Steve Horwitz – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com Free Markets and Social Justice Wed, 15 Nov 2017 17:16:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/cropped-site-icon-BHL-32x32.png Steve Horwitz – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com 32 32 22756168 Horwitz review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/09/horwitz-review-nancy-macleans-democracy-chains/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/09/horwitz-review-nancy-macleans-democracy-chains/#comments Wed, 13 Sep 2017 21:11:11 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12029 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...

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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.”

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The Rhetoric of Libertarians and the Unfortunate Appeal to the Alt-Right http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/rhetoric-libertarians-unfortunate-appeal-alt-right/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/rhetoric-libertarians-unfortunate-appeal-alt-right/#comments Fri, 04 Aug 2017 15:48:39 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11976 One of my most clicked-on posts here at BHL was this one on Ron Paul’s newsletters and why they still mattered 20 years after they were published. In that piece,...

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One of my most clicked-on posts here at BHL was this one on Ron Paul’s newsletters and why they still mattered 20 years after they were published. In that piece, I asked the following questions about the way in which racist organizations like Stormfront found Paul worthy of their support:

Even if Ron had never intentionally courted them, isn’t it a huge problem that they think he is a good candidate?  Doesn’t that say something really bad about the way Ron Paul is communicating his message?  Doesn’t it suggest that years of the paleo strategy of courting folks like that actually resonated with the worst of the right?

That was 2011, before the term “alt-right” was in currency and certainly well before the Trump candidacy dramatically reduced the stigma associated with public expressions of nativism, racism, and anti-Semitism.

The paleo-libertarian seed that Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, and Lew Rockwell planted in the 1990s has come to bear some really ugly fruit in the last couple of years as elements of the alt-right have made appearances in various libertarian organizations and venues. Back in February, alt-right hero Richard Spencer stirred up a fuss at the International Students for Liberty Conference in DC after being invited to hang out by a group of students calling themselves the “Hoppe Caucus.” Hans-Hermann Hoppe, long associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute as well as a panoply of racists and anti-Semites, is perhaps the most popular gateway drug for the alt-right incursion into libertarianism.

And within the last couple of weeks, Jeff Deist, president of the Mises Institute delivered a talk to students at Mises University entitled “For a New Libertarian.” In that talk, he knocks down an extended strawman of what he thinks constitutes the libertarianism he wants them to reject – what many might call “left-libertarianism,” including, I suspect, many of us here at BHL. For example:

Because while libertarians enthusiastically embrace markets, they have for decades made the disastrous mistake of appearing hostile to family, to religion, to tradition, to culture, and to civic or social institution — in other words, hostile to civil society itself.

Most controversially, Deist, after continuing to argue that family, faith, and the like are the cultural glue that humans need and that libertarians should focus on, decided to end with:

In other words, blood and soil and God and nation still matter to people. Libertarians ignore this at the risk of irrelevance.

For those who know something about the history of the 20th century, the invocation of “blood and soil” as something that libertarians should recognize as a valid concern and should appeal to should be chilling. That phrase, which has a history going back at least to the 19th century, was central to the Nazi movement and was at the core of their justification for eliminating those people who did not have connections to the German homeland. It remains a watchword of the nastiest elements on the right, as a quick visit to bloodandsoil.org will demonstrate, if your stomach can handle it. That phrase, whatever Deist’s intent, would be very attractive to many among the alt-right, including neo-Nazis and other racists and anti-Semites. One click on the Blood and Soil website above will make that appeal abundantly clear.

Perhaps Deist didn’t know all of that. If so, one would expect a decent person to immediately apologize for using that phrase that way in that context. To my knowledge, no such apology has appeared. On the assumption that he is not, in fact, a Nazi, the explanation left standing is that he and his defenders have no problem using rhetoric that will attract those sympathetic to Nazi-like views about nativism and Jews. It’s that lack of concern about engaging in that sort of rhetoric, if not a positive willingness to do so, that is so troubling here, and it is eating away at the liberal roots of libertarianism.

If I may add a personal note for a moment: I have been in the middle of several Facebook debates over that phrase and Deist’s talk, and I’ve taken quite a bit of abuse from fans of the Mises Institute. Let me take this opportunity to clarify what I did and did not say. Contrary to the assertion many are making, I did not call Deist or people associated with the Institute “Nazis.” None of my Facebook posts did that, nor can I find a comment where I said as much. If I did, I will happily apologize as I do not think Deist is a Nazi.

