Buchanan and the MacLean controversy in retrospect: 1.5 years later

It’s been about a year and a half since Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains hit the bookstore shelves. Having been deeply involved in the controversy that followed from her depiction of economist James M. Buchanan, I’m happy to report that one of the main products of my own research on the subject (co-authored with Art Carden and Vincent Geloso) recently appeared in the Southern Economic Journal.

The venue itself is important. Our work was based on hundreds of hours of deep archival digging (almost all of it financed out-of-pocket!) and went through over a year of rigorous scholarly scrutiny from the start of the submission process to the day it appeared. MacLean’s book appeared on a trade press, and to this date has never been subjected to the peer review process at the heart of scholarly publishing. But that’s just a part of the long and ongoing discovery process that brings us to this point.

Looking back to the summer of 2017 when the MacLean wars were in full swing provides another glimpse of how this avenue of research has developed. In doing so, I want to call specific attention to a number of early defenses of MacLean’s book that were written by academic historians who accepted her thesis from the outset.

It’s illustrative to consider how those defenses have held up over the intervening time. The answer: very poorly.

Andrew Seal’s Defense of MacLean

I’ll start with one of the most widely circulated defenses of MacLean, a review essay for the online magazine Public Seminar written by Andrew Seal, a historian at the University of New Hampshire. Seal’s piece is lengthy and veers in many directions, but the core of it, at least in my reading, is captured in the following passage. It concerns one of the earliest critiques of MacLean that I made, namely that her “evidence” of a connection between Buchanan and an assortment of historical figures who defended slavery and segregation was essentially non-existent. Seal writes:

“That brings us to why Brown v. Board, John C. Calhoun, and the Agrarians are in the book. To read some of MacLean’s critics, you’d think she dredges up these matters just because she wants to make Buchanan out to be a racist…MacLean takes up all of these considerations as part of why Buchanan wanted to fight Brown: her argument is not that he was just a racist and didn’t like integrated schools. For Buchanan and Colgate Darden (the president of UVA, who sponsored Buchanan’s center that MacLean argues was designed to fight Brown), it was the whole complex of issues that were suddenly in play that made Brown so ominous. One of those issues certainly was integrated schools, and MacLean does furnish extensive evidence for the amount of effort that Buchanan put into trying to figure out how to get around the Brown ruling for Virginia’s public schools (see Chapter 4). His frustrations with the difficulty of figuring out how to circumvent this imposition of federal authority, she argues, led to his conceptualization of public choice economics. The argument, let me reiterate, isn’t “he was racist so he invented public choice.” The argument is, he disliked the coercive power of the state that he saw revealed in Brown and its enforcement, and he kept working on the problem of how to fight that power and formulated public choice.”

Seal indulged in a fair amount of straw-manning when he suggested that MacLean’s critics on this point based our objections on the claim that these unsavory individuals simply made Buchanan look racist (MacLean did in fact enlist these names in explicitly racial terms to try to poison the well against Buchanan, and accolades for her book from such prominent academics as Peter Temin and James Brewer Stewart specifically boiled her message down to an allegation of racism against Buchanan). My own objections to MacLean on this point were, and remain, that she never even substantiated her attempts to associate Buchanan with Calhoun, the Agrarians, and other racially retrograde figures. The evidence simply isn’t there.

Nevertheless, Seal attempts to redeem MacLean by arguing that a subtler nuance of her case was being neglected – namely that she brought in these racially retrograde figures to show the intellectual climate of the resistance to Brown v. Board and racial desegregation, all of which supposedly shaped Buchanan’s development of public choice theory in the same era.

This broader argument of MacLean, however, was never in dispute. Indeed, it’s the core of the claim that we address in our SEJ article. Or as my co-author Art Carden summarizes:

MacLean argues that Buchanan, who was the chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Virginia in the late 1950s, and his coauthor G. Warren Nutter–who, incidentally, was born in Topeka, Kansas–were at the center of Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” movement to oppose school desegregation in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Massive Resistance failed, and in MacLean’s story this taught Buchanan an important lesson about the need for stealth: if he wanted to get his anti-government program past an uncooperative majority, he had to make sure that the majority was constrained by constitutional rules. What’s more, he realized that the clandestine Radical Right would have to be less than forthcoming about its motives.”

