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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  • Buchanan’s position on vouchers and segregation: the documents MacLean missed

    Posted By on October 23, 2017

    A central claim of Democracy in Chains holds that James M. Buchanan and the Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) for Political Economy provided complicit aid and assistance to the segregationist “massive resisters” of late 1950s and early 1960s Virginia. As I’ve documented, this claim is both thinly attested in evidence and contradicted by what we do know about Buchanan’s views on segregation from his other writings – both before school desegregation and after. Still, Buchanan’s comments on segregation from the civil rights era itself are sparse, and author Nancy MacLean frequently exploits this presumed silence to conjure up an unholy alliance between Buchanan/the TJC and the segregationist political machine of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.

    MacLean generally stops short of linking Buchanan and Byrd outright, and does so by necessity. There is no evidence the two ever crossed paths in any substantive way. So instead of calling Buchanan a segregationist, she simply contends that he utilized the opportunity of segregation to advance a libertarian school voucher agenda at the expense of black students. To get to Byrd, she advances historically unsupported claims of a connection between Buchanan and Byrd-allied newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick. But even more so, she relies on Buchanan’s own presumed silence on segregation to “read between the lines” of his voucher advocacy and discern a motive that is not evident from any straightforward reading.

    But what if MacLean missed an important document in her research? What if Buchanan actually left a record that reflected unfavorably on segregation, and specifically explained its adversarial relationship to educational competition? Would Democracy in Chains warrant a substantial correction by its publisher and/or author? After all, the entire first half of the book is built upon a presumed yet never demonstrated relationship between Buchanan’s support for vouchers and the Byrd machine’s “massive resistance.” MacLean herself has even made this a point of primary emphasis in her public lectures on the book, and several of her most positive reviewers have interpreted the book as having “proven” a salacious and discrediting link between libertarianism and segregationism.

    It turns out that such a document exonerating Buchanan does exist, and MacLean completely missed it. But first a little historical context.

    In 1959 the state of Virginia adopted a modest tuition grant program that allowed students to receive up to $250 per term to attend a different school, public or private, than the one to which they were geographically assigned. The program was adopted in a special session of the legislature, shortly after state and federal courts struck down key provisions of a Byrd-backed segregation law in January 1959. The voucher proposal emerged from the political center of the time as something of a bridge between moderate integrationists and segregationists who were not in the hard-line “massive resistance” camp of Byrd – or who, in the case of Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, broke from former allegiances to the Byrd machine. Some members of the legislature backed the proposal for reasons that were without doubt motivated by segregationist positions. Specifically, vouchers would allow segregationist parents to remove their children from schools facing integration and seek an alternative means.

    Note however that this position diverged from the “massive resisters” in several important ways. First, a sizable number of segregationist hardliners actually opposed the voucher program on the grounds that it would undermine their continued resistance and open the door to the integration of public schools. This is the position adopted by the attorneys for the Charlottesville school system when they contended that vouchers would open up formerly-white held seats in the public schools, which could then be “engulfed” by the enrollment of black students. Stopping vouchers actually became a key part of their strategy to preserve segregation.

    Second, the designers of the tuition grant program on the state legislature’s Perrow Commission officially and intentionally made its terms race-neutral. They did so knowing that a racially restrictive voucher program would succumb to a federal court challenge. They had no other choice than to make the tuition grants available on non-racial grounds. This meant that black students were eligible for vouchers as well (and a small number actually made use of them during the program’s existence). It also meant that students in segregated schools could actually use the vouchers to move to integrated schools, both public and private. In fact, a federal judge made use of the statute’s race-neutral language in an important 1961 ruling against Prince Edward County, effectively prohibiting it from using the tuition grant program on account of its decision to shutter the public schools in response to impending integration.

    The race-neutral language of the tuition grant statute became a flash point of contention during the early operation of the program – particularly among (a) segregationist hardliners who believed that vouchers would lead to “engulfment” of the public schools and (b) public school teachers unions, who wanted to restrict and rescind the voucher program at all costs.

