Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
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  • Is a 2017 National Book Award finalist built upon a simple typo?

    Posted By on October 17, 2017

    My other posts on the National Book Award-nominated Democracy in Chains have focused upon severe problems with its author’s historical account, including the misuse and misrepresentation of archival evidence. Today I want to look at another aspect of the book – its own origin story, as told by author Nancy MacLean.

    The book’s publicist has made exhaustive use of this story to heighten the intrigue around its contents, as has MacLean herself. For example, Duke University’s media office published a lengthy feature entitled “cracking the code” that recounts how MacLean supposedly came to this line of research.

    Briefly stated, MacLean claims she set out to write a book on school desegregation in Virginia after reading about the infamous closing of Prince Edward County’s public schools in 1959 to prevent the enrollment of black students. According to the Duke article, “As MacLean dug into that story, she spotted Buchanan in a footnote to a 1959 report” – the article he wrote about school vouchers along with colleague Warren Nutter. The rest of MacLean’s tale follows directly from this purported discovery. She claims she then looked into this footnote and uncovered evidence of something nefarious. She claims she discovered that the two libertarian economists, while not exactly racists themselves, had forged an unholy alliance with Virginia’s segregationist “massive resisters” in order to advance the scheme of school privatization. From this simple footnote, Democracy in Chains was allegedly born.

    Let’s investigate the story a little further. MacLean repeats a version of it in the acknowledgments section of her book where she says her inquiry into Buchanan began. Here she credits the “footnote” that tipped her off to the entire conspiracy to an earlier work on Virginia’s desegregation crisis by James H. Hershman:

    This reference points to Hershman’s chapter in an edited volume on Virginia school desegregation from 1998 by Matthew Lassiter and Andrew Lewis, The Moderates’ Dilemma. The Nutter-Buchanan school voucher article from 1959 is indeed cited in a footnote to this chapter, although Hershman describes it in greater detail in the body of the text. This excerpt may be seen below:

    Let’s pause and note a couple of features of the 1998 Hershman article that are directly pertinent to the MacLean story. First, Hershman places Nutter and Buchanan squarely in the camp of the segregationist “massive resisters.” He describes their article as being “as close as the resisters came to countering the moderates” arguments against school privatization. (Those who have read the 1959 article know that it does not actually advocate the positions Hershman and MacLean ascribe to it, but they proceed from that misreading nonetheless).

    Second, and equally significant, is that Hershman then claims Nutter and Buchanan published the paper in the Richmond News-Leader, the militant segregationist house organ edited by James Jackson Kilpatrick. This connection is important because Kilpatrick becomes MacLean’s key link between Buchanan and the “massive resisters” in her own account. As MacLean admits, she has no evidence directly tying Buchanan or Nutter to the segregationist political machine of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. Instead she gets there through the supposed Kilpatrick connection, which as we’ve now seen comes from Hershman in the passage above.

    As readers of my previous posts on this subject know, MacLean erred in trying to forge a link between Kilpatrick and Buchanan. There’s very little evidence that the two men had any substantive interactions, and none related to segregation or the schools crisis. By contrast, there’s ample evidence that Nutter and Buchanan were actually working with Virginius Dabney, the moderately pro-integration editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Dabney was a personal friend of Nutter, was involved in the economists research center at the University of Virginia, and actually published the school choice paper in two installments on April 12-13, 1959. In other words, the erroneous connection to Kilpatrick likely originated with Hershman’s 1998 article.

    So why did Hershman associate the Nutter-Buchanan article with the segregationist Richmond News-Leader instead of its actual publication place, Dabney’s Times-Dispatch? The answer is likely a simple inadvertent swapping of citations. Hershman’s 1998 chapter was based on his 1977 doctoral thesis at the University of Virginia on the same subject. The Nutter-Buchanan article also appears there, but without the error:

    Note that the 1977 version (which actually appears in a footnote) contains two important differences with the later 1998 version. First, Hershman does not characterized Nutter and Buchanan as being aligned with the segregationist “massive resisters” in 1977. This addition is made in the 1998 article. Second, Hershman’s dissertation correctly identified the Richmond Times-Dispatch as the place of publication – not the News-Leader. At some point in between his 1977 dissertation and the 1998 article, Hershman inadvertently switched the newspapers.

    MacLean took the implications of that error and ran with them to fantastical lengths, writing Kilpatrick into the story as a crucial link between Buchanan and the segregationist Byrd machine. She devotes substantial attention to Kilpatrick in her text, making sure to highlight his pro-segregation writing and his interests in the political theories of John C. Calhoun. She also wildly speculates that Nutter and Buchanan were coordinating their paper’s release behind the scenes with Kilpatrick and attempts to divine commonalities between it and editorials that Kilpatrick wrote for the News-Leader.

    There’s one more twist though. At some point while writing her book, MacLean apparently realized that the Nutter-Buchanan article actually appeared in the Times-Dispatch and properly cited it to the correct newspaper. Despite catching this citation error though, she retained the purported link between Buchanan and Kilpatrick anyway. She wrote her entire chapter as if the Hershman error from 1998 was accurate and presented Buchanan as an ally of the “massive resisters” even though she had no evidence for that claim.

    MacLean never even bothered to investigate the article’s actual route to publication through Dabney. But Dabney, who won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for editorializing against poll taxes and bus segregation in Richmond, does not allow the same salacious charges and insinuations that MacLean extracts from Kilpatrick. MacLean therefore retained an erroneous historical interpretation premised on Hershman’s switching of the papers, even though she had sufficient information to correct that error.

    So there you have it. A finalist for the 2017 National Book Award appears to have been built upon a typo.

    Did School Vouchers threaten Segregation in 1959 Charlottesville?