Note that Seal tries to slip this specific claim of MacLean’s into his argument – “MacLean takes up all of these considerations as part of why Buchanan wanted to fight Brown” – as if it were an established matter of fact that he was intent on fighting Brown. Yet this core claim remains entirely in the realm of MacLean’s own unproven conjecture (at one point in her introduction she even fabricates a non-existent conversation between Buchanan and UVA president Colgate Darden where the two secretly pledge to fight Brown…except there’s no evidence that this conversation or anything like it ever happened).

It actually gets worse than that for both MacLean and Seal’s arguments. Not only is their conjecture unsubstantiated, but as we’ve since documented, it’s actually in direct conflict with archival evidence of Buchanan’s activities at the time. MacLean builds her entire case about Buchanan’s supposed backlash against Brown on an attempt to link him to the segregationist “Massive Resistance” movement in Virginia, and specifically Richmond newspaper editor James Jackson Kilpatrick. Yet as we conclusively show in our paper, there’s simply no evidence of her posited connection – indeed Kilpatrick even wrote that he was unfamiliar with the “Buchnan study” (sic) when another correspondent asked him about it in April 1959 – a time when MacLean repeatedly asserts, albeit without evidence, that Buchanan and Kilpatrick were collaborating behind the scenes.

Nor is there any other evidence that links Buchanan to Massive Resistance. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As we recently learned, Buchanan’s collaborator G. Warren Nutter – the co-author of an article that MacLean incorrectly portrays as a Massive Resistance document – was actually personally involved in another group that she effusively praises in her book – an organization of Charlottesville, VA parents who set up emergency classrooms for children after the Massive Resisters shuttered a local elementary school to try to thwart integration. Nutter, it turns out, hosted one such classroom in his own basement.

Seal continued his argument by enlisting a very strange syllogism that would not pass muster in a freshman year philosophy survey:

So why is Calhoun in the book? Again, it’s not because she wants to smear Buchanan or libertarianism in a guilt by association maneuver. Besides, the connection between libertarianism and Calhoun is hardly the debatable contention that her critics say it is. I just did a search of the Mises Institute and turned up 220 results — including this article — referring to Calhoun, all positively as far as I can tell. And consider that the same press — the Liberty Fund — which has put out the Collected Works of Buchanan also has published a volume of “Calhoun’s most important constitutional and political writings.” 

Or briefly summarized,

  • Buchanan was a libertarian.
  • Other libertarians at the Mises Institute are quite fond of Calhoun
  • The libertarian-leaning publisher that prints Buchanan’s Collected Works also has a volume of Calhoun’s political writings in its large catalog of books on political theory.
  • It is therefore reasonable for MacLean to associate Buchanan with Calhoun.

In addition to the fallacy at play though, it is actually possible to affirmatively disprove its core claim. Some 40 years before MacLean’s book, political scientist Douglas Rae queried Buchanan’s co-author Gordon Tullock about whether Calhoun had any influence on their core text the Calculus of Consent. Tullock answered in the American Political Science Review that neither he nor Buchanan were even familiar with Calhoun’s work. There’s no reason to believe that Tullock was deceiving in this straight-forward answer to an honest query in the top journal of political science. Rae was not trying to associate them with Calhoun’s racial baggage, but simply inquiring if and how Calhoun fit into their understanding of the long list of political theorists who wrote about problems of majoritarian democracy in the 19th century. The answer, as Tullock responded, was not at all. We are therefore left to MacLean and Seal’s specious and anachronistic guilt-by-association exercise through the Mises Institute.

Seal’s argument continues from there into other areas, including an extended section in which he defends MacLean from the charge of altering of quotations by Tyler Cowen and other subjects in her book. I consider Seal’s argument on this point to be exceedingly tendentious. It actually requires overlooking the fact that MacLean deleted entire passages from the sentences she quotes so as to alter their meaning – arguably one of the gravest evidentiary sins a historian can commit short of forging a historical document outright. But even here, Seal’s defense has not fared well over the intervening time. Several other instances of MacLean misuse of quotations have come to light and are summarized here. At this point, it is a safe conclusion that MacLean’s alterations are not simply a few stray errors but an intentional and recurring pattern.

