You may be aware that the new book by Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Viking, 2017) has received a lot of notice over the past week or two. Some of this notice has been very positive, but much more has been sharply critical, attacking MacLean’s scholarly credibility. Most but not all of this negative response has been from scholars who identify as libertarians.

Some of my colleagues and I at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog are planning a roundtable to discuss Democracy in Chains as a work of intellectual history, in large part because we feel that the critiques of MacLean’s work have not adequately engaged with its core arguments and because these critiques often seem unfamiliar with the “best practices” of intellectual history. There is likely some interdisciplinary miscommunication here.[1]

But there remain quite a number of criticisms which I personally feel are simple misreadings of MacLean’s arguments and method. Let me be clear: I don’t speak for MacLean. Nor is this post intended to stand in for an exposition of the book. But there has yet to be any substantive pushback to the critiques that have been advanced so far, and many of her detractors have taken that silence as proof that their arguments have incontestable merit. I disagree. This post, then, is intended simply to answer some of the more prominent lines of attack on MacLean and on the book; please watch this space for further discussion of the book itself.

Because of the volume of responses to MacLean and her book, I’m going to proceed synthetically and use representative examples of particular kinds of critiques rather than sort through an itemized list containing each separate charge. I think there are a few basic recurrent lines of attack, and my response can be generalized over each ] instance, but if you feel that there are important criticisms that I have not answered or addressed, please link them in a comment and I’ll do my best to respond to them as well.

Okay, here we go.

To me, there are three basic areas where people have had problems with MacLean and her book. The first is with her characterization of Buchanan — his motives and vision of society and his character. The second is closely related and has to do with her analysis of the political import of Buchanan’s ideas and whether they are really so consonant with or integral to the political projects she links them to. The third area of critique has to do with her handling of her sources. Specific accusations are either that she makes up connections in order to tarnish Buchanan or others or that she alters quotes in such a manner as to make them mean something different from (and much more sinister than) what they actually mean.

Reading most of the responses (I may have missed some) and talking with some of her critics on twitter, I feel that many readers have taken MacLean’s objective in the book to be some kind of character assassination of James M. Buchanan and, to a much lesser but still important extent, of Tyler Cowen. Few if any of the responses have directly challenged her characterizations of Charles Koch or of Gordon Tullock, who are also important figures in her story — Koch especially so. I can say anecdotally that this likely has something to do with the warm regard many economists have for Buchanan (and Cowen) personally and for the great admiration they have for his work. The silence surrounding her attack on Koch might be because by now such attacks are expected, or it might reflect some of the underlying divisions among libertarians — not all think that Koch has been good for the cause.

Buchanan, however, seems to me to be a more universally respected figure among libertarians. I would speculate that one of the seeds for why there is such a backlash among economists to MacLean’s book is that they see her attack coming out of nowhere and targeting someone they think of as a good person. Buchanan died in 2013. Lots of people in the profession knew him and may feel personally injured by her attack. Again anecdotally and not probatively, I’ve even heard something to the effect of “I just can’t believe he was like that.”

Buchanan the person

So what is it that MacLean says Buchanan was like? A few people have pointed to some passages like the one where she refers to Buchanan as an “evil genius” (42) or where she attributes Cowen’s absence at Buchanan’s funeral to his coldhearted calculation that Buchanan was no longer useful to the Koch network (204), and I’m not going to defend those passages. They’re hyperbolic and sound like a cheap thriller. But I’d argue that they are ornamental excesses rather than structural or logical faults. So she thinks they’re jerks. That’s only a problem if we believe that the whole project is organized for the purpose of proving that Buchanan and Cowen are jerks, and that strikes me as a gross misreading.

The point of the book — the reason that Buchanan and Cowen are even in the darn thing — is their connection to Charles Koch, a connection which is not seriously in doubt, and which MacLean amply proves. What we make of this connection is a slightly separate issue, and I’ll get to it in a second. But the fact of the matter is that MacLean wrote about Buchanan’s ideas because she thinks they are central to the strategy of Charles Koch as it developed from about the mid-1990s on. Understanding those ideas and where they came from, then, helps us understand where that strategy points as an end goal: what kind of society they envision as a good society.

That brings us to why Brown v. Board, John C. Calhoun, and the Agrarians are in the book. To read some of MacLean’s critics, you’d think she dredges up these matters just because she wants to make Buchanan out to be a racist. She addresses that question specifically in this podcast interview with David Stein and Bets Beasley, but the nub of the issue is that Brown, Calhoun, and the Agrarians each speak to more issues than just racism. She makes clear that Brown was worrisome to many Southerners for the total implications of its ruling: states’ rights of all kinds would not be respected. That included, very importantly, states’ ability to overlook census data in making up representational rules for state legislatures—an issue the Court did in fact take up shortly thereafter, upholding a one-person-one-vote principle that forced a wholesale change in the power structure of Virginia state politics. Brown also threatened to constrict the areas where states could set their own labor and environmental laws.

MacLean takes up all of these considerations as part of why Buchanan wanted to fight Brown: her argument is not that he was just a racist and didn’t like integrated schools.[2] For Buchanan and Colgate Darden (the president of UVA, who sponsored Buchanan’s center that MacLean argues was designed to fight Brown), it was the whole complex of issues that were suddenly in play that made Brown so ominous. One of those issues certainly was integrated schools, and MacLean does furnish extensive evidence for the amount of effort that Buchanan put into trying to figure out how to get around the Brown ruling for Virginia’s public schools (see Chapter 4). His frustrations with the difficulty of figuring out how to circumvent this imposition of federal authority, she argues, led to his conceptualization of public choice economics. The argument, let me reiterate, isn’t “he was racist so he invented public choice.” The argument is, he disliked the coercive power of the state that he saw revealed in Brown and its enforcement, and he kept working on the problem of how to fight that power and formulated public choice.