What I did say is the same point I made about the Ron Paul newsletters: the problem with Deist’s talk, and the Mises Institute more generally, is not that they are Nazis, but that they appear to have no problem with making arguments that are appealing to neo-Nazis and the rest of the unsavory elements of the right. That’s the problem here. Why would supposed libertarians want to engage in a strategy and make use of rhetoric that is clearly a signal to those folks? That’s the same question I asked 6 years ago and matters have only become worse since then.

It’s also amusing that I have become the poster boy for the libertine, universalist libertarianism that they attack, for at least two reasons. First, name a libertarian who has written more about the family and its importance for a free society than I have. My book is explicitly a “non-conservative defense of the family.” For the kind of libertarian who is supposedly hostile to family, I sure spend a lot of time writing professionally about how great it is.

And second, again with apologies for the personal stuff, for the kind of libertarian who supposedly doesn’t care about religion or civil society, I sure do spend a lot of time doing volunteer work for synagogues and schools. I was on the board of my local synagogue in New York for a decade, most of which was as Treasurer. My ex-wife and I were heads of the parents group for the music department at the local school for several years. Sarah and I are deeply involved with our synagogue here in Indianapolis. I’m not about to put my tax returns up on the web, but I’m confident that I give at least as much of my time and money to family, religion, culture, and civil society as do any of the folks who nodded along with Deist’s argument.

As I pointed out with the Paul newsletters, all of this appeal to nativism, racism, and anti-Semitism and the like is in deep conflict with libertarianism’s liberalism. It’s particularly in conflict with the liberal cosmopolitanism of someone like Mises. And the use of Nazi language is especially galling as it was the very “blood and soil” crowd who drove the Jewish Mises out of Vienna.

Instead of this sort of nonsense, we need to recapture libertarianism’s progressive roots in the liberal movement of the 19th century. I put it this way in 2011:

What we need right now is Rothbard’s vision of a free society as sketched in For a New Liberty, but we need it defended better.  More carefully.  More richly.  More empirically.  More humanely. More progressively.  More tolerantly. With better scholarship.  And we have to do it in a way that’s immune to the charge that libertarians don’t care about making the world a better place, especially for the least well off and those historically victimized by the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, or anything else that’s irrelevant to their moral status as human actors.

The writings of the paleolibertarians will continue to stain that project unless and until the rest of the libertarian movement stops trying to apologize for them…

Our history is one of liberal tolerance, universalism, and cosmopolitanism, putting the freedom and harmony of all people ahead of the supposed interests of any parochial sub-group, and especially ones defined by the artificial boundaries of nation-states and their subsets. Libertarians ignore this at the risk of irrelevance.

Finally, one of the most disturbing side aspects of the controversy over Deist’s speech that it revealed how little so many young libertarians know about the Nazis and the Holocaust. I suppose I can understand ignorance of the “blood and soil” reference, but what troubled me more was when I made a joke involving the phrase “work shall set you free” and several commenters had no idea where that phrase came from or why any positive spin on it (as Deist did with “blood and soil”) should be so troubling. Holocaust ignorance is a real problem. And to the degree that young people are attracted to the alt-right out of ignorance rather than pure hatred, combating that ignorance can also serve the purpose of resisting the alt-right incursion into libertarianism.

Because I believe in education, religion, and the importance of the institutions of civil society, and because I believe in putting my money where my mouth is, Sarah and I recently made a donation to the Birmingham (AL) Holocaust Education Center. We made our donation as a tribute to Ludwig von Mises. I invite my fellow bloggers and all of our commenters who share my concerns to consider doing the same. You don’t have to list Professor Mises’s address as the address of the Mises Institute as we did, but you might also consider doing that as an additional touch.

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Hutt on Constitutional Constraints as Protection for the Politically Weak http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/hutt-constitutional-constraints-protection-politically-weak/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/hutt-constitutional-constraints-protection-politically-weak/#comments Thu, 03 Aug 2017 23:42:28 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11971 Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains has been the gift that keeps on giving. Rather than pile on yet another specific error in the book, I want to briefly address one...

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Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains has been the gift that keeps on giving. Rather than pile on yet another specific error in the book, I want to briefly address one of the overall themes through a specific thinker and context she raises.

