Democracy, Current Events

“Afraid to be Free” and Nancy MacLean Revisited.

A few people have noted (correctly) that Nancy MacLean stated that she was quoting from a draft of “Afraid to be Free”. Since this was so, some (well, one person!) have claimed that my response to her was unfair.

Now, it’s true that MacLean said that she was quoting from the first draft of this paper. But she immediately afterwards stated that this draft was “later published as in Public Choice 120, no. 3 (September 2004).”

Three points are worth noting here:

1)┬áIf one refers to a draft, and if this draft changes before the published version, it is standard practice both to note this, and (preferably) include in the bibliography separate references to both drafts. MacLean doesn’t do either of these. This is why I took her to mean that he first draft was the published draft–which is what she herself writes. I thus didn’t misread her endnote. I merely took her at her word–that the draft she referred to as “later published in Public Choice” under the same title.

2) It is standard practice to refer to a person’s published views, as these are understood to be the views that he or she stands by. Even if MacLean’s quotation of Buchanan’s first draft is correct, and if he did not mention other persons besides the former slaves, this tells us nothing about his considered opinion.

3) MacLean’s reference to “Afraid to be Free” is wrong. It appeared in Public Choice 124, 1-2 (July 2005) . She does, however, get the citation right (if not quite complete) in the bibliography.

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  • Irfan Khawaja

    Re (2), I mentioned this on Facebook, so this repeats some of what I said: I personally think that it should be standard practice to refer in scholarship to a writer’s published views, understood as the views he intended for publication and wishes to stand by. But it isn’t in fact standard practice: scholars regularly cite authors’ unpublished views in an attempt to offer reconstructions of how their views developed over time (and for other reasons, as well).

    The Locke literature provides a very clear example. Scholars regularly cite Locke’s unpublished writings in order to throw light on his “published” writings, where some of his “published” writings were published anonymously. It’s standard practice to cite Locke’s “Essays on the Laws of Nature” to provide insight into the Two Treatises of Government. But the Essays were not published, and the Treatises were published anonymously. It’s also standard practice to cite Locke’s earlier writings on toleration to provide insight into his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, and to cite the memoranda he wrote as a government functionary (some in committee form, some in draft form) in order to provide insight into his philosophical views. Even where it’s understood that the later view is Locke’s considered view, the earlier view is still attributed to Locke. Even in cases where it’s highly contestable that Locke was the sole author of a memo or document, documents to which he made a substantial contribution are regarded as Lockean works, and are collected in anthologies under that description. And Locke is just one example from many that might be cited.

    In other words, if MacLean has put Buchanan’s early drafts on all fours with later drafts of his works, she may be doing something problematic, but she isn’t doing anything unorthodox. In that case, her critics aren’t just arguing against her; they’re arguing against common scholarly practice. I don’t have any particular view on MacLean or Buchanan, but maybe the time has come to question standard operating procedures in historical scholarship.

    • Sean II

      Good point, and worth remembering: if an author’s whole project is to investigate hidden opinions or motives in a historical figure, obviously he must be allowed to use unpublished sources. Any professional courtesy which might otherwise discourage this goes out the window.

      Consider: in a medical malpractice case, we don’t say “let’s just review the doctor’s own note and call it a day”. In a police brutality case, we don’t say “let’s confine our curiosity to what the cop wrote in his final report”. And so on.

      One needn’t like MacLean to defend her on this point. If some famous scholar writes:

      “There’s this phenomenon X. For example, look at case Y.”

      One thing we know for sure: the scholar considers Y to be a case of X. Not only that, but obviously Y is the first case of X that came to his mind. Which probably means he regards Y as an especially clear and compelling case of X.

      If that author later amends his writing to “There’s this phenomenon X. For example, look at case Y, and also case Z”, it’s perfectly valid to wonder why he changed it. Maybe he was trying to be more thorough. Maybe he’d always intended to add that, but couldn’t quite think of it in the moment. Or…maybe he realized that leaving Y alone sounded bad, thanks to it’s being a famously sensitive topic.

      How could one conduct this type of scholarship without asking questions like that?

