Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Nancy MacLean’s segregationist sins of omission…and commission

One of the most inflammatory charges of Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains holds that James M. Buchanan, and by extension his department and research center at the University of Virginia, served as something of an intellectual buttress to the segregationist forces of 1950s and 1960s Virginia politics after Brown v. Board. MacLean has very little direct evidence for this charge – in fact she’s even conceded in a couple of interviews that she has no direct documentation of Buchanan ever writing anything in favor of segregation. Her footnotes are similarly flimsy on this point and she resorts to misreading and misrepresenting Buchanan’s work on school choice to make her argument (Steve Horwitz documents the issues here).

To bolster her non-existent case, MacLean resorts to playing a game of six degrees of separation in which she deploys a heavy stream of innuendo and unfounded supposition to write Buchanan into the pro-segregation political apparatus of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. and a Richmond newspaper editor. As I’ve documented in my previous posts, she also fabricates claims out of thin air that allege Buchanan’s intellectual debts to the pro-segregation Vanderbilt Agrarians and to the 19th century pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun. Remarkably, there’s almost no evidence for any of these claims – just a fanciful tale that is increasingly taking on conspiratorial overtones in the way that MacLean has mounted her defense.

Sadly, a number of historians have displayed a remarkable credulity for MacLean’s claims on this point, even refusing to engage the evidence. One recent exception appears on the blog of John P. Jackson, who at least attempts to mount an actual defense of MacLean’s interpretation of Buchanan’s time at UVA. The whole piece is worth reading and engaging, but the core of Jackson’s argument on Brown and segregation appears in the following excerpt:

“So, if we take the book as a whole, we find that MacLean shows that Buchanan was embedded in a state power structure where only those folks who were reliably segregationist were allowed to work (the famed “Byrd Machine” of Virginia), that he did nothing to rock that boat, and that his theories and arguments were welcomed by those looking to preserve segregation.”

In assessing this argument, it’s important to recognize that Jackson accepts MacLean’s own portrayal of her evidence at face value. He does not get into the matter of whether she’s even proven her case, or whether her footnotes support her claims. He treats them as if they have been demonstrated as true.

It’s a problematic position for him to begin with and again I’d encourage any reader to review the aforementioned links in which MacLean’s misuse of evidence is documented. But I want to focus on another aspect of Jackson’s argument, as I believe it does raise an important point: what was Buchanan’s relationship to the segregationist political environment around him in 1950s and 1960s Virginia? Jackson appears to believe that Buchanan lent it support through a combination of indirect policies such as school choice and silent acquiescence to the political machine around him. His source for this claim is, again, a mostly uncritical acceptance of MacLean’s own narrative, which asserts more or less the same thing.

There’s another problem though: MacLean’s narrative about UVA is badly flawed. In order to portray Buchanan as a collusive and acquiescing partner of Virginia’s segregationist political machine, she omitted a critical piece of evidence that contradicts her narrative.

In 1965 Buchanan recruited an economist by the name of William H. Hutt to serve as a visiting professor at the Thomas Jefferson Center, his hub of operations at UVA. Hutt was a natural fit for the role. He had recently retired from his position as chair of the economics department at the University of Capetown in South Africa. He was also an early contributor to the public choice school of thought, and his work drew heavily upon Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent. Hutt’s own academic reputation is noteworthy though because he was one of the leading academic opponents in South Africa of that country’s notorious Apartheid regime.

Before he came to UVA, Hutt spent almost three decades criticizing the Apartheid government of his own country. His work repeatedly drew the ire of the South African government. In one notable instance from 1955, the Apartheid regime even suspended Hutt’s passport in an attempt to prevent him from presenting on the barbarism of this policy abroad. He regained his travel rights after a public controversy over his academic freedom, and remained undeterred in criticizing the South African government. Hutt’s work on Apartheid eventually culminated in a book length treatment of the subject entitled The Economics of the Colour Bar, which he published in 1964. The work notably employs an early version of public choice theory to explain the origins of Apartheid in South Africa as a form of regulatory capture to the benefit of white labor unions over black workers.

When Buchanan recruited Hutt the following year, his international reputation as an Apartheid critic was near its peak. Hutt joined the department at UVA over the winter of 1965-66 and remained there for about two years on an extended stay. Drawing upon his recent book, Hutt delivered multiple lectures at Virginia and other universities in the region about the economics of Apartheid. During his stay Hutt also noticed an alarming similarity between the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the segregation in the southern United States. His home country’s brutal laws were more overt and severe, but the two only differed in degree. In fact, Hutt noticed that many segregationist laws had similar origins to South Africa. Both aimed to keep the black workforce out of competition and other forms of economic association with whites, and both used race to achieve this end.

In short order, Hutt began extending his analysis of Apartheid to what he saw around him in the segregationist United States. While under Buchanan’s sponsorship at Virginia, he gave multiple lectures on this subject and penned a short article for the journal Modern Age describing their similarities. A  choice excerpt follows:

“My own contribution to the gathering was a comparison of the not altogether dissimilar situation in my own country (the Republic of South Africa). I explained the origins of injustices to which the non-whites of South Africa have for long been subject; and general discussion suggested that, in several respects, the real disabilities of the American Negro population can be traced to the identical ultimate causes.”

Hutt preceded to explain the differences of the two countries. Importantly, South Africa was majority-black while blacks were a minority in the United States. This, in part, explained the severity and virulent racism of the former regime when compared to the latter’s preference for more indirect forms of discrimination, among them the “separate but equal” doctrine. The similarities were nonetheless pronounced. Hutt continued:

“These and other differences do not prevent us, however, from recognizing that in both countries, and for not very different reasons, non-whites are condemned to inferiority of productive opportunities, income, status, and respect. The reasons are rooted deeply in history. Yet many of the whites of this generation must share responsibility for perpetuation of the inferiority; for there are deliberately imposed man-made barriers to equality of economic opportunity barriers which are, I suggest, by all odds the most important ultimate cause of inequality of civil rights.”

MacLean is certainly aware of Hutt’s presence at UVA because she mentions that Buchanan recruited him on p. 59 of her book. But she also conveniently leaves out any references whatsoever to Hutt’s research and activities during his time the Jefferson Center. In fact, she twists and contorts it in an opposite direction that even goes so far as to imply Hutt’s complicity in the same blatantly fabricated segregationist conspiracy she uses to tar Buchanan. Note the underlined segments in the excerpt below:

MacLean makes no mention of Hutt’s better-known book on Apartheid, or the fact that his academic work and lectures while at UVA explicitly targeted both Apartheid and the parallel segregation regime in the United States. Not content to stop at this sin of omission though, MacLean converts it into a sin of commission. She highlights Hutt’s criticism of labor unions in a decade-old book and contorts it into an implicit nod of support for Virginia’s segregationist political class.

Even this charge is absurd on its face. As Hutt repeatedly noted in his work, white labor unions were a major source of political support for Apartheid in South Africa. But MacLean subscribes to a worldview where labor unions are sacrosanct. And that, apparently, includes a license to violate the most basic evidentiary norms of the historian’s trade out of service to her political argument.


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