Book/Article Reviews

Conspire Me This: Is Nancy MacLean a Hired Gun for the Establishment?

Historian Nancy MacLean recently wrote a hit piece smearing James Buchanan and a number of other public choice theorists.

What’s Buchanan’s basic message? Simple: Government isn’t magic. In representative democracy, small, privileged special interests groups–such as the corporations–make deals with the government. The government then uses its power to distribute favors to the privileged at the expense of the everyone else. And it does so while telling the bald-face lie that “government is just the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” 

Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for fighting for the little person and for speaking truth to power.

Now the government sure wouldn’t want anyone making its dirty secret public, would it?

So, along comes Nancy MacLean. The government paid her over $50,000 to smear Buchanan and people like him. Rather than challenge his ideas, she accuses him of this and that. Yet, all the while, Nancy is quite literally a hired gun for the government seeking to rationalize its oppression and abuses.

Its a bad book, and you, might notice, not peer-reviewed. But keep in mind it is quite literally a piece of government-funded propaganda. There’s no more point in arguing with Nancy than there is arguing with one of Goebbels’s essays. Asking about its intellectual value is a category mistake.


UPDATE: Here, Russ Roberts catches Nancy “I lie for money, status, and power” MacLean straight up lying about Tyler Cowen. 



  • That’s actually ad hominem. The ideas and arguments could be worth considering independently of who voiced them or why.

    • stevenjohnson2

      He knows that. This is actually a case of ironic modeling, I think. Brennan has argued that politics is infested with hooligans, and this is just an illustrative example.

      • Aha! Thanks.

      • Rob Gressis

        I think it is ironic modeling, in the sense that Brennan is using the same kind of reasoning that he thinks MacLean is using in order to discredit her book. Is that the sense in which you think it’s ironic modeling? I ask because your line that “politics is infested with hooligans, and this is just an illustrative example” could be read as meaning what I take it to mean, or it could be read as “Brennan is giving an ad hominem argument to illustrate his own theory of hooliganism.”

        • stevenjohnson2

          If MacLean puts much emphasis on financial support of people like Buchanan by states’ rights advocates, then it’s the former. Otherwise, the latter. Since it would be a category mistake to read the book, I can’t decide personally. Also, I do not have access to a college library.

      • Jason Brennan

        I’m just doing what she’s doing, but I’m not willing to steal $50,000 from taxpayers to do it.

        • stevenjohnson2

          If there were eighty five million taxpayers, then even by your self-serving definition of stealing, she stole about 0.000 058 cents from you. It’s not the money, it’s about the embarrassment. NSA contractors and military procurement is where we should start worrying about real money being stolen. If it makes you feel better I’ll send you the money soon as find the right coinage.

          That said, I doubt you are doing what she’s doing. You’ve arbitrarily defined taking a grant as theft, which is self-serving on the part of academics who pride themselves on taking private money. You say “smear,” but you don’t have an argument here. You will not look at her case about states’ rights advocates being racist and policies defended by Buchanan et al. contributing to their cause, but I’m pretty sure there’s more than you’ve got.

    • Earl of Sandwich

      “‘The ideas and arguments could be worth considering independently of who voiced them or why.””

      they might be if her ideas and arguments weren’t based entirely on misrepresentations of her subject

      examples =

  • stevenjohnson2

    Odd, the Nobel website says Buchanan’s prize was “for his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making”

    The link provided to the NEH about MacLean’s must be broken, as it doesn’t have a word about James Buchanan, nor does it say anything about smearing anyone. It does say something about states’ rights advocates and free market economists. It is unclear how free markets promoting states’ rights is a smear.

    As to being paid, all prosecutors are paid. No doubt many are indifferent to the actual guilt of the accused, but it is not a category mistake to ask about the rigor of any particular case a given prosecutor makes.