So why is Calhoun in the book? Again, it’s not because she wants to smear Buchanan or libertarianism in a guilt by association maneuver. Besides, the connection between libertarianism and Calhoun is hardly the debatable contention that her critics say it is. I just did a search of the Mises Institute and turned up 220 results — including this article — referring to Calhoun, all positively as far as I can tell. And consider that the same press — the Liberty Fund — which has put out the Collected Works of Buchanan also has published a volume of “Calhoun’s most important constitutional and political writings.” Pointing out the importance of Calhoun to the historical defense of minority property rights isn’t a low blow tactic, it’s a completely defensible argument in intellectual history.[3]

Enough with the arguments that MacLean was trying to smear Buchanan for being a racist. The bigger issue is whether her characterization of Buchanan (and Cowen) as anti-democratic is valid, but that’s as much a question of whether she mischaracterized his ideas as it is a question of whether she impeached his character, so I’ll turn to that part now.

Buchanan’s ideas

What needs to be understood at the outset is that MacLean is not explicit about her definition of democracy but makes it abundantly clear that majoritarianism and reasonable transparency must be fundamental and non-negotiable elements of any adequate definition. You must at least try to convince a majority of people of your views and you must be honest in your representation of what your views really are. If you give up on those two elements, then you’ve crossed the Rubicon and are implementing something basically despotic.

Now, one of MacLean’s key arguments is that Buchanan’s ideas have undermined the centrality of majoritarianism as one of the most basic rules for what constitutes a democratic system, making it simply “one decision-making rule among many possibilities, and rarely ideal” (79). That interpretation of Buchanan’s views on majoritarianism is not really in dispute — in fact, it’s pretty fundamental to his ideas. What is more disputable is whether MacLean’s definition of democracy as so wholly tied to majoritarianism is in some way superior to Buchanan’s — and obviously that’s tough to adjudicate (which was one of Buchanan’s points to begin with, rather ironically). But MacLean’s argument that Buchanan and Koch have ruled out majoritarianism as the bar they must clear to legitimately implement their vision of a good society is pretty straightforward and solid.

As a sidenote, I’ve seen numerous statements that MacLean doesn’t understand public choice, or doesn’t get economics. That’s very interesting, because as she makes clear in the footnotes, her interpretation of public choice borrows heavily from the work of S. M. Amadae. And guess who blurbed Amadae’s first book, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy? “James M. Buchanan, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Economics.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever asked to provide a blurb for a book that is partly about me (fat chance, I know), I’ll probably refuse if I vehemently disagree with the characterization of my ideas.

At any rate, MacLean’s other argument is that Buchanan embraced a policy of implementing piecemeal reforms that individually would not be objectionable but would add up to a state of affairs that would definitely be rejected by a majority of citizens. Keeping the ultimate sum of these piecemeal reforms hidden from voters, then, was a necessary part of achieving them. Take as an example the franchise. It may be difficult to convince a majority of citizens that the goal of reducing the number of people who can vote is a good idea. But it may be not so difficult to convince people that barring people who don’t have the right forms of ID is a prudent measure to combat voter fraud.

I was frankly surprised at the amount of evidence MacLean was able to marshal to prove that Buchanan and Koch advocated this kind of deliberate deception about their ultimate ends. (See, for examples, 117, 120, 142-143, 144, 151.) But the point is, this argument about “stealth” is the one her critics must attack to shake the whole book and I would contend that disproving it would be the most significant way they could demonstrate that she has misunderstood Buchanan’s ideas. I do recognize that most of her evidence for the advocacy of stealth is archival, but this is only a problem if we have reason to doubt that MacLean honestly represents her sources.

Which is how we get to the many attacks on MacLean that she misquotes or distorts quotations to make Buchanan or Cowen seem sinister. Let’s take the Cowen example because it seems to be the one most people are angry about. Here are the facts.

Alleged misquotations

This is the document in question, “Why Does Freedom Wax and Wane?” although there is also a second version available on-line here. (That becomes somewhat important, as you’ll see in a moment.) The crucial sentence in question is — in full — the following: “While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” When MacLean quoted this sentence, she left out the “While” and the “it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” Thus, in her book it appears as “the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome.”

Her critics see this as prima facie evidence of a bad faith effort to distort Cowen’s meaning to make him appear to be anti-democratic. I think that’s immediately debatable, however, because by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic. And that’s what Cowen is doing here: entertaining the possibility that weakening checks and balances could produce a desirable outcome.

Let’s think about it this way. If I said, “While permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome,” what could we conclude? That I was advocating child labor? No, that would be too much. But that I was open to the idea? Yes, that’s a fair reading of the sentence.

And that is certainly the broader context of this sentence in Cowen’s essay. He is evaluating different techniques that would make “market-oriented reforms” easier, and some of those are anti-democratic. He is open to the idea that reductions of democracy could produce positive outcomes. True, he does state earlier that he “explicitly favor[s] more democratic systems,” but he finishes that sentence with a qualifier that, for MacLean, makes all the difference: “In fact, I explicitly favor more democratic systems, despite thinking that market-oriented reforms have been desirable in the cases discussed above.” I think that in MacLean’s opinion, anyone who — as Cowen clearly does — values “market-oriented reforms” above democracy is anti-democratic. Anyone who feels that democracy can be merely a preference will — one might presume — feel no strong constraint against dropping democratic norms when circumstances make doing so advantageous.

Here’s MacLean in a separate passage from page 223, again quoting Cowen:

“The freest countries have not generally been democratic,” Cowen noted, with Chile being “the most successful” in securing freedom (defined not as most of us would, as personal freedom, but as supplying the greatest economic liberty).

That parenthetical is telling: her point is that Cowen’s priorities are, to use a technical term, screwed up. Defining freedom not as political freedom but as having the fewest economic constraints, she’s saying, is a gross distortion of the word itself.

