What Are the Costs of Libertarianism?

Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Viking Press, 2017.)

Democracy in Chains, historian Nancy MacLean’s account of James McGill Buchanan andpublic choice economics, has caused an unusual stir in the few months since its publication. You may have followed the lengthy and determined attacks on MacLean, and the charges that she has misrepresented Buchanan’s work, on social media. Intellectual historian Andy Seal’s response to those criticisms here at Public Seminar has also drawn a storm of comments from MacLean’s critics.

You might ask: what’s the fuss about? Certainly an accessibly written book about Buchanan, a Nobel Prize winning economist, was long overdue, particularly given the rise of libertarianism over the last few years. I’m surprised that no one more sympathetic to his views, but with some objective distance from the man himself, has written one. I found only two secondary sources when I searched, one of which was written by a former student and collaborator of Buchanan’s at George Mason. What has been particularly striking is that MacLean’s critics — mostly scholars linked to Buchanan himself, to the Cato Institute, and to The Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University — seem to have read only the first few chapters of the book. Prominent complaints are that MacLean has misrepresented Buchanan’s intellectual history, and that the book smears him as a racist.

Nearly every historian I know who has read Democracy in Chains is mystified by the intensity of these complaints. One theme, for example, is that MacLean neglects the influence of Hobbes on Buchanan’s thought: indeed, Buchanan’s thoughts on Hobbes are not well represented, but who cares? The book isn’t about Hobbes, nor is it written for dedicated Buchananites who might have reveled in a few thousand words about Hobbes. MacLean also over represents the influence of slave-owning political philosopher John C. Calhoun, they argue; but MacLean’s extended analysis of Calhoun is not intended to amplify Buchanan’s intellectual history, but to explain why the South was fertile ground for modern libertarianism.

To read the rest of this essay, go to Public Seminar.

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