More On Nancy MacLean’s Egregious ‘Scholarship’

In my previous column I shared some of my (many) responses to Nancy MacLean’s appallingly inaccurate Democracy in Chains, a book about my late Nobel-laureate colleague James Buchanan. I promised in that column that I would share in this follow-up column more such responses.

I was prompted to revisit this episode from 2017 chiefly because MacLean continues to tell fantastically false fables about other prominent classical-liberal scholars, many of whom are now dead and, hence, unable to defend themselves from being falsely portrayed by MacLean as cartoonish villains. The world must never forget just how very untrustworthy is MacLean’s ‘scholarship,’ as is that of all the pundits and professors who come to her defense.

The following post first appeared on July, 13, 2017, and deals with MacLean’s outrageous manner of defending herself from the criticisms leveled by serious scholars against her book:

(Read this Cafe Hayek post only if you commit to read it in its entirety.)

In her response to Russ Roberts’s post on her allegation that Tyler Cowen is an enemy of democracy, Nancy MacLean wrote

I support and would … be involved in any attempt to overturn the American democratic system of majority rule.

Wow! Who knew that Nancy MacLean wants to put democracy in chains?!

(Of course, in offering the above quotation I naturally used the standard and well-known practice of editing someone’s words for considerations of space and clarity.)

Now in truth, if you read all that Prof. MacLean says – in her response to Russ and elsewhere – as well as take account of the context of her words, it’s clear that she has no wish to “overturn the American system of democratic rule.” MacLean’s real view is precisely the opposite of the view that the unsuspecting reader would take away from reading only my above quotation of her. But my above intentional misquoting of her is no different than her careless misquotations of Tyler and of Jim Buchanan (or of David Boaz) – her misquotations of these scholars that give her readers reason to believe that Tyler and Buchanan (and Boaz) each wrote things that are precisely the opposite not only of the thoughts that each scholar intended to convey, but the opposite also of what each scholar actually wrote.

A major theme of Jim Buchanan’s life work is the Importance of rules. Everyone, he believed, ought to have an equal say in making the rules, and everyone who agrees to play by certain rules should play by them and expect everyone else who agrees to play by those rules to play by those rules. Among Nancy MacLean’s rules seems to be this: “It’s acceptable to misquote someone in order to make it appear as if that someone believes exactly the opposite of what that someone really believes.” So, under that MacLeanian rule, I would have been perfectly justified in ending this blog post immediately after my above quotation of her. She, by her dim lights, would have had no just cause for complaint.

Alas, though, I do not agree to play by that rule. It’s a bad rule. The rule I prefer is that authors should be quoted accurately and in ways that convey as fully and as unambiguously as possible their real meaning. Fortunately, the rule that I prefer is the rule that the vast majority of scholars and writers prefer and follow. But beware, Professor MacLean does not play by this standard rule of accurate quotation. Her rule seems to be that inaccurate and misleading quotations are acceptable. As David Bernstein says in this comment on an earlier I Hayek post:

“As much more of a historian than an economist, I am more impressed with her misuse of historical sources. Every time I found something in the book that didn’t sound right, and I was able to check the sources, the sources don’t say what she says they say.”

Next up is this letter that I sent to – but which was never published in – the Wall Street Journal:

James Freeman reports on the sharp criticism aimed at historian Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains (“They’re Not All Crazy,” July 15). As he notes, this criticism is justified: MacLean’s account of how the late George Mason University economist James Buchanan led racists and rich oligarchs in a stealth campaign to undermine democracy is utter fiction.

An unintentionally comical example of MacLean’s ignorance of the basic facts of her subject matter appears in an interview that she gave at Alternet. There, she asserted that by naming his and Alex Tabarrok’s blog “Marginal Revolution,” my colleague Tyler Cowen was “gesturing” to a devious right-wing scheme to slowly undermine democracy. In fact, the term “marginal revolution” refers to one of the most celebrated episodes in the history of economics – namely, economists’ discovery in the 1870s that the economic value of a good or service is determined not by the amount of labor used to produce that good or service but, instead, by the usefulness to human beings of an additional unit – a “marginal” unit – of that good or service. If the amount of a good or service that’s available changes, its economic value changes. This discovery of the importance of “marginal” changes reinforced economists’ more general understanding that thriving societies seldom change radically, in giant leaps, but instead gradually, as small change upon small change accumulates over time.

MacLean’s suggestion that an economist’s use of the term “marginal revolution” refers to a nefarious modern American political plot is no less ridiculous than had she suggested that a physicist’s use of the term “Newtonian revolution” refers to a plot to stuff all cookies with filling made of figs.