    Posted By on October 12, 2017

    Virginia’s desegregation fight has been a central point of contention in the ongoing controversy over Democracy in Chains. Author Nancy MacLean and several of her defenders in the historian community have attempted to depict a 1959 paper on school vouchers by Warren Nutter and James M. Buchanan as the product of an unholy alliance they allegedly struck with segregationists for the purpose of advancing libertarian education policies.

    The archival evidence behind this claim is extraordinarily flimsy. MacLean both blatantly misrepresents the contents of archival material relating to this claim and confuses basic facts, figures, and newspapers in her genesis story for the Nutter-Buchanan school choice paper. But there’s also another conceptual problem with her argument: it begins with an ideologically-informed assumption that segregation and school vouchers are necessarily linked and complementary objectives.

    MacLean and her defenders have often pointed to the notorious closing of Prince Edward County’s public school system in an attempt to write segregationist outcomes into the voucher proposal discussed in the Nutter-Buchanan paper. Note that she has offered no evidence that even tangentially connects Buchanan to Prince Edward County, let alone any documentation that Prince Edward school officials designed their program around Buchanan’s arguments. That has not stopped her from repeating this claim though in multiple media appearances. One of her most vocal defenders, historian John Jackson of William & Mary, has even gone so far as to suggest – also without any evidence – that Prince Edward County’s actions showed the fruits of the Buchanan-Nutter-Friedman voucher proposal in action.

    Curiously, for all their speculative comments about Prince Edward County, neither MacLean nor her defenders appear to have examined what was happening closer to home in Charlottesville where Buchanan and Nutter actually lived. If they did, they would quickly discover that a pronounced tension existed locally between Charlottesville’s white-controlled public school system and the voucher concept.

    The politics of the situation were complex and involved varying degrees of segregationism, including the no-compromise “massive resistance” variety offered by allies of Sen. Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. One noteworthy argument emerged out of a faction aligned with the Charlottesville school board and its ongoing legal battles with the NAACP. The school board’s attorney was John S. Battle, Jr.* the son of a former governor of Virginia and committed segregationist with close ties to the Byrd machine. *[Correction: an earlier version identified the attorney as his father, the former governor]

    On March 23, 1959 – a little over a week before Nutter and Buchanan released their paper to the public – Battle addressed a PTA meeting at a local Charlottesville high school to discuss the pending NAACP litigation and the legislative turmoil over desegregation. Battle made an interesting argument intended for the committed segregationists in the audience. If any sizable portion of the white population removed their children from public schools and placed them in private schools (as could happen under a voucher-like program), the result would be to suddenly open up a mass of seats in majority-white public schools. These empty seats, Battle argued, would then be “engulfed” by a court-backed influx of black students who would force an immediate and unstoppable integration upon the public school system. If this happened, he warned, the school district would be rendered powerless to fight integration any further in the courts or legislature.

    The avowedly segregationist Richmond News-Leader reported favorably on Battle’s arguments, a copy of which is displayed above. Private schools, its reporter declared, were a pathway to the Charlottesville public school system’s “engulfment by Negroes.” As Battle argued in his plea to white parents, “very few Negroes” would enroll if they held firm and kept white children in the public school system while the anti-integration fight continued.

    The local Charlottesville Daily Progress covered the story as well:

    Further into the article, they summarize Battle as saying “that parents who put their children in tuition-grant supported private schools might find themselves in a situation where those schools would be forced to accept Negro applicants.” Instead, he urged parents to support a geographical assignment plan that would “not entirely prevent integration” but was designed to “keep integration to a bare minimum.” Quoting Battle’s speech directly:

    “No Negro child is going to force any white child out of his desk at Venable [Elementary School]…But for every white child who vacates his desk there is a great risk that a Negro child will occupy it.”

    So as it turns out, the local situation in Charlottesville is a much more pertinent context for Nutter and Buchanan’s paper than unfounded speculations about a link to Prince Edward County across the state. And as we can see from Battle’s remarks, given only days before the Buchanan-Nutter paper’s public release, a number of white supremacists in the city’s public school bureaucracy interpreted private school vouchers as a direct threat to their own segregationist order.


    Two quick points to further contextualize the historical events above.

    First, and with no small stroke of irony, Battle’s anti-voucher arguments can be explained through a little standard public choice analysis. He opposed vouchers as a threat to the segregationist order for the same reason that Milton Friedman advocated them – they break into the public school system’s educational monopoly and break up a number of entry and exit barriers that ensure that system’s continuation and funding. Segregation was one such barrier, and would in time find itself undermined by educational competition as Friedman liked to point out.

    MacLean and her defenders have been prone to dismiss this line of argument as naive and ideological. Yet as we’ve seen above it is actually MacLean who has a tenuous and politically-distorted grasp on the circumstances of the desegregation fight in 1959. Battle’s line of attack, interestingly enough, is essentially a segregationist twist on an old argument put forth by political scientist Albert O. Hirschman in his classic (and mostly critical) analysis of school choice. Exercise of the exit option (i.e. taking the voucher) has a secondary effect of removing voice-exercising parents from the old school and thereby altering pressures upon it to be voice-responsive. Only in this case the effects are flipped. Battle is talking about removing the segregation-conscious parents from a public school, which he believed to be an important preventative buffer against that school becoming more integrated. Absent those parents to agitate for and preserve it, segregation in the public school system begins to decline rapidly…which isn’t a claim that segregation’s fall would be complication-free; only that there may be something to Friedman’s arguments after all that segregationists themselves also realized and feared.

