Current Events

A Devastating Review of Nancy MacLean’s Book on the Klan

Good fortune has brought me a review of Nancy MacLean’s 1994 book on the KKK. If you think Mike Munger’s review of the new book was devastating, this is worse. And the author of the review has no Koch connections whatsoever. Plus, do the quotations below from the reviewer sound familiar?

“Leaving Athens behind, MacLean roams the country picking out statements that fit her case that the Klan was radical and violent. if someone connected with the Klan claimed to be a devotee of the Constitution and only against lawbreakers, particularly those associated with Demon Rum, MacLean doesn’t believe him, does not bother to examine his motives or statements, and does not herself set forth any rule of interpretation that enables one to determine when Klansmen were speaking from the heart and when they were dissimulating. Perhaps all of their Main Street platitudes were self-conscious lies, but on what basis can we conclude that?…

Her argument is circular and ahistorical. It is circular because a lack of evidence is said to be proof of the Klan’s power to suppress it, and that alleged power is then hold to imply that there must have been much more violence than there is evidence to support.”

I have tried hard to treat her as a serious scholar who went off the rails with the Buchanan book, but now we seem to have a pattern here: cherry-picking evidence, circular reasoning, ascribing conspiratorial power to organizations when she lacks supporting evidence, and a refusal to grant any legitimacy to her sources’ own words. It’s the same pattern we see in Democracy in Chains

And this reviewer, again, has no taint of Koch, yet found all the same sorts of problems.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Academic Philosophy

The Ethics of Funding Disclosure and the Argumentum Ad Kochum

A question for my colleagues in ethics and related areas: what are the obligations to disclose funding sources and possible conflicts of interest in an academic setting?

Some are obvious: if I write a study on smoking funded by a tobacco company or on climate change funded by ExxonMobil, the obligation is clear. The principle here is that the results of the study could have a direct effect on the sponsor’s financial situation, which at least gives a reason to be suspicious of the study (though not to reject it out of hand). That suspicion would seem to require disclosure.

But what about those of us who have taken money from and worked with Koch-funded organizations? Here are several scenarios and I wonder what the ethical obligation is in each to disclose that we are have connections to Koch funding:

  1. A Koch-funded organization gives me money to conduct a specific study on an area of the economy in which Koch Industries is a participant (e.g., the energy sector).
  2. A Koch-funded organization gives me money to conduct a study on an area of the economy in which Koch Industries is not a participant (e.g., a study on Uber).
  3. I am the PI for a Koch-funded grant for student programs at my institution and I write a scholarly or popular article defending the Kochs’ investments in higher education.
  4. I am the PI for a Koch-funded grant for student programs at my institution and I write a popular article criticizing a book critical of the Kochs for getting aspects of the Kochs’ beliefs or activities wrong.
  5. I have a history of working with and being funded by Koch-funded organizations and I write an article or blog post defending public choice theory, economics in general, or libertarian ideas in general, with no reference to the Kochs, from attacks by a book that criticizes any or all of those as well as the Kochs.

It seems to me that I have an obligation to disclose my Koch relationships in cases 1, 3, and 4 for sure. I am not persuaded I need to do so in cases 2 and 5.

If there’s no clear relationship between the work and the bottom line of the Kochs, why is there a need for disclosure?

Case 5 is of interest at the moment because of the controversy over Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. Her defenders have invoked the “argumentum ad kochum” in their responses claiming that the Koch connections of the critics undermine the legitimacy of their criticisms. They also claim that we are being deceptive in not revealing those connections.

Again, I can be persuaded I’m wrong here, but it’s simply not clear to me why a defense of public choice theory, or an attempt to show that aspects of MacLean’s book that have nothing to do with the Kochs and have everything to do with her misreading of the textual and historical evidence about the work of various scholars, especially James Buchanan, require that I state my Koch connections. (I have no problem doing so, but the question is whether it’s an ethical obligation.)

It strikes me that one reason MacLean’s defenders think we have an obligation to disclose and that those relationships undermine our arguments is that they believe that any argument for freer markets or critical of government intervention is ipso facto “pro-business” and therefore enhances the bottom line of Koch Industries. So, by definition, defending things like public choice theory or Austrian economics are suspect because everyone knows that the biggest beneficiaries of a free economy are the owners of capital. Therefore, we are simply shills for the Kochs and should disclose that.