Donald J. Boudreaux

The following post is a response to a comically lame attempt by Andy Seal to defend MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan.

Other commitments prevent me from now responding more fully to this attempted defense of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains by Andy Seal. But I can’t resist now calling attention to his argument that MacLean is within her scholarly rights to claim, as she does, that James Buchanan was influenced in his world view by the writings both of the apologist for racism John C. Calhoun and of the southern agrarian Donald Davidson, two authors who Buchanan never cited in any of his vast published works. (As I mentioned in this earlier post, I knew Jim for the final 28 years of his life and spent quite a bit of time with him. I do not recall Jim once mentioning Calhoun or Davidson. And as Jeff Tucker points out about Davidson, many of his core views and values were ones that Buchanan consistently opposed.)

The part of Seal’s argument that I focus on here is footnote #3 in his essay:

There’s a kind of sub-argument here about whether MacLean can make inferences about the intellectual influence of writers on Buchanan when they don’t show up as explicit references in Buchanan’s published writings. Basically, if Buchanan doesn’t say, “hey, I got the idea of calling the overreaching state Leviathan when I read Donald Davidson,” is it fair to say that there’s still a probable connection given that Davidson was active in the same state Buchanan grew up in at the time of his intellectual formation? I would argue that yes, that’s a permissible inference, but not one that you should rest other important arguments on. (Which MacLean doesn’t.) I’m pretty sure that I have all kinds of intellectual influences rattling around in my head that I’ll never think to acknowledge explicitly — but that doesn’t mean that if someone else points them out they’re doing something underhanded.

Seal’s argument is strange, to say the least. I’m no professional historian, but I cannot believe that it is a norm among historians to conclude that the controversial views of X were held by, and influenced the writings of, Y – Y who never cites or mentions X in any of his writings – simply because X “was active in the same state Y grew up in at the time of his intellectual formation.” Of course, Seal would likely respond by saying that it’s more than merely being in the same state at the same time; an additional connection which justifies concluding that X was a significant influence on Y is that X’s and Y’s views are similar in some regards.

Again, Jeff Tucker demolishes the notion that Buchanan’s views overlapped much with those of Donald Davidson or with any of the other southern agrarians; in fact, Buchanan disagreed with a great deal of what was held dear by the southern agrarians. (See also this piece by Art Carden.) But let’s here ignore that fact (despite it being rather decisive against MacLean’s case and Seal’s apology for that case). Instead, keep in mind that MacLean purports to have written a book of history, significant parts of which are passed off as intellectual history. How can it be legitimate for an historian to attribute the controversial views of Davidson to Buchanan when Buchanan never mentions Davidson? I simply do not see how any such attribution – given, as MacLean might say, the “totality” of her project – can be excused. It’s either an intentional lie by MacLean or, more likely, egregiously sloppy scholarship on her part. Imagining that which might be – and having available some circumstances that can be pointed to in support of that which is imagined (‘Y grew up in the same state where X taught and wrote!’) – doesn’t begin to come close to establishing the claim that “Y’s worldview and work were influenced by that of X.” A serious and honest scholar does not attribute to someone important influences based on so utterly flimsy a case. (The evidence for MacLean’s “case” is so non-existent that to call it a “case” is, really, to give it too much credit.) There is no historical evidence for MacLean’s asserted connection between Buchanan and Donald Davidson. None.

If you remain skeptical of my dismissal of Seal’s defense of MacLean’s case, you’ll likely find merit in the following hypothesis:

A major influence on the views of Nancy MacLean is Joe McCarthy. It’s true that MacLean never credits McCarthy with helping to form her worldview, and many of MacLean’s expressed views are quite the opposite of those of McCarthy. But MacLean graduated from the University of Wisconsin – the flagship university of the state that Joe McCarthy represented in the U.S. Senate. Born just a few short years after McCarthy served in the Senate and conducted his famous witch hunts, MacLean also is pretty closely aligned in time with McCarthy. My insistence that MacLean was deeply taken with, and influenced by, McCarthy’s views is further supported by the close similarity of their views: just like McCarthy, MacLean accuses people of actions and thoughts with little or no direct evidence to support the accusations. Also like McCarthy, MacLean tars those whom she wishes to discredit with innuendo and illogical inferences. And like McCarthy, MacLean – with zero evidence – infers the existence of conspiracies against all that she holds dear.