As co-blogger Mike has pointed out, MacLean is an unreconstructed majoritarian throughout the book. The whole problem with public choice is that it wanted to place democratic majorities in chains. She is unwavering in her commitment to that claim. As many have noted, myself included, it’s a strange position to take for a progressive who presumably supports the Supreme Court decisions in Brown, Loving, Roe, and Obergefell, all of which overturned the work of democratic majorities in a large number of states.

MacLean also charges public choice with racism, as she sees its desire to chain those majorities as a way of locking in the privileges of the rich, white, elite by denying the progressive forces of history on the side of the majority from creating the policies and institutions they wish to. She also argued that the context of 1960s Virginia was one in which it was easy for Buchanan and others to signal that racism in subtle ways, hence the way she sees his argument for competition in schooling as opposition to Brown.

At one point, she invokes Buchanan’s invitation to the South African economist W. H. Hutt to spend the 1965-66 academic year at UVA as evidence for her broad thesis by pointing to Hutt’s work that was critical of unions. She sees this as evidence of Buchanan’s defense of the privileges of wealth. What she fails to note, as several others have pointed out, was that Hutt was a vocal and early critic of apartheid and compared it to the segregation in the US south. And part of his criticism of unions was the role that white unions had played in both privately coercing black workers in South Africa and then using the power of the state to put apartheid into law. If Buchanan was really such a racist and defender of segregation, why would he invite Hutt and have him speak on those issues?

During the winter he was at UVA, Hutt published an article entitled “South Africa’s Salvation in Classic Liberalism” in Il Politico (Vol. 30, No. 4, December, pp. 782-795). What’s particularly interesting in light of MacLean is this paragraph where he discusses the origins of apartheid (emphasis mine):

But very soon in the development of the mining industry, fears began to arise that the Africans might one day claim the right to perform many of the tasks which had hitherto been the preserve of the Whites. It is hardly surprising that, in the early years of the present century, the full strength of the white labour union movement came to be used to check a gradual dissolution of customary obstacles to African employment in work involving skill or responsibility. By means of violent strikes, the labour unions demonstrated the private coercive power which the State had allowed them to acquire. The white miners formed an important portion of the electorate; and far from the State taking steps to suppress private coercion, before long it substituted its own coercion for that of the labour union, through the Mines and Works Act of 1911. Known as the first “Colour Bar Act”, it was the first to embody explicitly the principle which has recently become known as “job reservation.” It illustrates, therefore, (a) what the “classic liberal” must regard as the reprehensible passivity of the State when confronted with private coercion by a politically favoured group, and (b) the tendency of the State to discriminate directly in favour of the politically strong (whether majorities or minorities) in the absence of effective constitutional restraints.

What’s worth noting here is that Hutt’s case for constitutional constraints is that they prevent the powerful from preying on the weak, which is precisely the opposite of MacLean’s view. What enabled the powerful whites in South Africa to use the state to oppress the blacks was not the existence of constitutional constraints but their absence. In both of his final observations there, Hutt takes the side of the politically weaker and oppressed blacks against the powerful whites. This is certainly not the picture of libertarianism that MacLean draws in her discussion of Buchanan, public choice, and the Koch brothers.

This is the scholar Buchanan chose to visit UVA in the mid-1960s: a long-time opponent of apartheid who had been hounded for his views and who understood that public choice was an effective tool to prevent the exploitation of the politically weak by the politically powerful. This perspective is consistent with public choice’s description of the role of constitutional rules and Buchanan’s life-long commitment to a world without discrimination or domination.

Nancy MacLean’s overarching narrative of public choice’s call for constitutional constraints as a road map for the powerful to acquire and maintain power over the powerless gets matters completely backward. Hutt’s invitation to Buchanan’s Jefferson Center and the talks he gave and the papers he published while there are further evidence of her complete misreading of her subject matter.

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A Devastating Review of Nancy MacLean’s Book on the Klan http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/07/devastating-review-nancy-macleans-book-klan/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/07/devastating-review-nancy-macleans-book-klan/#comments Wed, 12 Jul 2017 19:54:50 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11930 Good fortune has brought me a review of Nancy MacLean’s 1994 book on the KKK. If you think Mike Munger’s review of the new book was devastating, this is worse....