    That just leaves the question of being paid. The NEH conducts itself as a service organization, distributing money to constituents. Inasmuch as all bureaucracies are supposed to suffer from regulatory capture, it’s hard to understand how this one is giving away money to its own good purpose, instead of its clientele. Surely it’s all about the sinecures and NEH is incompetent at anything but cutting checks. That’s supposed to be one of the alleged inefficiencies in government spending. But, happily, private parties who endow professorships and policy institutes are much more likely to demand good service for their money. That’s part of the alleged efficiency of the market.

    • Phil Magness

      Read the “Grant Products” section at the NEH link.

      • Sean II

        “But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did…[this book] hows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite’s power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.”

        This is a great example of how bullshit works, and why it’s so effective.

        First it makes you furious, because it’s so fucking wrong you know it can’t really be an innocent mistake. That takes a certain amount of energy from you, right there.

        Then you start thinking about the complicated task of explaining why it’s wrong, in such a way that innocent third parties might understand. That takes a lot more energy.

        Midway through the task, you realize the people who applied that smear are already dirtying their hands for another, and will be ready long before you’ve finished.

        Then you think about how many of them there must be, and how they always keep coming.

        This all happens within a few seconds of reading a specimen like that.

        It’s exhausting.

        • Peter from Oz

          Yes, McLean’s book is just the sort of work that will confirm the prejudices of the left. But I wonder whether it will actually win any new converts to the cause. From the reviews at Amazon, I can see that this is marmite to the punters, either they love it or they hate it. There’s nothing in between.
          I suppose what irks we of a more toryish disposition is that the more the left hides behind the redoubt of such lies the more difficult it is for us to pick off the stragglers who may other wise become open to truth.
          But the thing is we on the right are supposedly the ones who are steeped in the value of commerce. The answer is clear we need to sell our ideas, wage rhetorical war on these puritan herberts of the left who seem hell bent on shrinking the breadth of human vision down to a bureaucratic pissing contest.

          • Sean II

            “But I wonder whether it will actually win any new converts to the cause.”

            Probably doesn’t need to. It’s not in being read books like this serve their purpose. A lot of politics is just stoking the base, boosting confidence for the people already on your side, reassuring them that – even if they can’t quite understand it – there is some unanswerable argument out there to prove them right.

            Remember Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Nobody read it, but for like two years you couldn’t talk to a leftist without hearing its name dropped. Before that there was Shock Doctrine. For a very long time it was Kapital, in the original recipe version.

            Sometimes it’s not a book, but an anti-book doing the trick. Like the way one adds “discredited” to the The Bell Curve, to imply you’ve read both the profane text and a definitive rebuttal.

            It’s true that such obvious bluffs don’t win many converts (because of course nothing really does), but they do sooth the doubts of the faithful. “There may come a day, Harry, when you find yourself losing an argument against evil. If that happens, you must speak these words exactly as I teach them to you…”

            Anyway, this particular specimen won’t even do much of that. Most people have never heard of public choice. Technically it’s an Unforced Streisand for the left to even mention it.

            But the concept holds: to the extent McLean’s work does anything, it will help a few lefties slip out of tight rhetorical corners by saying: “James Buchanan? Seriously? You’re quoting a Klansmen to me. I am so done.”

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            I certainly agree it is rare to find a Marxist who has actually read Das Kapital (I’m a former Marxist, and I confess to never slogging my way through that text and its turgid prose). Nonetheless couldn’t something similar be written about conservatives and libertarians? Most people who identify as right wing are far more familiar with Sean Hannity than Edmund Burke. And have the majority, or even an appreciable minority, of self described libertarians really immersed themselves in ,say, Mises Human Action or Rothbard’s Man , Economy, and the State?

          • Sean II

            “…couldn’t something similar be written about conservatives and libertarians?”

            Yes, definitely.

            The only difference is maybe that libertarians, being a much smaller and more select group, have a few more of the kind of people who actually geek out on the primary texts.


          • A. Alexander Minsky

            My personal experience, limited though it may be, has led me to conclude that the two groups most likely to “geek out on the primary texts” are Trotskyites and Objectivists. It has also been my experience that these two groups are made up of neurotic folks who are all but uniformly miserable company.

