Don’t MacLean on Me

By: David Gordon

As I mentioned in an earlier article, Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains has aroused controversy, in large part owing to her many inaccuracies and misleading remarks.  I’d like in this note to call attention to a few more of these.

She begins the book’s Prologue with a summary of an article by Alexander Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun.” These authors, colleagues of Buchanan at George Mason University, “have called the antebellum South Carolina senator ‘a precursor of modern public choice theory,’ another name for the stream of thought pioneered by Buchanan.” (p.1) So far, so good; but she goes on to say: “Both thinkers sought ways to restrict what voters could achieve together in a democracy to what the wealthiest among them would agree to.” (p.2) ) In fact, Tabarrok and Cowen  discuss Calhoun’s doctrine of the “concurrent majority” under which all the major interests in society have to approve legislation; but they do not say that Calhoun took the wealthiest to be among these interest groups. They further point out that Calhoun did not intend his unanimity criterion to apply literally to “every member of society.” She does have a footnote to her statement; and, since the paragraph consists of her summary of Tabarrok and Cowen’s article, one would anticipate a citation to this article. But the reference is to another article by Cowen, one that does not discuss Calhoun at all, and mentions Buchanan only in a footnote.  (p.245, note 4)

MacLean’s summary of the article also omits Tabarrok and Cowen’s conclusion that “Unlike Buchanan, Calhoun does not subscribe to normative individualism and contractarianism.” In their view, Calhoun’s “lack of ethical foundations shows up in his defense of slavery.” By omitting the authors’ conclusion, MacLean makes it appear that they agree with her that both Calhoun and Buchanan aimed to thwart the interests of the people in favor of a narrow elite of the wealthiest.

One twentieth-century economist who certainly qualifies as an elitist was John Maynard Keynes; but not in MacLean’s telling. According to her, Keynes ‘believed that for a modern capitalist democracy to flourish, all must have a share in the economy’s benefits and governance.”(p.xxix) Where does Keynes say that everyone must have a share in the economy’s governance? She offers no support for her surprising claim.

She says that Herbert Spencer was one of  “bitter establishment opponents of Populism” (p.118), but where does Spencer discuss the Populist movement? She does not tell us. Spencer, she also says, was among those who “pretended’’ that social power does not shape markets; but once more she offers no evidence. It seems unlikely that Spencer held the view she attributes to him. He was, after all, one of the founders of sociology.

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