    Second, the voucher-segregation argument is actually empirically testable. Corey DeAngelis summarizes the evidence over at Cato and, sure enough, the academic literature on voucher systems in the U.S. overwhelmingly suggests that they have a real-world effect of increasing racial integration and diversity in affected schools.

    Does the history profession have a paranoia affliction?

    Posted By on October 10, 2017

    Inside Higher Ed ran a very strange article today that says more about the historians involved than the details of the story.

    First the actual event that happened:

    Over the last few days, a person claiming to be a high school student sent out a mass-email to a bunch of history professors. The email asked them to fill out some sort of questionnaire about a claim by 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke on objectivity in history. It then directed the reader to a link on SurveyMonkey.

    That’s it.

    There was no discernible pattern to the email, other than it appears to have gone to lists of recipients copied off of a variety of history department webpages. Its purpose was – and remains – unclear. It could be a phishing scam or it could be a simple survey by some random oddball who’s interested in von Ranke. In any case though, the email’s text was entirely ignore-able – as in the sort of thing that usually goes straight to the spam folder, along with requests to submit to pay-for-play web journals and invitations to spend $10,000 attending some “interdisciplinary management sciences” conference on a Greek island. The normal response to that sort of thing is most likely hitting the delete button and going about one’s day.

    But somebody didn’t hit the delete button on this one. L.D. Burnett, a Teaching Fellow at the University of Texas-Dallas, decided to write a blog post about it in which she strongly intimated her suspicions that the anonymous von Ranke spammer was actually an elaborate scheme concocted by right-wing media outlets to entrap her and other “progressive” historians into saying something inelegant about their chosen profession.

    Note that Burnett did not have any evidence for this charge of right-wing mischief – only a deletion-worthy spam email about a long-dead German historian that only a small number of specialists study in depth. She nonetheless speculated that it might have been a trap laid for her by Campus Reform, and almost certainly “a dude,  despite the feminine nym on the email.” Burnett’s speculative exercise quickly migrated over to the facebook group of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. Here she appended her unfounded claims about Campus Reform with an additional suggestion implicating the right-wing tabloid site Breitbart news. Other historians quickly chimed in, spinning their own elaborate theories about how the von Ranke spammer showed tell-tale signs of video provocateur James O’Keefe, who released a recording earlier in the day targeting a New York Times reporter.

    Within short order a full-fledged conspiracy was born. And then Inside Higher Ed turned it into a news story about a supposed “right wing troll” who might be targeting historians.

    To briefly recap this madness, what started as a random deposit in a spam box quickly morphed into an elaborate right-wing conspiracy theory where it was echoed by multiple academic historians and written up in the press. This all happened despite there being exactly zero evidence to support the original claim on Burnett’s blog and the places it was repeated.

    It’s enough to make one seriously wonder about the overall intellectual health of the profession. While spam and phishing scams should certainly be treated with caution if for no other reason than the risk of virus infections or identity theft, the fact that Burnett’s immediate instinct was to imagine an elaborate right-wing entrapment plot suggests that ideologically-driven paranoia has found a welcome home in some sectors of the academy.

    What did James M. Buchanan actually believe about segregation?

    Posted By on October 1, 2017

    James M. Buchanan did not write very much on the subject of racial politics. The topic did not appear in any of his major works. He also tended to steer away from day to day political issues in general, save for when they touched upon a relatively narrow set of issues in his immediate scope of expertise (which mostly meant fiscal issues).

    He was not completely silent though, and in fact I recently came across one of his earliest recorded views on the subject of segregation. It dates to his time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in 1948.

    But first a little context. Buchanan’s ideas on race did not derive from cultural reflections upon his southern origins while living in a northern city, from non-existent connections to Agrarian poets, or from John C. Calhoun. They were likely the product of price theory as taught at the University of Chicago at mid-century. And Chicago economics in that era had a distinctive flavor that linked anti-discriminatory principles with free market capitalism.

    The views articulated by Buchanan’s UVA colleague and frequent collaborator Warren Nutter were highly typical of the Chicago approach in that era. In the 1969 lecture I revealed yesterday, Nutter harshly condemned segregation, including on the grounds that it impeded the operation competitive market mechanisms that typically undermined discriminatory practices. After all as a much-repeated saying went, markets are colorblind. Nutter’s argument directly reflected other anti-discriminatory arguments from the Chicago school. It cited and expanded upon the position articulated by Milton Friedman in a chapter of his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom. And Friedman’s own analysis was itself essentially a non-technical popular audience explanation of the arguments set forth by his former student Gary Becker. The technical version of the argument appears in Becker’s 1955 dissertation-turned-book, The Economics of Racial Discrimination (which also, incidentally, borrowed Nutter’s earlier empirical classification of monopolistic industries in its comparative test for the presence of discrimination in monopolistic versus competitive situations).

    Buchanan left several clues that he shared in Chicago principles when it came to issues such as discrimination and segregation. For example, in a September 1965 article for National Review, Buchanan expressed his concern that a then-pending federal minimum wage bill would “offset any economic gains that might have been expected from the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” Buchanan correctly noted that minimum wages tend to disproportionately penalize the most vulnerable members of the labor force – i.e. persons who lose or cannot obtain employment due to the price floor it creates. In the south, Buchanan explained, the most vulnerable persons “are heavily concentrated among Negro workers” who would be the first to feel the negative employment effects of the measure. Buchanan repeated this same argument a few months later in a letter (also co-authored by Nutter) to Virginius Dabney’s paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    We may also see that these views filtered into the early projects of the Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) for Political Economy – the research program that Buchanan directed at the University of Virginia. In 1958 Buchanan invited his former adviser, the University of Chicago economist Frank H. Knight, to deliver a series of lectures on democracy and political economy. Knight was the TJC’s inaugural Distinguished Visiting Professor – a position that Buchanan later gave to anti-Apartheid economist William H. Hutt in 1965. Knight’s lectures were assembled into a standalone monograph by Buchanan and Nutter, and published through the TJC in 1960. In one of the talks Knight theorized at length about the ill effects of racial discrimination upon a liberal society. As Knight explained in the fifth lecture during his stay (p. 136 of the book):