If I’m right, this only adds to my view that the MacLean book is one long exercise in question begging. She already knew libertarianism is wrong. She already knew free markets benefit “oligarchs” exclusively. She already knew that people who like markets must be racists. I could go on. Once you take those as your operating assumptions, it’s easy to find, often creatively, evidence their favor. Your priors will adequately be supported by a combination of confirmation bias and the conviction that you are fighting off the forces of evil. But it all begs the questions as she assumes her conclusions.

In any case, I’m genuinely curious how others see this set of issues. I’m totally open to persuasion about the obligation to disclose on cases 2 and 5. I only ask that the comments stay civil. It does no one any good to give fuel to the cause of MacLean and her defenders.

Book/Article Reviews

The Problem of Pluralism Isn’t Real


I recently read Linda Zerilli’s  A Democratic Theory of Judgment. The book explores and sort of gestures at a solution to what we might call the Problem of Pluralism. Here’s the problem, in the abstract, in my own words.


Many political theorists believe that democratic theory faces a puzzle or paradox. Democracy is supposed to answer to the differing worldviews, opinions, perspectives, and considered judgments of its citizens. But, we’re told, the polity has intractable value and perspective pluralism—citizens have myriad incompatible comprehensive worldviews and value systems. So we face the Puzzle of Pluralism: How can we pass any laws or even offer judgments about what is just or unjust, without thereby disrespecting our fellow citizens and running roughshod over their different worldviews?

Many political theorists think the idea of “truth” is a threat to democracy. To illustrate, suppose that utilitarianism is the objectively true theory of justice. By hypothesis the government should just do whatever utilitarianism requires. If the public disagrees, too bad—they’re wrong. But this strikes some theorists as undemocratic, as it seems to make citizens’ opinions irrelevant for deciding what to do.

On the other hand, if we dispense with the idea of an objective truth, we fall into skepticism or pernicious relativism. Rational argument is impossible. Debating justice is equivalent to arguing about whether the present king of France is bald or whether pineapple pizza tastes good. Denying truth leaves democrats defenseless against authoritarian critics of democracy—by hypothesis, it’s not true that democracy is better than other forms of government.


Zerilli’s book offers an extremely abstract sketch of a possible solution to this problem. It’s really unclear at the end what her view is and how it’s supposed to solve the problem.

But I don’t think that’s the major problem with the book. Rather, I worry that Zerilli, Rawls, Habermas, Arendt, Okin, and the countless other political philosophers and theorists who write about this problem are dealing with a pseudo-problem.* I worry this book, and those it builds upon, tries to solve a merely theoretical problem created by mistaken theory of democracy, rather than a real problem plaguing actual democracies.[1]  What Achen and Bartels call the “folk theory of democracy” holds that voters’ ideologies, political beliefs, and policy preferences explain their voting behavior and the outcome of elections.[2] The Puzzle of Pluralism presupposes a version of this folk theory, and holds that the diversity of ideology, political belief, and policy preferences is philosophically problematic. But the folk theory is false.

By analogy, consider that in Dungeons & Dragons, there is a monster—the Tarrasque– so powerful that it’s puzzling how any adventuring party could defeat it. A Google search indicates gamers have written hundreds of pages theorizing how to fight it. But while there really are better and worse theories about killing the Tarrasque, it’s merely a theoretical problem, because the Tarrasque doesn’t actually exist.

I worry something like that holds true of this book and others in the genre. Normative political theorists write book after book about how to solve the Problem of Pluralism. But after you read, say, Achen and Bartels’s Democracy for Realists, which provides a comprehensive overview of sixty years of empirical work on voter behavior, you realize they might as well debate how to kill the Tarrasque.[3]

Rawls, Arendt, Habermas, and others believe that citizens have diverse ideologies, incompatible perspectives, distinct values, and differing worldviews. Anyone pushing an agenda has to justify her favored policies to these different points of view.

Now compare this to Democracy for Realists: Empirical research finds the overwhelming majority of citizens in modern democracies lack an ideology or anything like a comprehensive political worldview. Most citizens have hardly any real political opinions—they have few opinions at all, and the few opinions they have are largely ephemeral. They are loyal to this or that party on the basis of identity politics—“people like us vote Democrat”—not because they accept, or even know which, ideas and policies the parties push. They sometimes engage in post-hoc rationalization that “feels like thinking”; that is, they sometimes temporarily convince themselves that they agree with whatever they mistakenly and temporarily believe their party believes. Citizens don’t have much in the way of political values, period, let alone competing or incommensurable values. They have few beliefs about politically salient facts, about recent or distant history, or about what causes what. Democracy is not a bunch of citizens with incompatible judgments about social scientific, historical, and moral matters; it’s more like a system which chooses government by periodically polling overwhelmingly judgment- and perspective-free citizens. Elections are “largely random events”.[4] And this is not some new development—democracy has been like this since political scientists started studying voter behavior.