Now let me quickly remind the reader that I do not really believe that Joe McCarthy was an influence on the ideas and ideals held now by Nancy MacLean. Although MacLean does exhibit in her work some traits that might be interpreted by the dogmatic or the ungenerous to be similar to some of Joe McCarthy’s infamous traits, there is in fact absolutely nothing approaching real evidence for anyone to tar Nancy MacLean as being an intellectual disciple of Joe McCarthy. And yet if we take seriously Mr. Seal’s defense of MacLean’s claims about a connection between Buchanan and Davidson, then I see no reason – using this bizarre method of historical “research” and argument – to reject my fanciful claim about a connection between MacLean and McCarthy.

The same non-existent connection between Buchanan and Davidson is (non-) existent between Buchanan and Calhoun. But I’ve other work now to do so I’ll leave for later a comment on Buchanan, libertarianism, and Calhoun.

The July 19th, 2017, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education contained a piece on how MacLean defends herself against her critics, here including me. I sent the following letter to the Chronicle, but it was never, to my knowledge, published there.

Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean misrepresents my criticism of her connecting the work of my late colleague James Buchanan to that of John C. Calhoun (“Nancy MacLean Responds to Her Critics,” July 19). My criticism is not that she “drew a parallel between Buchanan’s political economy and that of John C. Calhoun.” Instead, my criticism – as I say plainly in the essay linked in your report – is of her claim that the core ideas of Buchanan (and of others scholars who work in Buchanan’s tradition) come from John C. Calhoun. Had MacLean merely “drawn a parallel” between Buchanan’s efforts to study and compare different constitutional rules and Calhoun’s similar efforts, I’d have raised no protest. But by asserting in her interview with the New Republic that Buchanan’s ideas “trace back to John C. Calhoun” – and in her book describing Calhoun as the “intellectual lodestar” of Buchanan and others who work in the classical-liberal tradition – she is demonstrably mistaken.

First, Buchanan never mentions Calhoun in any of his vast writings. Second, in an appendix to The Calculus of Consent – his most famous book (co-authored with Gordon Tullock) – Buchanan not only explicitly identifies several political thinkers as inspiration (nearly all of whom, by the way, pre-date Calhoun), he also explains in detail how their works influenced his own; these explicitly identified precursors to Buchanan’s political thought include Johannes Althusius, Thomas Hobbes, Wilhelm von Humboldt, David Hume, James Madison, and Baruch Spinoza. Again, they do not include Calhoun.

Somehow overlooking Buchanan’s own very clear mention of the thinkers whose ideas he found to be especially influential, MacLean – contrary to all available evidence – claimed in her book and in her interview that the major inspiration for Buchanan’s ideas is Calhoun. That claim is not only unsubstantiated, it is preposterous.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Finally, I share here my letter, of August 1, 2017, to MacLean – a letter to which I received no reply:

Prof. Nancy MacLean
Department of History
Duke University
Durham, NC

Prof. MacLean:

On page 151 of your book Democracy in Chains you write that my late Nobel laureate colleague James Buchanan (in his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty) “was outlining a world in which the chronic domination of the wealthiest and most powerful over all others appeared the ultimate desideratum, a state of affairs to be enabled by his understanding of the ideal constitution.” Yet you supply no quotation from Buchanan’s book to support this harsh accusation.

So I challenge you to find in any of Buchanan’s writings a single passage that you are willing to offer to the public as evidence that Buchanan had as an ultimate desideratum a political system in which “the wealthiest and most powerful” exercise “chronic domination … over all others.” If you find such a passage I will post it on my blog and offer to you a public apology for having accused you, on my blog, of falsely portraying Buchanan on this score.

Note that I am not asking for evidence that Buchanan proposed policies that you believe will lead to the domination of the many by the wealthy few. Buchanan certainly did endorse much greater freedom than you would accord to individuals to interact as they choose in markets. But being a scholar, you surely understand that even if you are correct that Buchanan was wrong not to predict that the free markets and limits on government that he endorsed would lead to the domination of the many by the wealthy few, his different assessment of the likely consequences of free markets and limited government does not establish the accuracy of what you accuse him of – namely, desiring the domination of the many by the wealthy few.

If you fail to offer to me (or to post in some other public venue) – by, say, the end of September 2017 – evidence from Buchanan’s own writings that his goal was the domination of the many by the wealthy few, I will interpret this failure as proof that you in fact have no such evidence. And the conclusion that I, and others, will reasonably draw is that you simply fabricated this offensive charge.

Donald J. Boudreaux

A full list of the many posts that I’ve written at Café Hayek in response to MacLean’s shoddy ‘scholarship’ is available here. ‘Scholarship’ is here in scare-quotes because, as I note in this post from November 4, 2017, “Nancy MacLean is to scholarship what Cap’n Crunch is to nutrition” – children swallow it eagerly, while sensible adults never touch the stuff.

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