Nancy MacLean

Is she the new Michael Bellesiles?

It’s very important to the Left to try to make the case that conservatives are racist, even with fake history, not only to smear them, but to cover up their own long history of racism, which continues even to this day.

[Wednesday-morning update]

Well, this is brutal, but fair:

Once I realized that this was the approach, the larger point became clear: Democracy in Chains is a work of speculative historical fiction. There is considerable research underpinning the speculation, and since MacLean is careful about footnoting only things that actually did happen she cannot be charged with fabricating facts. But most of the book, and all of its substantive conclusions, are idiosyncratic interpretations of the facts that she selects from a much larger record, as is common in the speculative-history genre. There is nothing wrong about speculation, of course, but there is nothing persuasive about it either, in terms of drawing reliable conclusions about history.

The reason that Democracy in Chains is remarkable is that it is such a great story. The evil mastermind of the secretive “Public Choice” movement, James M. Buchanan, was the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. MacLean is able to decode the true meaning of his mostly rather bland, academic-ese writings, after which Buchanan achieves the status of a Bond villain. Buchanan sought nothing less than to bring down the America we all love, and replace it with a plutocracy. The account is rendered plausible by MacLean’s excellence as a writer.

The problem with history, of course, is that many narratives about a few cherry-picked events and documents are “plausible.” The task of the historian is to try to distinguish among plausible accounts “through careful sifting of evidence and respectful encounters with opposing points of view.” There is none of that here. Even a casual familiarity with the basic facts of James Buchanan’s life and scholarship, and of the growth and success of the Public Choice movement, reveal far simpler, and more plausible, explanations.

…MacLean’s thesis really does read like a plot line that Ian Fleming rejected for a Bond novel: “No, that’s nuts. Let’s go back to the idea where a nuclear missile blows up the moon and changes the orbit of the Earth, causing earthquakes that allow recovery of hidden oil reserves and diamonds. That’s more plausible.” Nevertheless, the narrative thread connecting the documents and discussions that MacLean has selected from the much larger and more equivocal record does indeed have this structure, and that is what we are evaluating.

It’s long, but worth the read, if you want to actually understand Buchanan, public choice and libertarianism.

5 thoughts on “Nancy MacLean”

  1. I’d say that Mr. Bellesiles is probably the more honest.
    By the way, wouldn’t his surname be pronounced to rhyme with “Belial,” the Lord of Liars?

  2. I was very amused to see Twitter comments by people claiming academic historians were SO objective, so they’d be sure to identify any falsehoods by MacLean. I recall a common disinterest in investigating Bellesiles’ claims by the same sorts of historians.

  3. This is the first I have heard of this kerfuffle but I have read both of the books by Hutt that Magness discusses. His descriptions are accurate. I’ll add that The Theory of Collective Bargaining is an abstract thought experiment that would put anyone who is not a labor economist to sleep. The Economics of the Colour Bar, however, is a vivid and fascinating study of the real world that everyone should read.

  4. It’s convenient that she came out with this reinterpretation of Buchanan’s work and philosophy a few years after his death in 2013. It’s much easier and less risky legally to libel a dead person than a live one. I do wonder at the point of it. Sounds more like she’s milking gullible leftists and academics out of money than presenting a serious propaganda threat to any sort of libertarianism.

    My view is that she’s probably actually doing libertarianism a minor service after this kerfuffle dies down.

    1. If MacLean is trying to make of James Buchanan an effigy, as other academic leftists did Leo Strauss in the last decade, then we can expect Public Choice to become more powerful than leftists can possibly imagine.

      Munger wrote a useful precis of Buchanan’s oeuvre in the guise of an impeccably polite book review that observed all the traditional academic forms. Strauss would have approved.

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