My last word on Nancy MacLean

by Henry on September 18, 2018

Attention conservation notice: This is a lengthy post looking to demonstrate, should demonstration be needed, that I am not a tool of the “Koch donor network.” Also: if you are interested in l’Affaire MacLean, your time is probably better spent reading this dissection of the book by Jennifer Burns in the new issue of History of Political Economy.

I don’t particularly want to get dragged back into the Nancy MacLean imbroglio, but I see, via my co-author Steve Teles, that she’s commented on Corey’s Facebook feed, suggesting both that Steve’s (and by implication, my) criticisms of her book are not those of an honest critic, and that Steve (and, by implication, me) didn’t show any signs of reading her book beyond skimming the intro. I note that I don’t have a Facebook account, so haven’t seen the context in which she made this claim. Nor have I asked Corey about this, since he may very understandably not want to be dragged into this brouhaha.

This follows on from a Jacobin podcast a couple of months ago, in which she said (suggesting, as best as I understand her, that there was something suspicious about this) that Steve and I “were very quick out the gate” and furthermore that it was “clear from the piece that we hadn’t read [the book],” that “their effort is a rather pathetic quest to deflect public attention from the crucial part of my book, which is how these ideas have been weaponized by the Koch donor network to achieve what it cannot achieve if it is honest,” and (perhaps conflating her claims about us with claims about others – it is not clear from context), “These guys just go after these silly things in the book and misrepresent them in order to create smog so that people will not encounter the important argument of the work.”

So, at this point, since she appears to have repeatedly misrepresented in public what we wrote and why we wrote it, it’s probably a good idea to clear up the background to the piece. I should also make it clear that I don’t believe that Nancy MacLean is wicked or dishonest. I do believe that she is unfortunately sometimes prone to a combination of conspiratorial thinking and sloppy treatment of evidence, which she uses to reinforce rather than to interrogate her preconceptions. This was the problem with her book. It is also the problem with the way that she is dealing with my and Steve’s criticisms of her. Steve notes various factual blunders in the above-linked response. I want to supplement this by describing how the piece came into being.

I first became aware of the book’s existence when I read this tweet by Jamelle Bouie on June 14, 2017. I thought that the book sounded really interesting, and purchased it on Kindle right after seeing the tweet (if anyone really cares, I am happy to provide a PDF of the Amazon order record), and began reading immediately. I’ve long thought that there was some highly problematic ideas about democracy and race associated with prominent people in public choice: I presumed that this was going to be a good and serious historical take on these problems. I didn’t mind whether it was neutral (and would have been perfectly happy with a blistering but fact-based polemic), but I did want it to be solid. Unfortunately, it was not. As I read it, it became clear that it was sloppy on argument and facts. I started to check the endnotes, and Google the references that were publicly available, and became more and more concerned.

As it happened, I had a previously arranged coffee with Steve for the following day, June 15. Steve and I had gotten to know each other better when I organized the Crooked Timber seminar on his book on the conservative legal movement. In our conversation, I mentioned the book, and that I really thought that it was very problematic, and suggested to him that he should read it, and, if he agreed, think of writing a response. He hadn’t heard of the book, but was interested in finding out more. When he read it, he agreed, and we started to talk about writing something together during the second half of June, which eventually turned into the Vox piece. I also tweeted about the problems I saw in the book during the same period. In the process of writing the article, I read the book through at least three times, noting important sections, and doing background research on publicly available secondary sources. Most of this work, as is common for essays like this, didn’t make it directly into the final product, but it did provide a secure intellectual framework what we did argue. While I haven’t consulted with Steve in writing this piece, I am sure he did similar amounts of work.

This is all doubtless extremely boring to anyone who is not involved in the controversy. I provide it to make it clear that the accusations that MacLean has made are horseshit. First – the initiative for this piece did not come from Steve (who hadn’t even heard about the book before I mentioned it to him). It came from me – the lefty in the partnership. It’s notable that MacLean mentions Steve in her Facebook post but not me – I suspect that this is because she doesn’t have even a superficially plausible public story about how I have been corrupted by the Koch conspiracy (although I wouldn’t be surprised if she harbors some private beliefs).

Second, I can aver that the Koch brothers were not involved, nor any of their enterprises in rewarding me or Steve for this. I expected that the only real reward I would get would be to piss off a lot of people whose politics I share. This was not a financially lucrative endeavor (we did get paid $350 between us by Vox – but for a piece that took several days work). It was, we believed, an unpleasant but necessary exercise in garbage pick-up.