            Perhaps an obsession with primary texts and a personality disorder complement one another. Just a thought.

          • Peter from Oz

            A very good thought.

          • Sean II

            I’m guessing you’ve heard of Greg Cochran, right?

            Well, he was on Future Strategist recently and for some odd reason ended up recounting the story of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. How they had an affair across a quarter century age gap, until one day a thousand centuries of evolution struck back, disgust took hold, he cheated on her, she found out, etc.

            How she then demanded – as a girl in junior high school might – that everyone in her circle sign a pledge of social excommunication against the man she’d been parading around as her “intellectual heir”, and how everyone did…

            …including future fed chairman Alan Greenspan, who was at that time 42 years old.

            I used to be an Objectivist, by the way. A big part of what ended that was meeting other Objectivists.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            Sorry to nitpick again, but can one now call refer to oneself as an Objectivist? When the Rand/Branden alliance was still going strong, the label Objectivist was reserved for that dynamic duo. Everyone else had to be content with calling themselves “Students of Objectivism”.

          • Sean II

            Good point. I guess I was sort of using a stolen concept to package deal my way out of being a second hander with no self-esteem who holds no absolutes and seeks the sanction of the victim in order to practice social metaphysics while betraying values for the sake of whim worship and psychologizing anyone who gets in my way, which is pretty much what you end up doing when an anti conceptual mentality meets a Byronic view of existence before the fatal shortcut of pragmatism comes along to corrupt your sense of life.

            That, and I quit smoking eight years ago.

          • Peter from Oz

            I love that second sentence. Have you ever thought of entering a summarising Proust contest? I’m sure you’d do really well.

          • j_m_h

            I suspecct that would be very true in a relative sense — which I think you mean as to actually having a larger number of people.

          • Peter from Oz

            Being conservative is not about reading seminal texts, but in wide reading. After all, as Margaret Thatcher rightly pointed out, the facts of life are conservative. Conservatism is the default, inbuilt into human nature, like capitalism. There’s no use questioning the air when there’s nothing else to breathe.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            American conservatism, far from being a “default” position, is more like a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces fit. There is no logical connection between being a devout, socially conservative Christian and supporting free markets. There is no logical connection between supporting free markets and being an enthusiast for a highly interventionist foreign policy. And so it goes, on and on. As one wag put it after perusing the Texas GOP’s platform, why would anyone believe all these different things?

            At the risk of sounding like a bit of a snob, I have a hard time believing that most regular viewers of Fox News are distinguished by their “wide reading” habits. Devouring the latest literary rants from Ann Coulter or Michael Savage hardly qualifies as a serious intellectual exercise.

          • Peter from Oz

            I agree with your last point. But the same could be said of those who watch CNN et al.
            On your first point, I would open by saying that it seems clear that people who cry for more social freedom want a lot more government control of the economy. That makes sense. Such people are looking for the government o protect them from their vices.
            The reverse conception of this is social conservatism and economic freedom. This is the default conservative position, because it ensrines the idea of self regulation.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            I would certainly concede that the reading habits of the average CNN, or MSNBC, viewer are probably just as constricted as those of your typical FOX watcher.

            Social conservatism appears to be far more about regulating others than about self regulation. This is probably best shown by the fact that heterosexual social conservatives love to talk about homosexuality, but rarely mention divorce. From a Christian standpoint this makes no sense, since Jesus never mentioned same sex relations but spoke at length, and in very negative terms, about divorce during the Sermon on the Mount.

          • carl jacobs

            Jesus also said nothing in the Gospels about burning one’s children in the fires of Molech, or about sleeping with one’s mother. Silence does not indicate either indifference or neutrality. Jesus did however affirm in the Gospels the whole of the law – including its condemnation of homosexuality. In addition the words of Jesus cannot be restricted to the Gospels since there is no division in the Godhead. The Law of the Father is the Law of the Son is the Law of the Spirit.

