Libertarianism, Democracy

The Butcher with a Smile – More Mangling from Nancy MacLean

I’m almost finished with Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, thankfully, as I don’t think I can take much more of her disregard for accuracy in her book-length smear of James Buchanan and libertarian thought more generally. Folks should see co-blogger Mike Munger’s absolutely devastating review if they have not done so already.

As scholars continue to try to “catch them all,” I offer yet another example of her butchering of quotes and arguments. And it’s a doozy.

MacLean is discussing the way in which the US political system puts constraints, constitutional and otherwise, on the will of the majority, which she thinks should reign unfettered (though how that justifies her presumed support of Roe or Obergefell or even Brown, which plays a major role in what Mike calls her “speculative historical fiction,” remains mysterious). She accuses Buchanan et. al. of wanting to go back to a 19th century view of the constitution that she finds horrific. She writes (227), with the quote being from The Calculus of Consent:

[Buchanan] and his co-author Gordon Tullock said that the nation’s decision-making rules were closer to “the ‘ideal’ in 1900 than in 1960.”

She then goes on to catalog the problems of 1900, some of which are legitimate concerns, such as Jim Crow. The idea, of course, is to claim that this is the world Buchanan and friends want to re-create today. She then writes (228) “Had Buchanan’s ideal system of 1900 endured at the national level…” followed by a list of horrors that the Great Depression “might well” have engendered.

Note first that what was once the constitution he thought was “closer to the ideal” has now become his “ideal.” A minor bit of slippery phrasing, but not a huge sin. But it was enough to make me want to check the source. Unsurprisingly, given the problems I documented in an earlier post, she has mangled people’s words again. This time substantially. Below I reprint the relevant passages in TCoC  (emphasis mine) so you can make up your own mind as to how accurately MacLean has represented Buchanan and Tullock. The context is their discussion of the costs of various sets of rules:

The question remains, however, as to whether or not the existing organizational reduces the overall interdependence costs (external costs plus decision-making costs) to the lowest possible level. Saying that external costs will be present in the “ideal” organization is not equivalent to saying that any organization embodying pressure-group activity is, in any sense, ideal.

No direct measurement of the total interdependence costs under existing or alternative decision-making rules is readily available. Certain conclusions can be drawn, however, on the basis of the facts of history. We may observe a notable expansion in the range and extent of collective activity over the last half century—especially in that category of activity appropriately classified as differential or discriminatory legislation. During the same period we have witnessed also a great increase in investment in organized interest-group efforts designed specifically to secure political advantage. These facts allow us to reach the conclusion that the constitutional rules that were “optimal” in 1900 are probably not “optimal” in 1960. If we may assume that the fundamental rules for organizing collective decisions were more closely in accordance with the “ideal” in 1900 than in 1960, these same rules will tend to produce a higher level of interdependence costs than necessary. This suggests that some shifting in the direction of more inclusive decision-making rules for collective choice and some more restrictive limits on the range of collective activity might now be “rational” to the individual considering constitutional changes. The contrary possibility, of course, also exists. If the operation of existing constitutional rules produces roughly “optimal” results today, clearly these same rules were overly restrictive in earlier stages of development marked by relatively less organized pressure for differential legislation.

Aside from the fact that this passage is their attempt to think through (in a Coasean sort of way) the cost tradeoffs faced by alternative rule structures, rather than making a unilateral call to return to 1900, to the degree they do reach a conclusion, it’s that in the actual world of 1960, the rules of 1900 are “probably” not optimal or ideal. Perhaps they are arguing for a more restrictive set of limits on majorities are required in 1960, but the context suggests that it is not majorities per se that they wish to throttle, but special interest groups who are able to exercise what amounts to minority rule through the process of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs familiar to so many of us. (Though not to MacLean, as her description of that process earlier in the book is also pretty mangled.) That process is part of what creates the external costs that are at the center of this discussion.

The point at issue is that claiming that Buchanan wants to go back to what he saw as the “ideal” constitution of 1900 is simply false. She has waded into a much more complex and nuanced discussion that she has reduced to a simplistic falsehood.

It confirms one of the most trenchant criticisms of the book: she does not understand Buchanan’s system of thought. She cannot parse the context and meaning of his arguments, and given her fervor to counter the Trump presidency and the connection to Buchanan and libertarianism she imagines it has, she reads into Buchanan exactly what she imagined and hoped would be there. The problem is that it’s just not there.