      • Irfan Khawaja

        Yeah, fair enough. When it comes to reading police reports, you don’t even need to conjure up controversial cases like police brutality. Suspicion (or at least skepticism) is justified when reading ANY police report about ANYTHING, down to an ordinary incident report about a noise complaint. Skepticism is also justified when reading ordinary newspaper reports. Or government reports. Or many other texts besides. Scholarship isn’t an exception to that rule. How suspicious you are about reading a text depends on the background beliefs you bring to the text, beliefs that can themselves be justified or unjustified. But when they’re justified, you don’t just take the text at face value. You’re justified in looking beyond it, whether to plain old facts or to other texts, published or unpubished.

        Some more strictly “scholarly” examples of willful naivete:

        1. “I’ve been reading Lenin’s State & Revolution lately. He doesn’t mention extrajudicial killing there, so I think we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt….”

        2. “I’ve read Mein Kampf all the way through. Hitler never mentions a Holocaust, and he wasn’t even at the Wannsee Conference. There’s no written order from Hitler regarding a Holocaust. So I guess we should just stick to the published text, and remain skeptical about Hitler’s so-called Holocaust connection…”

        3. “The remarkable thing about Mao’s Little Red Book is how minimalist it is. I mean, that Mao sure was literal–it really was a LITTLE red book. Sticking to the published text, one is struck by how banal and commonplace Mao’s political teachings really were…”

        I could offer up a Herzl or Jabotinsky example, but let it go. I mean, I wouldn’t want anyone to unleash a hermeneutic of suspicion on ME, digging through my unpublished (online) writings, and then offering up ungrounded suspicions about my motivations….

        In cases like 1-3, few people would throw out unpublished, written documentation of the atrocities in question, written by the authors in question. And few would question their relevance to the written texts. But that’s because we have independent evidence of the nefariousness of each author. If we had no such evidence (hard to imagine, given the examples), you couldn’t take a bunch of indeterminate texts by those authors, then read the more-damning unpublished material against the more-innocuous published material, then spin a conspiracy theory out of it, attributing dirty deeds to each or any of them. In the extreme case, that procedure just yields a text like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Whether the Protocols was the author’s polished, published work or a merely an unfinished draft I leave as an exercise.)

        I haven’t read MacLean, and have read very little of Buchanan. I have no dog in the MacLean/Buchanan/Koch fight (and boy, am I glad of that). That said, I do think Taylor’s original post make a legitimate point worth making. I would just put it differently than he does.

        My way: scholars often abuse the privilege of using unpublished material. What they fail to do is to explain why it’s legitimate to use such material. After all, if material is UNpublished, the author decided NOT to publish it. If so, he must have had a reason for not doing so. What if his reason is that the material was not worth publishing, hence not worth reading? E.g., it didn’t meet his standards. In that case, why use it?

        That’s a literal, not a rhetorical question. Sometimes, there is a good answer. Often, there is not. But you can’t just say, “Well, he wrote it, so it’s fair game.” The “so” is a non-sequitur. I throw a lot of stuff into my personal journals and less-than-final drafts that I myself regard as stream-of-consciousness shit. That’s why I never publish anything. But it surely doesn’t follow that because I don’t publish anything, my unpublished “writings” are a fair sample of my considered beliefs on anything. If you somehow got hold of them, you’d be a real idiot to think that what you’d gotten hold of told you very much about what I really believed. Half of what I put into my private journals is precisely what I don’t believe. Granted, an unpublished manuscript is not quite the same as a private journal. But it’s also not the same as a published manuscript. The distinctions here just get lost in the shuffle, especially when reputations are on the line.

        If MacLean is going to read Buchanan in paranoid fashion, she needs to justify doing so antecedently to offering interpretations that presuppose paranoia. There’s nothing wrong with paranoia, except when your paranoia begs the question or amounts to a systematic series of well poisonings. What you can’t do is take Buchanan’s unpublished writings, read it (without further argument) in paranoid fashion, then use your paranoid reading of his unpublished writings to offer a paranoid reading of his published writings. She needs a good justification for her paranoia. Once she justifies it, she’s then justified in applying it to this or that text. But not until then. Not having read her, I don’t know how well she does on any of this.

