Democracy in Chains and Inter-Disciplinary Problems

American economist James Buchanan won the 1986...
American economist James Buchanan won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Democracy in Chains by Historian Nancy MacLean was worthy of a few online posts earlier this summer, when I first read a loaned copy and was pained by how often the text misstated economic theories associated with libertarians (and some conservatives). As a historian, she makes the all too common mistake of conflating the "radical right" (named on the book's cover) with standard, rather unexceptional and mundane, free-market economic models and theories. She presents common knowledge and well-known debates over theories within economics as some sort of secret plot to destroy democracy when, in fact, the people and theories she discusses seek to protect minority rights and freedoms from an easily manipulated government.

I didn't post my columns to my blogs because others, including the economists and political scientists from perspectives other than the Chicago or Austrian Schools (for lack of a better description). Call them center-left or whatever, economists across the political spectrum have serious problems with the information and the presentation of MacLean's work.

Please see:

  • Nancy MacLean Responds: "As for Farrell and Teles, I have to assume, based on what they wrote, that they did not give my book a close reading. My book is not a history of public choice (which I explained was broader than the Virginia variant on which I focused)." What absolute rubbish from MacLean. 
  • Did Nancy MacLean Make Stuff Up?
  • Does Democracy in Chains Paint an accurate Picture?
  • Whistlin' Dixie: Donald Davidson’s name does not appear anywhere in Buchanan’s academic works. The massive 20 volume Collected Works of James Buchanan is searchable online. (Yes, the secret cabal places all documents online, for free! Most libertarian organizations have huge, FREE libraries online.)
The best response to MacLean appeared on Vox. I want to emphasize the qualifications of the authors of the critique:
Henry Farrell is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he has a particular interest in the politics of economic ideas. His book The Political Economy of Trust was published by Cambridge University Press. Find him on Twitter @henryfarrell.

Steven Teles is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. He is the co-author (with Brink Lindsey) of the forthcoming The Captured Economy (Oxford), co-author of Prison Break (Oxford), and author of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement(Princeton).
MacLean is quick to argue in her text and elsewhere that she is not an economist and is not trying to explain (certainly not accurately) what Public Choice and Libertarian economic theories are and how others with differing ideologies have found useful work in the scholarship. Instead, she attacks James Buchanan, a Nobel Prize winning economist and attributes to Buchanan and others dark, evil motives. (Note: The economic prize is not part of the original Nobel awards.)

The problem I have with MacLean's work is that she is making an argument about economic ideas and theories, especially the motivations behind those ideas, without understanding how well-known the concepts are within the broad fields of economics and political science. It's like writing about Africa without having seen photos of the continent and certainly not having visited the place.

When she does have original documents, MacLean slices and dices these opportunistically to support her own conspiracy theory model of libertarian economic theories.

The basic argument of libertarians and Public Choice in particular is that people in power are often influenced by powerful interests: the wealthy, the popular, the mobilized. Those with social capital might have this influence through wealth (the Koch's are the chosen villains of the left, as George Soros is for the right). But, social capital also comes from political power, such as leading a movement. It can also come from representing a block of voters, which is why politicians fear unions and groups such as the AARP.

Public Choice does not argue in its theories or models that the wealthy should have power. Instead, it argues that the wealthy pose their greatest threat to the free market when the federal government has too much power. In other words, when power is concentrated at the federal level, the wealthy can target that center of power for their own purposes, regardless of what is best for the free market or for the rights and freedoms of other people.

That's not a "dark and evil" theory. It's a theory that states governments with increasingly centralized power risk being manipulated by a few individuals or groups. Libertarian economist do not argue for this state of affairs: if anything, the various (and there are several) schools of thought on market-based economics argue that government power should be decentralized and more responsive to local citizens than national groups (corporations, unions, etc).

Even some of her arguments against negative rights are nonsense. It was government that enforced segregation. It was government and the courts that enforced slavery before that. Believers in personal sovereignty would and do reject all forms of involuntary servitude, though many are guilty of ignoring economic servitude.

The association of the broad collection of Austrian, Chicago, Freshwater, Libertarian, and whatever else you wish to call the market-based dynamic theorists within macroeconomics. Their interest in how behavioral economics also alters the macro situation is notable and generally respected.

MacLean's critique of Buchanan is a path to critiquing a large collection of respected scholars from the past and present at schools including the University of Chicago, University of Texas at Austin, University of Minnesota, and Carnegie Mellon University among others.

[Full disclosure: I taught in the undergraduate economics program at CMU and I attended the University of Minnesota where I did attend seminars and lectures by economists and others interested in market theories.]

It is interesting that the progressives are now discovering "state's rights" and local control on issues from immigration to drug decriminalization. This cafeteria approach to state's rights and negative liberties exists on the left and right, among statists and individualists. MacLean simply is picking and choosing which positions are good or bad for democracy through the prism of her own biases. Does she oppose the passion of the libertarians for justice reforms? I doubt it. Does she oppose their embrace of LBGTQ rights? No. She's selectively attacking Buchanan (and two of the Koch brothers) because they are the symbols of something she dislikes.