Third, the reasons we were fast were not in any way evidence of some sinister pre-meditated program. We had read the book shortly after it came out. We wrote the first draft of the essay over the couple of weeks there after. Notably, we arrived at our initial reactions to the book before and entirely independent of the general outpouring of criticisms from libertarians and public choice people. We referenced those criticisms in our essay, but they were not the foundation of our unhappiness with the book.

Fourth, contrary to her claim, we read her book, and read it carefully and repeatedly (even if, in my case, I would dearly love to have those days of my life back again). The substance of our piece (and its follow up) engaged systematically and specifically with specific claims MacLean made over the course of the book – making criticisms that she has notably declined to respond to in any detail.

Finally – if the ‘argument’ of her book that people like me are trying to “create smog” to hide, is that libertarians, including a very important current of public choice, have a systematic distrust of democracy, or that libertarianism, including ‘respectable’ libertarianism, has been and currently is often associated with racism, I don’t have any problems with it, for the simple reason that I believe it to be true. A significant amount of my current work aims to refute stupid anti-democratic arguments made by libertarians (more on which, when it is fit for human consumption). If the argument is, as it actually appears to be, that James Buchanan was the sinister Svengali who created public choice specifically in order to defend the Southern way of life, gave Pinochet his bad constitutional ideas, and then provided the critical intellectual technologies that gave life to the Koch engine, then I don’t believe that I and Steve are creating smog – but we are pointing out that the evidence she provides does not even begin to support the sweeping conclusions that she draws.

Again, I do not believe MacLean to be a malicious person. Nor do I want to embrace all of the criticisms that have been made of her, some of which were personally vicious, some of which came from people whom I wouldn’t trust to tell me if it was raining outside the front door, and some of which look to me to be trivial, arguable, or specious (these are heavily overlapping sets). However, I believe that there is a substantial body of evidence that has mounted up, which demonstrates that her book is profoundly flawed, and furthermore suspect that her inability to process serious criticisms of the book suffers from the same problems as led her to write such a problematic book in the first place.

MacLean has been able to avoid dealing with the substantive criticisms of her book by claiming or intimating that her critics are Koch stooges (rhetorically circumnavigating the problem that some critics, like I and Sam Haselby and Elizabeth Popp Berman are clearly on the left). Which brings this post around to her final problem – that I don’t think that she’ll be able to do that for very much longer.

Jennifer Burns has just reviewed the book in an academic journal, providing a detailed (and in my view excellent) account of many of the problems in the book. If MacLean wants to go on defending herself, she really can’t just keep claiming that her critics are all the catspaws of a broader political campaign to discredit her, since this obviously isn’t true. Instead, she’s going to have to engage with the particular criticisms that have been made of what appear to be very many gross misinterpretations, unsubstantiated claims, and problematic readings. Perhaps, she will have good counter-arguments and substantive replies. I don’t think that she has them – but it would be great if I were wrong, and she did have a comprehensive and convincing reply (I do note that Geoffrey Brennan suggests in passing that Buchanan had some personal racial bias in his otherwise critical (and unfortunately paywalled) response to her – but while that potentially undermines some of the libertarian defenses of Buchanan, it doesn’t provide much positive evidence for her broader case). In any event, it would be far better to have an argument based on evidence than spurious accusations that Steve (and, by implication me) and other serious critics, are mere sub-pistons in the Koch smog-generating engine.

{ 38 comments }

1

Daniel Kuehn 09.18.18 at 4:48 pm

Fully agree. I do think the quality of the conversation has gone up a notch with the new HOPE issue, the question is will MacLean come along and actually engage the criticism. I hope she does because it’s an important set of ideas to straighten out. Recent treatment of Steve of course isn’t promising. Whether she comes along or not, the whole thing has obviously been a shot in the arm for people interested in Buchanan and that’s a good thing.

2

Robert Zannelli 09.18.18 at 4:53 pm

I can’t comment on this book directly nonetheless I think a few comments are in order. I don’t buy the whole tool of the Koch Brothers conspiracy accusations against these reviews. But I do think there is a vast Koch Brother conspiracy, using their money to create libertarian ideology in various institutions , creating their own private political party formerly the Tea Party now the freedom caucus and generally the wholesale purchase of politicians And they would be OK with “democracy” if they could re write the constitution to make any law they view as anti libertarian unconstitutional. In fact word on the street is that this is in their play book. This accomplished would certainly lower their political expenses , not they really need the money. I don’t think libertarians , and the Koch brothers in particular , hatred of democracy is much of a secret. Really I don’t. In this sense they are just other book end of radical leftism.