            That said, the point about divorce is fair. However, the observed difference regarding homosexuality & divorce does not indicate a desire to regulate others so much as it indicates cowardice and hypocrisy. The widespread “Don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude in the church is a scandal and a shame. Consistency would demand that divorce be addressed as well. However if Christians did just that, we would still be accused of attempting to regulate the behavior of others. We present boundaries to behavior that others do not recognize. This will always be seen as an attempt at regulation. The problem is that we don’t seem to want to be so strict about that boundary of divorce as we do about homosexuality.

            The difference would be that to address divorce we would have to address our own house first. And there are many clergy who would resist that for fear of repercussions. Homosexuality is easier because it doesn’t require any introspection in front of the mirror.

          • Peter from Oz

            There’s a non sequitur in you post. Talking or not talking about something, whether Jesus mentioned it or not, seems to bear no relation to whether conservatives want to regulate others.
            I think you were trying to point out that I used the term self-regulation very loosely when I should have said social regulation.

          • Sean II

            “There is no logical connection between supporting free markets and being an enthusiast for a highly interventionist foreign policy.”

            I have to point out – and this is just me trying to inhabit the other guy’s argument – that a good leftist would here say: “Foreign policy interventionism is an inevitable by product of the capitalist need to control raw materials, open markets, suppress social revolution, & feed the MI complex.”

            A very subtle leftist might also point out that sticking to market values has prevented the US from developing an effective welfare state, and over time led us to a perverse workaround in which we solve the problem of unemployable young men by putting them under arms. Such that there are always at least two reasons to refuse anytime someone suggests scaling back on defense.”

          • Peter from Oz
          • j_m_h

            Wasn’t that the story behind the whole confirmation bias study that are reported a while back — that the left suffers from this as much as the right (and probably the middle as well)? Most people are busy and only have so much engergy to put into their lives but have more interests. Lacking good cliff notes they rely on the hearsay that lets them feel better about themselves.
            Of course, seems like the simple strategy for those interested in fighting the battles here would be read the other guy’s reference and then show them you know more about their arguments than they do. In cases like (taking the hearsay here at face value — not reading the sources) this one might think it would be easy to show the other side is following and supporting a charlitan; which might at least give them pause in their confirmation biased references.

          • Peter from Oz

            In Britain they don’t really have anything like the clan, and Mosley is a dim memory. They might refer to the English Defence League or the British Nationalist Party, but these are pretty much defunct.
            I agree with you about the quadrille that we must dance with our lefty acquaintances. I often do the same to them when they bring up guff like Piketty. “That apostle of envy dressed up as economics,” I say, ”another soixante huit, commie tosser. His figures were debunked by the Financial Times and the Economist, china.”

          • Salem

            The equivalent unmentionable in the UK is Enoch Powell. Well, the unmentionable who gets mentioned all the time as a smear. Mosley was a Labour Cabinet minister, so he’s genuinely unmentionable.

          • Sean II

            Yeah, Enoch Powell, what a clown. He predicted “rivers of blood” but guess what?

            Explosives and crush type injuries don’t spill a lot of blood. Most of the loss from blast damage or being run over by a truck is internal.

            He couldn’t have been more wrong.

          • ViperRum

            Which is why stevejohnson2 is a turd trying to justify lying.

      • stevenjohnson2

        The grant proposal is the documentation of intent. If you don’t have to document intent, neither does she.

        • Phil Magness

          You stated the NEH website ” doesn’t have a word about James Buchanan.”

          The text of the Grant Products section does in fact say a few words about James Buchanan. All you’ve revealed here is your own failure to read the link that was provided to you in the original post.

          • stevenjohnson2

            No, my writing “website” instead of “the page the link the OP itself chose as documentation” merely proves that its not really possible to fool-proof prose. And it’s still true the grant proposal, not the grant product, is the relevant information, which the OP still doesn’t have any of.

  • Phil Magness

    Another way to present it:

    Nancy MacLean derives a substantial part of her own personal income by being the privileged recipient of taxpayer funded handouts. Smearing Buchanan, who offered an intellectual criticism of how and why wealthy and privileged people like MacLean are able to live off of government largesse, is a self-interested preservation strategy for her own income flow.

