The Legacy of James M. Buchanan at Middle Tennessee State University: A Response to Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains
MTSU alum Dr. James M. Buchanan received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics and Science in 1986 “for his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making.” | MTSU file photo
By Daniel J. Smith
In a provocative book, Democracy in Chains, Duke University historian Professor Nancy MacLean places Nobel laureate and MTSU alum James M. Buchanan at the center of an effort to undermine democratic institutions and preserve the political power of white elites with a research program premised on the assumption that political actors are primarily driven by selfish motivations.
As an academic who has spent a good portion of my scholarly career studying and building on the scholarship of James M. Buchanan, as well as personally interacting with him, his students, and coauthors during graduate school at George Mason University, I found these to be deeply serious and concerning allegations worthy of investigation, despite the fact that nothing in my personal experience or research supported the veracity of her narrative.
Many scholars familiar with public choice and James M. Buchanan were similarly surprised with MacLean’s account based on their personal experiences and familiarity with Buchanan and his research. MacLean’s academic position and record justified further investigation, leading to serious intellectual engagement and analysis of her book. It didn’t take long before scholars discovered MacLean’s narrative was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of public choice economics and Buchanan’s research (as well as a broader misunderstanding of public choice). Nor did the book, which contained a substantial number of inconsistencies and factual and inferential errors, meet the rigorous evidentiary standards of academic scholarship. The book, after all, did not go through the formal peer-review process required by academic publishers, which would likely have discovered many of these errors prior to publication.
Fleury and Marciano (2018), in a review of Democracy in Chains published in the prestigious Journal of Economic Literature, summarize MacLean’s book, as being “…at best sketchy…” and “…replete with significantly flawed arguments, misplaced citations, and dubious conjectures.” They find that MacLean “…tends to over-interpret certain aspects in Buchanan’s life and thought, while she overlooks others that are equally important in understanding his work and influence.” According to Fleury and Marciano, “Buchanan was first and foremost a scholar, not a political activist, who gave significant attention to ethical considerations in his analysis of markets.” Burns (2018), in a review published in the History of Political Economy, writes that MacLean’s book is “heated, partisan, and shallow” and “rife with distortions and inaccuracies.”
Scholars outside the field of economics have also raised concerns about the book. For instance, historian Jack Rakove, in a review published in Critical Inquiry, writes that “Democracy in Chains begins to read more like Ramparts-style journalism than academic history.” Political scientists Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, in a review published on Vox, similarly argue that MacLean does not meet the evidentiary burden required to support her narrative, writing, “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.” Political scientist Michael C. Munger, in reviewing the book for The Independent Review, describes MacLean’s narrative as a work of “speculative historical fiction.”
One of the primary points of contention with MacLean’s narrative concerns her speculation that, as a native of Tennessee, Buchanan’s research was subliminally influenced and driven by a concern for preserving southern white oligarchy. More specifically, her narrative suggests that the racism of John C. Calhoun and Donald Davidson played a central role in the development of Buchanan’s research. Yet, despite spending time in Buchanan’s personal archives, MacLean offers no documentary evidence to support her contention that Calhoun or Davidson influenced Buchanan. Carden, Geloso, and Magness (2017), in a working paper, review Buchanan’s writings and find no documentary evidence to support Professor MacLean’s contention and offer a substantial amount of exculpating evidence. They do find Madisonian parallels between Calhoun and Buchanan’s constitutional research, but this, they argue, is true of any scholar conducting research from a Madisonian constitutional perspective.
Buchanan’s research program is a serious attempt to preserve democratic institutions through the design and enforcement of constitutions to protect minority groups from discriminatory policy. Importantly, Buchanan argues that constitutional safeguards should be designed to be operative even when politicians act with selfish motives. As Buchanan (with coauthor Gordon Tullock) writes in the Calculus of Consent (1962, p. 302), “…we are not, in any way, glorifying the pursuit of self- or group interest by political means. Empirical evidence does seem to point toward this pursuit as an important element in a modern democratic process. Our approach is based on the idea that, insofar as this pursuit of self-interest does take place, it should be taken into account in the organization of the political constitution. Only in this way can the institutional setting for collective choice-making be constructed so as to confine the exploitation of man by man…” Buchanan argued that constitutions could play a vital role in ensuring the possibility of cooperative collective activity, writing with Gordon Tullock in the Calculus of Consent, that, “We view collective decision-making (collective action) as a form of human activity through which mutual gains are made possible. Thus, in our conception, collective activity, like market activity, is a genuinely co-operative endeavor in which all parties, conceptually, stand to gain” (p. 254).