3

Peter Dorman 09.18.18 at 5:54 pm

I haven’t read MacLean, but I just finished the Burns piece you linked (thanks), and the core issue strikes me as the confusion between ideological and content critique. There is a long history on the left of indulging in this confusion, making the claim that the uses of an argument say something about its validity. But ideology is about why people believe what they do, not about the empirical or theoretical justification for these beliefs. There is a fuzzy boundary between them, of course, but the boundary is crucial.

There is an important story to be told about who has been attracted to libertarianism over the last few decades of American history and why, how libertarian ideas have been used, and even how the intellectual frame of libertarianism is made more credible when certain kinds of problems are being faced (like how to resist national pressure to integrate your local schools or how to avoid a big tax bite due to progressive brackets). All of this is about the proclivity to understand and believe in certain ways.

And then there is intellectual content. Public choice theory includes, as Brennan points out in a footnote, not only Buchanan but Arrow (and many others). It is a product of the elevation of “rational choice” in its restricted and precise economic sense as the sine qua non of formal analysis in mid-twentieth century social science and its elaboration through game theory. In my view, the deeper cognitive engine is welfare economics itself, which has attracted thinkers on the (moderate) left as well as the right. And, yes, welfarist utilitarianism (or consequentialism) is in tension with democracy, which draws on process-based notions of value.

But these strands do not collapse. The ideological analysis of public choice—why some versions gained more political traction than others, the uses to which they were put, etc.—says very little about the intellectual substance of rational choice methodology and its offshoots. There might be an argument that public choice was flagrantly deficient in justification and can be explained *only* by ideological factors, but to make it you have to wade deeply into the economic and political science literatures. That would be a tough argument to make, in my opinion.

There was an old, vulgar Marxist claim that neoclassical economics, beginning with the late nineteenth century marginalists, was little more than an attempt to disguise exploitation under the cloak of marginal productivity theory and combat the radical implications of materialism by embracing a subjectivist theory of value. No doubt the ideological work performed by that sort of economics made it attractive to some people, but in hindsight that proved to be a catastrophically wrongheaded dismissal of an immense field of intellectual endeavor. Ideological critique is not content critique.

(I’ve made the same argument elsewhere about “standpoint” theory.)

4

WLGR 09.18.18 at 6:02 pm

Burns’ criticism of MacLean still doesn’t seem to cut anywhere near as close to the bone as Philip Mirowski’s, which AFAIK still hasn’t been published outside of Mirowski’s personal academia.edu page. Ironic venue what with Mirowski’s critique of academia.edu and open science in general as part of the neoliberal attack on scholarly pretensions to individual expertise beyond the all-knowing cognitive power of the market, but the review is still worth reading. Besides, given his body of work Mirowski at least would be hard to tar as a Koch stooge without completely jumping the shark (the namesake of his endowed chair at Notre Dame is also ironic but seems to be no relation of the brothers Charles & David).

Here’s a bit of Mirowski, just to get an idea of the flavor of his critique:

MacLean traces her epiphany to a visit to the Buchanan archives at George Mason University, in 2013. There among unsorted boxes and scattered papers, she happened upon a correspondence between Buchanan and Charles Koch, and decided that she must recount the attack on democracy guided and funded by just these two protagonists. She has a tendency to suggest that the neoliberals forgot to cover their tracks:

“Future-oriented, Koch’s men … gave no thought to the fate of the historical trail they left unguarded. And thus, a movement that prided itself, even congratulated itself, on its ability to carry out a revolution below the radar of prying eyes (especially those of reporters) had failed to lock one crucial door: the front door to a house that let an academic archive rat like me, operating on a vague hunch, into the mind of the man who started it all.” (2017, p.xxi)