    • stevenjohnson2

      Another way to present it: James Buchanan derived a substantial part of his personal income by being the privileged recipient of wealthy patrons. Hiring people to present intellectual defenses against taxation is a self-interested preservation strategy for their income flow and property.

      That said, that does seem to present Buchanan and MacLean as somehow equal. They are not. There was much, more reward to Buchanan in long term income and personal prestige, including control of his very own academic bureaucracy, the Jefferson Institute. It is not even clear whether the money given to MacLean was completely converted to income rather than research expenses. Travel to archives and libraries and purchase of research materials can be inordinately expensive. And there was much, much more reward for the kind of work Buchanan did for his patrons than is obvious for MacLean. It is not at all clear what vested interest can possibly benefit from a historical study of connections between states’ rights advocates and free market economists. Buchanan had lived and died before MacLean began her book. It is on the face of it unlikely that he is somehow posing an ever greater threat to her income flow.

      Aside from being a nasty joke meant to fire up the faithful, the OP has no meaning. It does not even state how Buchanan has been smeared.

      • Jeff R.

        Is it not true that the disparity in personal income between the two authors was at least in part due to merit? Only one of them won a Nobel. The other writes scaremongering polemics about right wing kitten-drowning conspiracies or something.

        • stevenjohnson2

          If I were a Phil Magness, i would crow there are no Nobel Prizes for history, and MacLean is an historian (or a historian, for the sake of the trendier grammar nazis,) and all you’ve proven is that you don’t even know what the Nobel Prizes are for.

          Brennan writes this as a a satire, but like much satire, the point is quite serious: Brennan really is arguing that MacLean’s book should not be read. That position rests on the implicit claim that private financial support via endowed professorships and policy institutes does not affect the outcomes of academic debate and scholarship. Well, if that’s the ship he wants to sink on, that’s his business.

          There is no actual case against MacLean except the assumption only public money can corrupt debate. His case for Buchanan is, like yours, credentialism. So far as the Nobel Prize is concerned, I can only observe Barack Obama and Henry Kissinger and Pearl Buck and Sinclair Lewis are Nobel laureates. Yet Albert Einstein never won a prize for creating the theory of general relativity. And Motoo Kimura never won a prize at all (and, yes, his Neutral Theory is very relevant to physiology.) You need a case for the conclusiveness of your credentials.

          Incidentally, it is not clear how much of Buchanan’s support went into his pocket rather than into expenses for his institute. It is strictly speaking Brennan who wants to reduce everything to personal corruption, i.e., slander.

          • Jeff R.

            You’re being overly literal, not to mention long-winded. My point is that McLean is simply not on Buchanan’s level, intellectually, so one should not expect parity of lifetime income, prestige, or position for the two of them, unless something has gone terribly wrong. Mentioning Buchanan’s Nobel was a short, snappy way of making this point, but clearly the implied absence of kitten-drowning conspiracy paranoia in his output is also a mark in his favor, too. And besides that, it’s not unheard of for historians to win Nobel prizes, despite the lack of a dedicated category. But wasting one’s time impugning the motives of other scholars (and spending an entire book doing it, no less) is not going to get McLean into that club…quite the opposite, most likely, which merely furthers my point that these two aren’t in the same league. They’re not even playing the same sport.

            So no, this is not mere credentialism. At BHL, we can distinguish a rose from a bucket of feces by it’s smell alone.

          • ViperRum

            No stevejohnson2 is just being an ass.

          • Rob Gressis

            Again, it’s a performance, so it’s hard to know just what Brennan’s exact point is, but, if you agree with him that (1) MacLean is massively misrepresenting Buchanan, and (2) she’s clear-headed enough to know this, then (3) you can dismiss her book as a piece of polemical propaganda rather than something to be seriously engaged with.

            There’s a recent Slate interview with her that looks to me like she’s misrepresenting Buchanan and holding him to a double-standard.

