Charity Chained: A Review of “Democracy in Chains”

Nancy MacLean, in her new book Democracy in Chains, has allegedly revealed the master plan of right-wing political operatives, funded by the Kochs and inspired by James McGill Buchanan. MacLean pulls no punches as she describes a right-wing conspiracy meant to bring about “a fifth column movement the likes of which no nation has ever seen.” (page 127) Alas, the major problem with her account, as her fellow Duke Professor Mike Munger summarized, is it is “a work of speculative historical fiction.” MacLean’s contribution is a failure of academic discourse more likely to increase unfounded paranoia and division than to reveal any hidden agenda. MacLean’s bias bleeds into nearly every aspect of this book and taints her interpretation of the facts and sources beyond any reasonable interpretation could support. At one point she ponders the genius of Buchanan but determines it to be an “evil genius” for his work, much of which discusses the difficulties of democracy (page 42).

Why, one may feel justified in asking, dwell on speculative fiction? Unfortunately, when speculative fiction enters the popular culture, is applauded, and treated as fact, a measure of scrutiny is required. MacLean has received a fair share of positive press. NPR wrote that Democracy in Chains is “a book written for the skeptic; MacLean’s dedicated to connecting the dots.” That is if the dots were points on a corkboard tied together with red yarn. Oprah’s book club put it in their “20 books to read this summer” list. The Atlantic’s review praised the book as “part of a new wave of historiography that has been examining the southern roots of modern conservatism.” Slate also wrote a review.

A Deluge of Error

MacLean’s revelation regarding this “stealth plan” for a “fifth column movement” focuses on the relatively obscure, but well-respected, founder of public choice economics Nobel laureate James McGill Buchanan. MacLean weaves a fascinating tale but one that paints Buchanan and sympathizing libertarians as radicals determined to undermine democracy for the purpose of satisfying elitist urges, squashing the underdog, burdening the minority, and exploiting the poor. Unfortunately for MacLean, and those heaping praise, it is clear this tale rests on ransom-note-style citations, cutting and pasting together portions of phrases to change the meaning and support her narrative. In certain places it appears she has woefully misunderstood the source material or did not care- the notes do not match the claims. By cobbling together this mish-mash of selective quotes and speculation MacLean errs twice: first in describing Buchanan’s views and second in describing the motives of Buchanan and anyone sympathetic to his view.

A litany of scholars have examined the book and revealed a deluge of error. Russ Roberts wrote that MacLean owed Tyler Cowen an apology, courteously gave her room to respond, which she used to double down on her claims despite the obvious selective use of unfairly parsed phrases which attributed a view to Cowen he did not hold. Steve Horwitz, Michael Munger, Jonathan Adler, and David Bernstein have found issues with her citations and claims (Adler aggregated them at the Washington Post). Most thoroughly, Phil Magness has dissected numerous errors, misquotes, and general failures of citation found within the book, it appears to be an ongoing project. The errors which have compiled are such that they undermine credibility in the reading. As others have listed her poor citations, mangling of quotes, and selective editing, this will not be the focus of this review.

Charity Chained

MacLean’s inability to remove her bias has made a mess of the primary sources and does a disservice to her profession and discipline. The art of creating good credible academic work is piecing the source material together in a manner which both provides accurate representation of the sources and contains original and thoughtful insight into the subject matter. MacLean fails on both accounts, she provides numerous endnotes, many of them appear interesting- I was left wanting when I consulted them- but they fail to buttress most of her claims. Overall the book does not provide new insight, as it is mostly inaccurate, and relies on the common political caricature proffered by talking heads.

Even without what borders academic fraud, this book lacks any argumentative nuance and continuously attempts to tie Buchanan and other libertarians to historical figures such as Calhoun or the Southern Agrarians without supporting evidence. Her bias is likely to lead the uninformed reader to conclusions about the subjects — Buchanan, public choice economists, libertarians, school choice advocates, etc.- that are unsupported by the evidence.

Bias, Root and Branch

Let us take a seemingly innocuous example of how MacLean misinterprets history to further her argument. At one point MacLean argues Buchanan desired to return America to the year 1900, to the era of Plessy and Lochner. First, this simply was not so, instead, the source she used was Buchanan making a comparison between two time periods. Yet, regardless of Buchanan’s actual views, she calls these cases, “two pivotal Supreme Court decisions that ensured extreme economic liberty for corporations and extreme disempowerment for citizen on matters from limits on working hours to civil rights.” (page 80) This is an inaccurate representation of the cases, and demonstrates her inability to parse out the relevant facts to make her point.

