When Politics Drives Scholarship
Aug 30, 2017
21 Min read time
Nancy MacLean’s new book has set off a heated debate. But strong claims require strong evidence, and mistakes could mislead liberals and the left.
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America
Penguin Random House, $28 (cloth)
The publication of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, a history of the “public choice” economist James Buchanan and his impact on American politics, has led to an enormous, highly charged debate. But as Marshall Steinbaum correctly noted in this journal, not many people have weighed in who aren't either Team Public Choice or Team Anti-Buchanan. For the most part, both sets of combatants see this as a political rather than an intellectual fight, so when the non-aligned venture into the fray, they are likely to be pigeonholed—whether they like it or not. When one of us expressed skepticism about MacLean’s book (prefiguring our article for Vox), for instance, Steinbaum himself wrote on Twitter, “It is very concerning that good scholars are siding with the coordinated smear campaign.”
We appreciate that Steinbaum thinks that we are “good scholars.” Indeed, it was our reaction to MacLean’s scholarship—rather than her politics—that was the initial reason we wrote our essay on Democracy in Chains. To put it simply, we thought that MacLean’s book missed the mark in terms of pure scholarly tradecraft. We did not find MacLean's book problematic because we thought she was unfair to Buchanan as a person, or because we have any personal attachment to public choice as a movement or philosophy. We found it problematic because it seemed to seriously misunderstand the history of Buchanan and public choice, in ways that may have pernicious consequences both for the general understanding of the right and for the specific strategies that the left and liberals ought to employ in response. Bad scholarship, in short, can drive bad politics.
The debate around Democracy in Chains has been political rather than intellectual.
MacLean’s thesis is straightforward enough (this interview provides a useful summary). James Buchanan, she argues, resented the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which he saw as a coercive attack on the Southern way of life. In response, he then created the economic school of public choice, and went on to guide Augusto Pinochet in Chile, helping to create a constitution that shackled democracy in that country. MacLean argues that Buchanan discovered a political “technology” or “operational strategy” for undermining liberalism, and this technology, as applied by Charles Koch, explains why the US right has been so successful in the last two decades. Thanks to Buchanan, the right has discovered what it needs to do to win, and it has applied his strategic insights through a surreptitious plan that is quietly advancing. After a falling out between Buchanan and Koch, Koch’s replacement intellectual lieutenant in the plan to subvert democracy is Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economics professor and blogger. MacLean claims that the documentation she has discovered is “incontrovertible.”
If this were all true, it would be a historical (and political) discovery of the greatest importance. It would radically alter our understanding of the history of the American right, placing a semi-peripheral individual and intellectual movement at the heart of the story. It would also mean that an intellectual movement that has usually been seen as motivated by its general opposition to regulation and the welfare state would instead have its origins in the white backlash against court-enforced desegregation.
The problem is that the documentation that MacLean presents is far from incontrovertible. Strong claims require strong evidence. Across a variety of issues, including, unfortunately, the main claims of her thesis, MacLean has scanty support.
• • •
MacLean also has a tin ear for how libertarians and public choice economists actually think and argue. Reading the book provides the impression that MacLean is like an anthropologist trying to explain a culture that she has never encountered directly, even though it can be found a short distance from her own office building. Much of her evidence is correspondence with Buchanan’s donors, evidence that is inherently problematic on its own as a guide to underlying intent, as anyone who has ever communicated with a donor can confirm.
Talking to the people involved—or even people who knew those people—would have helped enormously in making sense of what those documents actually mean. MacLean counters that supplementary interviews would have played into the hands of Buchanan’s defenders. But even if that is true, it means that MacLean’s account lacks what Clifford Geertz recognized as the essential cultural background to understand what a statement or document means in context. An anthropologist doesn’t have to believe everything that her informants tell her in order to decode the culture that they operate in, and neither does a historian.
One could argue that Buchanan was opportunistic and prepared to take advantage of white Southern politics to advance his cause.