    “Equality before the law means that there is equal opportunity for everyone to find or make his own place in society. This ideal was dishonored in the breach rather than honored in the observance for some time into the age of liberalism, notably by this country in the matter of racial discrimination. We were from a generation to a century behind the main civilized world in getting rid of slavery nominally based on race, but actually a caste distinction, and then had to do it by one of the most terrible wars in history. We still do not allow equal legal treatment, but discriminate on the fictitious ground of any supposed trace of alien racial blood.”

    Recall again that Buchanan hosted Knight for these explicitly anti-segregationist remarks in the spring of 1958, which was also the high water mark of Sen. Harry Flood Byrd Sr.’s “massive resistance” fight against Brown v. Board. If the Buchanan, Nutter, and the TJC were trying to service the segregationist political establishment of Virginia, as has been charged, then playing host to Knight’s anti-discriminatory lecture and later publishing it makes for a very odd strategy of communication.

    Of equal importance, Buchanan’s connection to Chicago principles may be affirmatively traced all the way back to his time as a graduate student. Which brings us to 1948.

    Buchanan wrote his dissertation on the question of fiscal resource allocation problems under the conditions of a federal political arrangement, not unlike the United States. The dissertation is highly theoretical and contains the building blocks of many of Buchanan’s later works on the economics of taxation and on constitutional political economy. But there is also a fascinating aside, tucked into a footnote on page 73 of the document.

    In the corresponding text, Buchanan was discussing the problems associated with fiscal efficiency among the constituent units of a federal system (i.e. states in the United States’ constitutional arrangement). Subject to certain conditions, Buchanan’s model predicted relatively strong incentives for states to efficiently utilize certain fiscal resources as a product of their size as political unit. The model was subject to several caveats, but was intended to tease out the effects of constitutional arrangements on basic functions of governments such as how they allocated their resources. While the size of the constituent unit seemed determinative to the situation, Buchanan noted that inefficient fiscal allocation could result from other “internal administrative faults and peculiarities” not linked to the size of the administrative unit. The accompanying footnote offered one such example:

    The one apparent illustration is the duplication of educational facilities in the southern states due to racial segregation. Only by allowing the citizenry of the states concerned to suffer the costs of their own inefficiency can improvement be expected.”

    The brief but fascinating insight is a classic example of Chicago-style market analysis of discriminatory institutions. As Buchanan noted, one of the economic problems caused by segregation was its introduction of a substantial fiscal strain. Under segregation, taxpayers would have to bear the public expenses of operating a larger number of schools than would be the case under integration. Buchanan then noted that, holding all else equal, forcing states with segregation to bear the costs of this inefficiency themselves could become an effective fiscal mechanism to incentivize integration.

    Note also that Buchanan was suggesting this as a means of alleviating segregation almost 6 years before the Brown v. Board decision. He had no reason to expect at the time that the federal government would soon reverse its longstanding legal recognition of segregation, so the referenced fiscal incentive actually served as an alternative way of taking on the problem.

    Buchanan’s notion is, of course, only lightly developed. It was little more than a footnote to illustrate a broader point about why inefficient fiscal allocations occur in federalist systems. He did not expand it into a standalone proposal, nor did he discuss complications that might follow. But clearly – as early as 1948 – he was already thinking about the problem of segregation in economic terms that closely resembled similar exercises by his Chicago-affiliated contemporaries. His actions that followed – the speakers he invited, the collaboration between him and Nutter, and his own statements on the harms that bad economic policies would impose upon African-Americans – all appear to be consistent manifestations of the same anti-discriminatory economic principles that we find in the works of Friedman and Becker and Knight from the same period.

    Actually, documents prove the Virginia School condemned segregation

    Posted By on September 30, 2017

    In my last two posts, I highlighted substantial problems with the historical narrative and use of sources in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, particularly as they concerned the issue of segregation in 1950s and 60s Virginia. MacLean essentially claims that economists James M. Buchanan and Warren Nutter forged something of an unholy alliance with a group of segregationists in 1959 for the purpose of advancing a libertarian school voucher scheme at the expense of black students.

    Her entire account of these events should be called into question due to its severe historical errors and problems of evidence. First, she erroneously suggested that the two economists were coordinating their work on school vouchers with segregationist newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick of the Richmond News-Leader. In reality, they were working with Virginius Dabney of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who actually published the Buchanan-Nutter article. Significantly, Dabney was a moderate supporter of “limited integration” with a long record of backing civil rights causes. Second, she misrepresents the content of a cover letter from the release of the article to suggest its authors’ callous indifference to black students. In reality, the phrase she quoted is an excerpt of a passage where Buchanan and Nutter were describing their low estimation of the discourse in the Virginia legislature itself.

    But where did Buchanan and Nutter themselves stand on segregation? They actually answered that question, albeit briefly, in the 1959 paper by stating their opposition to the institution in the opening paragraphs. But both men were economists who worked primarily on other areas of research so they did not write very often in general on the topic of race. MacLean exploits this relative silence (along with convenient omissions of additional evidence contradicting her thesis) to poison the well against Buchanan and Nutter. She does not need to call them segregationists outright and can even plead ignorance of knowing where they stood, because she has already painted them with numerous guilty associations – including false ones that her cited sources do not support.