The Puzzle of Pluralism is at best/worst a puzzle for a tiny subset of the citizenry. The modal, mean, and median voter lacks an “ism”; so there is little value or belief pluralism. We don’t have to worry about forcing our vision of the truth onto their differing worldviews, because they don’t have worldviews.

Democracy is not like a giant amateur political theory conference with interminable debates. It’s a system of agnostic know-nothing, opine-nothing Hobbits and party loyalist Hooligans.

The central problem of democracy is not “How do we justify policy when citizens have an intractable diversity of political beliefs?” It’s more like, “How do we justify policy when there is no ‘will of the people’, and further, the overwhelming majority of individuals lack any significant political beliefs?” If anything, democratic theory faces the problem of perspectival and ideological nihilism, not pluralism.




[1] Cf. Daniel Dennett, “Higher-Order Truths about Chmess,” Topoi 25 (2006) 39-41

[2] Achen, C. and Bartels. L., Democracy for Realist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1-10.

[3] Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). My own Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), contains a less comprehensive summary of the same position.

[4] Achen and Bartels 2016, 2.

*Note that I think Jacob Levy’s work on pluralism is different, because it’s about identity rather than about belief.



Psychological Harm and Free Speech on Campus

The short piece I wrote about free speech on college campuses is now available to read online (but not downloadable) here.   I like this piece alot, but I know many will disagree with various parts.  Even blogmates will find things to disagree with. I know Daniel Shapiro disagrees with what I say about the Skokie case and I predict Jacob Levy will disapprove of a big part of what I say about college campuses.
The basic idea: we should recognize that psychological harm is real and that like physical harm, it may make interference permissible, even with speech, but that this is highly unlikely to occur on college campuses because college essentially requires extensive speech and thus are places where all present should expect to hear views they disagree with and even disapprove of.

Contra politanism, Against solidarity, and other things

Two of the major pieces of my new “Justice in Babylon” research project are now available. (Both links gated, I’m afraid.)

“Contra politanism”, European Journal of Political Theory.

“Against solidarity: Democracy without fraternity,” in Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka, eds., The Strains of Commitment: The Political Sources of Solidarity in Diverse Societies, Oxford, 2017

(See also There is no such thing as ideal theory, Social Philosophy and Policy, which is also a part of this project.)

Some other promotional links while I’m at it.

The $30 paperback edition of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is coming out on July 13. To refresh your memory, the BHL symposium on the book can be found here, the Online Library of Liberty symposium here, and reviews are gathered here.

I’ve had a few opportunities to discuss the current crisis recently.

“Is Liberalism In Danger?”, a “Free Thoughts” podcast interview in Cato’s “Free Thoughts” series with Aaron Powell and Trevor Burrus.

“Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of Radical Right Populism in the West: Is Democracy Threatened?” Plenary roundtable at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, chaired by Dietlind Stolle, with Sheri Berman, Mark Blyth, Christopher Parker, and me.

The Intellectual Climate For Liberty, a roundtable at the 40th anniversary of the Cato Institute, chaired by David Boaz, with Emily Ekins, Charles Murray, and me.

Book/Article Reviews

The Butcher with a Smile – More Mangling from Nancy MacLean

I’m almost finished with Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, thankfully, as I don’t think I can take much more of her disregard for accuracy in her book-length smear of James Buchanan and libertarian thought more generally. Folks should see co-blogger Mike Munger’s absolutely devastating review if they have not done so already.

As scholars continue to try to “catch them all,” I offer yet another example of her butchering of quotes and arguments. And it’s a doozy.

MacLean is discussing the way in which the US political system puts constraints, constitutional and otherwise, on the will of the majority, which she thinks should reign unfettered (though how that justifies her presumed support of Roe or Obergefell or even Brown, which plays a major role in what Mike calls her “speculative historical fiction,” remains mysterious). She accuses Buchanan et. al. of wanting to go back to a 19th century view of the constitution that she finds horrific. She writes (227), with the quote being from The Calculus of Consent:

[Buchanan] and his co-author Gordon Tullock said that the nation’s decision-making rules were closer to “the ‘ideal’ in 1900 than in 1960.”

She then goes on to catalog the problems of 1900, some of which are legitimate concerns, such as Jim Crow. The idea, of course, is to claim that this is the world Buchanan and friends want to re-create today. She then writes (228) “Had Buchanan’s ideal system of 1900 endured at the national level…” followed by a list of horrors that the Great Depression “might well” have engendered.