MacLean, for example, is careful to note that there is no evidence that Buchanan was any more racist than other white Southerners of his generation. Still, she argues that the entire school of public choice emerged as a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. She claims that Buchanan looked at Brown as an example of coercion by Northern liberals who demanded the right to tell Southern whites how to run their society. For example, in analyzing a letter Buchanan sent to the president of UVA, requesting funds for a new center, MacLean extrapolates his words to give us her interpretation of his reasoning: he wanted to “fight” the Northern liberals who looked down on Southern whites like him, by “us[ing] the center to create a new school of political economy and social philosophy.” The center would have a “quiet political agenda: to defeat the ‘perverted form’ of liberalism that sought to destroy their way of life, ‘a social order,’ as he described it, ‘built on individual liberty,’ a term with its own coded meaning.”
The problem with MacLean’s claims about Buchanan’s underlying motivations—and Steinbaum’s gloss on them—is that they are her own interpolation rather than directly grounded in the source material she provides. MacLean does not back up her contention that the foundation of Buchanan’s entire school of public choice was motivated in his white Southern resentment of Yankee intervention with textual evidence. Instead, the reader has to rely on her belief that “individual liberty” had a coded meaning for Buchanan and the president whom he was writing to. This is a decidedly slender reed to support such a massive claim.
In fact, one could readily argue, on the basis of the evidence presented by MacLean, that Buchanan’s primary commitment was indeed to individual liberty as he understood it, but that he was opportunistic and prepared to take advantage of white Southern politics to advance the interests of his cause. This, obviously, would not exculpate Buchanan of cynicism. MacLean provides compelling evidence that he sought to support the privatization of schooling in Virginia. Even the most credulous political naif would have understood what the implications of privatization were likely to be in the context of vicious white opposition to school integration.
Yet such an explanation would better accommodate the rebuttals by public choice theorists who have attempted to exonerate Buchanan. They point to when he hired a South African economist as a visiting professor and how that economist used public choice theory to criticize apartheid in South Africa, even comparing it to segregation in the American South. This hire does not exonerate Buchanan, as some of MacLean’s critics imply, but it does suggests that his opportunism might have been undiscriminating in its willingness to cater both to strong supporters and genuine critics of racism—as long as both built on his ideas about liberty and public choice.
Moreover, it strongly suggests that public choice did not emerge as a “coded” form of white Southern resistance, as MacLean claims. Steinbaum accuses us of engaging in “some historical whitewashing” of public choice, but like MacLean’s, his indictment of public choice is notably stronger on assertion than demonstration. If they want to make the charge that public choice originated in racism (or, in MacLean’s more tactful description, white Southern resistance to desegregation) stick with the broader scholarly community, they need to provide substantial evidence. Until they do, it is reasonable for scholars to continue to believe that public choice was rooted in the broader anti-statism of Buchanan’s intellectual mentors, rather than Southern resistance.
Bad scholarship, in short, can drive bad politics.
In the same vein, MacLean claims that Buchanan provided the Pinochet regime the guidance it needed to chain Chilean democracy. This is not an inherently problematic argument. There is more than ample evidence—for example, in Juan Gabriel Valdes’s Pinochet’s Economists—that Chicago School economists played a direct (through consulting) and indirect (through their students) role in the policies implemented by the military government in Chile. Strong textual evidence has even forced libertarian followers of Friedrich Hayek—grudgingly and minimally—to admit that he supported Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Again, however, MacLean’s claims are very strong ones. She argues that it was
Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that even when the country finally returned to representative institutions, its capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power. The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan’s ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate.
the wicked genius of Buchanan’s approach to binding popular self-government was that he did it with detailed rules that made most people’s eyes glaze over. In the boring fine print, he understood, transformations can be achieved by increments that few will notice, because most people have no patience for minutiae. . . . The net impact of the new constitution’s intricate rules changes was to give the president unprecedented powers, hobble the congress, and enable unelected military officials to serve as a power brake on the elected members of the congress. A cunning new electoral system, not in use anywhere else in the world and clearly the fruit of Buchanan’s counsel, would permanently overrepresent the right-wing minority party to ensure “a system frozen by elite interests.”
MacLean says that Buchanan’s role has been hidden from other scholars because they have not had access to the same archives as she. Yet again, she provides weak evidence to support strong contentions. As best we can see, her evidence is that a group of elites invited Buchanan to give a series of lectures in Chile, where he pushed for a balanced budget and argued for unrealistic supermajoritarian limitations on spending, which, as MacLean acknowledges, did not appear in the constitution. Chile’s Minister of Finance gave a lunch for Buchanan and a well-connected economist expressed the hope that Buchanan’s ideas would influence constitutional deliberations.