    It turns out though that the economists were not completely silent about segregation after all. Warren Nutter (who was actually the lead author on the 1959 paper, and handled most of its dissemination and publication) gave a short lecture in 1969 to the American Bar Association where he addressed segregation in very direct and disapproving terms. I recently located the text of his remarks in the papers of publisher/editor William Couch (a relative by marriage who received a copy from Nutter’s wife after his death) at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. To quote from Nutter:

    “Everyone who believes in a civilized and humane society must condemn the coercive segregation of Negroes enforced by law over so many years in various parts of the United States. Fortunately, these barriers are being rapidly removed. We should continue to deplore unfair discrimination in private affairs and attempt to reduce it through persuasion, while recognizing that it will weaken only with the passage of time.

    We must also recognize the importance of the market as an escape route from discrimination.”

    Nutter then proceeds to quote at length from Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom in which the latter sets out an argument as to how free and voluntary exchange will, over time, undermine discriminatory practices when the market itself is not restricted by segregationist laws. Given that Friedman had been advancing arguments along those lines since the early 1950s, and given that Nutter and Buchanan both closely mirrored Friedman’s views on the school voucher issue, it is highly unlikely that Nutter’s views in 1969 on segregation were materially different than they had been over the decade that preceded them. Nutter concludes the pertinent passage with a phrase that was often stressed by his former Thomas Jefferson Center colleague at UVA, W.H. Hutt:  “In other words, the market place is color blind.”

    Given her own politics, it is highly unlikely that Nancy MacLean would agree with the specific arguments that Nutter or Friedman made about the role of markets in combating racist institutions. But disagreement on the means of ending discrimination does not get her around the fact that Nutter unambiguously denounced the institution of segregation and articulated a route of undermining its evils. So yet again, we have clear archival evidence that runs counter to MacLean’s core narrative on the role of segregation in the “Virginia School’s” origin story. It is one of many examples that have come to light since the publication of Democracy in Chains earlier this summer. Two more letters from Buchanan (albeit written several years later) that were uncovered last month by Georg Vanberg similarly revealed his opposition to segregation in specific relation to the voucher issue.

    While I do believe that MacLean’s book was inexcusably sloppy in its handling of evidence, it remains possible that she was not aware of the Nutter lecture to the ABA. That’s fine, but scholarly integrity also obliges historians to correct and amend their findings when new evidence comes to light that directly challenges a previous interpretation. We now have extensive archival evidence undermining MacLean’s central thesis about the relationship between the Virginia School and segregation. It’s time to amend that thesis.

    On the matter of letting chips fall where they may

    Posted By on September 26, 2017

    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.

    A Tale of Two Newspapers

    Posted By on September 25, 2017

    Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch


    The ongoing controversy over Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean has provided no shortage of conversation material this summer, including an unintentional commentary on the degraded state of academic standards in the history profession. When I first read this book at the beginning of the summer, I was shocked at the sheer volume of factual inaccuracies and unsupported claims appearing on almost every single page. I documented a few of the more blatant errors at the time, as well as a couple of claims that appeared to be outright fabrications in the text.

    Having a longstanding interest in James M. Buchanan’s ideas, I also started checking up on MacLean’s archival sources to see how accurately she represented her materials. One passage in particular struck me as needing further scrutiny. It concerned her depiction of a 1959 article that Buchanan and his University of Virginia colleague Warren Nutter wrote in response to the ongoing school desegregation controversy in the state. The article itself intentionally avoided wading into the racial politics of segregation, offering instead a brief overview of the political economy of public and private education systems. MacLean nonetheless makes it into her Exhibit A in a fanciful tale that accuses Buchanan and Nutter of opportunistically assisting a group of segregationist politicians from Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.’s political machine in an ill-fated attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.

    The passage that stood out appears below:

    Specifically, it strongly implies that Buchanan and Nutter timed the release of their education article with James J. Kilpatrick, a Byrd-aligned newspaper editor. The suggestion of coordination is odd because Kilpatrick edited the Richmond News-Leader, widely known at the time as an uncompromising segregationist rag. Yet as MacLean’s final sentence acknowledges, Buchanan and Nutter actually published their article in the competitor Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    Kilpatrick is a central figure in MacLean’s story. In addition to implying direct coordination in this passage, she portrays Kilpatrick as a primary intellectual link between Buchanan’s academic projects and Virginia’s segregationist political class. The link is necessary to her story because, as MacLean concedes at one point, there is no evidence that Buchanan and Byrd ever met each other let alone worked together on a scheme to preserve school segregation. So I decided to investigate the relevant archival materials, and see what Kilpatrick and Buchanan actually said to each other.

    It turns out that the answer is exceedingly little. Kilpatrick’s papers at the University of Virginia contain only two letters from Buchanan, as well as another two from Nutter. None concern the 1959 education paper. Furthermore, they suggest no more than a passing acquaintance between the two economists and Kilpatrick.

    Buchanan wrote Kilpatrick all of twice. The first was in 1965 to forward a copy of Gordon Tullock’s book Bureaucracy in a solicitation of a routine book review from the paper. The second was in 1967 to request a copy of an op-ed on Social Security reform that reportedly cited one of Buchanan’s academic works. Nutter similarly corresponded with Kilpatrick all of twice. The first was a form letter in 1958, sent to three different newspaper editors. It pitched a story on the government’s attempted suppression of an academic book about Japanese Internment during World War II, highlighting Earl Warren’s hypocritical involvement in that tragedy. The second exchange of letters involved a request for newspaper coverage of an upcoming lecture at UVA by Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1966. Nutter had been an economic adviser to the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964.

    None of these materials even remotely support the charge of coordination between the economists and James J. Kilpatrick over the school segregation issue. Instead, they suggest the men barely even knew each other and only then as it concerned unrelated matters separated from the education paper by several years.