As I said, there are two versions of this paper. The first one I linked to was a revised version of the paper that Cowen put on the web in 2015; the other version is the original and comes from 2000. Cowen places this note on the first page of the revised version:

I don’t these days agree with everything in this piece, so think of it as a time-slice of my opinions and survey methods from back then. In any case, I hope it is still of interest. Some verb tenses and discussions related to time have been changed in minor ways, to avoid sounding strange or incongruous, but otherwise I have left the content as it was.

I haven’t made a page-by-page comparison of the two versions, but the last claim is not quite true; Cowen did do a little editing that changes the meaning of the sentence that MacLean quotes on page 223. In the revised version, he has added “economically” so that it now reads “the economically freest countries have not generally been democratic” (emphasis added).[4]

Now, that is not just a minor change: when Cowen adds “economically” to “freest,” it acknowledges that there are different definitions of freedom and that “economic freedom” is not the only kind that matters. Perhaps this was his intent in 2000, or perhaps his views on the matter have shifted. But the more immediate issue is that MacLean definitely saw the 2000 version that doesn’t say “economically freest” but rather “freest,” and in that version, Cowen appears considerably more absolute in his statement.[5]

Let me be crystal clear here. I’m not saying that I think Tyler Cowen is anti-democratic. Frankly, I haven’t read enough of his work to pass judgment. But I don’t think that MacLean is being inconsistent in portraying him as anti-democratic because the definition of democracy she seems to use is pretty strenuous. The standard she works under in the book is: You don’t get to say that democracy merely works better or is merely a personal preference and still get to call yourself a democrat. You don’t get to say that economic freedom is more important than civil rights and still call yourself pro-democratic.

Whether that’s a fair definition of democracy or of being democratic is something people have been debating for a long time. And in my humble opinion, that — and not some effort to distort the plain meaning of Cowen’s words — is what MacLean is doing here. Absent the assumption that she was out to get Buchanan and Cowen, there are perfectly valid and reasonable ways to read all those supposed misquotations or mischaracterizations that demonstrate not that she’s unprofessional but that she has strong views about what democracy is and that she has held Buchanan and Cowen to that exacting standard. We can argue about her standard, but the attacks on her credibility are meritless.

Andrew Seal teaches economic history at the University of New Hampshire. This review essay originally appeared at S-USIH blog on July 17 2017.

[1] Ironically enough, James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock have a beautiful reflection on the dangers and benefits of interdisciplinary work at the very beginning of Calculus of Consent.

[2] Cf. 19 especially and also the penultimate para on 25. Chapter 3, however, makes the argument in full.

[3] There’s a kind of sub-argument here about whether MacLean can make inferences about the intellectual influence of writers on Buchanan when they don’t show up as explicit references in Buchanan’s published writings. Basically, if Buchanan doesn’t say, “hey, I got the idea of calling the overreaching state Leviathan when I read Donald Davidson,” is it fair to say that there’s still a probable connection given that Davidson was active in the same state Buchanan grew up in at the time of his intellectual formation? I would argue that yes, that’s a permissible inference, but not one that you should rest other important arguments on. (Which MacLean doesn’t.) I’m pretty sure that I have all kinds of intellectual influences rattling around in my head that I’ll never think to acknowledge explicitly—but that doesn’t mean that if someone else points them out they’re doing something underhanded.

[4] Because details are important, I want to acknowledge that the sentence begins with the qualifier “In Asia,” but whether this is a restrictive qualifier or not (i.e., if Cowen means that only in Asia is there a negative correlation between economic freedom and democracy or if he only is trying to address the matter at hand) is not clear, particularly since he also discusses non-Asian countries—including—with a similar apparent relation.

[5] Evidence that MacLean saw the second version: she says on 296n60 that her version lacks page numbers. Only one—the 2000 version, the one without “economically”—is unnumbered.

46 thoughts on “The Controversy Over Democracy in Chains

  1. One hardly knows where to start with this sophistry. MacLean should be forgiven for failing to read *any of Buchanan’s work because—wait for it—she read an author whose book Buchanan once blurbed! To call this “intellectual” history is an affront to both history and intellect.

    But that’s not all. We also have this bit of genius:
    “What needs to be understood at the outset is that MacLean is not explicit about her definition of democracy but makes it abundantly clear that majoritarianism and reasonable transparency must be fundamental and non-negotiable elements of any adequate definition. You must at least try to convince a majority of people of your views and you must be honest in your representation of what your views really are. If you give up on those two elements, then you’ve crossed the Rubicon and are implementing something basically despotic.”

    Anti-majoritaianism = anti-democracy = despotism. Except for one minor wrinkle: literally every theorist of democracy since Aristotle rejects majoritarianism. As in, all of them. Hobbes? Locke? Kant? Rousseau? Marx? Mill? Rawls? Habermas? Mouffe? Urbinati? Yes—each and every one, from every tradition: liberal, republican, socialist, deliberative. radical, etc. Buchanan repeatedly and explicitly defended a version of liberal representative democracy. There is plenty to disagree with in his work, but to make him out a proponent of despotism, one would have to refuse to read his actual words. Which MacLean did.

    1. “MacLean should be forgiven for failing to read any of Buchanan’s work because—wait for it—she read an author whose book Buchanan once blurbed!”

      This is not remotely what Andrew Seal argues. Seal actually argues that it’s hard to dismiss Amadae’s interpretation of Buchanan’s work because Buchanan himself praised it. Any serious historical work relies on both primary (Buchanan, in this case) and secondary (Amadae, in this case) sources. The question Seal addresses in the passage on Amadae was whether or not Amadae is a credible secondary source. He isn’t claiming that it would have been okay for MacLean to substitute reading Amadae for reading Buchanan. Nor did MacLean substitute reading Amadae for reading Buchanan. That MacLean disagrees with you and a lot of libertarians about the meaning of Buchanan’s work simply does not constitute evidence that she failed to read Buchanan. And the many quotes from Buchanan’s work and archival papers in her book are rather direct evidence that she read his work. As Seal notes above, that doesn’t necessarily make her arguments about Buchanan correct. Scholars often get things wrong. But the attacks on MacLean for some sort of scholarly malfeasance don’t hold water, which is the point of Seal’s essay.