As Munger’s review points out, there was a way to avoid this problem if she wished to. On her campus at Duke there are three political scientists who are, or have been, presidents of the Public Choice Society, one of whom co-authored major works with Buchanan. If MacLean sincerely wanted to understand Buchanan’s contributions, she could have walked across campus and talked with Geoff Brennan, Mike Munger, or Georg Vanberg. She made no attempt to contact them in any form, nor, for the record, did she make any attempt to contact any of the members of the GMU economics department to verify her accounts of their work or the events of the last 35 years there. This suggests that not only is she unable to understand Buchanan’s thought, she didn’t make a serious effort to even try.

It is in that sense that this book is a travesty of historical scholarship and a direct attack on the centrality of truth-seeking in intellectual discourse. I share many of her concerns about the Trump presidency, but it’s precisely because those concerns are so important and its potential damage is so great that I think a commitment to truth-seeking cannot be sacrificed in the process. Trump and his crew have already showed their lack of concern with the truth. When scholars and intellectuals try to play that game, we will surely lose. When you wrestle in the mud with pigs, the pigs will win.

I repeat my call for progressive scholars and intellectuals of integrity to join those of us who are deeply troubled by this book’s lack of concern for accuracy, and its violations of the most fundamental of scholarly norms, in publicly denouncing it and calling for a renewed commitment by all of us to those fundamental norms of intellectual charity and honesty. Chaining the truth will not unchain democracy.

  • Sean II

    As the thrashing of Maclean continues, I spy a false premise creeping in.

    It’s the idea that she did something well out of the ordinary, something shocking, something at odds with prevailing standards in her industry, something even most progressives should be able to step back and renounce.

    But she didn’t do anything like that.

    “Impeach critic of left by alleging racism, flexibly defined.”

    If that sounds the least bit unusual to anyone, congrats on emerging from your coma. The rest of us have been watching steady escalation in that kind for 25 years.

    Okay, okay…so this one was a bit extra clumsy with the suturing of the quotes.

    But get serious: all she had did to avoid that problem was be MORE passive aggressive.

    You know, stuff like: “We can only wonder at the motives behind this nostalgic longing for earlier political forms. What was it about the “constitution of 1900″ that so fascinated these men – for men they were, and white at that. If they had a dream, what was it, and how starkly must it differ from the dream many of us have nurtured since 1963? Can we really ignore the Jim that was dying at the very moment Jim Buchanan’s dream was being born? Can we – can they – escape the coincidence that their doubts about the good government can do only dawned after government starting doing good for people who looked different from themselves.”

    Had she merely written like that, she could have inflcited the same smear without all the pesky backlash.

    Hell, I’ve seen people pull shit like that on this blog.

    So what’s Nancy’s big sin? Is it…

    A) Insinuating racism without evidence to avoid debate on complicated issues?

    B) Quote-faking.

    Can’t be A), because too many other people are allowed to get away with that, provided they follow a few stylistic rules.

    In other words her failure was that of being an honest cheat.

    Bottom line: B), though bad, is not the thing killing political discourse. A) is doing that.

    The more this outrage-fest focus on the person of Nancy MacLean, the more it becomes narrowly about the small problem of B).

    Time to broaden the discussion, before the big problem slips away.

    • Jeff R.

      Remember, the book is not titled “James Buchanan Wanted to Put Black People Back in Chains,” it’s “Democracy in Chains.” She’s not just calling people racist, she’s also making claims about a vast right-wing conspiracy to overthrow democracy.

      We have to discredit her in the public’s eyes so we can salvage what remains of Operation…nevermind, I’ve said enough.

      • Sean II

        Good point. Come to think of it Naomi Klein might have a better case for plagiarism than Buchanan would have for libel.

      • HermanStone

        She still hasn’t uncovered our real master, nor learned his true name (which is good because speaking it aloud defeats him by instantly causing the least advantaged members of society to live minimally decent lives).

        Though his true identity is a closely guarded secret, he has many pseudonyms: The Nameless One, Pinochet’s Ghost, Darth Avarice, and The Third Koch.

        Be careful MacClean. Your hard hitting scholarship may wake him from his slumber. And then he will need to feed.

        • Sean II

          She is right to fear us, for we have the power of inception. We can make people think thoughts that would otherwise never have entered their heads.

          Without Buchanan, no one would have wondered why the DMV sucks.

    • King Goat

      “Endless, baseless cries of racism ARE doing that.”

      There may be baseless cries of racism, but when the person complaining about such goes on about how ‘Sub-Saharan Africans’ need to be stop and frisked more because they are constitutionally disposed to crime and ‘Middle Eastern, North Africans’ need to be barred asylum because they are genetically undemocratic, methinks this is like the religious right complaining about being charged with anti-gay bigotry. They don’t hate gays, they just realize their orientations are a sickness and their unions are unhealthy for everyone, why, oh why, are people saying such thing charged with anti-gay bigotry?