    There’s another story that MacLean missed however, and that concerns the second newspaper – the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It was edited at the time by Virginius Dabney, himself a veteran civil rights supporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for waging a fight against Virginia’s poll tax. Dabney was also an early public supporter of desegregation who pushed to end the institution on Richmond’s streetcars and who directed his newspaper’s scrutiny into the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. By the late 1950s the owners of the Times-Dispatch – seeking to avoid the ire of the Byrd machine – barred Dabney from openly editorializing against “massive resistance” to school desegregation. He stated that he personally opposed the segregationist program though, and positioned himself as a proponent of a more gradual “limited integration.” Dabney revealed that the paper’s owners had restricted his editorial page after his retirement in 1969. In any case, at the time of the Buchanan-Nutter article, the Times-Dispatch was still widely known as the more moderate of Richmond’s two papers compared to Kilpatrick’s virulently segregationist News-Leader.

    Dabney’s role in this story is important though because, unlike Kilpatrick, he actually was involved with the economists’ Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) at UVA. The connection came from a longstanding friendship with Nutter after the two were introduced in 1957, shortly after the founding of the TJC. Nutter and Dabney discovered that they shared a mutual dislike for the rising tide of central planning in the economics profession of the day. As Dabney explained in a letter to Nutter on July 2, 1957, “One of my great worries has been the tendency of teachers of economics to take the Keynesian road, and to defend huge government spending, socialization of public utilities and nearly everything else.”

    An intellectual friendship was struck. Or as Dabney put it in the same letter, “I think we’re going to turn out to be a couple of soul-mates after all.” Nutter responded by sharing a copy of the new TJC’s founding prospectus with Dabney. Over the course of the next decade until Dabney’s retirement from the newspaper, they corresponded regularly about such issues as the TJC’s activities, the Goldwater campaign, and a series of academic studies that Nutter published on the Soviet economy.

    All of these records point to a far more likely explanation of how the 1959 education article made its way into print. Rather than coordinating with Kilpatrick of the News-Leader as MacLean claims, Buchanan and Nutter were actually working with Dabney of the Times-Dispatch.

    Although Dabney’s personal files do not contain the newspaper’s records that might show when the article was submitted, they do include a later set of correspondence where Nutter invited Dabney to review proofs of the same article after the TJC issued it as a standalone pamphlet. Combined with Nutter’s personal friendship and extended correspondence, Dabney’s paper was an obvious venue to run the original article by Buchanan and Nutter on April 12-13, 1959.

    This episode is illustrative of the overarching presence of confirmation bias in MacLean’s book. She approached her project with a zeal to link Buchanan to the discrediting reputations of Virginia’s leading segregationists. Kilpatrick fit this billing, so she appears to have written him into the story on the flimsiest of evidence. Yet in doing so she completely missed the more obvious and thoroughly documented connections between the TJC and Dabney.

    She did not see Dabney because he was not consistent with the preconceived segregationist narrative she was looking to find. Or invent in the case of its failure to turn up.

    Illiberal Reviewers

    Posted By on September 13, 2017

    The Journal of Economic Literature (JEL), a well-regarded academic journal that covers research trends and practices in the profession, published an extremely unusual and in many ways problematic review article in its September 2017 issue. It’s behind a paywall, but if you have access to the AEA website you can view it here.

    The article takes the form of a 20-page broadside against Thomas C. Leonard’s recent book Illiberal Reformers, a study of the role of eugenics in the founding of the economics profession. Leonard’s book dives into an inescapably controversial subject that brings up ugly matters of pseudo-scientific racial theory and related attempts at hereditary planning that attracted a following among several distinguished founding members of the AEA. It does so with remarkable even-handedness that is meticulously sourced and has attracted widespread acclaim in the profession. For example, it received the 2017 book prize from the History of Economics Society – the main scholarly association for experts in the history of economic thought.

    The JEL review is a true outlier to this pattern, and a particularly caustic one at that. Its authors – think tank economist Marshall Steinbaum and historian Bernard Weisberger – are unusual choices to write this review, particularly in a high-ranked economics journal. Neither author has much of a demonstrated expertise in the highly specialized subject matter of Leonard’s book, and in the lead author Steinbaum’s case, the review itself is actually his debut publication in a ranked economic journal. Assigning this review to two non-specialists, one of them a novice, makes for an odd editorial decision in any circumstance for an upper tier journal. Occasionally these things slip through the cracks, as journals do receive dozens or even hundreds of book submissions for review and editors are often left playing catch-up to simply cover the materials in their possession.

    What troubles me more about the JEL piece though is its coupling of an aggressive attack on Leonard’s scholarship with very little substance to justify its derision. The review opens by accusing Leonard of “motivated history” and proceeds to cite him for a long list of malpractices:

    “sweeping statements about what “the progressives” believed, festooned with cherry-picked quotes and out-of-context examples, without much of a hearing for either their opponents or for debate and disagreement among themselves.”

    Oddly enough, the 19 or so pages that follow provide very little in the way of specific examples of where Leonard allegedly committed these scholarly sins. It simply asserts them as so. The charges are rendered doubly ironic when one realizes that co-author Steinbaum has also spent the last few months as one of the most vocal and public advocates of Nancy MacLean’s evidentiary train wreck of a book, Democracy in Chains. And triply so when considering that Steinbaum’s defense of MacLean is premised upon his acceptance of her unsupported and innuendo-laden charges of “racism” against James M. Buchanan and the public choice school of thought.