      • This is a classic example of how so many commentators on this blog rest their points on context-dropping. Your point only stands if one makes a concerted effort to ignore the full content of Brennan’s many books and other blog posts and refuses to allow for irony.

      • j_m_h

        So largely supporting the underlying tenants of Public Choice as Buchanan understood it.
        I think what is lacking in this is that like any tool can be used for good and bad, people can looks at a person’s life and work and attribute whatever motivations they want and even present arugment and empirical “evidence” to support their claimed motivations. Only the person, in this case Buchanan, and, perhaps, their close friends will actually know the truth/fact of the matter.
        In many ways it’s a pointless activity and purely that of ad hominin. Motivation really doesn’t matter to the rest of us any more than the motivations of Einstein, Curie, Stalin, Putin or Trump. The results of their actions do and those results will never be purely good or purely evil.

  • M Lister

    Jason, do you really thing that _getting a grant_ is the same thing as being paid by someone to produce a particular outcome? That seems…not too plausible, or at least much too quick, even for a blog post, to do the work you need. And, do you really think that this bit,

    “There’s no more point in arguing with Nancy than there is arguing with one of Goebbels’s essays.”

    Is close to fair? I ask because, even given your well-established tendency to engage in hyperbole, this seems…not well calibrated.

    Finally, as I assume you’ve read the book, are the things (or some of the things) that she says about Buchanan and other true? That may not settle all of the issues, but is at least of some relevance. (It would also tend to distinguish from from Goebbels, I’d suppose.)

    • Sean II

      And that’s why you never use “Sort by Newest”.

      • M Lister

        Well, golly, that’s certainly a knock-down a
        Editrgument of just the sort we’ve come to expect from Sean II.

        • Sean II

          Okay now I’m starting to feel bad.

          For christ’s sake, look down.

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  • sewells

    Actually, I am a libertarian and I’ve read her book. I have no doubt that Ms. MacLean is largely correct in her scholarship. I might nit pick a point here or there but any libertarian who discounts her criticisms of the radical right without extremely careful analysis and some very deep thought is an ignoramus. After all, no one has a right to be wrong. Liberty entails obligations.

    • j_m_h

      “After all, no one has a right to be wrong.” would seem to refute the claim to libertarian…

      • sewells

        Not at all. To say that a right does not exist is simply a statement of fact. What I was saying is that one has an obligation, as a consequence of one’s freedom, to ensure that one is correct in one’s thinking and, importantly, to change one’s mind when the facts call for it. In short, it is a free person’s obligation to conform their concepts to reality. It’s not a duty one owes others but rather a duty one owes oneself as a matter of integrity. Neither you nor I have a right to bullshit ourselves to ignoble ends.

    • ViperRum

      I doubt you are a libertarian. MacLean is wildly wrong on a number of accounts. Her attempt to link Buchanan to Donald Davidson is totally without any basis. Her claim that Buchanan based his work on John C. Calhoun is complete nonsense. Buchanan never once cited Calhoun and MacLean’s only connection was Murray Rothbard…problem there is Rothbard and Buchanan really did not like each other…at all. So that connection does not work either. She also tries to pretend that Buchanan wanted to use Brown vs. Topeka as a way to maintain segregated schools while adhering to the letter of the law. Problem is the document she cited written by Buchanan and Nutter, but it did note that allowing for greater variation in who runs schools can help result in attaining a given level of education at the least cost. And of course there was her complete distortion of Tyler Cowen’s work as well. Frankly, one has to wonder if you really did read her book…and why you aren’t reading the source material as well.

    • ViperRum

      Oh and in her interview in Slate, MacLean distorted Buchanan there as well claiming he advocated for despotism when in reading Limits of Liberty it is quite obvious Buchanan was warning about despotism. One can be wrong, but when one is wrong this often and always in the same direction it is pretty clear what is going on…outright lying.

    • Earl of Sandwich
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  • alan greenberg

    Buchanan wants to preserve absolute economic liberty for the likes of charles Koch, not you and me. And the point of the book is not the economic theories of James Buchanan but the plan to alter the rules of our system to prevent democracy from working.