John Jackson’s Defense of MacLean

Around the time of Seal’s article, William & Mary historian John P. Jackson (now at Michigan State) also penned a lengthy defense of MacLean on his personal blog. This one was directed at me by name, although it made similar points.

Jackson specifically echoed one of Seal’s additional arguments, namely accusing MacLean’s critics of over-emphasizing Buchanan to the neglect of the “real” message of her book, which is to say a critique of libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch aka “the Koch Brothers.” Jackson and Seal venture deep into armchair psychology in making this claim, openly wondering if this inattention somehow reflects a hidden embarrassment among libertarians about their Koch associations.

The answer is much more simple than that: MacLean’s focus on the Kochs comes across as little more than an angry and partisan political polemic. There’s very little actual historical content to the chapters on Koch in her book, and indeed most of her Koch narrative is essentially cribbed from the only slightly less conspiratorial polemic Dark Money by political pundit Jane Mayer. There’s nothing original to MacLean’s claims on this point, aside from her specifically linking her Koch conspiracy theory by name to Buchanan on account of the publicly-known and long-disclosed fact that Charles Koch donated heavily to the economics department at George Mason University. But exactly nobody was surprised by the common knowledge that Koch donated to Buchanan’s department. In short, this segment of the book elicits comparatively little attention from MacLean’s critics because it’s light on substance and originality but heavy on partisan political rhetoric (MacLean does, however, follow her recurring pattern of altering quotations and their context when dealing with documents from Charles Koch).

But Jackson also attempts a defense of one of MacLean’s most bizarre abuses of evidence – her enlisting of the Agrarian poet Donald Davidson as a supposed intellectual influence upon Buchanan’s early career.

One of my earliest criticisms of MacLean specifically dealt with Davidson. She speculates that Davidson’s Agrarianism induced a young Buchanan to want to attend Vanderbilt University where the poet was based. She also speculates that Davidson’s anti-New Deal and segregationist political writings were the source of Buchanan’s later use of the famous “Leviathan” metaphor to describe an overarching federal government.

As I noted at the time, MacLean indulges in these repeated conjectures without any evidence whatsoever. There are no archival documents connecting Buchanan to Davidson. There is no evidence Buchanan ever read Davidson’s “Leviathan” argument. The footnotes MacLean lists for this claim all point to generic works about Davidson and Agrarian poetry, none of which links him to Buchanan. And in fact, Buchanan himself gave a very clear alternative origin story for the Leviathan metaphor in his own works – he picked it up from an interest in its originator Thomas Hobbes that he gained in the early 1970s, not some speculated Agrarian poetry hobby as a college student in the 1930s.

But this did not deter Jackson, who built an elaborate argument in MacLean’s defense on the grounds that she used the qualifier “seemed” in one of her many passages asserting a link between Davidson and Buchanan. As Jackson put it, “MacLean is hedging by saying Davidson seemed most decisive [on Buchanan’s worldview]; Magness omits the qualifier.”

It’s not clear how that makes MacLean’s case any better as a work of scholarship. Jackson tried anyway, in a long and tedious post that attempts to spin plausible excuses from creative readings of her words.

Call it the hoodwink defense: MacLean is clear of the charge of misrepresenting her evidence since she merely wished to trick her readers into believing unfounded claims about Buchanan through word games, as opposed to advancing a lie outright.

Of course Jackson also omitted other passages where MacLean got careless. She neglected to insert a qualifier to several of her other Agrarian references, such as a prominent example on p. 33. It reads “Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state” – not “Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that seemed to attract James Buchanan – one that seemed to stamp his vision of the good society and the just state.” It would therefore seem to be the case that Jackson’s defense falls on its face.

But we needn’t only dwell in Jackson’s seemstressing, as in a second post he also accused echoed Seal’s errors above – right down to his own version of the fallacious Calhoun syllogism about the Mises Institute.