As David Bernstein has carefully shown in Rehabilitating Lochner, the baker involved was not part of “Big Bread,” but instead a small business owned by a Bavarian immigrant named Joseph Lochner, who failed to comply with the protectionist regulations that advantaged larger firms. Interestingly, MacLean cites Bernstein’s book in her endnotes, a shame she failed to learn the facts of this case. Had she perused the book a bit, she would have learned that the case was at one point advanced by the baker’s union not at the request of Lochner’s employee and that the outcome failed to serve big business or the privileged but instead was a fight for the underdog corner bakery.

Plessy is even shoddier work. Homer Plessy, a man of one-eighth African descent, agreed to be the plaintiff in a civil rights test-case — which was designed to figh t and stall the further proliferation of discriminatory Louisiana laws arising as Jim Crow took root- where he worked in conjunction with an organization called the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) and the railroad company. MacLean treats the verdict in Plessy-that held separate but equal was an appropriate Constitutional standard under the equal protection clause, a mockery of said clause- as if it had been the desires of corporate America. Perhaps it was for some corporations, but not those involved in Plessy. Removing legal segregation would benefit the rail company by allowing them to have fewer cars and fewer empty seats; their interest was clearly not served by the ruling.

In the conclusion, MacLean again cites Plessy and Lochner, but instead of casting them as pro-corporate, she claims the “decisions twisted the Fourteenth Amendment to serve the already privileged rather than the embattled citizens whose rights the amendment was designed to protect.” She is partially right, Plessy did indeed twist the Fourteenth Amendment, but the claim is less true for Lochner.

More importantly, had MacLean examined the history of these cases instead of relied on myth, she would have had to contend with the inconvenient reality of economic liberty. Namely that markets move toward beneficial outcomes and will even demand a penalty for many behaviors, such as racism. The Plessy case is the perfect example of market pressure removing discriminatory practices in pursuit of profit. Yet, that would fail to fit her priors, and this book is an exercise in doing just that. These cases simply are not what she claims, but on top of it all, she assigns her misinterpretations to Buchanan and supporters of economic liberty. In short, it is an exercise in confirmation bias, root and branch.

Sleight of Hand in Brown v. Board of Education

A more central claim in her book is that Buchanan supported private school vouchers in order to undermine the determination in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka- yet her examination of this follows a similarly flawed, but more subtle, path to affirming her priors and demonizing her opposition. MacLean suggests that Brown allowed majority preferences to be realized. She then focuses on the case originating in Virginia, which was later joined with the Brown case, and treats them as arising from the same context. But in Kansas, where Brown originated, African Americans were a substantial minority. Despite having a right to vote in Kansas during Jim Crow, no democratic election would have removed the thumb of discriminatory government; it required an anti-majoritarian result, which the Supreme Court delivered. Virginia is more contestable and hence the need to focus on those facts, though it decided the same legal question, in order to advance her claim that the “radical right” chaffed at the ruling and subsequently democracy. If she can treat all constraints on democracy as a proxy war on minorities and anti-discrimination, and as an effort to oppress for personal gain, then besmirching those who are skeptical of democracy becomes a simple matter of revealing their concerns.

By ignoring the nuance of the cases and the difficult question of minority rights in a democracy, MacLean moves from the dubious claim that Brown is pro-democratic to James Buchanan disliked the result because he supported private vouchers for education and doubted that democracy always yielded beneficial outcomes.

Hiding Behind the Early Progressives

Considering her book long critique of free market advocates, it is no surprise that Maclean believes the free market to be a myth of sorts- which strikes at the heart of libertarianism, classical liberalism, and free market advocacy. MacLean continually suggests the vision of markets held by libertarians and their intellectual travelers is meant to disadvantage minorities and empower the rich and white.

To support her view of markets and economics, without any irony, she quotes Richard T. Ely, co-founder of the American Economic Association, progressive, racist, and eugenics enthusiast, to explain laissez-faire economics as a “tool in the hands of the greedy and avaricious for keeping down and oppressing the laboring classes” (page 164). Strangely absent from her endorsement of Ely’s view on economics is any recognition of his advocacy of discrimination against those he considered inferior. Ely, and many of his progressive compatriots, saw economics as a two-edged sword of benefit and burden wherein the economist stood on high employing the tools of science to distribute and choose who deserved to receive. He was quite clear on who he thought worth the favor.

