On July 19th The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece giving Nancy MacLean the opportunity to respond to her critics. (Unfortunately, she didn’t take the opportunity to respond to any of the substantive criticisms that Democracy in Chains has been subject to, here, here, here, here, here, here, and in many, many, many, more places, but let that pass.) One of MacLean’s defenders, John Jackson, in the comments section claimed that James Buchanan “questioned that African Americans were even fit for self-governance”. In support of this he quoted MacLean: “The thirst for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed” (Democracy in Chains, p. 35).
Jackson’s understanding of MacLean’s view here is correct: She offers this (mis)quotation from Buchanan to support her implication that Buchanan believed that “the black community” after emancipation lacked any real desire for “freedom, and responsibility” and that this resulted in their being unable successfully to govern themselves. If that was Buchanan’s view, MacLean would be right to say that on his issue he was “breathtakingly ignorant,” “blind,” and “insulting” (Democracy in Chains, p.35).
But this isn’t Buchanan’s view at all–and MacLean surely knows this.
Before moving to Buchanan, here’s MacLean in full:
“Indeed, rather than sympathize with the plight of black Americans, Buchanan later argued that the failure of the black community to thrive after emancipation was not the result of the barriers put in their way, but rather proof that “the thirst for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed”. It was a breathtakingly ignorant claim, a sign of a willful failure to see what his paradigm would not allow him to. Both Koch and Buchanan would make similarly blind and insulting claims about others who did not do well in the labor market these men chose to believe was free and fair” (Democracy in Chains).
I’m focus here on Buchanan, since MacLean provides no support for her claims about Charles Koch’s views.
So what did Buchanan really say? Well, to begin, MacLean misquotes him; he actually wrote “The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.” (“Afraid to be Free: Dependency as Desideratum,” Public Choice 124 (2005), 24.) But that’s a minor point. What’s really worrying is that MacLean takes this quotation grotesquely out of context.
Here’s Buchanan in full:
“Persons who are afraid to take on independent responsibility that necessarily goes with liberty demand that the state fill the parental role in their lives. They want to be told what to do and when to do it; they seek order rather than uncertainty, and order comes at an opportunity cost they seem willing to bear. The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed. What share of persons in varying degrees of bondage, from slavery to ordinary wage salary contracts, really want to be free, with the accompanying responsibility for their own choices? The disastrous failure of “forty acres and a mule” was followed by the lapse into renewed dependency status for emancipated former slaves in the American south. And the surprising strength of Communist parties in the politics of post-Cold War central and eastern Europe attests to the thirst on the part of many persons ‘to be controlled’.”
Read in context it’s clear that Buchanan is not questioning (as Jackson has been led to believe by MacLean) whether African Americans as a group are especially unfit for self-governance. Instead, he’s claiming that most people simply in virtue of being human would prefer not to be fully free, but to have some person or entity (e.g., the state) exercise control over them. The historical accuracy of the claims that he makes about emancipated slaves are, of course, open to challenge. (Although note that these claims are compatible with Buchanan’s accepting that former slaves faced widespread and significant oppression and that this led to their “renewed dependency”.) But to wrest this sentence from its context and use it to imply that Buchanan believed that African Americans were especially unfit to govern themselves is a complete distortion of his view.
I’ll conclude by noting that MacLean isn’t just doing a disservice to Buchanan here. She’s doing a serious disservice both to her readers who (like John Jackson) will be misled by her and also–and most importantly–to African-Americans in general. It’s no secret that the more sophisticated racists often justify their views by appealing to intellectual authorities. To imply falsely that Buchanan (an immensely distinguished Nobel Prizewinner) believed that African-Americans were unfit for self-governance not only does a disservice to Buchanan, but plays directly into the hands of those racists. And that’s appalling.