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Good fortune has brought me a review of Nancy MacLean’s 1994 book on the KKK. If you think Mike Munger’s review of the new book was devastating, this is worse. And the author of the review has no Koch connections whatsoever. Plus, do the quotations below from the reviewer sound familiar?

“Leaving Athens behind, MacLean roams the country picking out statements that fit her case that the Klan was radical and violent. if someone connected with the Klan claimed to be a devotee of the Constitution and only against lawbreakers, particularly those associated with Demon Rum, MacLean doesn’t believe him, does not bother to examine his motives or statements, and does not herself set forth any rule of interpretation that enables one to determine when Klansmen were speaking from the heart and when they were dissimulating. Perhaps all of their Main Street platitudes were self-conscious lies, but on what basis can we conclude that?…

Her argument is circular and ahistorical. It is circular because a lack of evidence is said to be proof of the Klan’s power to suppress it, and that alleged power is then hold to imply that there must have been much more violence than there is evidence to support.”

I have tried hard to treat her as a serious scholar who went off the rails with the Buchanan book, but now we seem to have a pattern here: cherry-picking evidence, circular reasoning, ascribing conspiratorial power to organizations when she lacks supporting evidence, and a refusal to grant any legitimacy to her sources’ own words. It’s the same pattern we see in Democracy in Chains

And this reviewer, again, has no taint of Koch, yet found all the same sorts of problems.

As they say, read the whole thing.

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The Ethics of Funding Disclosure and the Argumentum Ad Kochum http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/07/ethics-funding-disclosure-argumentum-ad-kochum/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/07/ethics-funding-disclosure-argumentum-ad-kochum/#comments Wed, 12 Jul 2017 15:57:30 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11925 A question for my colleagues in ethics and related areas: what are the obligations to disclose funding sources and possible conflicts of interest in an academic setting? Some are obvious:...

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A question for my colleagues in ethics and related areas: what are the obligations to disclose funding sources and possible conflicts of interest in an academic setting?

Some are obvious: if I write a study on smoking funded by a tobacco company or on climate change funded by ExxonMobil, the obligation is clear. The principle here is that the results of the study could have a direct effect on the sponsor’s financial situation, which at least gives a reason to be suspicious of the study (though not to reject it out of hand). That suspicion would seem to require disclosure.

But what about those of us who have taken money from and worked with Koch-funded organizations? Here are several scenarios and I wonder what the ethical obligation is in each to disclose that we are have connections to Koch funding:

  1. A Koch-funded organization gives me money to conduct a specific study on an area of the economy in which Koch Industries is a participant (e.g., the energy sector).
  2. A Koch-funded organization gives me money to conduct a study on an area of the economy in which Koch Industries is not a participant (e.g., a study on Uber).
  3. I am the PI for a Koch-funded grant for student programs at my institution and I write a scholarly or popular article defending the Kochs’ investments in higher education.
  4. I am the PI for a Koch-funded grant for student programs at my institution and I write a popular article criticizing a book critical of the Kochs for getting aspects of the Kochs’ beliefs or activities wrong.
  5. I have a history of working with and being funded by Koch-funded organizations and I write an article or blog post defending public choice theory, economics in general, or libertarian ideas in general, with no reference to the Kochs, from attacks by a book that criticizes any or all of those as well as the Kochs.

It seems to me that I have an obligation to disclose my Koch relationships in cases 1, 3, and 4 for sure. I am not persuaded I need to do so in cases 2 and 5.

If there’s no clear relationship between the work and the bottom line of the Kochs, why is there a need for disclosure?

Case 5 is of interest at the moment because of the controversy over Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. Her defenders have invoked the “argumentum ad kochum” in their responses claiming that the Koch connections of the critics undermine the legitimacy of their criticisms. They also claim that we are being deceptive in not revealing those connections.

Again, I can be persuaded I’m wrong here, but it’s simply not clear to me why a defense of public choice theory, or an attempt to show that aspects of MacLean’s book that have nothing to do with the Kochs and have everything to do with her misreading of the textual and historical evidence about the work of various scholars, especially James Buchanan, require that I state my Koch connections. (I have no problem doing so, but the question is whether it’s an ethical obligation.)

