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.