    Initial enrollment in the tuition grant system was limited. Just over 4,700 students signed up in its first year of operations. By 1962, the numbers had doubled to almost 9,500 students (note that Prince Edward County was excluded by court order from participating in the program, so its students are not part of this figure despite a number of historically careless attempts to causally link the county’s notorious school closures to the voucher program).

    The Richmond Times-Dispatch (September 2, 1962) conducted an extensive study of the program’s first couple of years and noticed two interesting results where segregation was concerned. First, after conducting an extensive interview study of parents who used the tuition grants, they discovered that the most commonly cited reasons for participation related to conventional factors such as school quality, location, and transportation. While segregationist uses undeniably existed, a much smaller subset of parents stated that they were using the vouchers to remove their children from integrated schools to go to “segregation academies.” Other non-racial purposes appear to have been more common. Second, an analysis of tuition grant enrollments in selected population centers showed sizable numbers of students being removed from schools that were still segregated and placed into schools that had begun to integrate – or precisely the opposite of the segregationists’ position. While this latter statistic does not necessarily prove an overt integrationist intention by these parents, it does illustrate that some parents were availing themselves of vouchers for reasons other than race.

    The growing use of tuition grants for non-segregationist purposes became sufficiently obvious by the early 1960s that it provoked the ire of the state’s main public school teacher’s union, the Virginia Education Association (the state affiliate of the NEA). Whereas MacLean writes of a wholly imaginary unholy alliance between Buchanan and the Byrd machine, a documented coalition emerged between the VEA and the hard line segregationists. The VEA spelled out its position at length in the November 1964 issue of its newsletter:

    “It is a well-known fact that many superintendents, many school boards, many legislators and local governing bodies are becoming less and less enchanted with Virginia’s Pupil Scholarship Program because of its patent abuses.

    Everyone knows that the intent of the General Assembly in establishing the scholarship program was to provide an escape for any pupil who might object, or whose parents might object to actually attending the same school with children of another race. The Pupil Scholarship Program would never have been enacted into law it the General Assembly had not been searching for a constitutionally valid way to subsidize private education for those who object to racial integration in the public schools.

    Certainly the intent was not to subsidize private education generally. The Pupil Scholarship Program is being so greatly abused as to increasingly defeat its original purpose.

    Ot the 12,181 scholarships granted in 1963-64, 10,776 were used in private schools, many of which were integrated, and 1,415 were used in public schools, many of which were integrated. Thus parents are using the grants to send their children to integrated schools which the entire purpose of the legislation was to avoid.”

    As the VEA’s general secretary argued, these “abuses” of the voucher program for non-segregationist purposes threatened to cut into the funding of the public school system. As VEA secretary Robert F. Williams explained two years prior, “The position of the Virginia Education Association is simply this: We believe that the Pupil Scholarship law was passed with the tacit purpose that it would be used only to provide grants for children whose parents did not wish to attend a desegregated school. When used for any other purpose, the purpose of the law, as we understand it, is violated.”

    The teacher’s union accordingly lobbied the state government to restrict the use of tuition grants to explicitly segregationist purposes. All other uses – including what appears to have been a majority of the vouchers – would be rendered illegal. An actual unholy alliance between the VEA teacher’s union officials and segregationists had been forged, and vouchers were their direct target.

    The 1964 Thomas Jefferson Center Statistical Appendix on Tuition Grants

    This is where Buchanan entered back into the picture. Although the 1959 article he co-authored with Warren Nutter had been almost entirely ignored in the state assembly, the two economists continued to study the state’s rudimentary tuition grant system from afar over the next several years. At one point in the early 1960s the TJC contracted with Charlottesville-based voucher advocate Leon Dure to administer a statewide survey of private schools for the purpose of creating an academic study of how the system was functioning in action. Dure has long been credited as the author of the resulting report, however this designation is mistaken. He actually left the project in mid-1964 after Nutter indicated that the TJC wanted to take it in a more statistical direction.

