Book/Article Reviews

Nancy MacLean Is Either Grossly Incompetent or a Liar

Here, Russ Roberts finds MacLean purposefully removed lines from Cowen in order to stick him with saying the opposite of what he in fact said.

Here, Christopher Fleming finds she did the same to James Buchanan.

And here Phil Magness finds her inventing a connection between James Buchanan and a bunch of racist segregationist.

Read Greg Wiener’s review of her book here.


Expect to see more of this soon. Christ, I understand the government wants to buy itself an apologist for corporatism, but you’d think for $50,000 it could get someone better.

Imagine if an undergraduate read the following text:

Jason Brennan: “Calhoun asserts that racism is not wrong. But I, Jason Brennan, disagree with Calhoun.”

Now suppose the undergraduate wrote this in an essay:

“Jason Brennan writes, and I quote, ‘….racism is not wrong.'”

That’s what MacLean is doing, over and over again. She is either grossly incompetent or a straight up liar.

  • Sean II

    Liar. The correct answer is liar.

    Gross incompetence produces random error. This is clearly directional.

    • Theresa Klein

      There’s a third way – delusional.
      Some people are so absorbed in their tribal worldviews that they have lost touch with objective reality. Nancy Maclean might *actually believe* that there’s a secret libertarian plot to destroy democracy and replace it with …. market forces. (Because that would be horrifying.)

      On a side note, maybe her book is a bit like the progressive equivalent of Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg.

      • Engineeer

        Except that Goldberg did not chop up quotes or otherwise misrepresent the views of the 20th century progressives and Italian fascists.

        Your clueless throwaway remark demonstrates why liberals love the likes of Maclean

  • Michael Bellesiles: “Boy, I really screwed up. Nobody’s going to make my mistakes again.”
    Nancy MacLean: “Hold my beer.”

    • Sean II

      Bellesiles did screw up.

      If he’d made racism the whole center of his argument – “The barrels or our guns were forged from chains. White America didn’t arm itself until blacks were free.” – that would have secured him an army of permanent defenders, and given him a handy name to call any critic of his methods.

      • Rob Gressis

        Oh, have progressives begun to notice the criticism of Michelle Alexander?

        • Sean II

          Not that I’m aware. On the contrary she still gets taken for a sage even by libertarians.

          • Rob Gressis

            You seem to follow scholars writing about crime. How is John Pfaff’s work?

          • Sean II

            I think nearly everyone else in the incarceration debate would be enriched by reading him, and that he would be enriched by living a month in Riker’s (or even just Brownsville), and that I would be greatly enriched by watching him do that.

            Frustrating guy. In a bunch of different ways, he’s right where nearly everyone else who chatters about this subject is wrong. He’s right about the non-violent drug offender being largely a myth, and he’s honest about the very modest returns we’d get from ending the drug war. He’s right about private prisons being no big deal. He’s right about the importance of state vs federal pens. He’s right about aging out, which is one the most interesting things about violence almost nobody understands. He’s right about modal sentencing length, which is in fact quite low. He’s right on prosecutors being central but often overlooked. But above all he’s right in his key finding that, contra every other reformist loudmouth, our prisons really are filled with people who hurt people.

            But he’s wrong in his key conclusion: “Aw, let’s just release ’em anyway.”

            It really comes down to that. He just takes it for granted that bringing U.S. incarceration rates closer to the industrial world average is a crucial policy goal, and he wants to pursue that goal even AFTER discovering the cells are occupied by violent men. This is an aim other people pursue because they believe we’ve somehow locked up the wrong man 2 million times in a row. He KNOWS that’s bullshit, because he did the hard work of finding out why. And yet he still keeps fixation on the original target. Crazy.

            Which is why I want him to spend a month inside Rikers, or dwell in a Brownsville project. Living among such lads would hastily cure him of the urge to hasten their release. He might even figure out what those evil douchebag prosecutors saw, to coincidentally turn them all into such unforgiving monsters.

            Also, not for nothing, he repeatedly commits the Fox Butterfield fallacy. The fact that incarceration rates and crime rates are inversely correlated really seems to puzzle him. Which tells you he has no idea where violent behavior actually comes from, and is still trapped in a poverty-parenting-schools-paint chips theory of crime causation. So he’s wrong on that too, and not without consequences.

          • King Goat

            “still trapped in a poverty-parenting-schools-paint chips theory of crime causation”

            It’s funny, the shelters that put down many pit bulls as ‘unadoptable’ will tell you they’ve been ‘badly socialized’ beyond any repair….It’s almost as if theories about poor/horrible/inadequate socialization (not to mention f*cking brain damage-lead poisoning) are just as reasonably compatible with the idea of people being permanently messed up as other theories. As James Q Wilson once said (paraphrased): “Sociology means everything, or nothing, is possible.”

