The Corner

Economy & Business

Nancy MacLean’s Methods

In response to Sunday On Long Island

Nancy MacLean has written a harshly critical book about the late libertarian economist and political theorist James Buchanan, whom she portrays as an enemy of democracy, friend of segregation, and tool of plutocrats. Yesterday I noted that Russ Roberts had documented how her book twists the words of another libertarian writer, Tyler Cowen, to portray him as having written “a handbook for how to conduct a fifth-column assault on democracy.” I said that this example of scholarly misconduct was so clear-cut as to justify skepticism about her treatment of Buchanan, too.

Since then, David Henderson has shown that MacLean also twists Buchanan’s own words; more credulous treatments of MacLean’s book have appeared on left-wing sites; and MacLean has issued a response to Roberts’s criticism, which Roberts appended to his initial post.

MacLean’s response has several components. First, she says that Roberts distorted her own words in characterizing her stance toward Buchanan — which is irrelevant to the question of whether her book distorts Cowen.

Second, she dismisses certain Cowen statements that appear favorable to democracy and skeptical of anti-democratic reforms. She writes, “To say that nondemocratic forms of government can have unfavorable outcomes and that ‘I explicitly favor more democratic forms,’ is not the same as saying that I support and would not be involved in any attempt to overturn the American democratic system of majority rule.” Since she hasn’t established that Cowen wants to “overturn the American democratic system of majority rule,” however, or provided a shred of evidence for that contention, it is unclear why he should have to make such a statement.

Third, she says that Cowen has tried to promote policies that he knows are unpopular. She offers no evidence that he has advocated overturning the American democratic system in order to impose these policies.

Fourth, she says that Buchanan, Cowen, and other libertarians “have posed democracy as a problem for their arch version of capitalism.” Maybe they have. That democracy and libertarian capitalism are in tension is not an especially controversial point. (Democracy is also in tension with many other political philosophies.) “Democracy makes it hard to enact some good capitalist policies” is not the same as “we should curtail democracy to some extent in the interest of having a successful capitalism,” which is itself not the same as “we should overturn democracy and here’s my handbook on how to do it.” 

Fifth, she says that libertarians funded by Charles Koch favor “‘interrelated plays’ designed to alter the very nature of our society and government.” (Not “interrelated plays”! Anything but that!) But it is obviously possible to advocate substantial changes to our society and government, even interrelated ones, that do not involve “overturn[ing] the American democratic system of majority rule.”

I’m sure it would be possible to write a critical study of James Buchanan that is competent, thoughtful, and honest. Judging from the course of this controversy, it seems highly unlikely that MacLean has written it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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