Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Buchanan and Agrarianism – a revealing passage

In James M. Buchanan’s autobiography Better than Plowing, he offers a fascinating late-life reflection on a subject that he refers to as the country aesthetic. The discussion occurs in the 8th chapter of the book, which is about his reflections on life in old age. It’s a fascinating read and tells how Buchanan – at the prodding of Gordon Tullock – bought a tract of rural property in southwest Virginia for his retirement.

Buchanan comments at length about his transition from a busy and incredibly productive academic career to the peaceful life of a small cabin. He also notes that a short while earlier, such a move would have been unthinkable to him as someone who spent the majority of his adult life in the halls and classrooms of large research universities. He also pauses to contrast the country aesthetic of his retirement to his own upbringing on a farm in rural Tennessee, which he remembered quite differently:

“As chapter 2 should have made clear, my early life could scarcely have produced in me some romanticized yearning for the drudgery of the yeoman farmer. And, through the middle decades of my life I felt no yearning to return to the soil, to seek out my roots, to engage with nature directly in some continuing struggle to transform the wild into the fruitful. Nor did I lapse into the opposing green absurdity, the abstracted longing for some return to nature, even if red in tooth and claw. I was, for three full decades, willing to live simply in the complex and interdependent world of modernity, content to purchase my necessaries at the market from income earned in peddling my academic wares in the markets of their own. I sensed no foregone fulfillment in my failures to walk among golden daffodils, and neither in painting nor in poetry did the idealizations of natures wonders stimulate my notice.” (pp. 109-110)

The referenced Chapter 2 is Buchanan’s account of his boyhood. It is a story of growing up in poverty on a farm in rural Tennessee, replete with the hardships of tilling fields, of no electricity or central heating and the harsh winters that entailed, and of the slim financial means his family possessed. While Buchanan does not malign this life of his youth, it is abundantly clear from his telling that he left it by intent and did not look back to it as an idealized time in his life.

The purpose of Chapter 8 is to juxtapose the two – the hardships of his rural childhood with the rediscovery of the rural way of life in retirement. The latter carried with it a new appreciation for the country aesthetic that was conspicuously subdued in his prior experience.

This story stands in marked contrast with the walking paean to Agrarianism that Nancy MacLean depicts in her book Democracy in Chains. As I’ve noted in my previous posts, MacLean consciously tries to write the pro-segregation Vanderbilt Agrarian poets into Buchanan’s own intellectual history, and particularly Donald Davidson. She does so with almost no evidence whatsoever – it’s a connection that she conjures up out of thin air and then shoehorns into her own deeply politicized narrative. It’s a convenient shoehorning considering MacLean’s later objective of painting Buchanan’s academic career as a sort of intellectual service to Virginia’s segregationists in the wake of Brown v. Board (a claim she also makes with no evidence). It also unwittingly causes her to miss the central relevance of Thomas Hobbes’ influence upon Buchanan’s thought – a critical and damning oversight for a book that purports to be a work of “intellectual history.”

Note the passage above by Buchanan in which he describes his departure from the rural lifestyle as a young man. Now compare it with how MacLean portrays the same events on page 34 of her book:

“When [Buchanan] left Tennessee for New York to do his military service in 1941, the new graduate seemed to see through lenses wholly crafted by Donald Davidson.”

Davidson, of course, was an intellectual partisan of a romanticized Agrarian lifestyle and articulated an aggressive defense of the very same thing Buchanan admits he was leaving behind. Keep in mind that MacLean is certainly aware of Buchanan’s Better than Plowing – she cites from it multiple times. And yet here she completely inverts the meaning of Buchanan’s own recollections to tell a story exactly opposite of the one Buchanan told. I think it’s fair to inquire at this point about fundamental questions of MacLean’s own honesty with her sources.


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