    In the JEL review, Steinbaum and Weisberger attempt the opposite maneuver of trying to exonerate a group of early 20th century racist progressives from – well – their own racism, as documented in Leonard’s book. The JEL review essentially becomes a political exercise in damage control over the faults of its historical subjects.

    While Leonard is careful to contextualize the eugenic and racial theories of men such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross in the academic discourse of the time where such beliefs ran rampant, Steinbaum and Weisberger approach his mere raising of this long-neglected subject as a personal affront to their own deeply progressive political beliefs in the present day. This leads them to attempt to bury the documentation Leonard uncovered in euphemism. The active eugenic campaigning by Leonard’s subjects – taking the form of lengthy published tracts on racial pseudoscience and leadership roles in eugenic organizations – thus becomes shortened to the “involvement of some progressives in eugenic advocacy” and a “blind eye toward racism” as differentiated from actual racism itself.

    A few of these figures – Commons and Ross – were so inextricably wedded to white supremacist notions that they do become difficult for Steinbaum and Weisberger to ignore entirely. But that leads them to arguably the most egregious of their attacks on Leonard. On the first column of p. 1078 in the review, Steinbaum and Weisberger attempt to rehabilitate Commons and Ross from Leonard’s depiction by presenting their “exclusionary” (read: racist) views as a more benign expression than other forms of racism in their time. They are allegedly tempered by motive, as Commons and Ross supposedly used “exclusionary” arguments in the service of collective bargaining for other groups of oppressed and marginalized workers. It is not a complete clearing of their names, but it does seek to soften the problems with these progressive economists’ racial views.

    Steinbaum and Weisberger contrast this comparatively restrained and worker-centric motive with a more malicious view that they assign to unspecified laissez-faire “intellectual adversaries” of progressivism from the turn of the century. The more malicious view, of course, is a racist typology rooted in control and oppression out of service to “the market.”

    There’s a problem with Steinbaum and Weisberger’s argument though, as it not only breezes past Leonard’s evidence – it blatantly misrepresents Leonard’s findings. The side-by-side comparison below of the Steinbaum/Weisberger review and one of the racist tracts Leonard cites from John R. Commons is illustrative:

    The section on the left and highlighted in blue is Steinbaum and Weisberger’s description of the racism they attribute to the progressives’ laissez-faire opponents. It contrasts with the euphemism-coated depiction they offer of Commons in the sentences immediately before it.

    To the right and highlighted in yellow, I present the text of John R. Commons’ 1904 essay “Racial composition of the American People,” which Leonard cites while discussing his racial views. It’s a particularly nasty passage in which Commons describes African-Americans as a genetically “indolent and fickle” race. He then proceeds to make the very same racist argument that Steinbaum and Weisberger attempt to excise from his work and assign to his adversaries. Commons asserts that the black race will only work if compelled to do so and even goes so far as to hint that slavery illustrated this principle, stopping just short of defending the institution.

    This example is, unfortunately, characteristic of the remainder of Steinbaum and Weisberger’s essay. It also abuses basic historical evidence to advance an ideologically motivated sanitizing of Commons’ beliefs. It will be interesting to see what the JEL’s editors make of having such an egregious misrepresentation of evidence appear in their journal.

    Houston flooding in historical perspective: no, zoning would not have stopped Harvey

    Posted By on August 31, 2017

    I grew up in Houston, and weathered numerous hurricanes and lesser storms. It’s a relatively rare but predictably recurring part of life along the gulf coast, just as earthquakes are part of life in California and blizzards are part of life in New England. As I write this, the Houston area is just beginning to drain from the devastating floods and rainfall that hit the city in the wake of hurricane Harvey.

    Harvey was an exceptionally catastrophic storm.

    Some parts of the city recorded as high as 50 inches in rainfall. According to one estimate, the deluge that hit the Houston area contained enough water to raise all five of the Great Lakes by almost a foot.

    In terms of flood severity and damage, Harvey has proven and exceptionally destructive storm. Yet it also followed a familiar pattern that many longtime Houston residents know all too well. Harvey certainly proved to be a bigger and more devastating storm than anything in recent memory, but its images of flooded freeways and overflowing bayou channels spilling into the middle of urban streets were also reminiscent of the last storm that followed a similar pattern, tropical storm Allison in 2001. Older generations remember earlier storms and hurricanes that produced similar effects going back decades, although you have to return to December 6-9, 1935 to find an example that compares to Harvey’s stats.

    Houston was a much smaller city in 1935, both in population and in geographical spread. But by some metrics the 1935 flood was even more severe. Buffalo Bayou – the main waterway through downtown – peaked at over 54 feet. Harvey, in all its devastation, hit “only” 40 feet by comparison. The 1935 storm dropped less rain, the maximum recorded being about 20 inches to the north of town where Houston’s main airport now sits. But it was also complicated by the problem of severe storms upstream that flowed into town and caused almost all of the other creeks and bayous that flooded last weekend to exceed their banks. Reports at the time noted that as much as 2/3rds of what was then rural and unpopulated farmland in surrounding Harris County saw flooding. Those areas are now suburbs today.

    The effects of the 1935 flood on populated areas are also eerily similar to what we saw on television over the weekend. I recommend watching this film of the aftermath for comparison. All of downtown was underwater, as the film shows. People were stranded on rooftops as rivers of water emerged around them. There are even clips of rescuers navigating the streets of neighborhoods in small boats and canoes as water reached second and third stories on nearby buildings.

    In the aftermath of the 1935 flood, the federal government commissioned an extensive study of Houston’s rainfall patterns. They produced the following map of the Houston storm’s effects, showing unsettling similarities to what we just witnessed (note that this map does not include the areas to the north of town, where rainfall in 1935 was significantly higher. These are the suburbs that flooded along Cypress and Spring Creeks last weekend and the farmland that similarly flooded in 1935)

    And therein lies the importance of history to understanding what we just witnessed in catastrophic form this weekend. Houston floods fairly regularly. In fact, downtown Houston has suffered a major flood on average about once a decade as far back as records extend in the 1830s.