          • Sean, does it mean that we should not expect legalization of even just marijuana to empty the prisons significantly?

            There’s the obvious direct effect but also indirect effects:

            1) in black markets the government does not secure property transfers but on the contrary disrupts them, so enforcement is “private” and more violent therefore;

            2) the step from being a respected cannabis businessman to a violent outlaw is must bigger than the step from being a non-violent drug outlaw to a violent outlaw. Hence, now more drug users and sellers are violent.

    • n0truscotsman

      Im going to shamelessly steal that

      That comment made my night.

  • Anomaly

    Some of these reviews should be posted on Amazon, since the book is selling well and most potential buyers will never otherwise encounter these criticisms. And the book is clearly aimed at a popular audience, not serious scholars

    • Joshua

      They’re there, but they won’t do any good. Amazon prioritizes reviews by actual purchasers. The people who would buy this book hardly ever travel in the circles where they would learn about these mistakes/mendacity. In addition, the negative reviews pointing this out come off as brigading and non-credible. It would be funny that the left is portraying libertarian thought as so dominant if it wasn’t so frustrating. Her entire premise is stupid.

      • Well then it seems Charles Koch better start tossing some coin at us to buy this book and put up reviews.

  • urstoff

    Her response to Russ is absurd; it’s basically “quote mining is okay because it confirms the interpretation I have of Cowen’s other behavior”, which is motivated reasoning at best and outright intellectual dishonesty at worst.

    • Jason Brennan

      She is a contemptible liar.

    • Jeff R.

      I was struck by this:

      His decision to inform his funding source for the report in question (Charles Koch’s Institute for Humane Studies) on how to bring about radical change that both men know the vast majority of people do not want.

      Basically, if you advocate for policies the majority doesn’t want, you are then anti-democratic. No unpopular views allowed here, thank you.

      • bigterguy

        I suppose they weren’t for gay marriage before about 2014 (like Obama), and weren’t for civil rights before about 1970.

  • JH

    Seems like MacLean’s book is a massive exercise in confirmation bias and poisoning the well.

  • Chris Baker

    She’s a liar. At Duke, that is considered a virtue:

  • embala

    That thing she said in the Slate interview, about how Buchanan wanted to have despotism in order to enforce his ideas? No one will be surprised at this point, but he said…almost the exact opposite of that, and was, in fact, counseling readers on how to best avoid the temptations of despotism.

    I am a Duke grad, and I am ashamed that this woman is there masquerading as a serious scholar.

  • Rob Gressis

    For all these faults that libertarians have noticed, it seems like her book is a success, both financially and in terms of convincing people of her thesis*. Just one more strike against the usefulness of the marketplace of ideas.

    *–obviously, the people she convinces are people who could have been knocked over by a feather, as long as it came from their left. That said, I fear her take will now be a point that all “people of good will”(™) know.

    Are libertarians as hated as the alt right yet?

    • Alex P

      In the marketplace of ideas, lots of customers get ripped off.

      • Sean II

        It’s kind of embarrassing to reflect on, but for about four years of my life I managed to believe these two things simultaneously:

        1) Intelligence is normally distributed.

        2) There is a marketplace of ideas in which good ones are rewarded and bad ones punished.

        • A. Alexander Minsky

          No need to be embarrassed, we all keep contradictory ideas in our heads. Speaking for myself. I’ve manged to simultaneously believe:

          1) I’m a socially awkward, aspie with minimal earning potential and a number of narrow and esoteric interests.

          2) Beautiful and desirable women should find me attractive.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      Not by a long shot. No one on the internet is having debates about whether or not it is okay to punch, say, Jeffrey Tucker. And libertarians can hold events in hotels and restaurants without attracting hordes of screaming antifas. The alt right, by contrast, has been forced to hold their conferences in government owned facilities such as the Reagan Building or state owned parks in Tennessee.

      As the situation now stands, libertarians would have places to meet in a libertarian society. The alt right would not be so fortunate.

    • Daniel Campos

      Considering we don’t have a real free marketplace for ideas, but one highly influenced by the state because of its grasps on academia, it is hardly difficult to understand the disarray in yet another field of human life – as in schools, health, safety, etc, culture is put in disarray by government.

  • LaRaza4Trump

    I’d like to take your criticism seriously, but you wrote that (and I quote) “racism is not wrong.” Twice!