      • So, those who argue that gays’ orientations are a sickness and their unions are unhealthy for everyone, etc. are bad people?

        • King Goat

          On those topics, they hold bad views.

          • Factually bad, as in mistaken in truth values? Gays are not sick, and their unions are healthy for at least some?

          • King Goat

            Yes, I don’t think gay people are sick and I don’t think their unions are any more unhealthy than others.

          • Now the words we’re using, “sick,” “healthy,” they can mean many different things. So, in terms of some personal virtue, let’s say, do gays have less of it than straights, all things being equal? I mean, is homosexuality a vice?

          • King Goat

            Let me answer this so: “in terms of some personal virtue, let’s say, do the Russian Orthodox have less of it than other Christians, all things being equal? I mean, is Russian Orthodoxy a vice?”

          • I do not understand this, so please answer yes or no.

            Now: are there any vices at all, or is it impossible to judge such things?

            If there are vices, then your disagreement is the moral evaluation of homosexuality. What makes you confident that you are correct on this matter?

            If there are NO vices (or virtues), then you are arguing that one ought never to judge the character of another person, because any such judgment would be automatically false and equivalent to the (false) “Smith is a sinner, because he prefers vanilla ice cream to chocolate.” Is that plausible?

          • King Goat

            I’m sorry, but I have no obligation to play on your field.

            If I found the Russian Orthodox worldview and lifestyle to ‘have less of some personal virtue, other things being equal,’ what would that mean, in your opinion?

          • If you are refusing to defend yourself, then this little interrogation is obviously over.

            To answer your question, I’d ask you why you thought so. By the way, I’m not Russian Orthodox.

          • King Goat

            What you are doesn’t matter to the question, which you refuse to answer, and then complain that I’m not answering.

          • Ok, the point is, you need some sort of arguments that prove or at least suggest that homosexuality is not a vice and that counter the religious right’s arguments that it is.

            Otherwise, you’re just yelling obscenities at each other, such as indeed “bigot!” And that is boring.

          • King Goat

            OK, my point is, I might think that the Russian Orthodox worldview/lifestyle has ‘less of some personal virtue, other things being equal’ and is unhealthy by some metric. If I’m correct in that view, what does that empower me to do?

          • Avoiding the Russian Orthodox worldview personally? Fraternal correction of others in thrall to this error? Teaching people that the Russian Orthodox worldview is defective and how, as a work of mercy to instruct the ignorant?

          • King Goat

            All that seems reasonable, as it doesn’t involve coercion. Because, I might be wrong about the Orthodox.

          • But how is the religious right coercing gays? If they are not, and if they are correct in their ethics, then they are doing something exactly as reasonable.

            And if they are incorrect about their ethics, I’d like to know why. Such arguments are so rare these days. Mostly shouting.

          • King Goat

            Let’s take the first.

            “as it doesn’t involve coercion”

            Preventing actions available to ‘straights’.

            That’s your answer?

          • What? I am saying that the religious right is not imprisoning gays for gay sex. But that gay sex is not a crime does not entail that it is not a vice. In considering it to be a vice, one is making a moral judgment, but is still abstaining from any government coercion.

          • King Goat

            OK, I think Russian Orthodox contains vices. In considering it to be a vice, one is making a moral judgment, but is still abstaining from any government coercion.

          • Exactly. And that means that the religious right cannot, because of these particular moral judgments, be accused of being un- or anti-libertarian.

          • Peter from Oz

            You make a very good point. Too many of us are willing to attack the person who holds ideas we see as wrong, rather than the ideas themselves. It’s almost as if we are stuck in a melodrama where those who hold certain ideas are villains of the moustache-twirling variety and we are all supposed to be Mr Standfasts who foil the dastardly machinations of the evil-doer by exposing their villainy yto the world.
            Maybe it would be better if people stood up more for their own ideas rather than blackguading the ideas of others.
            The American puritan left, unfortunately has set the tone, in its constant quest to hunt out heresy of the sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, racis, et hoc genus omnes. The left does try to promote one positive idea, the encouragment of ”diversity”. But then the poor wee lefties let themselves down by failing to include diversity ogf thought along with diversity of characteristics.

          • King Goat

            1. Holding the belief that gays are a vice can be very harmful to gays even sans any government coercion it might trigger. As an analogy, racist beliefs sans support for government action certainly harmed blacks in the Jim Crow South.