Thus, the very central theme of MacLean’s book, that Buchanan was anti-democratic, is untrue and represents a misconstrued and uninformed interpretation of Buchanan’s work on constitutional political economy. Self-rule through a democratic process was at the core of Buchanan’s work. While a democratic majority may elect to use majority rule as its collective decision-making criteria, a constitution limiting the power of a majority to run roughshod over the rights of a minority is also a feasible outcome of a democratic process (Vanberg 2020). In this sense, no decent human being should be in favor of unlimited majority rule (Munger 2018). Examining the strengths and weaknesses of democracy is a legitimate inquiry and one shared by scholars of various political ideologies and fields (Burns 2018, p. 635). How many times, after all, has the will of a democratic majority been overturned by the courts in advancement of the protection of the rights of minorities (Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education)? As Munger (2018) notes, this component of Buchanan’s work “is one of the core premises of liberalism, that the rights of minorities must be protected.”
Buchanan’s scholarship inspired a productive stream of research pushing back against discriminatory policies (Magness 2020). For instance, at the University of Virginia (UVA), Buchanan brought in W. H. Hutt as a visiting scholar. Hutt was an economist who vehemently criticized apartheid in his home country of South Africa. During his stay at UVA, Hutt published an academic article, “Unanimity versus Non-Discrimination (As Criteria for Constitutional Validity),” in the Southern African Journal of Economics, which used Buchanan’s work on constitutional safeguards to protect minority groups as a path forward to ensure a non-discriminating constitution in South Africa. Public choice scholars have subsequently built on this research criticizing racism, Apartheid, segregation, and Jim Crow Laws. Particularly noteworthy is the scholarship of Peter Lewin (1979 & 2000), a student of Hutt’s, and Jennifer Roback (1986, 1988, & 1989), who worked directly with Buchanan.
At UVA, Buchanan also brought in his personal mentor (and someone he directly cites as one of the most important influences on him and his research), Frank Knight, to give a series of public lectures at UVA that Buchanan turned into a book, Intelligence and Human Action (1960). In those lectures, Knight directly criticized segregation and other racist policies during his public lectures at UVA. Buchanan also brought in the prominent African American economist, Abram L. Harris, to discuss the relationship between economics and public policy (Magness 2020).
While it was well outside Buchanan’s primary research area, his writings consistently condemn segregation, racism, and discrimination as unethical policies. For instance, in Choice, Contracts, and Constitutions, Buchanan (2001, p. 174) writes, “(t)he local [segregation] statutes that were violated by the restaurant sit-ins of the early 1960’s were ‘Southern’ laws, of course, and properly and universally condemned as ‘unjust’.” In his book, Why I, Too, Am Not A Conservative, Buchanan (2005, p. 26) writes, “Discriminatory law that embodies prior classification of persons subject to its potential coercive force clearly violates the normative precept here. This implication is widely recognized. For example, distinctions among persons based on gender, race, or religion are acknowledged to be 'out of bounds' in a democratic order.” In the same book, Buchanan (p. 67) writes, “Individual liberty and its corollary, individual responsibility, are ultimate or supreme values that are extended equally to all members of the community” and that:
The presuppositions of autonomy and reciprocity imply a more fundamental normative proposition to the effect that all persons in the trading nexus are to be considered as natural equals, each one of whom is assumed to be equally capable of making exchanges and living with the consequences. This postulate of natural equality places the classical liberal directly and specifically at odds with all those who, explicitly or implicitly, accept the Platonic postulate of natural hierarchy. To Plato there are natural slaves and natural masters, with the consequences that follow for social organization, be it economic or political. To Adam Smith, by contrast, who is in this as in other aspects the archetype classical liberal, the philosopher and the porter are natural equals with observed differences readily explainable by culture and choice. It is not surprising that the nineteenth-century followers of Adam Smith, the economists, were as one in their opposition to human slavery, the institution that was so strongly defended by the dominant intelligentsia, and Carlyle in particular, all of whom were followers of Plato in their putative claim for natural hierarchy. We owe a debt of gratitude to my colleague David Levy (2001) for his exposure of this dark side of the early 'humanist' criticism of markets. (p. 67)
Another primary component of MacLean’s narrative is that Buchanan (and coauthor Warren Nutter) published a policy paper supporting K-12 educational vouchers with the intention of advancing the agenda of white segregationists in Virginia (and elsewhere). MacLean offers two pieces of evidence for this contention. First, the circumstantial evidence that Buchanan and Nutter published their paper on educational vouchers during the segregation debates in Virginia, and, as she points out, there were pro-segregationists who were pro-voucher. Her second piece of evidence is that, according to her book, Buchanan and Nutter published a pro-voucher op-ed in the Richmond News-Leader, whose editor was widely known for his racist and pro-segregationist views.