That Buchanan gave a series of lectures to elites does not, under any reasonable standard, constitute good evidence that he was the guiding genius of Pinochet’s anti-democratic reforms. To properly support this claim, one would expect direct evidence that Buchanan’s suggestions had directly influenced the designers of Chile’s constitution. MacLean does not provide such evidence. When she writes that the “cunning new electoral system” was “clearly the fruit of Buchanan’s counsel,” MacLean does not provide any primary sources or other material to support this assertion, instead citing a book and general readership articles on Chile’s anti-democratic constitution that do not so much as mention Buchanan’s name, let alone show that he played the role she assigns him.
It is inherently hard for MacLean to show that Buchanan’s economic advice had impact, since his priorities as she presents them (balanced budgets and the like) did not differ substantially from those of the other U.S.-trained economists offering advice. Perhaps a somewhat stronger case could be made that Buchanan’s recommendation for supermajoritarian rules on spending indirectly influenced the constitution’s (quite different) supermajoritarian mechanism for amendments. However, this would still be a highly arguable claim, since many people have argued for supermajoritarianism. MacLean argues that the fact that there is no later mention of Pinochet’s Chile in Buchanan’s papers is a “telling omission,” perhaps suggesting that he felt guilty or feared exposure. A simpler hypothesis might be that he does not mention it because he did not believe he had any significant or unique influence.
• • •
As Steinbaum acknowledges, the evidence for MacLean’s most crucial claim—that James Buchanan gave Charles Koch the “technology” of revolution that he needed to revitalize the right—is also lacking. As she presents it, libertarians believed that the right, instead of “advocating for its [ends] frontally,” should “engage in a kind of crab walk, even if it required advancing misleading claims in order to take terrain bit by bit, in a manner that cumulatively, yet quietly, could begin to radically alter the power relations of American society.”
In MacLean’s account, the Charles Koch Institute turned to Buchanan to teach its staff how to “crab walk.” MacLean depicts a paper that Buchanan wrote, “Social Security Survival,” as the central document in which he laid out the plan for dismantling the welfare state and overturning the democratic choice of citizens that the right has been following ever since. Since candid opposition to popular programs such as Social Security would have meant political suicide, the right had to be devious in its approach. It also had to split the coalition supporting Social Security.
Unlike some of Buchanan’s libertarian defenders, we are not interested in defending the man’s virtue.
Yet again, the evidence simply does not support MacLean’s contentions. The paper that she identifies as Buchanan’s stealth plan for the right is readily available on the Internet. In context, it appears to be an entirely ordinary, and even banal, example of public choice analysis. While its sympathies are clearly with opponents of Social Security, it uses basic public choice arguments to analyze the ways in which both supporters and opponents of Social Security might look to advance their ends. It is hard for us to imagine that even a moderately sophisticated political strategist would have learned much from such a theoretical academic paper.
MacLean claims that the Cato Institute then “translated Buchanan’s ideas into a battle plan.” However, the battle plan that she refers to rests on the work of a variety of experts working to undermine Social Security. It is certainly possible that Buchanan was one of these experts, although he is at no point named, while others are. Moreover, Peter Ferrara’s important 1980 Cato Institute book, Social Security: The Inherent Contradiction, which makes the case for privatization, was a critical document in what might be understood as the broader “battle plan.” But he barely discusses Buchanan, and when he does, it is mainly to argue against Buchanan’s previous proposals.
Most problematically, MacLean presents Charles Koch’s search for a new approach to radically transform politics, claiming that he found the “missing piece” that he was looking for in the “operational strategy” of Buchanan. Her crucial piece of evidence for this, which she describes and discusses at length, is a speech given by Koch alongside a large financial gift to set up a Buchanan Center. As MacLean describes this speech:
The message Koch delivered in January 1997, along with the $10 million gift he pledged to support a new and enlarged James Buchanan Center, made clear that he believed he had found the missing tool he had been searching for, the one that would produce “real world” results. James Buchanan’s theory and implementation strategies were the right “technology,” to use Koch’s favored phrase. But the professor’s team had not employed the tools forcefully enough to “create winning strategies.” Koch chastised gently at first: “Since we are greatly outnumbered, the failure to use our superior technology ensures failure.” . . . “Our skepticism,” he said pointedly to any who might hesitate, “needs to be directed toward rationalizations for not applying the framework rather than toward the framework itself.”
