schools, and also preferred segregation. To save the schools for future generations, some advocates appealed to that racism in their arguments.

It was apparently justified for the VEA, the VCPS, and similar public school interest groups to team up with segregationists such as Battle because they did so in the service of an ideological goal that MacLean herself happens to support. “These people were trying to stem the revenue drain that threatened to destroy most children’s education, not to protect segregation per se,” she continues. While “they were no heroes in the fight for racial equity,” their overt political alliance with segregationist hardliners like John S. Battle, Jr. was apparently justified in MacLean’s mind.

It would appear that MacLean’s ideological disdain for school vouchers is so intense, so fervent, and so unwavering, that she’s willing to countenance a direct partnership with racial segregationists in the service of that cause.

And yet MacLean has the temerity to charge Friedman, Buchanan, and other voucher-supporting economists with “collusion with segregationists” that they never in fact pursued? Or to charge libertarians with an unwillingness “to reckon with their cause’s long history of working against civil rights reform”? As the example of the VEA and VCPS partnership with Battle’s segregationist anti-voucher campaign illustrates, MacLean’s history is not only exactly backwards; is personally guilty of the very same allegations she recklessly and baselessly throws at Friedman, Buchanan, and other supporters of the school voucher movement.

In considering the brazen hypocrisy and projection of MacLean’s narrative, it’s illustrative to note a final twist in her argument. In my previous writings on the anti-voucher segregationists of late 1950s Virginia, I suggested that public education interest groups willingly colluded with figures such as Battle because of a shared interest in public school finance. The VEA, VCPS, and multiple county school boards saw vouchers as a direct threat to the public financing of their institutions, and were willing as a result to throw their lot in with Battle.

MacLean objects to this depiction, deeming it “a crude public choice axiom that people only act in their own (usually venal) self-interest” and dismissing it as “reductionist public choice logic,” apparently with no basis in reality. And yet if we turn to the record from the Virginia school desegregation fight, it is not difficult to find direct evidence that pecuniary motives weighed heavily on the opposition to vouchers.

The school board of Arlington County, Virginia made this link explicit in a resolution adopted in the wake of Brown v. Board: “We are unalterably opposed to the principle of the payment of public tax monies for tuition in private schools. We fear it would result in a substantial increase in the tax burden, the impairment of educational standards through lack of effective State control of curriculum, and in the breakdown of disciplines in the education of our children.” Similar rhetoric may be found in the Charlottesville VCPS chapter records, the VEA’s newsletter, and other public school interests that aligned against vouchers.

When MacLean dismisses this observation as “reductionist public choice logic,” she dismisses an abundance of historical evidence – quite possibly because it hits too close to home for her own political objections to vouchers. We also needn’t look far to see how these same pecuniary interests led the “heroes” of MacLean’s narrative into partnership with segregationists like Battle, for Battle spelled them out in his own arguments. “I refuse to believe that we should allow a few negroes to run us out of our good white schools,” he explained in his anti-voucher plea to Governor Almond. Maintaining segregation would require reframing the debate, he explained. And such a reframing would only work “by putting the emphasis in the most effective place; namely the pocketbook.”[15]

[1] Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in Education,” 1955.

[2] Warren Nutter and James M. Buchanan. “Report on the Virginia Plan for Universal Education.” Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy, Occasional Paper No. 2, 1965.

[3] Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains, 2017.

[4] John S. Battle, Jr. to J. Lindsay Almond, February 20, 1959, copy in Colgate Darden Papers, University of Virginia

[5] Allen v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 198 F. Supp. 497 (E.D. Va. 1961)

[6] Dillard to Robert Whitehead, May 11, 1959, Whitehead Papers, University of Virginia

[7] Ellis to Whitehead, May 14, 1959, Whitehead Papers, University of Virginia

[8] A.E.S. Stephens to Leon Dure, April 3, 1963, Dure Papers, University of Virginia

[9] In a bizarre aside, MacLean takes strong exception to the description of the VEA as a teachers union on the grounds that it lacked formal collective bargaining authority under Virginia law. This bizarre interpretation is at direct odds with the VEA itself, which proudly describes its organization as “a Union dedicated to advancing quality instruction and curriculum.” The VEA’s website further applies the “union” label to its activities going all the way back to its founding as the Educational Association of Virginia in 1866.

[10] Robert F. Williams, VEA Memorandum to Superintendents, April 28, 1959, Charlottesville School Board Records, University of Virginia

[11] Robert F. Williams, “Hardly a Surprise,” Virginia Journal of Education, November 1964.

[12] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962.

[13] Committee for Public Schools Memorandum, March 1959, Charlottesville School Board Records, University of Virginia

[14] Constance Keeble to Battle, February 12, 1959, Charlottesville Committee for Public Education records, University of Virginia[15] Battle to Almond, February 20, 1959, Darden Papers

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