Magness, Carden, and Geloso (2019), in an article in the Southern Economic Journal, explain how the school voucher debate was not as one-sided as MacLean argues. There were many anti-segregation groups (including African American groups) that supported school vouchers at that time, specifically as a way to combat segregation. There were also white segregationists who opposed school vouchers because they thought school choice would necessarily lead to integration. For instance, an article published in the Richard News-Leader on March 24, 1959, was entitled, “Private Schools Are Linked To ‘Engulfment’ by Negroes,” arguing that school vouchers would undermine segregation. Importantly, in a 1964 reissue of their paper on vouchers (initially published in 1959), Buchanan and Nutter specifically address these concerns, adding that “we are therefore aware of the important non-economic reasons for excluding such schools [private schools] from the tuition grant system. There are similar problems in the case of private schools that exclude pupils on the basis of race.” In a personal letter to Arthur Seldon (President of the Institute for Economic Affairs in London), when discussing school vouchers, Buchanan wrote that he “…would want, somehow, to avoid the evils of race-class-cultural segregation that an unregulated voucher scheme might introduce. In principle, there is, after all, much in the melting pot notion of America. And there is also some merit in the notion that the education of all children should be a commonly shared experience in terms of basic curriculum, etc. We should not want a voucher scheme to reintroduce the elite that qualified for membership only because they have taken Latin and Greek classics. Ideally, and in principle, it should be possible to secure the beneficial effects of competition, in providing education, via voucher support, and at the same time, to secure the potential benefits of commonly shared experiences, including exposure to other races, classes, and cultures.” Thus, Professor MacLean’s circumstantial evidence on this point does not hold up to scrutiny.
Nor does her other primary piece of evidence stand up to scrutiny. As Magness, Carden, and Geloso (2019) also point out, Buchanan and Nutter did not publish their opinion pieces supporting vouchers in the Richmond News-Leader, they published it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Buchanan and Nutter had a long-standing relationship with its editor, Virginius Dabney, known for being far more moderate than Kilpatrick. While Dabney certainly had his faults, he was known for being “an opponent of Jim Crow. He pushed for federal antilynching laws, attacked the Ku Klux Klan in print, and earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 as an advocate of city bus desegregation and an opponent of Virginia’s poll tax” (Magness, Carden, and Geloso 2019, p. 31).
The above provides just a brief overview of some of the most egregious problems thus far discovered in MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. In total, scholars have identified in painstaking detail over 80 factual problems, errors, or misrepresentations in her book. Unfortunately, she has not responded to these documented critiques beyond engaging in ad hominem attacks against the motives of the academic scholars, including myself. Fleury and Marciano (2018) title their review of her book The Sound of Silence, in reference to MacLean’s unwillingness to substantively respond to these serious and well-documented concerns about her work raised among a diverse scholarly community.
Boettke, Peter J. (2019). “The Allure and Tragedy of Ideological Blinders Left, Right, and
Center: A Review Essay of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains,” Including a Symposium on Ludwig Lachmann (Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Vol. 37B), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 123-147.
Buchanan, James M. (2001). Choice, Contracts, and Constitutions. Liberty Fund, Inc.
Buchanan, James M. (2005). Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative. Edward Elgar.
Buchanan, James M. and Gordon Tullock (1962). The Calculus of Consent. Liberty Fund, Inc.
Burns, Jennifer (2018). “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth
Plan for America by Nancy MacLean” History of Political Economy 50 (3): 640–648. Available online: http://www.jenniferburns.org/dev/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Burns-HOPE-MacLean-Review-09.18.pdf
Carden, Art (2017-2018). “Buchanan’s Big Idea,” Regulation 40(61-62). Available online: https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/rcatorbg40&div=88&g_sent=1&casa_token=&collection=journals
Carden, Art, Vincent Geloso, and Phillip Magness (2017). “Situating Southern Influences in James M. Buchanan and Modern Public Choice Economics,” SSRN Working Paper. Available online: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3008867
Doherty, Brian (2017). “What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong About James Buchanan Democracy in Chains” Reason. July 20th. https://reason.com/2017/07/20/what-nancy-maclean-gets-wrong-about-jame/
Emmett, Ross B. (2019). "Reading the Hermeneutics of Suspicion with Suspicion: A Review Essay on Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America ☆ ", Including a Symposium on Ludwig Lachmann (Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Vol. 37B), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 165-175.
