Politics & Policy

The Bizarre Conspiracy Theory Nominated for a National Book Award

(Cover image via Amazon)
Nancy MacLean claims an influential economist had racist motivations — without providing any real evidence.

This much is known about the writer Donald Davidson: He was a founding member of the Agrarians, a literary movement of the American South active during the 1930s. Davidson, like the rest of the Agrarians, rued the rise of the industrial-capitalist North and defended the cultural traditions — and racist hierarchy — on which the South was based. Davidson thought the federal government was “totalitarian,” disliked “the new barbarism of science and technology,” and was flummoxed by New York City.

The historian Nancy MacLean asserts something more about Davidson: that his writing inspired the late economist James Buchanan, whose work in turn has heavily influenced mainstream conservative and libertarian thought. The Agrarians, MacLean writes, “stamped [Buchanan’s] vision of the good society and the just state.” According to MacLean, Davidson was “the Nashville writer who seemed most decisive in Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system” during the 1940s, when he “seemed to see through lenses wholly crafted by Davidson.”

But there is a problem. Buchanan never mentioned Davidson in some 20 volumes of published scholarship. He never brought Davidson up in private correspondence. There is no indication the two ever met. All MacLean offers to back up the alleged relationship between Davidson and Buchanan is that Buchanan, who was also a native Tennessean, felt similarly uncomfortable when he moved to New York. MacLean appears to have invented the connection out of whole cloth.

MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, contains this brazen fabrication and several others like it, yet was recently nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award. When it was published in June, the book won praise from NPR, Slate, and The Atlantic for its “powerful” and “disturbing” historiography. But the book advances a mendacious conspiracy theory that ought to impugn MacLean’s reputation as a legitimate scholar.

The basic argument of Democracy in Chains is that a group of libertarians is “leading today’s push to upend the political system,” and that they are “heirs to a set of ideas that goes back almost two centuries: the push-back of imperious property against democracy.” The “radical right” ranges from Charles Koch to the economics faculty at George Mason University, and MacLean says their ideas descend from those of John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president, who defended slavery and advocated nullification.

“It is unlikely that many of his current heirs have read Calhoun in the original,” MacLean allows, before asserting that “they have learned the ideas from modern-day libertarians who exhumed Calhoun’s analysis.” And James Buchanan is supposed to be the bridge connecting Calhoun to Tyler Cowen.

Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his development of public-choice theory, a school of economics that examines the incentives motivating political actors. Buchanan observed that government actors are frequently self-interested, and his theory had an obvious libertarian bent. To assert that Buchanan shaped libertarianism, then, is to state the obvious, although MacLean exaggerates the degree to which he was an architect of the movement.

But MacLean is more ambitious than that. She claims to have made an explosive historical discovery that proves Buchanan had more sinister motivations. Buchanan’s disgust with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education impelled him to action, she writes:

Buchanan was not a member of the Virginia elite. Nor is there any explicit evidence to suggest that for a white southerner of his day, he was uniquely racist or insensitive to the concept of equal treatment. And yet, somehow, all he saw in the Brown decision was coercion. And not just in the abstract. What the court ruling represented to him was personal. . . . What about his rights? Where did the federal government get the authority to engineer society to its liking and then send him and those like him the bill? I can fight this, he concluded. I want to fight this.

Those italicized words aren’t quotes. In fact, the passage lacks any citations at all. The reader is left to search in vain for evidence for the notion that Buchanan’s life work was “meant to train a new generation to push back against Brown.” It never appears: not in his private correspondence, nor his published work. There are no angry letters; there is no jurisprudential theorizing. To support her psychoanalysis, MacLean offers . . . a letter he wrote to the president of the University of Virginia, in which he proposed the foundation of an academic center that would advocate for “a social order” “built on individual liberty.”

Buchanan was also a fellow traveler of Senator Harry Byrd’s and a kindred spirit of the segregationist writer James Kilpatrick, according to MacLean. But these associations, too, do not appear to exist.

Even MacLean admits ‘there is no evidence the two ever met.’