        In fairness to Buchanan, though, if she’s using his unpublished writings against him, I would say she needs a special justification for doing so, i.e., for citing them at all. To repeat something I just said, you can’t just throw unpublished writings out there and say, “Well, he wrote this, so…” There is always at least one reason for an author’s NOT publishing a text, but if the interpreter doesn’t know what the reason is, she’s not justified in asserting that the worst reason (e.g., concealment) must be the operative one.

        I have a fear that serious methodological issues are falling between the cracks of the pro- and anti-MacLean polemics out there. What we really need is a non-partisan approach to the use of unpublished writings in evaluating a scholar’s published material.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        I just got a message saying, “Hold on, this [my comment] is waiting to be approved by Bleeding Heart Libertarians.”

        I had to laugh at that. As I said, “How suspicious you are about reading a text depends on the background beliefs you bring to the text, beliefs that can themselves be justified or unjustified.” QED.

      • Peter from Oz

        “If that author later amends his writing to “There’s this phenomenon X.
        For example, look at case Y, and also case Z”, it’s perfectly valid to
        wonder why he changed it. Maybe he was trying to be more thorough.
        Maybe he’d always intended to add that, but couldn’t quite think of it
        in the moment. Or maybe he realized that leaving Y alone sounded bad,
        thanks to Y being a famously sensitive topic.”
        The problem is that without any other evidence we can only speculate as to why he added Z. SUch speculation isn’t really of much probative weight.

        • Sean II

          True enough, we’re far from the level of proof here.

          But remember we do have lots of other evidence to help us explain why someone would add Z to Y in this particular equation.

          Namely, we know that the subject of Y is a hot stick of dynamite which our man seems otherwise to have carefully avoided.

          People here may prefer to overlook this, but one of the opposition’s stronger arguments is that Buchanan was so quiet about race. It’s actually a rather hard subject to avoid if you spent your life writing about econ and politics in mid to late 20th century America.

          That silence makes less sense if one holds a safe set of conventional views. It make more if maybe one harbors a couple of doubts about the consensus.

          • Irfan Khawaja


            For reasons that remain obscure not just to me but to James Stacey Taylor, my response to you has been held for approval for 21 hours without having been approved. (Taylor tried unsuccessfully to approve it yesterday.) Since I can’t wait indefinitely for my comment to show up (if it ever does), I’ll give you the last word, at least on screen.

          • Sean II

            Sorry to hear that. Hopefully it will appear at some point.

            Unless it disagrees with me, in which case I hope the comment burns in a hell of eternal obscurity.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            I guess approval delayed is approval denied.

          • Peter from Oz

            Thank you for that explanation.
            Isn’t it funny how what Orwell called the ”smelly little orthodoxies” can devour our freedoms.
            As you say, in the US it seems that there are just certain things that those in academe, the arts or politics cannot say. And this ban is not policed with such vigour by the SJWs through any real respect for the truth. The ideas they condemn are not usually false, but ”hurtful”.
            I get the impression that many people believe that SJWs are a new breed of puritans. I agree that they are puritans, but they are not a new breed. Most of them would be priggish supporters of the orthodx view whatever it was.
            Thus Miller’s “The Crucible” is just as good an allegory of today’s political atmosphere as was of the era of McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.

  • Damon Chetson

    It is fine to quote unpublished pieces as historical documents for lots of reasons. They may include unguarded comments and so on. So it’s actually quite important to quote unpublished sources as part of the historical method. So I don’t understand this criticism. And in the context of where he was writing and his other views as he presented in his works, she gives a fair interpretation of his views. Why are people so shocked that he would have such views? It seems exceptionally unsurprising.

  • Jack Knudson

    These single issue attacks on MacLean (where libertarians point out where she is grossly incorrect at a certain point) are no longer working. The BHL community should band together to make a crowdfunding of $1000-2000 awarded to any person who can actually prove any evidence of public choice theory as having racist roots. We ought to organize a campaign where we will pay someone to verify a single major claim in her book with very low requirements for being reasonably true. It can’t be done and we could set a deadline for the end of summer.