Jackson also evinces extreme credulity for MacLean’s claims, including the following assertion about Buchanan and segregation:

MacLean, however, is not interested in what is in Buchanan’s heart regarding race. What she cares about is his actions and his public statements. In those, she clearly shows, Buchanan worked hard to support every move the segregationists made in Virginia. Who cares if he did so because he was defending some strange view of “liberty” rather than white supremacy? The effect at the time and the place were the same. So, was Buchanan a racist? Who cares? What is important is that he worked hard in support of racist policies in Virginia in the 1950s, which is what MacLean shows.

Yet as we’ve seen in multiple examples, MacLean’s evidence simply does not sustain any of her core charges on this count. In fact, she frequently misreads Buchanan’s limited number of public statements on the segregation issue – often badly. In one instance that has since come to light, Buchanan actually inserted an addendum into his 1959 paper with Nutter on school vouchers that recognized the impropriety of their use at segregated private schools. MacLean completely missed this addendum, much as she completely missed Nutter’s involvement in setting up emergency classrooms for his children after the Massive Resisters shuttered their elementary school.

In the time since Jackson’s post, we’ve also learned that the voucher issue in Virginia actually cut across all political lines on the school desegregation debate. MacLean simply assumes that only segregationists backed vouchers, and that the issue of school choice was inseparable from Massive Resistance to Brown v. Board. Jackson, for his part, credulously repeated her claims as if they were established truisms.

Yet this political narrative is simply untrue at its core. Rather than the Massive Resisters of MacLean’s depiction, the 1959 tuition grant system originated from political moderates who were specifically breaking from the Byrd Machine that controlled Virginia politics up until that point. Many of these men were moderate segregationists who nonetheless accepted the inevitability of Brown. Others were business-minded legislators who recognized the Massive Resistance school closure policy as a threat to the economic well-being of the state, and were scrambling to get the schools open. From its very inception in early 1959 (a suggestion of State Sen. Eugene Sydnor, a business-minded moderate with strong Chamber of Commerce connections), the program was actually intended as a flanking maneuver to finally break the hardline segregationist Massive Resisters’ school closure policy of the previous year. Indeed, House of Delegates speaker Blackburn Moore – the leader of the Massive Resistance movement in state government – unsuccessfully attempted to block the tuition grant system from even coming to a vote in because he knew its adoption would make it impossible to hold the line any longer on the school closure policy after a federal court deemed it unconstitutional a few weeks prior.

Vouchers also had the support of the small contingent of moderate integrationists in the Assembly, such as Arlington delegate Kathryn Stone who saw them as an important “safety valve” measure to build a legislative coalition in the center. Stone specifically believed that they would break the Massive Resistance stranglehold on state politics under Sen. Harry Flood Byrd’s political machine, and continued to defend the program until her retirement from politics in the mid-60s. Stone was one of the only legislators in that era to speak out in support of the NAACP after the Massive Resistors tried to harass it through the state’s business registration bureaucracy.

In fact as we’ve since learned, some of the state’s most die-hard segregationists actually turned against vouchers in early 1959 because they believed the school choice option would undermine an elaborate system of enrollment caps and zoning regulations intended to keep black children out of majority-white public schools. This anti-voucher “negro engulfment” theory actually originated in Charlottesville and dominated the local debate over vouchers at the very moment Buchanan and Nutter took up the issue. Nutter would have known directly about the “engulfment” argument because his children attended the same elementary school where the segregationists first coined the idea. Buchanan almost certainly knew of it, both from Nutter and from its extensive coverage in the local press. Curiously, it is completely missing from MacLean’s account, and its repetition by Jackson.

At this point, it’s safe to conclude that MacLean’s early defenders have not withstood the tests of time and scrutiny on either their major or minor points. This is no small matter either, as MacLean specifically deferred to Seal and Jackson in a July 2017 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education even as she refused to answer her critics herself.

To this date, MacLean continues to refuse engagement with scholars who have pointed out substantive flaws, errors, and misrepresentation of evidence in her book. As those criticisms continue to appear in scholarly venues, it will require more than deference to debunked blog posts by Seal and Jackson to address the deep and pervasive problems with her book.