It strikes me that one reason MacLean’s defenders think we have an obligation to disclose and that those relationships undermine our arguments is that they believe that any argument for freer markets or critical of government intervention is ipso facto “pro-business” and therefore enhances the bottom line of Koch Industries. So, by definition, defending things like public choice theory or Austrian economics are suspect because everyone knows that the biggest beneficiaries of a free economy are the owners of capital. Therefore, we are simply shills for the Kochs and should disclose that.

If I’m right, this only adds to my view that the MacLean book is one long exercise in question begging. She already knew libertarianism is wrong. She already knew free markets benefit “oligarchs” exclusively. She already knew that people who like markets must be racists. I could go on. Once you take those as your operating assumptions, it’s easy to find, often creatively, evidence their favor. Your priors will adequately be supported by a combination of confirmation bias and the conviction that you are fighting off the forces of evil. But it all begs the questions as she assumes her conclusions.

In any case, I’m genuinely curious how others see this set of issues. I’m totally open to persuasion about the obligation to disclose on cases 2 and 5. I only ask that the comments stay civil. It does no one any good to give fuel to the cause of MacLean and her defenders.

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The Butcher with a Smile – More Mangling from Nancy MacLean http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/07/butcher-smile-mangling-nancy-maclean/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/07/butcher-smile-mangling-nancy-maclean/#comments Sat, 01 Jul 2017 16:49:28 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11904 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...

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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.

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MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/06/maclean-nutter-buchanan-universal-education/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/06/maclean-nutter-buchanan-universal-education/#comments Wed, 28 Jun 2017 20:26:22 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11892 Finding examples of misleading, incorrect, and outright butchered quotes and citations in Nancy MacLean’s new book about James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains, has become the academic version of Pokemon Go this...

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Finding examples of misleading, incorrect, and outright butchered quotes and citations in Nancy MacLean’s new book about James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains, has become the academic version of Pokemon Go this week. I now offer one small contribution of my own, plus a few other thoughts about one piece of her argument.

For those unfamiliar, MacLean argues that Buchanan’s work, and public choice, more broadly, emerged in highly segregated Virginia in the shadow of Brown v. Board of Education as a way to attack the expansion of federal government power and defend the elitist Southern Agrarian privileges of a white plutocracy. Their program of limiting absolute democracy and majority rule through constitutional provisions (a truly bizarre and radical idea, I realize) was grown in the soil of segregation. She paints Buchanan and the whole public choice tradition as enemies of democracy who have now joined forces with the Koch brothers in a stealth, fifth column attack on American democracy in particular. Putting aside that there is no documented connection between Buchanan and the Southern Agrarians, a connection that makes no sense anyway given Buchanan’s commitment to analytical egalitarianism, is there any truth to the claim that the Brown v. Board context was even relevant?

MacLean argues there is, and bases that on a 1959 paper by G. Warren Nutter and Buchanan titled “The Economics of Universal Education” in which they lay out a number of ways that universal education could be provided, including via a Friedman-style voucher system. They describe the different characteristics of the alternative systems, and clearly conclude that “the public must choose which characteristics it prefers” (9). They add “As economists we do not presume to make a choice of one system over another…Our purpose is to lay bare the facts as we see them, so that they will receive their due weight in any decisions that will be made through the democratic process” (11).

Hardly enemies of democracy in the paper, Nutter and Buchanan see their task (as Buchanan did for his whole career) as offering analyses that could inform the deliberations of the democratic process, both at the level of the constitutional rules and the games that take place within those rules. Nutter and Buchanan also reject, as Buchanan always did, any privileged role for the economist in that process: “Each citizen speaks for himself on such matters, and each citizen’s opinion weights as heavily as any other’s, no matter what his position in society – whether farmer, lawyer, educator, or minister” (1). Hardly the words of an anti-democratic elitist plutocrat.

MacLean sees this paper as an attempt by the two scholars to undermine public education in Virginia in order to keep the effects of pre-Brown segregation while still complying with the law. That is, she sees it as evidence of the racism at the core of arguments for free markets and public choice analyses of the failures of government. This is despite the fact that Nutter and Buchanan explicitly defend a role for government in education, including “compelling attendance, fixing minimum standards, and financing cost” (3). They also never mention race in the paper, as she acknowledges, but their use of the technical language of economics and their race-neutrality is seen by her as evidence of their attempt to generate racist outcomes by stealth. (As is often the case with conspiracy theory-style thinking, the evidence against the conspiracy is actually evidence for it.)