Here, in microcosm, resides one of the reasons that the book provokes such intemperate responses in many readers. It is not because she has fallen prey to conspiracy theories as such, as numerous reviewers have alleged. There does indeed exist an elaborate set of structures built around the recruitment, indoctrination and political mobilization of neoliberals — but MacLean is evidently uninterested in the scores of scholars who have been documenting its shape and contours for decades. Instead, she thinks the entire narrative boils down to these two protagonists who purportedly “started it all”. That premise is implausible in the extreme, as many other historians before her might have warned her. But even more egregious for an historian, the neoliberals resident at George Mason haven’t fostered a contempt for history; far from it, because their Mercatus unit serves as a platform for one of the two or three remaining graduate  programs that actually support the history of economics in any active format. The other is situated at MacLean’s own home institution Duke, a ‘Center for the History of Political Economy’ funded by Art Pope money, promoting endless hagiography of Hayek, the neoliberal Moses. It has been instead the so-called ‘liberals’ (in wonky American parlance) who have driven history out of the social sciences, and politics. The neoliberal thought collective does not generally seek to restrict access to their archives; on the contrary, they strive to flood the market with their own Whig histories, as one more gambit in the larger war of ideas. The notion that MacLean somehow snuck around their defenses is risible, and largely an artifact of her own lack of familiarity with the neoliberal thought collective and its standard operating procedures.

This tendency to hypostatize an entire political movement as the embodiment of one or two persons is a very uncomfortable aspect of the book, in part because MacLean is not entirely candid about the extent to which she believes it to be accurate, as opposed to resort to a narrative device, which merely allows her to address a number of key political moments which might otherwise seem to be relatively unconnected. … It is not that there is (or should be) one correct historiographic method to approach this problem; it is rather that authors like MacLean need to take the problem much more seriously as part of the historiographic mandate, which includes consideration of the proposition that the members of the neoliberal thought collective have constructed bridge institutions between grand theorists like Buchanan and the politicians who break bread at Heritage Action or American Legislative Exchange Council or convene for Charles Koch’s annual retreats. They have also devoted substantial effort to considering how and how much of their doctrines should be  broadcast to the larger public. It is much more likely that what MacLean actually encountered at her George Mason epiphany was Mont Pelèrin wine with a mid-century Virginia label, rather than vice versa. But that would have made for a very different book than the one we consider here.

5

michael 09.18.18 at 6:29 pm

MacLean’s book is atrocious, as even a casual perusal will quickly confirm. But her conspiratorial thesis that the free market zealots feign a commitment to liberty to conceal their real goal “to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness and freedom to the many” is barely distinguishable from Robin’s thesis in The Reactionary Mind. Robin is more skillful in circumventing textual evidence that vitiates his claims, as well as the contradictions that everywhere beset his own tendentious argument. But the two share a steadfast refusal to confront the central conflict within classical liberalism and its diverse progeny, which pits some individual rights against others and raises thorny questions concerning the nature and varieties of power. They refuse to entertain the fact that a principled commitment to liberal ideas is just as (if not more) likely to yield something like Rawlsian socialism or Habermasian deliberative democracy as white supremacy or oligarchy. They equally overlook the many ways that conservative thought must break with this tradition in order to sustain its own claims. (No wonder both ignore such figures as Arrow, Elster and Ostrom, all of whom draw on and contribute substantively to the same body of ideas as Buchanan to support their socialist views.) Indeed, arguments, movements and political strategies grounded in the liberal tradition have been far more influential and effective in advancing (though not achieving) both social justice and economic equality than critics of that tradition care to admit. And neither seems to care that spurious arguments like theirs harm rather than advance their own political agendas.

6

Teek 09.18.18 at 6:35 pm

It also seems worth noting that made-up claims don’t become facts because a progressive states them, and actual historical facts don’t become false because libertarians are the ones pointing them out. MacLean originally claimed that her libertarian critics were part of an organized Koch conspiracy, and she eventually walked that back when challenged. But let’s say they had all been paid by Koch to see if they could find flaws in her book. And let’s say they discovered that her book was riddled with errors, errors they could document. It wouldn’t make the book any less erroneous because Koch paid to find these errors. And it certainly doesn’t make the book any less erroneous if libertarian scholars acting on their own point out errors in this book. The whole strategy MacLean has pursued of attacking her critics rather than responding to their substantive criticisms is unscholarly, anti-intellectual, and an embarrassment.

7

Cranky Observer 09.18.18 at 11:48 pm

In re Robert Zannelli’s @ 4:53 PM this may be of interest:

= = = https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/gift-with-strings-slu-professors-question-rex-sinquefield-s-million/article_1fd8473a-c905-531f-8884-2b0164127df7.html
ST. LOUIS • St. Louis University professors are raising questions about a recently announced $50 million gift to fund faculty research and hire faculty, claiming the donation comes with strings that include a say in hiring professors.
The donation — the largest gift in the school’s 200-year history — from local philanthropists Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield was announced Aug. 29 as largely open-ended funding of research that would include a subject close to Rex Sinquefield’s heart, economics.
Professors in that department have recently outlined their concerns in two memos to administrators after learning that part of the gift would establish a research center whose director was selected by Rex Sinquefield and the dean of the business school, without faculty input — an arrangement they say calls into question the university’s policies when accepting gifts.[…]