  • Sam
  • Theresa Klein

    You know what’s tragically awful about it all?
    That when Libertarians talk about the failures of democracy, we’re not advocating a more authoritarian system. SHE is actually the one advocating a more powerful central government which exercise more coercion over people in general. We’re advocating decentralized solutions that put MORE power in the hands of people to solve their own problems. She want to take that power away and centralize more of it in a “democratic” government – where “democracy” is embodied by one vote every four years for which of two parties get to control the vast apparatus of the state.
    But we’re supposed to be the bad guys. Because not wanting the government to control everything, and seeking ways to devolve power to individuals is “undemocratic”. Because it’s “undemocratic” if the majority doesn’t get to vote every four years on which minute aspects of everyone else’s life they get to control.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Reading Russ Roberts, it is clear that MacLean did not make Cowen say the literal opposite of what he really said, no matter what the OP says. Roberts is wrong in saying that the rest of the sentence is really a “key qualifier.” Reservations as to the practical outcome are not an objection to a principle.

    Worse, for him, MacLean starts by quoting Cowen’s “In no case were reforms brought on by popular demand for market-oriented ideas.” It is Roberts who ignores this, taking another Cowen sentence cited at the end of the same paragraph out of context, a sin he accuses MacLean of. In the real context of that sentence as well, it’s not clear that Cowen isn’t opposed to majority rule in principle, if as I suspect he is committed to market-oriented “reform.” MacLean is clearly trying to summarize more than Roberts lets on.

    By the way, it is not at all clear how explaining the US isn’t a democracy doesn’t inadvertently concede that Cowen is an opponent of majority rule, presuming Russ Roberts is defending a fellow traveler.

    Regarding Henderson, he is correct that Buchanan in this except offers two option, either letting people die because as equals they are responsible for themselve. Or, as conservatives (as opposed to classical liberals) might, treating them like dependent animals. Given the title, “Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative,” very likely Henderson is correct too that MacLean misread Buchanan as favoring the mistreatment of people for their failures. Instead, Buchanan apparently favored them dying. Since the most probable error in interpretation makes Buchanan look like a piece of shit, I can only conclude she was excessively generous in her reading. I have no idea how Henderson can think this makes her look bad. I also do not know why Buchanan’s false dichotomy could be accepted as a serious discussion of anything, much less Nobel level “work.”

    Regarding Magness, this one is the closest to competent. MacLean should have cited her reason for thinking Buchanan wanted to enroll at Vanderbilt. Evidence that Buchanan read Davidson’s poetry or his Attack on Leviathan or even his book reviews should have been offered, for one thing. He should have quite there. Magness seems to think that Buchanan must have cited Davidson in his own papers to have been influenced by him. That idea is just stupid. Nobody writing academic papers is going to cite a poet in preference to Hobbes, especially if you got your most heartfelt notions from the poet. So, no, Magness presents no evidence for his conclusion, just as MacLean apparently presented no evidence for hers. A curious parallel to Roberts’ taking out of context even as he accuses someone else of taking out of context, no?

    Three strikes is enough, no need for more link chasing.

    As to the OP, “corporatism” is not a thing. And in this context, “the government” isn’t either. This doesn’t even rise to the level of conspiracy thinking, because conspiracy theorists can at least name names and assign motives.

    • Earl of Sandwich

      “”it is clear that MacLean did not make Cowen say the literal opposite of what he really said””

      I think anyone who actually read Robert’s piece would disagree. (i certainly do) Why don’t you take it up with him over there?

      • stevenjohnson2

        Of course you have every right to be wrong, starting with the fact that it was Brennan who falsely claimed MacLean made Cowen say the literal opposite, his point illustrated with a hypothetical example.

        I don’t think Roberts made a strong case that MacLean’s misquotation did what he said, because, again, first, a disagreement over tactics is not a disagreement over principles and second, Cowen’s first sentence (which Roberts doesn’t contest) counts too, even if Roberts prefers to ignore it.

        Roberts should have contented himself with simply observing that MacLean dropped the “While…” and added a period.

        But, there’s no reason to take up anything with someone who doesn’t even pretend to have a heart, bleeding or otherwise. Even worse, Roberts didn’t use the words “America is a REPUBLIC not a democracy,” but that’s what he said in different words. My practical experience with people of that ilk is they are thoroughly dishonest, with a head stuffed full of an imaginary history and a check list of moral panics.

  • jdkolassa

    You know, a year ago I was still skeptical of epistocracy.

    Just about everything that has happened since then has convinced me that epistocracy is probably the only way to save modern civilization from itself.

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