Libertarianism, Democracy

Horwitz review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains

The published version of my review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is now available at the Cato Journal. The main argument:

“In the rest of this essay, I will briefly review her errors of fact and interpretation but will then shift my focus to what I think is the most fundamental problem with the book: MacLean’s inability to understand the ideas with which she is grappling. She starts by assuming, rather than demonstrating with evidence, that libertarian ideas are all about defending power and privilege. In combination with her inability to understand the contexts and questions that Buchanan and public choice theory were grappling with, her book became a massive exercise in confirmation bias resulting in misread and misinterpreted sources and factual claims unsupported by those sources. She had her story about libertarianism and, absent the intellectual tools to understand what she was reading, she interpreted her sources in ways that confirmed all of those prejudices. The result is a book that gets almost everything wrong, from the most basic of facts to the highest of theory.”

Published on:
Author: Steve Horwitz
  • Sean II

    You know, one unexplored aspect of the Nancy MacLean affair is…

    I’m just kidding. There isn’t one.

    • Rob Gressis

      How about this: why has her book gotten so much attention from libertarians? Is it because it’s a major book? Or some other reason?

      • Sean II

        Because we’re a naive bunch and, after enduring years of disingenuous criticism from people who evade our arguments in favor of ad hominem, we got all excited to catch one of them bushwhacking away with red hand and smoking gun.

        As if that discovery would matter to anyone but us. Ha!

        Reminds me…when I was in prep school the headmaster’s wife was this despised hag who handed out Saturday detention at the slightest excuse, most often coincidentally when the grounds around her residence needed work.

        One day after an especially bad episode a couple earnest geeks (neither of whom had ever been punished before) stumbled on a passage in the school handbook limiting disciplinary power to “faculty and administration” (the obvious intent being to make sure these little rich brats never suffered correction from the likes of a cook or janitor).

        But of course the headmaster’s wife was neither faculty nor admin. She just happened to live there.

        They had her, dead to rights! All those detention sentences were clearly invalid. They had only to cite the passage, then sit back and watch the adults eat crow. It was gonna be so sweet.

        You can guess what happened next. It transpired that some years ago, before any of us were around, this woman had done a bit of substitute teaching in French and English. She was still available for such duty, it’s just that the school hadn’t needed to call in her services for a decade or so. The fact that she didn’t draw a salary, have an office, or appear on any of the teaching rosters was just a reflection of her modesty, her desire not draw any more attention to herself than that required by her already prominent role as hostess and mother to the institution. But that most praiseworthy self-denial did not change the fact that she was faculty, after all.

        Spoiler: the kids lost, the school won, and by dusk on Saturday the headmaster’s wife had her pool skimmed, her garden weeded, her hedges mulched, and her stepping stones reset.

        Libertarians are like those kids. We think it matters that we caught some nasty old bitch doing wrong to one of our friends. But it doesn’t.

        Because they have the power. In MacLean’s particular field the ratio is 32 to 1.

        We can find all the misquotes we like, but the long run Buchanan and Public Choice will become eligible for the “some have suggested…it’s all a cover for racism” treatment.

        Not that this matters, particularly, for sooner or later all inconvenient men of the past will end up in one of two categories: racists, and people who didn’t do enough to combat racism.

        • A. Alexander Minsky

          John Brown might be an exception. The wild eyed abolitionist could be considered “inconvenient”, but he certainly did quite a bit to “fight racism”.

          • Sean II

            John Brown? Sheeeeit. White saviorism at its worst.

            And if not that, I’m sure he was bad on LGBTQ equality.

            He did, after all, assault a Ferry.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            Maybe Brown thought the Ferry would fight back, and he could speed up the events of Stonewall by over one hundred years.

          • Sean II

            Chrononavigation is the highest form of wokeness.

            Which is to say, it’s the only acceptable form of wokeness.

            No one who truly cares about social justice would be content to remain in a problematic age.

          • Theresa Klein

            It’s historically rather well known that Browns attack on Harper’s Ferry in fact precipitated the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.


            So maybe he DID speed things up…

          • Farstrider

            He did, after all, assault a Ferry.

            You should be ashamed of yourself. Take my upvote.

      • CJColucci

        I wasn’t planning to read it, and I still don’t plan to read it, but I suspect that more people will read this book precisely because of the criticism. And even if people don’t read it, the book, and what the critics, at least, seem to believe are its central contentions, will be on more people’s radar than would otherwise have been the case. People who had no idea about, or interest in, Buchanan or his racial views now know that there is a “controversy” about him and them.