I've posted several times on the risk of "live and let live" negative rights: you end up defending offensive, horrible people and their rights to be offensive and ignorant. But that does not make the defenders of such speech evil.

The libertarians generally did not oppose Brown vs. Board of Education because of its aims: they opposed the federal government dictating local policy, but made clear that segregation was also morally wrong and should be ended. Buchanan himself wrote that he had to oppose both coercive segregation and integration. Government should not discriminate, but people had the right to be racists outside of any government system.

The National Review under William F. Buckley made a strong case for expunging the racists from the social conservative movement. The migration of segregationists to the Republican Party has haunted and torn at the core ideals of both the conservative and libertarian movements embodied by the founding of the party and its earliest presidents.

Fighting for the right of horrible people to be… horrible? That is what the ACLU did when it defended Skokie, Illinois, Nazi marches. Defending offensive behaviors should be a shared liberal value. But, increasingly, it is not.

There is no secret plan to further the ideas of libertarians. It's out in the open what the Libertarian Party represents. The various think tanks publish papers. The economists publish papers and conduct research. You cannot be publishing books and receiving Nobel prizes for economics if the ideas aren't out in the open market of ideas.

Anyway, my complaints and criticism of specific passages in MacLean hold little weight when compared to those of more qualified political scientists and economists, especially those on the left and center-left (sorry to resort to simplistic labels) who recognize that there is no secret cabal trying to damage democracy.

If anything, the argument of the libertarians is that if you use government force to promote equality (whatever you believe that is), that same force can and will be abused when another political movement gains power. We see this in countries led by "democratically elected" authoritarians (Venezuela, Turkey, Poland, Russia). We can mock their versions of "democracy" but the centralized, strong federal government is part of the problem in these nations.
Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them. []

How not to write about "radical" libertarians.

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles
Jul 14, 2017, 8:30am EDT

It's always hard in politics for people to take their opponents' views seriously, but it has become ever harder in Trump's America. People are more engaged with politics, but only because they want to beat the other side, not understand it. This means scholars have a greater responsibility than ever to help ordinary citizens understand how the people with whom they disagree think, and what their political opponents are actually doing.

Most scholars get this. For example, political scientists and historians, who tend to range from the political center to the left wing, have written extensively about the origins and development of American conservatism. Rick Perlstein, the left-wing historian, has written intelligently and sensitively about the Barry Goldwater movement and the rise of the modern US right. Jefferson Decker at Rutgers University has carefully tracked how reaction against the role of the federal government in Western public lands gave rise to conservative public interest law.

Angus Burgin has thoroughly dug into the history of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by Friedrich Hayek in 1947, showing how a transnational network of free market thinkers helped change the global conversation on political economy. One of us (Teles) devoted years to making sense of how conservative foundations helped shape the academic discipline of law and economics, build the Federalist Society, and, more recently, support criminal justice reform. And this barely scratches the surface of high-quality scholarship across multiple disciplines on conservatism.

That brings us to Nancy MacLean's much publicized, heavily praised (in some quarters) recent book on public choice economics, Democracy in Chains (published by Penguin Random House), which focuses on the role of Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan. Public choice economics is an approach that asks how special interests can seek "rents," or income unrelated to economic productivity, by getting self-interested bureaucrats and government agencies to regulate in their favor. It examines the impact of institutional rules on economic outcomes, usually from the standpoint of an assumption that market processes naturally align with the public interest but governmental processes do not.
As Farrell and Teles note,
For instance, when MacLean claims that Cowen is providing "a handbook for how to conduct a fifth column assault on democracy," she cites as evidence Cowen's statement that "the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome." Unfortunately, she declines to provide the reader with the second half of the sentence, which goes on to note that "it would also increase the chance of a very bad outcome." Nor, as she has claimed in interviews, is the title of Cowen's blog Marginal Revolution a signal to the illuminated that Cowen is undertaking a gradual revolution by stealth (**it's actually a well-known term for the birth of modern economics**).

She accuses David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, of believing that "close to half of American society is intent on exploiting the rich" when he writes about a "parasite economy" of predators and prey. In fact, the predators Boaz is talking about are specific interests lobbying for subsidies, tariffs, quotas, or trade restrictions. While his claims can be contested, they are simply not what MacLean says they are.

MacLean's critics on the right also argue that there is little to no evidence supporting her most important arguments, and some of her most trenchant examples. There is no strong evidence that Buchanan was motivated to rein in state power because he opposed Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, or helped Pinochet design his authoritarian constitution, despite MacLean's insinuations to the contrary.

Those on the left might be inclined to think that the libertarian and conservative critics of the book are lashing out, or overemphasizing a few errors, because MacLean has revealed the dark side of one of their heroes and the unsavory modern history of their movement. Or alternatively, as MacLean has publicly claimed is the case, one might see this criticism as a counter-campaign by "Koch operatives" aimed at discrediting her. Yet while we do not share Buchanan's ideology — and we would love to read a trenchant critical account of the origins of public choice — we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.
MacLean cherrypicks her arguments and manipulates quotes. That's dangerous. Historians should meet higher standards when studying and making claims about people with whom they disagree ideologically.


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