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The Controversy Over Democracy in Chains

A Review Essay

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.

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