    The TJC completed its report in-house in December 1964, and issued it as a standalone pamphlet featuring a reprint of the 1959 article and a series of appendixes that analyzed the previous five years of tuition grants. Of particular note is the statistical appendix, containing data analysis of both the private school survey and public records of the tuition grants. This specific appendix was issued under Buchanan’s own name and supervision. The cover letter to this section, both documenting Dure’s departure and crediting the final report to the TJC under his own direction, appears below:

    Sure enough, this neglected and overlooked document contains an extended commentary on none other than the VEA’s public efforts to curtail all non-segregationist uses of the state’s tuition grant program. As the report explained:

    “The Virginia Education Association, the organization of public school officials and teachers, early denounced “abuse” of the tuition grant plan. It meant by this expression any use of scholarships except to avoid racial intermixing. Neither the present law nor the regulations of the State Board of Education contain such limitation, although the 1956 law limited the payment of grants to parents who objected to sending their children to integrated public schools. Moreover, many public school officials have declared their policy to be one of discouraging tuition grant and, in one case, a local superintendent stated that the plan was so “absurd” his school board had concealed it from his community.”

    An extended note at the end of the appendix proceeded to systematically pick apart the VEA’s segregation-supporting posture. The segregationist limitation of the 1956 law had been removed due to its unconstitutionality when the new tuition grant program was enacted in 1959. The program’s legislative history since then provided no support for the VEA’s attempts to restrict vouchers to segregationist uses. Quite the contrary, non-segregationist tuition grant uses were already well known and permitted within the first year of the program’s operation. As the TJC report noted:

    “It is perhaps notable that when the scholarship statute was slightly revised and reenacted in 1960, scholarships were being used in integrated situations. The vote on scholarships was almost unanimous in 1959 and completely so in 1960. No action of any kind was taken in the regular sessions of 1962 and 1964, during all of which time the use of grants in integrated situations grew steadily.”

    The TJC study further investigated the program’s uses with statistical analysis. Although black students represented a small minority of grant recipients, their enrollment grew dramatically from only 48 grant registrants in 1959 to 423 in 1963. The system was not without faults as “the school system of one locality may refuse admittance to any pupil from another locality.” Yet their findings also confirmed what the VEA denounced and derided as “abuses” of the system: “that pupils have been shifted from nonintegrated to integrated schools as well as from integrated to nonintegrated ones.” Reasons such as geography, school district quality, and transportation were all important considerations in parents’ decisions to use vouchers.

    The TJC report did not endorse the particulars of the Virginia tuition grant program or make political recommendations – it only sought to study and quantify its effects from afar, and analyze them economically. Notably, the program was still exceedingly limited in its scope. Some counties had no student participants at all, and others numbered only in the dozens. Voucher use was particularly strong in the Hampton Roads region of the state where multiple jurisdictions in close geographic proximity presented parents with a broader assortment of choices.

    The study also acknowledged that segregation persisted in both public and private schools, even though trends evinced growing use of the vouchers for non-segregationist purposes and by black students. Weighed against the alternatives though, the TJC report concluded that “it appears that the grants have been used increasingly to break down political bounds and to permit a wider choice of both public and private facilities.”

    All of these findings stand in direct conflict with Nancy MacLean’s depiction of Buchanan in Democracy in Chains. While it is unclear if she knew about the 1964 report and omitted it, or simply missed it due to a careless accounting of the archives, it represents a substantial and complicating oversight in her project. It is difficult to read “massive resistance” or a Byrd-allied position into this report, undertaken with Buchanan’s direct oversight and input. By contrast, it is the public school teacher’s union – an entity that, like all unions, MacLean appears to view as sacrosanct – that actually struck a devil’s bargain with segregation, and did so in an explicit attempt to defeat vouchers.

    In any case, the newly uncovered 1964 appendix only illustrates how far off base MacLean’s claims are in relation to Buchanan’s actual activities and positions. Far from aligning with the “massive resistors,” Buchanan’s position on segregation was consistently critical and his view of vouchers consistently held that they could be used to alleviate the ills of this institution. Democracy in Chains warrants a substantial correction by its publisher, if not outright retraction on account of its numerous and pervasive errors of historical fact.


