Finding examples of misleading, incorrect, and outright butchered quotes and citations in Nancy MacLean’s new book about James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains, has become the academic version of Pokemon Go this week. I now offer one small contribution of my own, plus a few other thoughts about one piece of her argument.
For those unfamiliar, MacLean argues that Buchanan’s work, and public choice, more broadly, emerged in highly segregated Virginia in the shadow of Brown v. Board of Education as a way to attack the expansion of federal government power and defend the elitist Southern Agrarian privileges of a white plutocracy. Their program of limiting absolute democracy and majority rule through constitutional provisions (a truly bizarre and radical idea, I realize) was grown in the soil of segregation. She paints Buchanan and the whole public choice tradition as enemies of democracy who have now joined forces with the Koch brothers in a stealth, fifth column attack on American democracy in particular. Putting aside that there is no documented connection between Buchanan and the Southern Agrarians, a connection that makes no sense anyway given Buchanan’s commitment to analytical egalitarianism, is there any truth to the claim that the Brown v. Board context was even relevant?
MacLean argues there is, and bases that on a 1959 paper by G. Warren Nutter and Buchanan titled “The Economics of Universal Education” in which they lay out a number of ways that universal education could be provided, including via a Friedman-style voucher system. They describe the different characteristics of the alternative systems, and clearly conclude that “the public must choose which characteristics it prefers” (9). They add “As economists we do not presume to make a choice of one system over another…Our purpose is to lay bare the facts as we see them, so that they will receive their due weight in any decisions that will be made through the democratic process” (11).
Hardly enemies of democracy in the paper, Nutter and Buchanan see their task (as Buchanan did for his whole career) as offering analyses that could inform the deliberations of the democratic process, both at the level of the constitutional rules and the games that take place within those rules. Nutter and Buchanan also reject, as Buchanan always did, any privileged role for the economist in that process: “Each citizen speaks for himself on such matters, and each citizen’s opinion weights as heavily as any other’s, no matter what his position in society – whether farmer, lawyer, educator, or minister” (1). Hardly the words of an anti-democratic elitist plutocrat.
MacLean sees this paper as an attempt by the two scholars to undermine public education in Virginia in order to keep the effects of pre-Brown segregation while still complying with the law. That is, she sees it as evidence of the racism at the core of arguments for free markets and public choice analyses of the failures of government. This is despite the fact that Nutter and Buchanan explicitly defend a role for government in education, including “compelling attendance, fixing minimum standards, and financing cost” (3). They also never mention race in the paper, as she acknowledges, but their use of the technical language of economics and their race-neutrality is seen by her as evidence of their attempt to generate racist outcomes by stealth. (As is often the case with conspiracy theory-style thinking, the evidence against the conspiracy is actually evidence for it.)
One might also note that supporting Brown also means that one is thwarting the desires of democratic majorities, at least at the state and local level. For all of MacLean’s ringing defenses of majority rule and the importance of the democratic process, it’s fascinating that she sees the foundation of the arguments of democracy’s supposed opponents as a rejection of a Supreme Court decision that told local and state majorities that they couldn’t have the segregated schools they wanted.
One might also note that the argument Nutter and Buchanan make is nearly identical to that of J. S. Mill in On Liberty. Is Mill, who was arguably among the 19th century’s great opponents of racism and supporters of analytical egalitarianism, now also to be seen as a secret racist with a plan to subvert democracy?
Toward the end of the paper, Nutter and Buchanan respond to numerous objections to a voucher plan. One criticism at the time was that it would harm education and drive employers out of the state. In MacLean’s summary of their response, she writes (67):
Corporations would not care who ran the schools, they said, as long as good education was available. “All that matters” for the economy, the two scholars maintained, was that the state government support some school system “cheaply and efficiently.” How that schooling was provided was immaterial.
Note the way in which the quoted material makes it appear as though what Nutter and Buchanan were saying was that it would be good if governments supported school systems “cheaply and efficiently,” nicely fitting her narrative (and that of many on the left) that libertarians just want to reduce spending on education. They don’t care much about kids actually getting educated. (She says as much in the book in several places.)
Here’s the actual passage from the Nutter and Buchanan paper (17-18), which is more subtle and has a different meaning than MacLean suggests:
Other things equal, communities with good, efficiently run schools will be more attractive to employees, actual and prospective, than other communities. But we fail to see what this has to do with who runs the schools, whether a state agency or private parties. We doubt that there is a strong attachment to state schools, as such. If a mixed system of private and state schools provides universal education at least as cheaply and efficiently as a pure system of state schools, this would seem to be all that matters.
MacLean takes “cheaply and efficiently” to refer to the level of state support provided. Nutter and Buchanan clearly use that phrase to refer not to the level of state support per se, but to the ability of any system to use resources wisely to produce a given quality of education. Her reading makes it seem like Nutter and Buchanan think that “all that matters” is that state support be “cheap and efficient.” But what they are clearly arguing is “all that matters” is which system delivers the desired level of universal education using the fewest resources.
Nutter and Buchanan are using the economist’s notion of efficiency – how to generate a desired outcome at least cost – whereas MacLean can only think in terms of a supposed desire to spend a little as possible in and of itself. The “least cost” and therefore most efficient system might be one that spends more in absolute terms if it generates a higher level of a highly desired output. A system that spent twice as much on education but got three times the quality/quantity of education as the next best system might be “cheaper and more efficient” if we value education highly enough as compared to other uses of those resources. Again, Nutter and Buchanan are not saying to use as few resources as possible in and of itself; they are asking which alternative system of education gives us the most bang for the buck. And they want “the democratic process” to decide which one we should adopt. MacLean’s selective quoting does not allow the reader to see the full context of Nutter and Buchanan’s argument.
Is the idea that we should provide a given quality and quantity of a valuable good or service using the least valuable resources possible really that shocking or hard to understand?
This is an example of a running problem with the book. MacLean has, by her own admission, very little knowledge of economics. In addition, her knowledge of Buchanan’s system of thought comes mostly from his autobiography Better than Plowing, The Calculus of Consent, and two secondary sources that are highly critical and have their own problems of good faith interpretation. In the most generous reading, she is misunderstanding arguments and chopping up quotes because she simply doesn’t understand what Buchanan and his collaborators are up to. In the least generous reading, she has a theory and she’s going to cut up the evidence to fit that theory. If one believes that modern libertarians are the enemies of democracy, progress, equality, and all that’s good in the world, and MacLean clearly does, then the evidence will always be read, and sometimes constructed, in ways that support the argument on the side of the angels.
Unfortunately, anyone who takes the time to read the actual sources she’s working from, or who understands public choice theory, can see this exercise for what it is: a travesty of scholarly standards (no, Charles Dickens’ novels do not count as data about the economic conditions of the 19th century) and a smear job on one of the great minds of the 20th century.