      1. except that, again, MacLean does *not read* Buchanan, let alone work in public choice. Take a different example by way of comparison. Lydia Liu has written about Lacan’s relationship to cybernetics/information theory. She relies on both primary and secondary sources, as well as lots of biographical details. And throughout, it is amply clear that she *herself has grappled with Lacan’s oevre, which is much more challenging than the fairly pedestrian writings of Buchanan.

        But MacLean gets even the most rudimentary aspects of Buchanan’s project wrong. Almost at random, one finds in the book claims such as that, for Buchanan and his acolytes, “unrestrained capitalism *is freedom.” This is a gross and inexcusable mischaracterization. First, the public choice crowd absolutely did not believe in “unrestrained capitalism,” because 1) they believe in *markets, not the hegemony of big business (the two are sharply at odds in their view; and 2) they explicitly understand that markets must be constructed, often by state action, which in turn must be legitimated in democratic terms. From their point of view, unrestrained capitalism is a vacuous notion.

        In the passage cited, MacLean quotes Buchanan in an interview, not any of his texts. And she *dismisses his words, simply declaring, without argument, that “what this cause really seeks is a return to oligarchy.” How does she make this seem plausible? By linking Buchanan to the Kochs, arguing tendentiously that the Kochs want a return to oligarchy, and then attributing the same belief to Buchanan—in contrast to what he himself says.

        Now, those of us who take economic and democratic thought seriously have a tough enough time grappling with genuine challenges these domains present for projects invested in democracy and social justice. The last thing we need is intellectually lazy and dishonest work to draw public attention and tarnish rigorous attempts to make progress. MacLean is not helping, and neither is defending her shoddy work.

        1. Michael, it is simply not true to say that MacLean has not grappled with the writings of Buchanan: that is evident just by glancing through the footnotes and then flipping forward to the passages in the body of the text to which they refer. If MacLean has not provided the laborious close readings you are looking for, it is simply because she doesn’t need to duplicate the labor of other scholars with whom she is in agreement. That’s customary for all scholars–if you are not introducing a strikingly new point or disagreeing with the interpretation of another scholar, keep your discussion of already covered territory minimal, cite the proper authorities, and move on to the areas where you can break new ground.

          MacLean’s original contributions do not lie in close readings of his texts but in analysis of his movements through various institutional environments and networks of funding. MacLean’s work is therefore a blend of intellectual history and the kind of work that has been done by Kim Phillips-Fein, with more emphasis on the latter part. There’s nothing remarkable or nefarious about this: you just want her to have written a different book.

          As to your gloss on the “unrestrained capitalism is freedom” line, you’ve taken some rather extraordinary liberties with important terms. For one, you’re treating capitalism as if it has an obvious and non-contestable meaning, whereas it seems pretty clear from the (rather tangled) sentence you wrote that you and MacLean would simply define it differently. You also are treating “public choice” and Buchanan as if they were one and the same, but while Buchanan was obviously crucial to the formulation of the subfield, he has not been the only important figure or the only innovator within it. So your statement about what “the public choice crowd” believes seems to me in need of refinement.

          Finally, even if you do simply mean “the Buchanan crowd,” MacLean makes very clear that a weak state incapable of creating and protecting markets is *not* what Buchanan and Koch want. For you to have missed this crucial point says a great deal about how superficially you read the book.

          1. There is obviously a massive difference between a scholarly treatise and a comment on a blog. I’m forced to rely on shorthand here. MacLean has no such excuse.

            *Of course* she *might define capitalism differently; but she does not tell us how. And since her own treatment of Buchanan relies on a very specific view of capitalism that differs from his, this is a massive problem in her text.

            Do I wish she’d written a different book? Only insofar as I wish her book took public choice theory seriously rather than reducing it to a front for pro-business chicanery. The existence and influence of the latter is no excuse for overlooking the former—least of all if you’re going to claim that it’s an ideological façade.

            So, yes, she does say that Buchanan and Kochs want the same thing, which is not free markets. But she has to ignore and invert Buchanan’s actual work to make her case. Kochs like his work because they see in it a congenial project, but they are not fully cognizant of the full import of his actual project. To efface this is to miss the boat entirely.

        2. Your claim that she isn’t reading Buchanan just isn’t true. Looking only at her footnotes from pp. 250-56, I count more than 30 references to his published writings–what you seem to be referring to–and a great many more to his unpublished writings.

          1. Extensive footnotes =/= accurate footnotes or thorough engagement.

            Case in point: she claims to have worked through a large body of Buchanan’s work, but somehow managed to completely miss the ubiquitous presence of Thomas Hobbes.

  2. As I’ve noted in response to this piece, MacLean’s attempt at “intellectual history” falters because she completely misses and then accidentally expunges one of the most important figures in James M. Buchanan’s intellectual framework: Thomas Hobbes.

    Attempting to do an intellectual history of Buchanan without Hobbes is akin to trying to study Kant without Hume, or Aquinas without Aristotle. Hobbes is one of the primary political philosophers that Buchanan engages across his entire body of work. And he’s almost nowhere to be found in MacLean, even though she imports several unsavory characters who Buchanan never once even cited. To call the above an intellectual historian’s defense is a sad farce on the methods of intellectual history, and to call MacLean’s book an intellectual history is to accept a work that’s so careless in its analysis that it completely misses one of THE central influences upon Buchanan’s thinking.

    1. Phil, the last time you wrote about Hobbes and Buchanan, you didn’t make anywhere near this extensive a claim for Hobbes’s indispensability to reading Buchanan correctly; this must have been a recent discovery. You keep moving the goalposts and keep grasping at straws trying to find a way to knock her argument down.