            2. The religious right doesn’t hold these beliefs apart from government actions. They’d like to deny gays marriage rights, adoption rights, military service rights, etc.

          • 1. Not necessarily, no more than considering alcoholism, habitual lying, or cowardliness to be vices harms alcoholics, liars, and cowards.

            It is just as permissible to argue that homosexuality is a nasty habit as that smoking is.

            2. The things you have listed are not rights but privileges with the state.

            For example, gay marriage consists in gay unions coming to be regulated by the same laws as straight marriage. But that this is a good thing is debatable.

            Military service has the state as the employer, and as such, it is the state’s job to decide who does and who does not qualify as a soldier. A case can perhaps be made that gays do not qualify.

            We do not have a free market in adoption, and the government has the task of determining which households are best for adopting the limited supply of children. (Even under free market, orphanages, etc. would have to discriminate for the sake of the children.) Again, it is not obvious that gay couples are competitive in this regard.

            In any case, whatever you think of these issues, libertarianism proper has no authoritative opinion on them.

          • King Goat

            1. Of course I think those who think homosexuality is a ‘nasty habit’ akin to alcoholism and smoking are wrong. Besides this, I think, say, grocers that decided not to sell to groceries to alcoholics or smokers would be jerks, especially if many other grocers did the same.

            2. If it’s wrong for the government to use outright coercion to combat what might be seen as personal vices I don’t see how it denying privileges it makes available on the basis of perceived personal vices is permissible. As the recent church playground case in the U.S. Supreme Court concluded, denying a group a benefit or privilege is to disfavor them as surely as more directly coercive measures would be.

  • stevenjohnson2

    I thought about a detailed rebuttal of this imaginary “doozy.” But, courtesy of Phil Magness, I submit this evidence that MacLean’s alleged doozy of a misreading of MacLean isn’t a misreading at all. “. I [Murray Rothbard] recognize that there are some merits to the piece: a searching for methodological individualism in political science, an emphasis upon unanimity rather than majority rule, and *a harking back to the constitutional system of 1900 as better than the situation today.*” Yes, Rothbard said “a harking back to the constitutional system of 1900 as better than the situation today.” Magness is aware that Rothbard didn’t have a high opinion of Buchanan’s economics, and vice versa. (I suspect both men were justified, a poetic instance of the happy truth, nobody is always perfect….ly wrong. Anybody can get it right once in a while! ) Magness somehow thinks that Rothbard and Buchanan had to be economic co-thinkers which is sort of like saying Bakunin and Marx had to have the same economics to be part of the same movement. He’s after other another smoking gun, so he overlooks how utterly reasonable it is that someone would read Buchanan that way. So, yes, “harking back to the constitutional system of 1900 as better than the situation today,” is a legit reading. Calling it a “doozy” of a misrepresentation is just wrong.

    Cheating in school exams is most obvious when the students make the same errors, not when they get the answers right. If MacLean’s book really was so outrageous in its misrepresentations, the choir of usual suspects would actually have found good examples by now. Instead, they just quote each other.

    • Rob Gressis

      You think she didn’t misrepresent Cowen?

      • stevenjohnson2

        You’re misrepresenting the BHL posts here, the claim wasn’t that she misrepresented Cowen, the claim was she twisted Cowen around to convey the exact opposite of what he meant. Jason Brennan made that perfectly clear with his illustration. That’s BS, though. Haven’t thought about it any more since I saw that.

        • Rob Gressis

          You seem to understand “misrepresenting” as excluding “twisting X’s words around to convey the exact opposite of what they meant”. I don’t think I agree with that, but I don’t want to die on that hill.

          Also, I didn’t mean to misrepresent the BHL posts here. When you wrote, “If MacLean’s book really was so outrageous in its misrepresentations, the choir of usual suspects would actually have found good examples by now”, I didn’t realize by “choir of usual suspects” you meant only the BHL commenters. Is that what you meant?

          If so, then let’s ignore them for now and focus on Russ Roberts’s piece on how MacLean misrepresented Tyler Cowen. The piece is at this URL:

          Do you deny that Roberts found a misrepresentation of Cowen’s views?

          • stevenjohnson2

            But, that is the hill Jason Brennan chose to die on. It’s Brennan’s version that sparked my interest, because Brennan’s version was such BS, because, no, that’s not what she did. I wouldn’t call Steven Pinker a liar for Better Angels, even though it really has grotesque lapses in scholarship and elementary thinking. I call him a crank.

            And yes, by the choir I do mean people I associate with BHL.