One might also note that supporting Brown also means that one is thwarting the desires of democratic majorities, at least at the state and local level. For all of MacLean’s ringing defenses of majority rule and the importance of the democratic process, it’s fascinating that she sees the foundation of the arguments of democracy’s supposed opponents as a rejection of a Supreme Court decision that told local and state majorities that they couldn’t have the segregated schools they wanted.

One might also note that the argument Nutter and Buchanan make is nearly identical to that of J. S. Mill in On Liberty. Is Mill, who was arguably among the 19th century’s great opponents of racism and supporters of analytical egalitarianism, now also to be seen as a secret racist with a plan to subvert democracy?

Toward the end of the paper, Nutter and Buchanan respond to numerous objections to a voucher plan. One criticism at the time was that it would harm education and drive employers out of the state. In MacLean’s summary of their response, she writes (67):

Corporations would not care who ran the schools, they said, as long as good education was available. “All that matters” for the economy, the two scholars maintained, was that the state government support some school system “cheaply and efficiently.” How that schooling was provided was immaterial.

Note the way in which the quoted material makes it appear as though what Nutter and Buchanan were saying was that it would be good if governments supported school systems “cheaply and efficiently,” nicely fitting her narrative (and that of many on the left) that libertarians just want to reduce spending on education. They don’t care much about kids actually getting educated. (She says as much in the book in several places.)

Here’s the actual passage from the Nutter and Buchanan paper (17-18), which is more subtle and has a different meaning than MacLean suggests:

Other things equal, communities with good, efficiently run schools will be more attractive to employees, actual and prospective, than other communities. But we fail to see what this has to do with who runs the schools, whether a state agency or private parties. We doubt that there is a strong attachment to state schools, as such. If a mixed system of private and state schools provides universal education at least as cheaply and efficiently as a pure system of state schools, this would seem to be all that matters.

MacLean takes “cheaply and efficiently” to refer to the level of state support provided. Nutter and Buchanan clearly use that phrase to refer not to the level of state support per se, but to the ability of any system to use resources wisely to produce a given quality of education. Her reading makes it seem like Nutter and Buchanan think that “all that matters” is that state support be “cheap and efficient.” But what they are clearly arguing is “all that matters” is which system delivers the desired level of universal education using the fewest resources.

Nutter and Buchanan are using the economist’s notion of efficiency – how to generate a desired outcome at least cost – whereas MacLean can only think in terms of a supposed desire to spend a little as possible in and of itself. The “least cost” and therefore most efficient system might be one that spends more in absolute terms if it generates a higher level of a highly desired output. A system that spent twice as much on education but got three times the quality/quantity of education as the next best system might be “cheaper and more efficient” if we value education highly enough as compared to other uses of those resources. Again, Nutter and Buchanan are not saying to use as few resources as possible in and of itself; they are asking which alternative system of education gives us the most bang for the buck. And they want “the democratic process” to decide which one we should adopt. MacLean’s selective quoting does not allow the reader to see the full context of Nutter and Buchanan’s argument.

Is the idea that we should provide a given quality and quantity of a valuable good or service using the least valuable resources possible really that shocking or hard to understand?

This is an example of a running problem with the book. MacLean has, by her own admission, very little knowledge of economics. In addition, her knowledge of Buchanan’s system of thought comes mostly from his autobiography Better than Plowing, The Calculus of Consent, and two secondary sources that are highly critical and have their own problems of good faith interpretation. In the most generous reading, she is misunderstanding arguments and chopping up quotes because she simply doesn’t understand what Buchanan and his collaborators are up to. In the least generous reading, she has a theory and she’s going to cut up the evidence to fit that theory. If one believes that modern libertarians are the enemies of democracy, progress, equality, and all that’s good in the world, and MacLean clearly does, then the evidence will always be read, and sometimes constructed, in ways that support the argument on the side of the angels.

Unfortunately, anyone who takes the time to read the actual sources she’s working from, or who understands public choice theory, can see this exercise for what it is: a travesty of scholarly standards (no, Charles Dickens’ novels do not count as data about the economic conditions of the 19th century) and a smear job on one of the great minds of the 20th century.