      1. Hi Andy – I must admit that your memory of this discussion is – well – a strange one. I’d simply direct you back to my original piece on MacLean’s book over at HNN, where I stated “Thomas Hobbes, by contrast [to Davidson], is one of the most frequently discussed figures in Buchanan’s works.” I also included an image of the index, which shows about 80-something different hits for Hobbes.

        That was on June 27th and it was the first piece I ever wrote about the book, having just finished reading it that week for an invited book review. I also seem to recall the point coming up in our twitter exchange on the 14th, when I pointed out in no uncertain terms that Hobbes is critical to understanding Buchanan. I’m therefore a bit mystified that you’re now claiming that I’ve either moved the goalposts or made this point as a “recent discovery” since our last conversation.

        That much noted, I’d still be interested in how you justify the complete absence of Hobbes in a book that purports to be an “intellectual history” about a scholar who drew very heavily from Hobbes throughout a 5-decade career.

        1. Well, Phil, it’s pretty simple. There’s a difference between “one of the most frequently discussed figures in Buchanan’s works” and “Attempting to do an intellectual history of Buchanan without Hobbes is akin to trying to study Kant without Hume, or Aquinas without Aristotle.” You had the chance in the first piece to make the case that Hobbes was indispensable to understanding Buchanan but instead you made a much less extravagant claim. In the former piece, your view was not that MacLean’s reading of Buchanan was wrong *because* she did not give proper weight to Hobbes’s influence, but simply that she erroneously attributed his use of “Leviathan” to Davidson’s influence when it should have been attributed to Hobbes. That’s a much more modest claim–again, you’re moving the goalposts.

          1. This is bordering on dishonesty on your part, Andy. I’ve been calling your attention to Hobbes from the moment we first conversed on twitter:

            “My premise is that B’s use of Leviathan is a conscious long running and openly stated engagement with Hobbes. 5:10 PM – 14 Jul 2017”

            “You should read more Buchanan then. His academic work is a multidecade engagement with Hobbes, some of it critical 5:06 PM – 14 Jul 2017”

            “Because he cites it directly to Hobbes several dozen times. 5:01 PM – 14 Jul 2017”

            “Hobbes is all over Buchanan’s works – cited explicitly. 4:40 PM – 14 Jul 2017”

            We can continue down this route if you like, but I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been pretty explicit about the centrality of Hobbes to Buchanan from the beginning. What’s interesting though is that you are still evading the issue.

            How can MacLean claim to do an “intellectual history” of Buchanan when she leaves out one of the central intellectual influences on Buchanan’s thought? And unwittingly at that, seeing as she deleted him in order to make room for Davidson, who Buchanan never once even referenced.

          2. I stated that you’ve changed your claim about the importance of Hobbes to Buchanan, not that you haven’t brought him up or said that he was important. I maintain that any of those statements you just quoted is different from saying that a reading of Buchanan is intrinsically flawed unless Hobbes is a major element of that reading. Comparing Hobbes/Buchanan to Aristotle/Aquinas is an extremely sweeping claim: anyone who did read Aquinas without reference to Aristotle would be missing not some important elements but the basic logic holding the system together.

            Now, if that’s not the claim you’re making for Hobbes’s influence on Buchanan, then I can understand why you think you haven’t changed your story, but I can’t understand why you’d make such an extravagant claim so carelessly and recklessly.

          3. Andy – To be blunt, this is one of the most bizarre exchanges I’ve ever had with someone who claims to be a historian. Your interpretation of my previous statements about Hobbes suffers from several of the same afflictions as your interpretation of MacLean’s unsourced claims about Calhoun and Davidson, which is to say that you breeze past plain and clear language stating X in order to import some alternative interpretation of Not-X. In both cases that which is Not-X not only conflicts with plain and clear statements – it also appears to exist only in your own mind.

            Now, as I said previously, we can certainly continue to go back and forth over what I’ve written about Hobbes. I think the record is clear, and in fact I was pretty much screaming at you to try to get you to take notice of Hobbes’ importance to Buchanan contra Davidson. You brushed it all aside without any evidence and dishonestly accused me of misrepresenting my arguments. And now you’re declining to address a substantive flaw with MacLean’s book. That’s entirely your choice, of course. But you can be certain that I’m not the only one who noticed the absence of Hobbes in her treatment, or that it calls into question her basic competence with her subject matter.

          4. So one cannot discuss Buchanan at all without proving one’s thorough knowledge of Hobbes? As a larger principle, this would radically transform the writing of history, and lead to a sharp decline in publishing history boooks more generally.

          5. You misread me. One cannot credibly assess the intellectual history of Buchanan’s ideas without also recognizing that they are deeply influenced by Thomas Hobbes, and that Buchanan’s works deeply and directly engage Hobbes’ system of thought over the course of several decades of academic work.

            This is not a difficult concept to grasp either, nor does it “transform the writing of history.” It’s actually a core principle of the historian’s method: fidelity to evidence. As an intellectual historian seeks to understand and interpret the ideas put forth by a historical figure, that historian’s evidence includes other source material that influenced the subject’s own thinking and intellectual development. For Buchanan, Hobbes is a central piece of evidence. Somehow MacLean completely missed this, even though Hobbes is one of the most frequently referenced figures in Buchanan’s published and unpublished writings.

          6. Reading this exchange, I cannot help feeling Mr. Magness’s frustration. People don’t always express themselves in precisely the same manner when when making the same point on different occasions. But Mr. Seal’s suggestion that he is “shifting” his position is certainly not my impression when I read the exchange. There is no question, at any rates, that Hobbes is very important to Buchanan; while there is no evidence that Davidson or Calhoun had any influence at all.