Alas, no other mention of Ely and his views are examined, nevertheless MacLean has no qualm with arraigning any libertarian with associational accusations no matter how tangential while the very clear racism of Ely is ignored. Imagine if we now gave MacLean a dose of her own medicine, the treatment she gave Cowen and Buchanan, for endorsing (much more clearly than either of those subjects did) a view held by Ely. It would be deeply unfair and uncharitable, as is her book.

Associational Accusations

Her poor treatment continues in her introductory discussion on John C. Calhoun, where she paints Buchanan and Tyler Cowen as intellectual progeny. It continues notably in the later discussion on the Chilean dictatorship and formation of the Chilean constitution relying on little to no evidence as certain proof that Buchanan sought to prop up dictatorial power in Chile, as if the Pinochet regime was the fulfillment of Buchanan’s dreams- in itself another fantasy.

The reality is those who make observations on economy and politics are inevitably bound to overlap; suggesting that the overlap is tacit agreement of the most heinous views of some-even despite contrary evidence- is both a logical fallacy and bad faith. MacLean leads us to believe that Buchanan was shouldering the mantle of privilege by designing systems to ensure the powerful remain so. Never mind this is nothing but conspiracy manufactured by MacLean, or that Buchanan himself, concerned about oligarchy, supported an inheritance tax to prevent such from arising so much was he wary of power resting permanently in the hands of the few. Or forget that, democracy itself, especially without the rules and checks Buchanan studied, could itself lead to oligarchy.

Parting Shots

In closing, MacLean becomes more explicit in her vilifications as she writes, “Just as property rights supremacist would rather let people die than receive health care assistance or antismoking counsel from government, so they would rather invite global ecological and social catastrophe than allow regulatory restrictions on economic liberty.” (page 216). MacLean’s example for this bold claim, in the very same paragraph, was that Donald J. Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University, thought the problem of global warming “is best left alone.” Despite her assertion, there is no road between Boudreaux’s statement and her claim. And when put into context, Boudreaux was explaining the need for economic analysis to weigh the real costs of policies against their purported benefit. To lambaste a discipline, the entirety of public choice, and economics more broadly, by claiming adherents “would rather let people die” than allow regulation is a heinously disingenuous proposition made without any support. Especially since Boudreaux’s concern, shared by many of the “property rights supremacist[s]” (an allusion to white supremacy) is that, “Any heavy-handed assault on capitalism might well impair this magnificent institution and lead to human suffering worse than will be wreaked under worst-case global-warming scenarios.” MacLean may disagree with that analysis, but that is not enough, she appears compelled to also vilify.

This is the reality of her book. It ignores facts, it lacks nuance, it vilifies where disagreement was sufficient, it mischaracterizes or does not understand the work of economics, and it fails to distinguish- both in her own views and those of others- between the positive and normative. Her analysis of events reflects that failure and depends on fallacies to make her case instead of building it through rigor and care. One is inclined to believe that she failed to grasp public choice economics as a method of analysis and instead thought ad hominin would suffice as a critique of the discipline. This is, probably, why she believes democracy is under attack, as she appears to confuse policy outcomes she prefers with democratically desired outcomes and thinks a limitation on the one will hinder the other. In all, the flaws in this book are genuinely too great to enumerate in a single article, but hopefully this provides a sample and reveals the deeper underlying issues. Primarily that evidence is not a completely empty vase to fill but carries implications that should be addressed instead of twisted to fit a view.

At times, while reading, I became genuinely excited to see what had been uncovered; she had unprecedented access to material and a wonderful opportunity to write about an interesting Nobel laureate, but squandered it by pushing a conspiracy theory. Subsequently, MacLean created a less interesting work of farfetched speculation instead of a serious intellectual piece. The merits of her fluid and effortless writing style are lost to the unreliability of her work and her uncompromising bias.

This book belongs in the tradition of polemics and muckrakers not as a serious academic work, and certainly not as a contender for the National Book Award. No number of endnotes redeems the misrepresentation of those very notes, and we should be careful to distinguish between the serious and the seriously misleading. In the conclusion of Thomas Leanord’s Illiberal Reformers, he reminds that “Progressivism is too important to be left to hagiography and obloquy.” Nancy MacLean made mention of the former in her footnotes and clearly averted it in this tale; however, she embodied the latter. Libertarians, James Buchanan, the history of economics- including public choice- all are subjects which require robust honest critique, as do all influential ideas and disciplines, but on this MacLean delivered only obloquy.

James C. Devereaux is an attorney found on twitter @jcdevereaux1. If you would like to republish this article, feel free to tweet at me. All views my own.