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In Appreciation of Hans Rosling http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/02/appreciation-hans-rosling/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/02/appreciation-hans-rosling/#comments Wed, 08 Feb 2017 19:04:31 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11582 Many of us here at BHL were big admirers of Hans Rosling. As you probably know, he passed away from pancreatic cancer yesterday. Sarah and I have posted an appreciation...

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Many of us here at BHL were big admirers of Hans Rosling. As you probably know, he passed away from pancreatic cancer yesterday. Sarah and I have posted an appreciation of him over at FEE that many BHL readers might enjoy.

RIP Hans. You made the world smarter and you helped us to appreciate just how far humanity has come.

Here’s a snippet:

“The story of his life and career can be found both at Wikipedia and in this marvelous Nature profile. What those sources cannot quite convey is Rosling’s importance as a role model for intellectual honesty, personal warmth and charisma, and a willingness to go where the facts took him, regardless of whether those facts adhered to any simplistic political narrative of humanity’s past and future. Both Rosling’s intellectual fearlessness and the substance of his work have importance for those who care about human freedom and progress.

But it isn’t just the content of Rosling’s work that matters. He was an amazing rhetorician. He had a unique ability to use and present data in easy to understand and visually appealing ways that were very effective at conveying an argument. He also was able to think creatively about the linkages among the various causes of wealth and the improvements they made in human well-being. His natural storytelling ability gave him the capacity to put those complex historical factors into narratives that not only got the history right, but did so in a way that appealed to our shared humanity.

Rosling’s work opens up countless useful discussions of the importance of economic growth for increases in life expectancy, as well as what exactly concerns us about growing inequality.”

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Liberalism in the Balance http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/01/liberalism-in-the-balance/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/01/liberalism-in-the-balance/#comments Fri, 27 Jan 2017 15:43:49 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11536 What the new president has done in his first few days in office has hardly been surprising, even as it’s profoundly horrific. What has surprised me is the reaction by...

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What the new president has done in his first few days in office has hardly been surprising, even as it’s profoundly horrific. What has surprised me is the reaction by some libertarians, including at least one libertarian educational institution in a mass email, which has been along the lines of “well he’s doing some good things too and you can’t ignore them.” They then point to his desire to get rid of the ACA and several of his Cabinet and other appointments that suggest there will be deregulation (e.g. Betsy DeVos, Andrew Pudzer, Scott Pruitt, and Tom Price). Or they point to his talk of tax cuts. So, they argue, libertarians should be acknowledging the good stuff and taking advantage of an opporutnity here for positive change instead of just seeing Trump as Cheeto Mussolini.

They couldn’t be more wrong in my view. What they fail to recognize is that the Bad Things that Trump is doing are Very Bad Things and that the Good Things they are hoping for are both much less important than the Very Bad Things and much less likely to happen. One friend has created a ledger document that lists the good on one side and the bad on the other. The problem with that ledger is that it is unweighted. A small tax cut, or freezing the minimum wage are, in my view, an order of magnitude less morally important than authorizing torture, suggesting Muslim registries, closing the border to refugees, ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law, revving up the US war machine, trying to muzzle the media, building a wall, undoing decades of peace and prosperity-enhancing global trade, threatening to send troops to Chicago, and so forth.

I am as much of a radical libertarian as anyone, but I cannot fathom how self-described libertarians can think that marginal tax cuts, lighter FDA regulation, or even getting rid of the ACA (all of which I think would be welcome) even come close to balancing out the illiberal and inhumane policies listed above. The power given the state in those items in Trump’s agenda are a fundamental threat to liberalism and to domestic and global peace.

He is a baboon flinging shit at the liberal tradition and the liberal order, while some libertarians sit around, covered with it, thinking that the drink of water he’s promising them later somehow offsets it.