            I know that Mr. Seal’s essay is supposed to be an even handed and reasonable treatment of this controversy. But I can’t help concluding that it is, in fact, a thinly disguised and not very satisfactory attempt to excuse, brush aside, or make light of Maclean’s abominably unfair and dishonest claims. Mr. Seal presumably knows what a serious thing it is to accuse someone of racism, and even of sympathizing with slavery. No “creative license,” can justify Maclean’s very public claim, based on no genuine evidence at all, that Buchanan, and by implication many other persons, was guilty of those things; and no responsible historian would condone it, much less claim that it counts as scholarship.

          7. After a little time to check the sources, we can conclusively put this matter to to rest with Buchanan’s own words. In Better than Plowing (p. 101) he states that in the late 60s after he took the job at VPI, Hobbes “moved to center stage as the political philosopher to be pondered.” He attributes this development to drawing upon the work of Winston Bush (the dedication in Limits of Liberty), which brought Hobbesian insights into public choice.

            We can also conclusively rule out Davidson on this evidence as the origin of the Leviathan metaphor in Buchanan. The earliest use I can find in Buchanan’s works is in a couple of articles from around 1973. It rapidly escalates with the Limits of Liberty in 1975 (which, again, was dedicated to Bush – then recently deceased – on account of his work o Hobbesian insights into public choice) and remains a recurring fixture of his work until the end of his life.

            In short, Nancy MacLean’s speculation about Davidson is completely unfounded.

          8. Buchanan was born in 1919. He received his Ph.D. in the late 1940s, and his publication history goes back to the mid 1950s. If the Leviathan metaphor does not show up until 1973, then it’s hardly central to the intellectual development of a man who was then in his mid 50s; all that tells us is that “Leviathan” was not an important concept before that (and something else was). It certainly doesn’t demonstrate that Buchanan was unaware of the term until then.
            Indeed, there can be more than one source (*gasp* it’s true!) For example, let’s say that I read a science fiction novel when I was in high school, where the author described something as a necessary but insufficient condition, and I thought that was interesting. Some years later, I get a degree in political science and begin publishing. Then, at around age 50, I discover Aquinas and read what he says about Natural Law being necessary but insufficient to understand ethics, and this become quite important to me; in fact, I begin to use the term in my writing, and also to cite Aquinas. This would not mean that Aquinas was always central to my thinking, nor would it mean that I hadn’t had an earlier exposure to the term, even though you would never be able to determine that from my published work.
            tl;dr not conclusive. MacLean’s speculation is unprovable, and possibly unfounded, that’s it.

          9. Again, check the pertinent sections of Buchanan’s autobiography. He explains his interest in Hobbes in great detail. It starts as peripheral in the 50s and then moves to “center stage” – his own words – from the early 1970s onward.

            Nor did anyone claim he was unaware of the term. Rather, I’m stating that the pattern of use of the term in Buchanan’s work *directly* corresponds with the pattern of influences he describes in his autobiography and may be specifically linked to his colleague Winston Bush’s work on Hobbes.

            Seeing as the issue that prompted this entire line of discussion was MacLean’s unsourced, unsupported, and likely fabricated claim of a link between Buchanan and Donald Davidson conflicts with a Hobbesian use of the term, identifying how and when Hobbes influenced Buchanan is pertinent.

          10. If Buchanan’s first use of the term only dates back to 1973, and his autobiography was written two decades later, than that’s not exactly iron-clad proof of what he was thinking in the 1950s (20 years before first mention, and 40 years before he published the autobiography). Without a paper trail to validate this, you’re relying on the memories of a man in his early 70s about events and influences more than half a lifetime earlier. That being the case, it’s hardly unthinkable that a guy who got a degree in English (among other subjects) at a university in Tennessee might have been exposed to the Agrarians at that time, even if he forgot about it afterwards, or later decided that Hobbes was a more direct and important influence.
            That being the case, you can’t reasonably describe this as “likely fabricated.” In fact, the best you can really say is that her claim is a weak one, and that’s an entirely reasonable criticism. “Likely fabricated,” however, is not.
            FWIW, when he was in his early 70s, my grandfather told me tales of fighting the Soviets in the Winter War, which I found quite exciting. Only later did I realize that he had already emigrated to the US and was in Montana by the time the Winter War was fought, although he did have friends from the Old Country who were involved. Had he written his memoirs, his memories of the event and of other parts of his early adulthood would have served as poor evidence.

          11. Taken alone, the autobiography is not “proof.” Taken in conjunction with his publishing record though and the complete absence of anything that would even remotely indicate Agrarianism influenced his earlier work though, the autobiography is entirely consistent with a Hobbesian origin for the term.

            Meanwhile, the MacLean side of the argument still faces the same problem that it originally did: she has nothing to actually establish an affirmative link between Buchanan and Davidson. That leaves her in the territory of pure unfounded speculation. That the Hobbesian alternative also provides a much stronger explanation is only icing on the cake.

          12. The publication record that makes no record of this Hobbesian origin at the time mentioned in the autobiography? That publishing record? Lots of things are speculated on when there is no sound evidence, which is what MacLean has done. As I said, you can accurately describe this as “weak,” but you can’t simply declare that it’s made up, no matter how much you might wish otherwise. Put it this way: she’s offering circumstantial evidence. You are perfectly entitled to disagree with the conclusions drawn from that evidence, but that doesn’t make it no longer evidence. It’s just evidence you find unconvincing. Hyperbolic language doesn’t change that.

          13. Actually, it does sync up with the autobiography quite well. Buchanan states in the autobiography that Hobbes “moved to center stage” of his ideas shortly after he moved to VPI. He attributes it to the work of his new colleague at VPI, Winston Bush. Buchanan moved to VPI in 1969. One of his earliest uses of the Leviathan metaphor is in a 1973 article that he coauthored with Bush.

            Note that for MacLean’s ridiculous Donald Davidson story to work, we should expect to find Leviathan appearing in Buchanan’s letters around 1940. It isn’t in those letters though, because she made that connection up out of thin air.