    Some have been exceptionally catastrophic as is the case with Harvey, but floods are a regular thing in Houston. This list contains several dozen major floods and goes back to the founding of the city. Some of the early examples are only sparsely recorded, but note the regularity of flooding in downtown in particular.

    1837 – Buffalo Bayou flooded, with 4 feet of water recorded on Main Street.

    1841 – Flooding washed out two bridges over Buffalo Bayou

    1853 – Buffalo Bayou overflows its banks causing a major flood in downtown

    1875 – Buffalo and White Oak Bayous overflow in the aftermath of a hurricane, washing out all bridges except for one

    1879 – Buffalo and White Oak Bayous overflow causing major flooding in downtown

    1887 – Buffalo Bayou overflows, washing out several bridges downtown

    Records become significantly better in the early 20th century, attesting to a continuation of this pattern in well-documented storms. In addition to the 1935 flood, major flooding inundated downtown in 1913, 1929, and 1932. Flood-mitigation efforts such as the construction of levees and retention ponds lessened the severity of all but the worst storms after 1935, but tropical storms and hurricanes throughout the 20th century revealed Houston’s continued vulnerability to storms.

    The reasons have to do almost entirely with topography and geography. Houston sits on the gulf of Mexico in an active hurricane zone that attracts large storms. But more significantly, Houston’s topography is extraordinarily flat. The elevation drop across the entire city and region is extremely modest. Most local waterways are slow-moving creeks and bayous that wind their way through town and eventually trickle into the shallow, marshy Trinity and Galveston bays. Drainage is slow on a normal day. During a deluge, these systems fill rapidly with water that effectively has nowhere to go.

    We’ve seen a flurry of commentators in the past few days attributing Houston’s flooding to a litany of pet political causes. Aside from the normal carping about “climate change” (which always makes for a convenient point of blame for bad warm weather events, even as environmentalists simultaneously decry the old conservative canard about blizzards contradicting Al Gore), several pundits and journalists have opportunistically seized upon Houston’s famously lax zoning and land use regulations to blame Harvey’s destruction on “sprawl” and call for “SmartGrowth” policies that restrict and heavily regulate future construction in the city.

    According to this argument, Harvey’s floods are a byproduct of unrestricted suburban development in the north and west of the city at the expense of prairies that would supposedly absorb rainwater at sufficient rates to prevent natural disasters and that supposedly served this purpose “naturally” in the past.

    There are multiple problems with this line of argument that suggest it is rooted in naked political opportunism rather than actual concern for Houston’s flooding problems.

    First, as we’ve established in the preceding history lesson, flooding has been a regular feature of Houston’s landscape since the beginning of recorded history in the region. And catastrophic flooding – including multiple storms in the 19th century and the well-documented flood of December 1935 – predates any of the “sprawl” that has provoked these armchair urban designers’ ire.

    Second, the flooding we saw in Harvey is largely a result of creeks and bayous backlogging and spilling over their banks as more water rushes in from upstream. While parking lot and roadway runoff from “sprawl” certainly makes its way into these streams, it is hardly the source of the problem. The slow-moving and windy Brazos river reached record levels as a result of Harvey and spilled over its banks, despite being nowhere near the city’s “sprawl.” The mostly-rural prairie along Interstate 10 to the extreme west of the city recorded some of the worst flooding in terms of water volume due to the Brazos overflow, although fortunately property damage here will be much lower due to being rural.

    Third, the very notion that Houston is a giant concrete-laden water retention pond is itself a pernicious myth peddled by unscrupulous urban planning activists and media outlets. In total acres, Houston has more parkland and green space than any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego and Dallas in park acreage per capita.

    But even more telling is a 2011 study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council that actually measured the ratio of impervious-to-pervious land cover within the city limits (basically the amount of water-blocking concrete vs. water-absorbing green land). The study used an index scale to measure water-absorption land uses. A low score (defined as less than 2.0 on the scale) indicates a high presence of green relative to concrete. A high score (defined as greater than 5.0) indicates high concrete and low levels of greenery and other water-absorbing cover. The result are in the map below, showing the city limits. Gray corresponds to high levels of pervious surfaces (or greenery). Black corresponds to high impervious surface use (basically either concrete or lakes that collect runoff). As the map shows, over 90% of the land in the city limits is gray, indicating more greenery and higher water absorption. Although they did not measure unincorporated Harris County, it also tends to be substantially less dense than the city itself.

    Does this mean that impervious land uses are not a problem and do not contribute to floods in any way? No. But to cite them as a principal cause of the destruction witnessed in Harvey is purely a political move aimed at generating support for a long list of intrusive regulatory policies.

    Houston’s flood problems are a distinctive feature of its topography and geography, and they long predate any “sprawl.” While steps have been taken over the years to mitigate them and reduce the severity of flooding, a rare but catastrophic event will unavoidably overwhelm even the most sophisticated flood control systems. Harvey was one such event – certainly the highest floodwater event to hit Houston in over 80 years, and possibly the worst deluge in its recorded history. But it is entirely consistent with almost 2 centuries of recorded historical patterns. In the grander scheme of causes for Harvey’s flooding, “sprawl” does not even meaningfully register.


    *Edit: typo corrected to reflect Houston’s per capita park space ranking, which is third among large cities behind San Diego and Dallas.

    Buchanan and Agrarianism – a revealing passage

    Posted By on July 19, 2017

    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.