Why some, and I emphasize this is just “some,” libertarians have adopted this view is what puzzles me. I have several possible explanations:

  1. Too many libertarians are too focused on economics and are less concerned with other parts of the liberal order, especially the formal and informal political institutions that are equally necessary for a free society. It’s not just the anarchists here, but rather a large blind spot about the politics of liberalism and the nature of its institutions and their functions that affects even those who see a role for the state. This is a missing element of the contemporary liberal intellectual tradition as co-blogger Jacob has pointed out.
  1. Too many libertarians hate the left more than they love liberty. One response I’ve heard to my pushing back on their take on Trump is that “well Obama/Clinton was/would have been worse!” No, actually he wasn’t and I don’t think she would have been. Yes, they might have expanded the regulatory state, but there would be no revival of torture, no wall, no registry, no trade war, no attempt to muzzle the media, etc.. Trump is a tin-pot dictator wannabe (and startingtobe), without an ounce of knowledge or respect for constitutional limits on government, who threatens the foundational institutions of the liberal order. Obama was not. Clinton is not. I confess to some schadenfreude myself as the left squirms in the aftermath of a defeat they didn’t see coming. But every time Trump opens his mouth, the fundamental threat to liberty he and his supporters embody overwhelms that. Now, more than ever, libertarians need good-hearted, open-minded people on the left as allies in an attempt to preserve the things we agree on. We should never let our frustrations with the left become more important than preserving the liberal order.
  1. I suspect too that for some libertarians, there is indeed a kind of “America first” attitude going on here. Notice that almost everything on the “plus” side of the ledger are policies that primarily affect Americans. School choice, ending the ACA, deregulation at the FDA or Labor, and even tax cuts are policies that pretty much exclusively affect Americans. On the other side, torture, trade, immigration, refugees, and war are things that have major effects on citizens in the rest of the world. Dammit, libertarians, they count too. The liberal vision has always been a global, cosmopolitian one, and there are no grounds for saying the interests of Americans trump (as it were) those of the rest of the globe.

And here is where the weighting issue returns: the gains to the rest of the world from being able to trade with Americans and emigrate, or get refugee status, here, are enormous. Freeing up the global movement of goods, services, and people is the single most valuable thing we could do to reduce global poverty and improve the lives of billions. The lost opportunities to do so that will come from raising trade and immigration barriers represent a welfare loss far greater than the gains that would come (if they even happen) from marginal cuts in taxes or regulation. As important as school choice, for example, is to poor Americans, the opportunity to sell goods and services in the US market or migrate here for work is far more valuable to the rest of the globe.

No libertarianism worth its name should ever accept those kinds of fundamental restrictions on the rights of humans, and their freedom to peacefully provide for themselves and their families, in exchange for the pot of gruel of the promise of some tax cuts and deregulation.

Nor should any libertarianism worth its name think for a second that there is some sort of equal moral weighting between those promised economic policies and the return of state-sponsored torture, or troops in the streets of Chicago, or cozying up to Putin, or saber-rattling with the rest of the world.

There’s no moral equivalence here. There are just a whole lot of Very Bad Things that are really happening right now. You can create all the balance sheets you want, but if you don’t understand that some things are far more important than others, you are not blind like the impartial scale of justice, but blind instead to the future of liberalism that hangs in that balance.

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Libertarians and the Left http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/11/libertarians-and-the-left/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/11/libertarians-and-the-left/#comments Wed, 16 Nov 2016 18:56:32 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11413 I posted this to Facebook a bit ago and share it here unedited: I am mystified by people who think it’s a horrible idea for libertarians to try to work...

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I posted this to Facebook a bit ago and share it here unedited:

I am mystified by people who think it’s a horrible idea for libertarians to try to work with the left on issues of common concern. The long-standing attempt by many libertarians to work with the right has brought us such loveliness as alt-right assholes calling themselves libertarians, people who don’t understand that freedom of movement and contract applies across political boundaries, people who wish to bomb innocent brown people in the name of supposed liberty, and the perception that we are all a bunch of Gordon Geckos who just like to smoke dope.

Yeah, that work with the right has been really successful….

Look, Johnson and Weld courted the left and did better than any other LP candidates ever. The causal relationship might be weak there, but let’s at least explore it. And the menace that is Cheeto Mussolini demands that those of us who care about liberty and limits to state power work with all reasonable people who share those concerns on specific issues.

Plus, as I’ve argued over and over: the history of classical liberalism and libertarianism is that we came from the left. We have a progressive heritage. If libertarianism means anything, it’s that we understand that markets and cultures are dynamic, emergent orders that lead to human progress for all, and globally. In the 19th century, classical liberals were on the “right side of history” pretty much up and down the line. There is nothing in libertarianism that should make us hesitate about working with the left on issues of shared concern.

What is it about the status quo that we want to conserve?

“The liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” – Hayek, “Why I am Not a Conservative”

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