Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

On the matter of letting chips fall where they may

As my post yesterday noted, I have spent the past several days source-checking a number of key claims in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains against the archival holdings of the University of Virginia. The latest installment takes a look at another of MacLean’s most inflammatory allegations regarding segregation, and her attempts to link it to the work of James M. Buchanan.

MacLean has gotten extensive currency out of the passage depicted below, and particularly the line excerpted in its closing sentence – “letting the chips fall where they may.” She also uses this line as a title for one of the chapters in her book and has stressed its importance to her thesis at great length in a number of print, radio, and television interviews since the book’s release.

In MacLean’s telling, this passage supposedly reveals a distinct callousness to Buchanan’s motives in writing a the 1959 paper on the economics of school vouchers (MacLean completely missed and misrepresented the origins of that paper, as I documented at length yesterday). She basically accuses him of opportunistically using the school desegregation fight to advance a libertarian agenda of school privatization at the expense of African-American students.

It is important to note that her charge here is not that Buchanan supported segregation (although the rest of the book employs an endless string of innuendos to poison that well against him too). Rather, she is asserting that Buchanan did not care if the segregationists’ school closure schemes harmed African-American students. She is accusing him of cruel indifference to their plight, hence “letting the chips fall where they may.”

The quote is thus intended to function as a sort of “let them eat cake” moment in her fanciful tale.

MacLean cites this passage to a cover letter that Buchanan and his co-author Warren Nutter attached to their 1959 article when they released it for circulation on April 1, 1959. I located a copy of that letter at UVA and reproduce its text below for consideration, with the quoted section highlighted:

“As individual citizens, it has been somewhat difficult during recent weeks to refrain from taking a public position on the fundamental issues in the school crisis. This I am sure that you can understand and appreciate.

As professional economists, it has been even more difficult to withhold comment and contribution to a discussion that has seemed to us to reach surprisingly unsophisticated levels, even among those citizens who should be more fully informed.

In the first capacity we have continued to refrain from expressing a view publicly. In the second capacity, we have concluded that a genuine contribution to the discussion might be made by a simple and straight-forward analysis of the economic issues in the case, letting the chips fall where they may. The result is the enclosed paper. We thought that you would perhaps be interested. So far we have limited this paper to private circulation, although all or portions of it will perhaps reach the news media soon, contrary to our intent and purpose. This will probably result in our being condemned by all parties to the public dispute.”

As the context of this cover letter makes clear, “letting the chips fall where they may” had a very different meaning than the one that MacLean assigns to it. Buchanan and Nutter were not callously brushing aside the plight of African-Americans or dismissing concerns about segregationist misuses of their ideas. Rather, they were expressing their frustration with the poor state of the public discourse in Richmond that had been caused by the school segregation issue and the fallout from “massive resistance.”

They offered their article to the public as an honest attempt to elevate the degraded political dialogue, drawing upon their own acknowledged expertise as academic economists. As they noted, they intentionally steered clear of the politics of segregation in the paper and confined their comments strictly to the narrow subject of the economics of public education (an area where both authors were acknowledged experts, predating Brown v. Board). In “letting the chips fall where they may,” they were simply offering their paper to better-inform the debate as opposed to lobbying for an outcome let alone showing disregard for its negative effects. And as the letter’s concluding line reflects, they fully anticipated that the politicians in Richmond would either ignore or condemn their study, as politicians are prone to do with academic testimony.

As with so many other examples in Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean has taken this quote out of context, stripped it completely of its original meaning, and misrepresented it as saying something entirely different – and entirely malicious. This recurring pattern of abusing historical sources should be sufficient to call into question the integrity of her entire project.

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