The problem, as libertarian historian Brian Doherty identifies, is that this is a radically mistaken interpretation of Koch’s speech. Koch was not praising or discussing Buchanan’s operational strategy, but instead puffing up his own purported strategic insights. The “framework” being praised in the speech (a version of which is available here) is not Buchanan’s supposed stealth technology for undermining democracy and the state. Instead, it is market principles, as specifically exemplified by Koch’s own homespun business management philosophy, which has notoriously been the source of contention between Koch and his grantees. Buchanan receives only two passing mentions in the speech, not in the context of his own plan or ideas, but to provide support for Koch’s belief in the ineffectiveness of theoretical economics as opposed to Koch’s more management based approach. It is as if MacLean is reading from her own preconceived theory regarding Koch and Buchanan’s sinister partnership rather than the text that was directly in front of her.
It would be remarkable, given the banality of Buchanan’s original paper and its assertions, if there were any real evidence of right-wing thinkers and activists treating Buchanan’s purported strategic insights as a lodestar. Indeed, as we discuss in our Vox article, such strategies are commonplace across the ideological spectrum throughout U.S. politics in the twentieth century. Angus Burgin, for instance, documents Milton Friedman giving quite similar advice to Pat Buchanan (no relation, as far as we know) in 1973.
It is not entirely impossible that MacLean is right.
However, it is not entirely impossible that MacLean is right. As she says, many of the key documents detailing Koch’s internal communications with his organization are unavailable. More generally, it might happen that further evidence emerges showing that one or even all of MacLean’s claims is true. That would not discomfit us. Unlike some of Buchanan’s libertarian defenders, we are not interested in defending the man’s virtue. Our argument is primarily that MacLean did not make her case and that she took a number of scholarly shortcuts that make it seem to non-specialist readers as if she did. This certainly does not mean that she is dishonest. We vigorously dissent from the disgraceful attacks that some, such as Georgetown business school professor Jason Brennan, have made on her character. Such attacks end up saying more about Brennan’s character than MacLean’s.
• • •
We believe that the flaws in Democracy in Chains and the debate it has spurred, lead to three problems. First, while we have political commitments, we are scholars. That means that our core priority is to get the facts right, even when that is politically inconvenient. When we believe others are making profoundly mistaken claims—even if we share deep political values with them—we shouldn't shut up just because speaking out would be politically awkward. Of course, other scholars can take issue with our criticisms, but those disagreements should primarily focus on the evidence and its interpretation, rather than on whether one is giving succor to the “right” or the “wrong” side.
Second, while a commitment to trying to figure out the truth has to come first, we also believe that, in this particular instance, the mistakes of the book could badly mislead liberals and the left. Democracy in Chains has received laudatory reviews and write-ups in general interest publications such as the Guardian and the New York Times. Reviewers and general readers cannot be blamed for assuming that a book by a renowned historian will be accurate, but, in this case, this has led them to accept a set of claims about the right that have little good evidence to support them. Specifically, as we argued in our article for Vox, the left is liable to overestimate the extent to which the right is operating by a single plan, based on a strategy put forward by a single intellectual. We believe it is more appropriate to understand the variety of actors on the right, their conflicts with each other, and the success of some funders in supporting multiple different projects to explore an ex-ante unobservable landscape of political possibilities. The most serious danger is that the left might look to this mistaken understanding of the right’s success as a model for how it should organize itself.
The left can learn useful lessons from approaches like public choice, even if they were inspired by right-wing values and understandings. Steinbaum here disagrees, arguing that public choice is unoriginal and that its success can only be explained by its anti-democratic implications. This claim, however, is based on a mistaken understanding of recent economic history. While public choice certainly received substantial financial support from donors who liked its right-wing implications, it would not have succeeded if it had not addressed an important gap in the existing economics profession. The liberal economics of the 1950s and 1960s (as presented, for example, in the relevant editions of Samuelson’s discipline-defining Economics textbooks) pointed out the existence of market failures and assumed that government could readily and unproblematically step in to fix them. Buchanan and his disciples used the basic tools of economic modeling to show that government was likely to experience failures too.
