When Politics Drives Scholarship

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
August 30, 2017

The publication of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, a history of the “public choice” economist James Buchanan and his impact on American politics, has led to an enormous, highly charged debate. But as Marshall Steinbaum correctly noted in this journal, not many people have weighed in who aren't either Team Public Choice or Team Anti-Buchanan. For the most part, both sets of combatants see this as a political rather than an intellectual fight, so when the non-aligned venture into the fray, they are likely to be pigeonholed—whether they like it or not. When one of us expressed skepticism about MacLean’s book (prefiguring our article for Vox)for instance, Steinbaum himself wrote on Twitter, “It is very concerning that good scholars are siding with the coordinated smear campaign.”

We appreciate that Steinbaum thinks that we are “good scholars.” Indeed, it was our reaction to MacLean’s scholarship—rather than her politics—that was the initial reason we wrote our essay on Democracy in Chains. To put it simply, we thought that MacLean’s book missed the mark in terms of pure scholarly tradecraft. We did not find MacLean's book problematic because we thought she was unfair to Buchanan as a person, or because we have any personal attachment to public choice as a movement or philosophy. We found it problematic because it seemed to seriously misunderstand the history of Buchanan and public choice, in ways that may have pernicious consequences both for the general understanding of the right and for the specific strategies that the left and liberals ought to employ in response. Bad scholarship, in short, can drive bad politics.

MacLean’s thesis is straightforward enough (this interview provides a useful summary). James Buchanan, she argues, resented the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which he saw as a coercive attack on the Southern way of life. In response, he then created the economic school of public choice, and went on to guide Augusto Pinochet in Chile, helping to create a constitution that shackled democracy in that country. MacLean argues that Buchanan discovered a political “technology” or “operational strategy” for undermining liberalism, and this technology, as applied by Charles Koch, explains why the US right has been so successful in the last two decades. Thanks to Buchanan, the right has discovered what it needs to do to win, and it has applied his strategic insights through a surreptitious plan that is quietly advancing. After a falling out between Buchanan and Koch, Koch’s replacement intellectual lieutenant in the plan to subvert democracy is Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economics professor and blogger. MacLean claims that the documentation she has discovered is “incontrovertible.”

Read the full piece at the Boston Review