In the 1950s, the reader is told, Buchanan “took his cues from Byrd and Kilpatrick.” Byrd and Buchanan “were soul mates when it came to fiscal policy and social reform,” and yet even MacLean admits “there is no evidence the two ever met.”

“The timing of” a 1959 report written by Buchanan and Warren Nutter, meanwhile, “strongly suggests coordination with Kilpatrick.” After all, Buchanan and Nutter argued for the “thoroughgoing” privatization of schools, and Kilpatrick wrote that the South should “abandon public schools entirely.” But the Buchanan-Nutter report called for something categorically different from what Kilpatrick wanted: the coexistence of private and public schools in the form of voucher programs. And more egregiously, MacLean offers no evidence that the two ever collaborated. There was no correspondence between the two, nor did either mention the other.

Later in the book, MacLean tries to connect Buchanan to the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and specifically to the design of the 1980 Chilean constitution. In this case, she ignores exculpatory evidence. Buchanan indeed visited Chile in May 1980, and Chile indeed borrowed from libertarian economics in the drafting of its constitution. But Buchanan had no role in its design; the Pinochet regime did not adopt the advice he actually gave. In a 1981 speech at Viña del Mar, Buchanan emphasized the “moral obligation that we have as people who love freedom to look for ways of improving democracy without falling into the naïve belief that dictatorships are the only or the best way of establishing a free economy.”

It is tempting to compare this book with Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, in which Robin attempted to redefine conservatism as a bellicose ideology bent on the restoration of old hierarchies through violent means. Like Democracy in Chains, Robin’s book is tendentious and wrongheaded, red meat for the Left. But that book at least contained a sustained and provocative engagement with conservative ideas.

MacLean, on the other hand, is out of her element when it comes to her subjects’ ideas. She tellingly presents the tension between libertarianism and democracy as if it were her own discovery, when it’s a subject that libertarians themselves have discussed at length. Her discussion of rent-seeking is deeply confused, identifying politicians as “rent-seekers” (rather than those seeking favors from politicians).

It is no secret that many affiliated with the libertarian movement have questioned the value of democracy and flirted with racist positions. But every movement has its marginal figures, and marginal movements have more than their share. James Buchanan was not Hans-Herman Hoppe — but MacLean tries to make him out to be. In effect, she rewrites the history of libertarianism in order to discredit contemporary libertarians.

Her book is therefore of a piece not with Robin’s, but with Dinesh D’Souza’s The Big Lie, in which the author “exposes the Nazi roots of the American Left.” Rather than producing historical evidence for her assertions, MacLean resorts to conspiracy theories. Of course, only one of these books was nominated for the National Book Award.

She fabricates Buchanan’s internal monologue: I can fight this. She speculates about his ostensibly malicious motivations: “For the inner circle, the ultimate purpose” of public-choice theory “was never in doubt.” She even plays six degrees of separation: Buchanan was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society; as was Henry Regnery, who published a book written by Kilpatrick that Donald Davidson praised.

The book has met with criticism from honest academics.

Because of this, the book has met with criticism from honest academics. The political scientists Henry Farrell and Steven Teles called it a “conspiracy theory” and debunked several of its claims. The liberal law professor Andrew Koppelman said MacLean’s “central historical claim is false.” The political scientist Michael C. Munger, a colleague of MacLean’s, wryly suggested the book should be read as “speculative historical fiction.” For his part, the libertarian law professor Jonathan H. Adler has compiled a long list of critics that includes academics Rick Perlstein, David Gordon, Steven Horwitz, Art Carden, and Philip Magness.

Perhaps the National Book Foundation should retract its nomination for this piece of shoddy scholarship. Unless, of course, MacLean is right. The harsh response from serious academics may be the strongest evidence for her argument yet. These critics, she alleges, are “Koch operatives” who are “working very hard to kill Democracy in Chains and to destroy my reputation.” Farrell, Teles, Koppelman, Munger, Adler, Perlstein, Gordon, Horwitz, Carden, Magness: Acolytes of John C. Calhoun? One would think these charges baseless, since these men are all academics in good standing. Then again, so was James Buchanan.


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