Whatever the motivations of the many libertarian critics of the book, some have pointed out real errors of fact or interpretation.
Public choice provided a way of thinking about those problems that many—including people who did not share Buchanan's politics—found useful and valuable. For example, a variety of regulatory agencies created in the New Deal era (and before) were based on the idea that an insulated commission could discover and implement the public interest. Public choice (along with a variety of other tools) was useful in explaining why those commissions (like the Civil Aeronautics Board), so it often ended up serving the interests of regulated industries. Public choice provides an inherently limited set of tools for understanding politics, but ignoring the very real defects of the economics it critiqued make it impossible to understand how it succeeded in carving out a durable space in policy discourse.
Third, the sloppiness of the book makes it much easier for right-wing critics to magnify the flaws in ways that are themselves sloppy or misleading. For example, David Bernstein, in two posts, uses problems in MacLean's sourcing to imply in contradistinction that Henry Manne (the dean who made George Mason University’s law school shift its focus to law and economics) was not driven by the desire to set up a conservative legal institution to counterbalance liberalism in the academy, and that the law and economics approach was an ideologically neutral program because it invited Paul Samuelson as well as Milton Friedman to its seminars. As a book that one of us has written discusses at some length, Manne had entertained the ambition of creating a truly free market legal institution long before he came to George Mason, while the addition of Samuelson to law and economics seminars was an effort to provide the perception of ideological diversity for a program whose primary mission was to undermine support for the activist state.
Problems in MacLean’s sourcing also do not preclude investigations into the political ties and funding of public choice. Indeed, key public choice advocates themselves identified their program as having strong political aims and were sometimes inclined to suggest that their opponents were beholden to their purported funders in the federal government. As Jane Mayer and others have shown, there are important funding ties between different conservative groupings hostile to voting and regulation. Meanwhile, Theda Skocpol and Alex Hertel-Fernandez are doing heroic work in uncovering the details of how Koch organizations are reshaping the Republican party at the state and local level. We think that sharp criticism of public choice’s approach to democracy is legitimate—indeed, one of us has frequently engaged in it.
Finally, as noted before, there is suggestive evidence that Buchanan behaved opportunistically and cynically with respect to race issues in the American South. It would not surprise us at all if further evidence emerges that some figures in public choice or libertarian economics had more directly racist views, or other information emerges that is discomfiting to Buchanan’s most zealous defenders in the current affray. Much of the existing history of these movements has been written by people who share their basic ideology and have an incentive to downplay their less attractive features. A lot more work is needed on the often-problematic ways in which political maneuvering over power and race shape the trajectories of academic disciplines like economics. However, this work needs to base its conclusions on strong evidence if it is to stick.
It also needs to adopt a sophisticated understanding of ideas. Both social science and historiographic methodology suggests that popular and important ideas often originate with political groups, but that they can escape the intentions of their sponsors and promoters and sometimes even be turned against them. Public choice is arguably one example; people with different politics than Buchanan long ago adopted its ideas about regulatory capture, and those ideas can be turned against the modern right that both MacLean and Steinbaum wish to oppose. As Jane Mayer notes, Koch enterprises not only took advantage of government subsidies for the energy industry, but lobbied hard to maintain them, opening them to the kind of critique that public choice has specialized in.
Regarding Steinbaum, we believe that he is right to complain that economists (and other social scientists) sometimes think of themselves as talking about ideas in an empyrean that is entirely removed from the sordid and sublunary realm of political debate. Yet it is just as much a mistake to reduce ideas to a mere ideological condensate of brute power relations. Navigating between these errors to understand the complex consequences of ideas such as public choice requires us to forego shortcuts, emphasize difficult, patient research, and sometimes accept conclusions that go against our political priors.
Regarding Professor MacLean herself, she has dismissed most of her critics as instruments in an orchestrated campaign by Koch-funded institutions and scholars to discredit her book. Whatever the motivations of the many libertarian critics of the book, some have pointed out real errors of fact or interpretation. While some criticisms are trivial, others, as we discuss above, seem to profoundly challenge the major claims of the book. We would welcome a more detailed response from her than what we have seen so far.
To read our other coverage of Nancy MacLean's book, see Kochonomics: The Racist Roots of Public Choice Theory and The Book that Explains Charlottesville.
August 30, 2017
21 Min read time