Note first that what was once the constitution he thought was “closer to the ideal” has now become his “ideal.” A minor bit of slippery phrasing, but not a huge sin. But it was enough to make me want to check the source. Unsurprisingly, given the problems I documented in an earlier post, she has mangled people’s words again. This time substantially. Below I reprint the relevant passages in TCoC  (emphasis mine) so you can make up your own mind as to how accurately MacLean has represented Buchanan and Tullock. The context is their discussion of the costs of various sets of rules:

The question remains, however, as to whether or not the existing organizational reduces the overall interdependence costs (external costs plus decision-making costs) to the lowest possible level. Saying that external costs will be present in the “ideal” organization is not equivalent to saying that any organization embodying pressure-group activity is, in any sense, ideal.

No direct measurement of the total interdependence costs under existing or alternative decision-making rules is readily available. Certain conclusions can be drawn, however, on the basis of the facts of history. We may observe a notable expansion in the range and extent of collective activity over the last half century—especially in that category of activity appropriately classified as differential or discriminatory legislation. During the same period we have witnessed also a great increase in investment in organized interest-group efforts designed specifically to secure political advantage. These facts allow us to reach the conclusion that the constitutional rules that were “optimal” in 1900 are probably not “optimal” in 1960. If we may assume that the fundamental rules for organizing collective decisions were more closely in accordance with the “ideal” in 1900 than in 1960, these same rules will tend to produce a higher level of interdependence costs than necessary. This suggests that some shifting in the direction of more inclusive decision-making rules for collective choice and some more restrictive limits on the range of collective activity might now be “rational” to the individual considering constitutional changes. The contrary possibility, of course, also exists. If the operation of existing constitutional rules produces roughly “optimal” results today, clearly these same rules were overly restrictive in earlier stages of development marked by relatively less organized pressure for differential legislation.

Aside from the fact that this passage is their attempt to think through (in a Coasean sort of way) the cost tradeoffs faced by alternative rule structures, rather than making a unilateral call to return to 1900, to the degree they do reach a conclusion, it’s that in the actual world of 1960, the rules of 1900 are “probably” not optimal or ideal. Perhaps they are arguing for a more restrictive set of limits on majorities are required in 1960, but the context suggests that it is not majorities per se that they wish to throttle, but special interest groups who are able to exercise what amounts to minority rule through the process of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs familiar to so many of us. (Though not to MacLean, as her description of that process earlier in the book is also pretty mangled.) That process is part of what creates the external costs that are at the center of this discussion.

The point at issue is that claiming that Buchanan wants to go back to what he saw as the “ideal” constitution of 1900 is simply false. She has waded into a much more complex and nuanced discussion that she has reduced to a simplistic falsehood.

It confirms one of the most trenchant criticisms of the book: she does not understand Buchanan’s system of thought. She cannot parse the context and meaning of his arguments, and given her fervor to counter the Trump presidency and the connection to Buchanan and libertarianism she imagines it has, she reads into Buchanan exactly what she imagined and hoped would be there. The problem is that it’s just not there.

As Munger’s review points out, there was a way to avoid this problem if she wished to. On her campus at Duke there are three political scientists who are, or have been, presidents of the Public Choice Society, one of whom co-authored major works with Buchanan. If MacLean sincerely wanted to understand Buchanan’s contributions, she could have walked across campus and talked with Geoff Brennan, Mike Munger, or Georg Vanberg. She made no attempt to contact them in any form, nor, for the record, did she make any attempt to contact any of the members of the GMU economics department to verify her accounts of their work or the events of the last 35 years there. This suggests that not only is she unable to understand Buchanan’s thought, she didn’t make a serious effort to even try.

It is in that sense that this book is a travesty of historical scholarship and a direct attack on the centrality of truth-seeking in intellectual discourse. I share many of her concerns about the Trump presidency, but it’s precisely because those concerns are so important and its potential damage is so great that I think a commitment to truth-seeking cannot be sacrificed in the process. Trump and his crew have already showed their lack of concern with the truth. When scholars and intellectuals try to play that game, we will surely lose. When you wrestle in the mud with pigs, the pigs will win.

I repeat my call for progressive scholars and intellectuals of integrity to join those of us who are deeply troubled by this book’s lack of concern for accuracy, and its violations of the most fundamental of scholarly norms, in publicly denouncing it and calling for a renewed commitment by all of us to those fundamental norms of intellectual charity and honesty. Chaining the truth will not unchain democracy.