    Speaking of Prince Edward County and school vouchers…

    Posted By on October 22, 2017

    As I continue the ongoing dissection of Democracy in Chains, I’d like to turn next to a claim that’s at the heart of its narrative on school desegregation: the notorious closing of Prince Edward County, Virginia’s public school system from 1959 to 1964 as a strategy to avoid racial integration.

    Nancy MacLean actually claims that she first discovered James M. Buchanan by accident from a footnote in James Hershman’s work while researching the history of the Prince Edward school closures. We now know that in doing so she appears to have constructed her entire narrative upon a typo in Hershman’s work. But the Prince Edward issue still warrants historical investigation, as MacLean and numerous others have claimed that the closing was a direct result of Virginia’s rudimentary experiment with tuition grants, or school vouchers, between 1959 and 1965. According to this claim, the state’s modest tuition grant program somehow made it feasible to shutter the public schools and transfer all the white students into a private “segregation academy.” The result, of course, infamously shut black students out of the schools entirely.

    There’s a problem with this narrative though. For most of the period of the Prince Edward school closure, students in the county were not actually using the state tuition grant program.

    Prince Edward set up its whites-only “segregation academy” to open in the fall of 1959 as a response to an integration order, yet for the first year of operation (the 1959-60 term) this school was run tuition-free and relied on private donations by segregationists.

    In the 1960-61 term, about 1,300 white students in Prince Edward County did apply for and receive tuition vouchers of between $225-250 a piece through the state program. Their use of the vouchers came to a crashing halt though in late August 1961 before the start of the new school term because of a court injunction barring the program’s operations in the county.

    Judge Oren R. Lewis suspended the program on the grounds that Prince Edward County had violated the “freedom of choice” required in the voucher program’s statute. By closing its public schools, Prince Edward actually denied educational choice as specified by law. They were therefore in violation of the statute creating the tuition grant program. As Lewis’s ruling noted:

    “An order will therefore be entered restraining and enjoining the County Superintendent of Prince Edward County, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, their agents and employees, and all persons working in concert with them, from receiving, processing or approving any applications for state scholarship grants from persons residing in Prince Edward County so long as the public schools of Prince Edward County remain closed.”

    From August 1961 until the reopening of the Prince Edward schools by Supreme Court ruling in 1964, Prince Edward County therefore had no access to the tuition grant program. Combined with the first year being funded through private contributions, the tuition grant program was only operational in Prince Edward County for one school year out of the five year closure period.

    State records reflect this reality, as may be seen in a 1964 study by the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Center (pictured above). Prince Edward County appeared on the list of counties and independent cities that had zero students registered to participate in the tuition grant program.

    So there you have it. Even the claim connecting Prince Edward County to the voucher program is based on flimsy evidence. The county’s white residents were only able to utilize the program for one school year before being barred by the court because they ran afoul of the statute’s clear letter.

    The Nutter-Buchanan School Choice Paper: Evidence from the Timeline

    Posted By on October 20, 2017

    In my last several posts on the Virginia School of public choice economics, I’ve explored the background of a 1959 article on school choice by Warren Nutter and James M. Buchanan (hereafter referred to as N-B 1959) that’s at the center of the controversy surrounding Democracy in Chains. Today I want to take a look at the timeline for the article itself, as it is in clear tension with another of Nancy MacLean’s claims about Buchanan.

    To briefly recap, MacLean presents the article, N-B 1959, as Exhibit A in her attempt to link Buchanan and Nutter to the pro-segregation “massive resistance” movement in Virginia. MacLean claims that by advocating school vouchers, Buchanan forged an unholy alliance of sorts with the “massive resisters” of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.’s political machine to thwart court-ordered integration of Virginia’s schools. She also specifically claims that the article, N-B 1959, gained an important enthusiast in the form of James J. Kilpatrick, the Byrd-supporting, Calhoun-touting segregationist editor of the Richmond News-Leader. In MacLean’s telling, Kilpatrick becomes a key link between Buchanan and Byrd in the immediate political environment of 1959 Virginia, as well as a larger intellectual link that supposedly establishes Calhoun’s place as the “intellectual lodestar” of public choice theory.

