Nancy MacLean’s Ideologically Motivated Shortcuts

by Jonah Goldberg

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there’s that great bit about the super-posse that chases the outlaws. They’re led by a legendary law man, Joe Lefors, and an Indian Scout (Lord Baltimore), who can follow horse tracks over rock and water.

I mention this because if I were Nancy MacLean, I’d much rather have Lefors and Lord Baltimore coming after me than to have Don Boudreaux, Steve Horwitz, Jonathan Adler, Russ Roberts, and the rest of the libertarian super-posse on my ass.

You may have missed the story. The short version is that historian Nancy MacLean has written a book, apparently with some government funding, in which she argues that Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan was part of a Kochtopussian Kabal of Konfederates who were direct intellectual descendants of the Southern Agrarians and the champion of slavery, John C. Calhoun.

I first heard about the book almost two weeks ago, and my immediate response was to roll my eyes (figuratively speaking). I figured the book would vanish from the radar because it all sounded so silly. David Bernstein had a similar reaction:

When I first came across this book and interviews with its author, I was immediately skeptical. For one thing, I’ve been traveling in libertarian intellectual circles for about three decades, and my strong impression is that Buchanan, while a giant in economics, is something of a marginal figure in the broader libertarian and free-market movements.

Now, I am at best a fellow traveler in those circles, but I’ve been writing about and, on occasion, arguing with, libertarians for a couple decades. And while Buchanan’s name came up every now and then, I had never once heard even the suggestion that he was a kind of intellectual lodestar for political libertarianism never mind that he was part of some reactionary Confederate tradition. He was that brilliant public-choice-theory guy. (As Bernstein notes, Buchanan gets a few respectful cameos in Brian Doherty’s exhaustive history of libertarianism — and that’s about it).

MacLean has gotten herself into hot water because it’s already clear she cut a lot of corners, quoting people out of context, asserting intellectual lineages that do not exist, and other misdeeds. Russ Roberts, who is a kind of libertarian Gandhi — strictly adhering to a policy of rhetorical non-violence — started things off with his defense of Tyler Cowen, who MacLean essentially defamed. Worse, Don Boudreaux, the brilliant and tenacious libertarian scholar and cheeky letter writer, is now coming after her and her enablers like a spider monkey.

As my friend Steve Horwitz writes:

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’m all for fact checking her footnotes and outrageously misleading quotations. Every time I see a new one, I link to it on Twitter with the prediction, “There will be more.” And there will be. There will be for the simple reason that MacLean takes Buchanan’s life — and libertarianism, generally — out of context in order to argue that libertarianism is against “democracy” and that sinister libertarians have been scheming to tear it all down. In other words, you have to take quotes and facts out of context if you start with a premise that takes Buchanan out of context.

To be sure, there’s an anti-democratic element in some corners of libertarianism, but as far as I can tell, that is true of every single political philosophy save pure majoritarianism. And, unlike pure majoritarians, libertarians are far more concerned with freedom and equality because they understand unrestrained majorities tend to treat minorities very poorly, particularly the minority of the individual.

Indeed, this is all downstream of the century-old effort to turn Herbert Spencer into some kind of monster because he opposed governmental social engineering. The idea seems to be that because the statists are good, anyone who opposes them must be evil.

The contemporary liberal obsession with claiming that their ideological opponents must be somehow in league with, or modern-day reincarnations of, Klansmen and slavers is just another manifestation of this old, self-indulgent smear. It’s a bit like MacLean set out to reach that destination. When she realized she couldn’t get there by conventional navigation, she put a magnet marked “Calhoun!” or “Slavery!” next to her compass, and that did the trick.

Conservatives are bit more accustomed to this sort of thing. Ramesh and I beat back a similar attempt to claim that modern conservatism is a Calhoun cult a few years ago.

But I think the assumption behind both efforts is very much the same: Anyone who disagrees with us must not simply be wrong, they must be evil. And taking shortcuts to expose evil is no vice.

The Corner

The one and only.