Charity in Chains: Trading Credibility for Speculation

If you are wont to make trouble, it is in your interest to avoid the cadre of libertarian scholars who are in pursuit of Nancy MacLean and her implausible book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. The subtitle alone is enough to set the conspiracy theorist heart aflutter.

I have yet to read the book, but when I do I will give it as fair of a review as possible under the circumstances. And said circumstances appear to be stacked against MacLean. This because the aforementioned scholars have been combing through the quotes and citations in MacLean’s book only to find them wanting. In some instances they appear to be fabricated or missing and in others the quotes are severely misrepresenting the subjects of her book- in particular the Nobel laureate James Buchanan and economist Tyler Cowen.

Her thesis, as gathered from several interviews and laudatory reviews, appears to be that the radical right is launching a fifth-column assault on American democracy. And in order to implement the secret plan, except as revealed by her I suppose, aspiring oligarchs like the Kochs have funded and encouraged intellectuals to shill for their power grab, in particular Nobel prize winner James Buchanan.

Anyone remotely familiar with libertarian ideology, which is consistently attacked by MacLean and appears to be the supposed radical faction in the right, would surely scoff at the idea that libertarians are looking to instill an oligarchy of any kind. Whether they be from the classical liberal brand to the more anarcho-capitalist, the common complaint against government from libertarians (varying mostly in degree) appears to be universal contempt of concentrated power. In fact, on the far end of the spectrum, some libertarians believe in competing systems of governance with no actual state, suggesting an elimination of all types of strong governments including oligarchy. (Whether this is a realistic view is another question altogether).

MacLean doesn’t stop there as she also attempts to tie Buchanan and other libertarians with racists such as John C. Calhoun. However, this appears to be done rather underhandedly. In particular, MacLean has not actually cited her sources correctly, taken them out of context, or, in at least one instance, created a citation. (See the links below for more detail). The connection with Calhoun appears to have no basis in the actual works of Buchanan and is only barely mentioned by anyone in her book, such as the misquoted Tyler Cowen. Yet, the wide brush does not paint delicately and her strokes are clearly clumsy.

As Jonah Goldberg notes, this type of speculative attack echos those which have been made historically against Herbert Spencer, who has been unfairly attributed a disturbing view of society, wherein the weak (poor) perish or suffer for the benefit of the strong (rich), known as Social Darwinism.

In light of all this, and the substantial evidence glossed over by MacLean that suggests Buchanan and his fellow travelers were not racist Calhounites intent on subverting democracy, it appears MacLean was unwilling to take the charitable view of her intellectual opposition and instead engaged in implausible speculation. This is a disservice to her position.

Instead of engaging with the entirety of the actual arguments, MacLean has woven a conspiracy out of wholecloth which distracts from meaningful critiques. It also hides from view the actual underlying discussion on democratic values, and what is appropriate for democractic decision making. Such a shame, as it appears Buchanan spent much of his work asking this very Madisonion question: What is it that democracies should decide? A difficult question meant to be taken seriously, one that I suspect MacLean would not answer with “everything.” Especially when considering the fact that slavery and Jim Crow were once majority positions, and cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (which she appears to praise) were anti-majoritarian checks on democratically enacted legislation.

In the end it appears that MacLean traded in some of her previously earned credibility as an academic, which Mike Munger praises before discussing the faults in this book, for speculation. I doubt that trade pays out in the end.

Posted by James Devereaux. All views his own. @jcdevereaux1

*In addition to this post I am aggregating links to other critiques with a brief summary or highlight from each one below. These links provided much of the info referenced above. If you find another critique of Democracy in Chains, please tweet @jcdevereaux1 and I’ll try to include it below. (It is safe to assume the below links are being continually updated).

Mike Munger writes a comprehensive review and response titled “On the Goals and Origins of  Public Choice” at the Independent Institute. Munger’s essay is very charitable all while addressing seriously her claims. Additionally, Munger gives an excellent overview of Buchanan’s work and public choice. Listening to Mike Munger on Econtalk was the first time I had heard of public choice and James Buchanan. If you read only one linked article, this should be it.

Russ Roberts, “Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology,” on Medium. Roberts goes through a detailed overview of MacLean’s treatment of Tyler Cowen. He provides her response and his response to her.

Jonah Goldberg has his take at National Review.

Ramesh Ponnuru jumped on this controversy pretty quickly and discussed the unraveling of her work in the two following posts.

Jonathan Adler discusses the accuracy of Mac leans portrayal of Buchanan and the Munger post. Including a running list of critiques and an invitation for substantive defenses.

David Bernstein discusses the dubious claims of MacLean and points out that Buchanan is not much of a popular libertarian figure as he is an academic one. Though, that might change thanks to MacLean.

Philip Magness has a very thorough-going take down of MacLeans sourcing and narrative.

How Nancy MacLean went whistlin’ Dixie

Nancy MacLean’s Calhounite Imagination

Steve Horwitz, has the line to beat all others as he compares the searches for errors to the “academic version of Pokemon Go.”

MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education

The Butcher with a Smile – More Mangling from Nancy MacLean


Don Boudreaux has the following posts on the book, the corrections, and notably the irony. Boudreaux and I are on the same page (perhaps it is the similar last names), as I too glanced at my copy of Illiberal Reformers and was reminded the very well documented racism of early progressives.

MacLean’s Illogic

Oh the Irony

Mike Munger Reviews “Democracy in Chains”

Nancy MacLean’s Narrative Continues to Unravel

And David Henderson has two posts at Econlog on the matter. The first is simply an invitation to read the work of James Buchanan, the second is an example of MacLean using quotes in a less than credible fashion.

David Boaz has found citations to his work which appear to be misquoted and misrepresented. It appears the trend of uncharitable treatment is the dominant theme of MacLean”s work.

The Skeptical Libertarian has this to say about the Goebbels “quote” that appears incidentally in David Boaz’s article, which suggests she has two major errors in one paragraph.

The Juvenile “Research” of “Historian” Nancy MacLean

Arnold Kling doesn’t evaluate the book directly but does discuss the controversy. He also suggests a response in an academic journal, which I think is merited.


Feel free to send other examples to me. I first heard of Democracy in Chains through one of the laudatory reviews I mentioned. Even then it was apparent, and came as no surprise, that this was going to be controversial, but the amount of citation errors is on another level altogether. Certainly in any academic work errors in citation or quotation are likely to happen. But the quantity and nature of those found thus far suggest something different than the norm.

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