    Let’s also review as well what I’ve already established on this subject in prior posts:

    When evaluating these claims it is important to note that the politics of Virginia’s newspapers in this era were extremely complex. Kilpatrick’s News-Leader adopted a militantly pro-segregation stance that even invoked Calhoun’s concepts of interposition and nullification as strategies to resist desegregation. Dabney’s Times-Dispatch is a more nuanced story. Dabney had a longstanding reputation as a supporter of civil rights and had editorialized in favor of integration of Richmond’s bus system. He personally adopted a moderate stance on school desegregation that favored limited and gradual introduction of black students into white-majority schools. But he was also restricted by the newspaper’s owner from editorializing against the Byrd machine (Dabney explained in several interviews later in life that he wanted to take a stronger critical stance on “massive resistance” but had been limited in doing so by his publisher). While far from integrationist, the Times-Dispatch was clearly the more moderate newspaper in Richmond and thus an important venue choice for printing N-B 1959.

    But what about MacLean’s narrative linking Buchanan to Kilpatrick? We can actually put that to rest by recounting the timeline of N-B 1959:

    • January 19 – State and federal courts in Virginia issue two rulings striking down provisions of the state’s segregationist “massive resistance” laws
    • Late January – the Virginia general assembly undertakes a revision of the state’s education policy in response to the decisions. A joint legislative committee is convened under State Sen. Mosby Perrow to review proposals. It becomes known as the Perrow Commission. Chairman Perrow, and later Gov. Lindsay Almond, begin to break with the Byrd machine over maintaining “massive resistance” and explore ways to allow gradual integration.
    • February 10 – Nutter and Buchanan finish the draft of their voucher paper. It does not wade into the politics of segregation, but summarizes the economic concepts behind school competition.
    • February 13 – Nutter and Buchanan circulate a copy of N-B 1959 to members of the Perrow Commission.
    • February 18 – Nutter sends a copy of the N-B 1959 to Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago for review and suggestions.
    • March 2 – Friedman replies with comments and suggestions to circulate the paper more broadly.
    • March 23 – John S. Battle, Jr., the attorney for the Charlottesville school board, gives a widely reported public speech in which he attacks vouchers as a backdoor way to “engulf” the public schools with black children.
    • April 1 – Nutter and Buchanan publicly release N-B 1959 (this is the cover letter that MacLean misrepresents, using the phrase “letting the chips fall where they may”)
    • April 12-13 – The Richmond Times-Dispatch publishes N-B 1959 in a two-part installment, almost certainly arranged by Nutter who was friends with its editor Dabney.

    I’ve found no evidence that the legislature took notice of N-B 1959 or utilized it in crafting policy. In fact, Nutter and Buchanan essentially predicted it would be ignored due to the low esteem they held for the state’s politicians (again, this is noted in the cover letter that MacLean misrepresented). But there’s also another conspicuous absence from this entire chain of events: James J. Kilpatrick.

    It just so happens that we can also rule out any coordination with Kilpatrick from surviving letters in his papers at the University of Virginia.

    Recall that Nutter and Buchanan publicly released their paper on April 1, 1959 as per Friedman’s suggestion. They mailed out copies to several figures who were involved in all sides of the debate. For example, Francis P. Miller – the leader of the anti-Byrd “liberal” wing of Virginia’s Democratic Party – received a copy. Miller was a moderate integrationist based in Charlottesville and, though skeptical of vouchers, had been involved in the local debate over whether to include them in the revisions to Virginia’s school system that were underway.

    Another recipient of N-B 1959 was Leon S. Dure, a retired newspaperman in Charlottesville who had taken up the cause of school choice. Nutter also provided Dure with a copy of Milton Friedman’s famous 1955 paper on vouchers at the same time (pictured above. Dure also went on to describe Friedman as an “ardent integrationist” in several letters and documents after reading the pamphlet).

    Dure is a complicated figure who will warrant more attention in  a later post. But briefly, he can be thought of as a sort of a bridge figure who worked between the moderate ends of the integrationist and segregationist factions of the political scene at the time (Dure actually started out in the mid 1950s as a moderate segregationist who was nonetheless skeptical of interposition and “massive resistance” and migrated to supporting gradual integration).

