Liberals take down Duke professor’s hit job on public-choice economics

No one will mislabel Henry Farrell and Steven Teles as conservative thinkers. So they have no ax to grind as they trash Duke professor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains in a column for left-of-center Vox.

MacLean’s work has been hailed as a kind of skeleton key to the rightward political turn in American political economy by intellectuals including the journalist Jamelle Bouie, who says he came away from the book “completely shook”; the novelist Genevieve Valentine, who says on NPR.org that the book demonstrates a “clear and present danger” to US democracy; and publications such as Slate and Jacobin.

A deep, historical study of public choice would be welcome, and Buchanan’s role in the development of the thought and organizational infrastructure of the right has generally been overlooked. Unfortunately, the book is an example of precisely the kind of work on the right that we do not need, and the intellectuals of the left who have praised it are doing their side no favors. …

… MacLean, however, doesn’t want to explain how public choice economists think and argue. Instead, she portrays them as participants in a far-reaching conspiracy. She describes how a movement of “fifth columnists” that “congratulated itself on its ability to carry out a revolution beneath the radar of prying eyes” is looking to fundamentally undermine American democracy. She uses cloak-and-dagger language to suggest that she was only able to uncover the key files explaining what was going on because someone failed to lock “one crucial door” to a half-deserted building on George Mason University’s campus. (George Mason is the site of an unlisted and then-disorganized archive of Buchanan’s papers.)

In language better suited to a Dan Brown novel than a serious nonfiction book, she describes Buchanan as an “evil genius,” and suggests he had a “diabolical” plan to permanently “shackle” democracy, so that the will of the majority would no longer influence government in core areas of the economy. …

… 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.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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