          14. No. We *might* expect it to find it in his letters earlier. I like guns, and I wrote a paper about them, but you’d be hard pressed to find references to them in my letters (or email) from ten or twenty years ago.
            OTOH, since it’s hard to imagine a social scientist having no exposure to Hobbes, especially one who would find some affinity with his ideas, we might expect to find the metaphor to show up before Buchanan reached his mid 50s. But it apparently didn’t, at least not in his writing. According to your logic, that means he wasn’t thinking of it at all, which seems fairly implausible
            In any case, you keep saying “made it up,” which is a pretty strong claim, but all you offer is inference and weak logic… which is exactly the sort of thing you criticize MacLean for. Unless you are trying to be ironic, that’s an odd strategy.

          15. Buchanan’s autobiography does not suggest “no exposure to Hobbes” prior to 1969 – only that after the VPI move in 1969 that Hobbes moved from the background to “center stage” as a primary focus of his work. His citation patterns in his published work match this depiction. MacLean’s purely speculative fictions do not.

            But keep digging. It only reveals your own fundamental unfamiliarity with the source material, which is strange given that you have strong opinions about what you think it contains nonetheless.

          16. Misstating my position does nothing to make yours stronger. I never claimed that I had some sort of fundamental familiarity with the source material. Rather, I’m using basic facts (Buchanan’s birth date, attendance in college, etc.) and the facts that you’ve put on the table. If problems arise, perhaps it’s from your presentation of the facts. You are the one who points to his first reference to Hobbes, etc. If we have only Buchanan’s decades-after-the-fact recollection of Hobbes as a background influence rather than as a “center stage” influence, supported by absolutely no contemporaneous evidence, then we can (for reasons I have already given) posit that alternative explanations are plausible. That hardly counts as the sort of “strong opinion” that you seem to take such issue with. Nevertheless, feel free to heap opprobrium on all those who disagree with you, even those whose disagreement is slight, and based largely on the facts as you have presented them. I’m sure you’ll find that it is a tactic that will bring you great success.

          17. Except that you haven’t done any of the archival research that she has done — and honestly, Hobbes is not the only thing that matters here.

          18. You may want to check your suppositions before making a claim like that. I’m pretty certain that I’ve spent significantly more time in archives pertaining to mid 20th century free market economists than she has, including direct involvement in the the processing of manuscript accessions.

          19. Including the unprocessed Buchanan archive she was the first person to use?

          20. 1. She wasn’t actually the first person to use them. 2. They’ve been undergoing processing by the GMU library since the time of her visit, with a public finding aid and no access restrictions.


            MacLean’s hyperbolized self-description of her archival visit to Buchanan’s papers is but one of the many factual distortions in her book.

          21. I’ve read the book and Magness’s claims are bizarre. the book is not an “intellectual history” of Buchanan, and does not attempt to assess where he got his ideas or what their lineage might be. It is an “intellectual history,” or more a “history of ideas,” about a “stealth plan to undermine democracy” in the late 20th-century US, and she presents a great deal of evidence, and links to many other scholars’ close analysis of evidence, to back up her case. What difference would it make to argue, or not to argue, that some of those ideas have roots in writings by Thomas Hobbes, who himself is a complex thinker with arguably both anti- and pro-democratic tendencies? The book is not arguing that Buchanan invented all of these ideas, or anything like that. It’s talking about the ideas that got presented, and it does engage with those precisely and thoughtfully.

            I agree with Andrew Seal’s assessment that people (at least some of whom, I am guessing, haven’t read the book) take it to be a slice-and-dice excoriation of Buchanan, and to a lesser extent Cowen, and there is some rhetoric toward the beginning of the book that might tend this way, in my view a bit unfortunately. But as a whole the book is careful documentation of the development of a variety of plans to circumvent the will of the majority of the American electorate on a variety of issues. Toward the end Koch and Buchanan even have a falling out, and it’s clear that Koch more than Buchanan is the one who is most committed to the plan.

            these attacks on MacLean’s person and scholarship are too relentless and personalized to be motivated by actual engagement with the book, and too reminiscent of the kinds of attacks lobbed at people like Jane Mayer and Naomi Oreskes for doing allied and very important work, to be taken entirely at face value. They seem motivated–“coordinated,” even. As does David Bernstein. Who knows whether that was planned coordination, or spontaneous order of the sort the Koch et al folks claim to love so much? I don’t, but the amount of emotion and vehemence are over the top.

            and pace George Selgin, reading the whole exchange, Magness does keep changing the goalposts, and even taken together the point of his vituperative attacks on MacLean remains elusive: is the point that Hobbes is a main intellectual forebear for the anti-democratic theory promulgated by Cato and Heritage? I don’t think MacLean would disagree with that, and I don’t see how it’s remotely relevant to the subject of the book. There are a lot of other important figures in the past too. So?

            Selgin writes: “there is no evidence that Davidson or Calhoun had any influence at all.” Just speaking to Calhoun, as Andrew Seal notes, there are upwards of 200 articles just at the Mises Institute alone talking about Calhoun, and MacLean’s main target in her discussion is an article by Tabarrok and Cowen called “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun.” And MacLean’s “argument,” such as it is, is explicitly just an iteration of the argument Tabarrok and Cowen make. Calhoun happens to be the US figure who advocated a theory most like the one associated with Cato/Heritage et al, in the past, and is routinely cited and talked about by those folks. There is simply no way of denying those facts, and MacLean makes little more of it than this. Along with noting what a truly evil person Calhoun was, and wondering why anyone today would look to him with admiration.

          22. The claim that MacLean is a work of “intellectual history” originates with (a) MacLean herself and (b) the essay at the top of this page by Andrew Seal, specifically:

            “Some of my colleagues and I at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog are planning a roundtable to discuss Democracy in Chains as a work of intellectual history, in large part because we feel that the critiques of MacLean’s work have not adequately engaged with its core arguments and because these critiques often seem unfamiliar with the “best practices” of intellectual history.”