    Dure is also identified as a key figure for the “moderates” in the 1959 session by James Hershman (MacLean’s brief discussion of Dure, by contrasts, strongly implies that he’s closer to the “massive resistance” camp even though she claims Hershman is her source on the Virginia school desegregation fight). He was one of the influences that prompted Gov. Almond to break with the “massive resisters” of the Byrd machine during the Perrow Commission hearings, nudging the state government slightly but importantly away from hardline segregationism. Dure was primarily a voucher advocate and worked with all parties he thought he could convince, sometimes with greater success than in others. He lobbied Almond and Perrow aggressively to moderate their former “massive resistance” stance. But he was also a close friend of Francis P. Miller, leader of the state’s liberal Democrats and the anti-Byrd faction, and tried to convince Miller to adopt the voucher program from an integrationist perspective.

    Notably, Dure’s version of a voucher scheme long predated the N-B 1959 paper. Dure’s own proposal was actually devised as an attempted constitutional argument with the input of several other academics, none of whom were Buchanan or Nutter. The actual academic influences on Dure were almost all law professors. He worked closely in planning his legislative testimony in the Spring of 1959 with UVA Law School dean F.D.G. Ribble and professor Hardy Dillard, and developed his arguments over the years through an extended correspondence with former Justice Department attorney and Columbia University professor Herbert Wechsler (perhaps best known today as a mentor of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg). Dure also submitted an advance copy of his testimony to the liberal Democrat leader Francis P. Miller for comments and review. All of this appears to have taken place in January-March 1959 before Dure even knew of N-B 1959’s existence.

    Buchanan and Nutter appear to have entered Dure’s line of vision as almost an afterthought to his earlier testimony, albeit one that he welcomed as another voice in favor of vouchers from another perspective that he had not considered. The two economists were making an economic argument based on Friedman’s work and had little connection to the legal world’s interpretations of case law. But Dure did find enough agreement with the N-B 1959 paper that he started appending it onto his own arguments as the additional “economic case” for vouchers. Buchanan and Nutter also briefly discussed the economic implications of Dure’s plan (at the time before the Perrow Commission) in the paper. Due to this overlap of analysis, they sent Dure a copy on April 1 when they decided to publicly release it.

    Dure was also a prolific writer of letters to the editor and heavily employed these means during the Perrow Commission hearings to promote his position of pairing a state government retreat from “massive resistance” with gradual integration by way of a voucher system. When he read the N-B 1959 paper, he similarly fired off another round of letters to the editor to tout the findings of the study in relation to the oft-expressed concern that vouchers would undermine the finances of public education. To allay this concern, Dure pointed to “an economic study of ‘freedom of choice’ just prepared by James M. Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter, professors of the University of Virginia Department of Economics.” One of Dure’s letters went to James J. Kilpatrick of the News-Leader (he ran it in the April 9 issue, but it was likely sent about a week prior based on the date Dure received a copy of the report).

    But Dure’s letter also establishes something else about Kilpatrick, because Kilpatrick responded to Dure with a private letter of his own on April 6 (located in the Leon Dure papers at UVA). Kilpatrick’s reply indicates that he had not yet seen the “Buchnan Study” (sic) as of this late date – he said he’d “keep on the lookout” for it.

    Subsequent issues of the News-Leader in the following weeks do not appear to contain any references to the N-B 1959 paper aside from Dure, and Kilpatrick does not appear to have corresponded with Nutter or Buchanan about its contents. So it appears that he either did not receive it, or ignored it.

    Dabney’s newspaper would run the N-B 1959 paper in the Times-Dispatch of April 12, just six days later. As we may see by simply looking at the timeline above, the April 6 date basically excludes Kilpatrick from the chain of the article’s dissemination until only a few days before it appeared in print. That simple fact of the timeline places a severe damper on MacLean’s unfounded claim that N-B 1959 was stealthily informing Kilpatrick’s segregationist editorials, or her strong insinuation that Buchanan and Nutter were secretly coordinating the article behind the scenes with Kilpatrick and the “massive resisters.”



    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.