Farrant, Andrew (2019). “What Should (Knightian) Economists Do? James M. Buchanan’s 1980 Visit to Chile,” Southern Economic Journal 85(3): 691-714.
Farrant, Andrew and Vlad Tarko (2019). “James M. Buchanan’s 1981 Visit to Chile: Knightian Democrat or Defender of the ‘Devil’s Fix’?” The Review of Austrian Economics 32: 1-20.
Farrell, Henry and Steven Teles (2017). “Even the Intellectual Left is Drawn to Conspiracy Theories About the Right: Resist Them,” Vox. October 9th. Available online: https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/7/14/15967788/democracy-shackles-james-buchanan-intellectual-history-maclean#_blank
Fleury, Jean-Baptiste and Alain Marciano (2018). “The Sound of Silence: A Review Essay of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains,” Journal of Economic Literature 56(4): 1492-1537. Available online: https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jel.20181502
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Horwitz, Steven (2017a). “When Academia Turns into Fight Club,” Foundation for Economic Education. Available online: https://fee.org/articles/when-academia-turns-into-fight-club/?utm_source=fee%20email%20subscriber%20list&utm_campaign=c3d999390c-mc_fee_daily_2017_07_13&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_84cc8d089b-c3d999390c-107190981
Horwitz, Steven (2017b). “Confirmation Bias Unchained: Nancy Maclean on James Buchanan, the History of Public Choice Theory, and Libertarianism,” SSRN Working Paper. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3007751
Levy, David M. (2019). “A Review of Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought, forthcoming. Available online: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3390053
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Magness, Phillip W. (2018). “Buchanan and MacLean Controversy in Retrospect: 1.5 Years Later.” Blogpost. Available online: http://philmagness.com/?p=2509
Magness, Phillip W. (2020). “The Anti-discriminatory Tradition in Virginia School Public Choice Theory,” Public Choice 183: 417-441.
Magness, Phillip W., Art Carden, and Vincent Geloso (2019). “James M. Buchanan and the Political Economy of Desegregation,” Southern Economic Journal 85(3): 715-741.
MacLean, Nancy (2017). Democracy in Chains. Penguin Books.
Meadowcroft, John and William Ruger (2014). “Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan: On Public Life, Chile, and the Relationship between Liberty and Democracy,” Review of Political Economy 26(3): 358-367.
Munger, Michael C. (2018). “On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice: Constitutional Conspiracy?” The Independent Review Winter. Available online: https://www.independent.org/issues/article.asp?id=9115
Rakove, Jack (2017). “Nancy MacLean: Democracy in Chains,” Critical Inquiry. Available online: https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/jack_rakove_reviews_democracy_in_chains/
Roback, J. (1986). “The Political Economy of Segregation: The Case of Segregated Streetcars,” The Journal of Economic History 46(4): 893–917.
Roback, J. (1988). “W.H. Hutt’s the Economics of the Colour Bar,” Managerial and Decision Economics 9(5): 65–70.
Roback, J. (1989). “Racism as rent seeking,” Economic Inquiry 27(4): 661–681.
Roberts, Russell (2017). “Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology,” Medium. https://russroberts.medium.com/nancy-maclean-owes-tyler-cowen-an-apology-e6277ee75eb3
Vanberg, Victor J. (2020). “J. M. Buchanan’s Contractarian Constitutionalism: Political Economy for Democratic Society,” Public Choice 183: 339-370.
 Daniel J. Smith is the Director of the Political Economy Research Institute, an institute which has received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.
 Alas, peer-review isn’t perfect. Another book of MacLean’s (1994), Behind the Mask of Chivalry, despite being published by Oxford University Press, has been described as “highly speculative,” “circular and ahistorical,” and having “a lack of evidence” (Kousser 1996).
 For additional critiques of Democracy in Chains, see Boettke (2019), Doherty (2017), Emmett (2019), Farrant and Tarko (2019), Horwitz (2017a & 2017b), Levy (2019), Magness (2018), and Roberts (2017).
 See, for instance, Farrant (2019), Farrant and Tarko (2019), and Meadowcroft and Ruger (2014) on Buchanan’s visit to Chile and his critique of the Pinochet regime in a speech at the Mont Pelerin Society.