            To answer your specific question, I have a vague impression MacLean was uncharitable towards Cowen…but Cowen appears to be a polemicist, a category it’s hard to justify being charitable to. I’m not planning on reading MacLean’s book, so I wasn’t really interested in that much detail. In the end, the history of private wealth using money to dominate scholarship in its own interests is just that, history. In the end, the supposed “ideas” that Buchanan espoused have to be confronted.

            My guess (EMPHASIZE GUESS!!!) is that MacLean doesn’t believe Buchanan did anything worthwhile and without rich men’s support wouldn’t have amounted to anything. It’s hard to prove a thesis like that, especially since so many people refuse to countenance even thinking about historical contingency (even some who deny determinism, which is illogical, but there you are anyway.) But MacLean is not credentialed in economics or economic history, so she ducks the issue. Whether you deem this—-if my GUESS is remotely correct!—-specialization, sticking to your last, or instead as diplomatic subterfuge at best, a pervasive conclusion offered without evidence that biases every word, a kind of lying, is up to you.

          • First this:

            I thought about a detailed rebuttal of this imaginary “doozy.”

            Then this:

            I’m not planning on reading MacLean’s book

            It’s remarkable how you seem capable of rebutting claims about a book you have no intention of reading.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Not a bit remarkable. The posts here make it easy. You don’t have to buy the car to refute the ad that claims you’ll get laid with that car.

          • In this analogy, the car would be a book, the car company would be MacLean and her publishers, Horwitz would be the one arguing that the company’s claims are incorrect, and you’d be the person stating that Horwitz’s arguments are insufficient to convince you that you can’t get laid with the car.

          • stevenjohnson2

            In this analogy, Horwitz is the dishonest advertiser and you’re the one who says I need to buy the car to argue with him. Your version doesn’t work because in your version I want to buy the car because I believe, yet you are upset because I’m NOT buying the car! Thinking like a libertarian is not a good thing.

            You’re just upset because Horwitz made the claim that MacLean reading Buchanan as approving of 1900 was a doozy, but your very own Phil Magness showed it wasn’t, by citing Murray Rothbard’s specific approval of that point (despite hostility on other matters, which proves this reading wasn’t motivated by hostility.)

            Don’t worry. You guys will keep on quoting each other. For your purposes all that matters is numbers of citations. One man’s scholarship is another man’s claque?

          • A good indicator of how wrong you are is your use of the phrase “your very own Phil Magness.” I don’t know much of anything about Phil Magness, other than the fact that I’ve read some comments of his on Facebook, and they seemed smart. But those were comments unrelated to this issue. I have no idea what his thoughts are here.

            Which is not to say I agree or disagree with Magness, only that he isn’t “my very own.”

            It seems you have no idea why I’m upset — nor even that I am upset. You’ve managed to lower my appraisal of your comments here. If your goal is to make emotional arguments that feel good as you type them, then I guess you’ve done well here. But if your goal is to persuade, you’ve come up a little short, I’m afraid.

          • Sean II

            “Your Very Own Phil Magness” sounds like something that might have been recorded late 80s or very early 90s, in the post-punk pre-grunge interval, by an alt-rock outfit built around The Replacements favorite session drummer. Lotta ready made libertarian rhymes here:

            Under a stationary bandit that cannot not agress,
            ‘Your voice, our choice, somebody else’s largesse’
            Why settle for more when we can strive for less,
            With…our…very own…Phil…Magness [pinch harmonic]

    • Octavian

      Go up and reread the article carefully this time and then try commenting. *Nowhere* in the article is Rothbard mentioned; I don’t know where you’re getting that from. The article is entirely about Buchanan. And Buchanan *obviously* did not say the constitutional system of 1900 was preferable to that of 1960; he said that the optimal restrictions placed on majority decision in 1900 are not the same as the optimal restrictions on majority decision in 1960.

      If I say that the optimal arrangement of a system changes over time, am I calling for the system to be returned to its initial state? Are those two propositions one and the same? No. The answer, very simply, is no.

      • stevenjohnson2

        Jason Brennan?

        The quote is taken from Phil Magness’ blog. As to your and Horwitz’ fiction about what Buchanan “*obviously*” said, argue with Murray Rothbard’s corpse.

        • George Selgin

          Rothbard was himself no slouch when it came to sloppy scholarship; and he was himself a hostile critic of Buchanan. His own “take” on what Buchanan meant can hardly be taken as definitive! What matters, at any rate, is what Buchanan himself said. otherwise you might just as well cite Maclean’s own opinion as “proof” that Buchanan really said what she claims!

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