            Other than responding to that on the terms its authors laid out, I lay no claim to the designation. Reading comprehension must not be your strong suit.

  3. Let’s review some actual factual errors, shall we?
    (1) MacLean claims that Frank Chodorov praised southern resistance to Brown. The relevant footnote cites a Chodorov article in which he praises Brown. (page 50)
    (2) MacLean claims that Dean Henry Manne didn’t conduct open searches for faculty. Her footnote doesn’t support that, and I can vouch for that being untrue (since he hired me after an open search). (185)
    (3) MacLean claims that Manne only hired white males. The footnote doesn’t say anything like that, and in fact mentions a non-white male he hired. And there are several others. (185)
    (4) MacLean claims that Manne wanted to run a law school in which the faculty would take particular positions on issues. That’s false, and her footnotes don’t support that. (185)
    (5) MacLean calls Ed Meese and Bill Kristol libertarians, which is not just false but ridiculous. She also suggests they were part of a “libertarian cadre” that ran George Mason University, when the simple truth is that they were local conservative Republicans appointed by a conservative Republican governor. (182, 198)
    (6) MacLean speculates that Koch may have moved the Institute for Humane Studies to Northern Virginia to get it more involved in Buchanan-led political activity. That’s false, and the truth was easily obtainable if she had bothered to ask anyone familiar with IHS’s history. (187-88)
    (7) MacLean states that Ed Meese inspired the founding of the Federalist Society. That’s not only false, but the society was founded in 1982, and her footnote cites to a speech he gave in 1985 (which doesn’t mention the federalist society). Her other source also cited in the footnote doesn’t support her assertion, either. (189)
    (8) She calls Liberty Fund a “Koch-backed organization.” False. Liberty Fund was funded from the Goodrich fortune and estate. No footnote for this one. (145)

    These are just things I happened to notice because I was familiar with the subject matter. I thought in each case she might have been misled by a secondary source, but in each case the secondary source, if any, cited, didn’t support what she wrote.

    These misstatements are in addition to the misquotations, speculations, insinuations, and so on that I and others have noted. Tell me again about “best practices” in the field of intellectual history? How many false statements of fact with no fns to back them up do I have to notice before I can can conclude that the book isn’t trustworthy?

    1. And here’s a fun historical blooper: on page 80, she depicts Plessy v. Ferguson as a case in which the Supreme Court “ensured extreme economic liberty for corporations and extreme disempowerment for citizens.” Uh, no. Plessy upheld a democratically enacted law (thus “empowering citizens”) that was opposed by a corporation (the railroad which helped set up a test case, and wanted the “economic liberty” to have integrated trains).

      1. Just to make sure this is clear, you consider the Plessy decision to be evidence of “empowering citizens”?

        1. Blacks weren’t disenfranchised in Louisiana when Plessy passed. “With a population evenly divided between races, in 1896 there were 130,334 black voters on the Louisiana registration rolls and about the same number of whites.” But putting that aside, she portrays Plessy as an anti-democratic decision, because along with Lochner, it “disempowered citizens” “on matters from limits to working hours to civil rights.” Lochner did prevent some laws from going into effect (though in fact the Court upheld every working hours law that came before it after Lochner). Plessy didn’t do anything to stop anyone from getting civil rights law passed. It instead validated the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws. The portrayal of Plessy as like Lochner being undemocratic is incoherent.

          But then again, MacLean uses “democracy” throughout the book to essentially mean “stuff I like” and anti-democratic to mean “stuff I don’t like.” The underlying theory seems to be that if the U.S. had “true democracy,” whatever that may mean, policy would always or almost always line up with her ideological preferences.

          1. even better, you take MacLean’s rather conventional scholarly and legal view of Plessy as a “fun historical blooper.” You are free to disagree with it (though that makes you a member of a very small and right-wing minority of just the sort MacLean ably analyzes), but to call it a “blooper” is really ludicrous. Here’s a statement about what Plessy decided: “I am of opinion that the state of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that state, and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the constitution of the United States.” Who said that? Justice John Marshall Harlan, in the famous dissent to Plessy that is nowadays considered the better opinion than the majority. If MacLean’s reading is a blooper, so is Harlan’s, and you are welcome to go back to 1896 and side with the majority in a case “as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case” (again, quoting Harlan)

          2. Harlan was correct. Harlan did not argue that the majority opinion was antidemocratic or gave power to corporations, unlike MacLean. Your argument appears to be that Harlan and MacLean both criticized the Plessy majority, so MacLean’s specific criticism of Plessy, which in fact makes no sense, must be on target. Huh?

      2. 1. African Americans were citizens when Plessy v. Ferguson was decided (see the 14th amendment). The decision was certainly not empowering to them.
        2. Though citizens, African Americans’ ability to exercise the franchise was restricted/suppressed. They were a constituency of citizens to whom opportunities to participate in the democratic process were systematically denied.
        3. Ergo, that purportedly “democratically enacted law” was not, in fact, democratically enacted.

        1. oh good – somewhere I could reply. Thank you for your excellent, objective, non-rhetorical article in the Post. I had been led via some links to seek to see what Ms. MacLean was saying in return, just to get one more perspective. A little way down there was the link to your piece, so I decided to read a little of it alongside her interview. About a paragraph or two into it I realized I needed to read you first in toto. Some quality journalism there, as well as points nailed one by one, and now I know I need not pay much attention to her. (She joins her co pop-book writer, Hillary C., whose way with truth is a reminder of how this crap gets played.) Bravo!

  4. Unless “Michael” and “Tenured Radical” are untenured assistant professors or adjuncts, why do they not debate under their actual names.

    This is an academic forum, after all.

  5. So she thinks they’re jerks. That’s only a problem if we believe that the whole project is organized for the purpose of proving that Buchanan and Cowen are jerks, and that strikes me as a gross misreading.

    Let’s keep the manufactured straw men out of it.

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