(Sinquefield is a Reagan-era hedge fund looter and mini-Koch who spends most of his influence money trying to turn Missouri into another Kansas (Brownback era))

8

LFC 09.19.18 at 2:23 am

michael @5

I haven’t read MacLean but I don’t think you’ve offered an accurate reading of The Reactionary Mind. There’s really nothing “conspiratorial” about its argument as I read it. You don’t have to agree w it but you should fairly state the argument, which is (roughly) that the conservative tradition involves a principled commitment to hierarchies that the figures Robin discusses generally don’t “conceal” but are quite open about.

9

Brett 09.19.18 at 7:03 am

You’re more optimistic than I am that MacLean will have a decent response to this criticism, and won’t simply resort to further conspiracy theory claim-mongering. There are still folks who should know better who are enabling her (especially Steinbaum).

10

Henry 09.19.18 at 11:35 am

MacLean’s book is atrocious, as even a casual perusal will quickly confirm. But her conspiratorial thesis that the free market zealots feign a commitment to liberty to conceal their real goal “to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness and freedom to the many” is barely distinguishable from Robin’s thesis in The Reactionary Mind

The quite fantastic chapter in The Reactionary Mind on Burke, Smith and the dignity of work belies this claim.

11

Z 09.19.18 at 11:48 am

They refuse to entertain the fact that a principled commitment to liberal ideas is just as (if not more) likely to yield something like Rawlsian socialism or Habermasian deliberative democracy as white supremacy or oligarchy. […] Indeed, arguments, movements and political strategies grounded in the liberal tradition have been far more influential and effective in advancing (though not achieving) both social justice and economic equality than critics of that tradition care to admit.

I just wanted to reproduce these remarkable statements. It seems hard to me to produce such a concentration of formally correct but vacuous statements, of circular reasoning, of bizarrely ahistorical thinking and of self-contradictory assertions in so few words. (To give just one example, if the first statement is to be believed, then the liberal tradition is rather broad, in effect containing everyone except reactionaries and conservatives. In that case, critics like Corey Robin may minimize the impact of the liberal tradition, as they do according to the second statement, only if they attribute the intellectual impulse behind some advances in social justice and economic equality to reactionaries; a conclusion which has the marvelous property of being as diametrically opposed to Corey’s actual thesis as possible.)

12

Collin Street 09.19.18 at 12:25 pm

It wouldn’t make the book any less erroneous because Koch paid to find these errors.

It does, actually! How errors are identified relates to how salient and critical they are; errors that people find accidentally are by-and-large easier to find and “bigger” than errors that are found as a result of a targetted effort to identify errors. If Book A has ten errors found after careful searching, and Book B had ten errors found because they were just too big to miss even though nobody was particularly looking… it’s fair and reasonable to say that book A is “less erroneous” than book b even though the number of identified errors is the same.

You may be more familiar with this effect in the context of law-enforcement and criminality in the all-encompassing regulatory state, “you can find something on anybody”. But if you don’t understand that’s OK. “I don’t understand it” and “it’s not true” mean different things, after all.

13

WLGR 09.19.18 at 2:37 pm

The way people here are framing their critique of MacLean as reducible to a critique of “conspiracy theories” contains some of the same flaws as MacLean’s own critique of Buchanan. It’s been said before and better, but what exactly is so inherently ridiculous about the concept of conspiracy? I know, I know, as soon as someone invokes the idea of conspiracy we’re all immediately supposed to think of some Alex Jones type filling airtime between nutritional supplement infomercials by rambling about Jewish Illuminati lizard-people using chemtrails to turn the frogs gay, and that kind of reflexive association is exactly the problem. For people to let their pre-rational aversion to “conspiracy theorists” deflect any possible in-depth analysis of the day-to-day functioning of elite political coordination, reeks of a certain high school cafeteria level desperation to be taken seriously, as if people’s entire view of politics and society is being molded by their longing to sit next to the hot cheerleaders at the DC press corps table instead of the wedgied losers at the ancient aliens table. I realize it might be too much to ask given how much our elite politics and media discourses (not to mention academia) actually do seem to function in practice like a high school cafeteria popularity contest, but it’d still be great if people could grow up a little, even if only occasionally.

The problem with MacLean isn’t that she’s wrong to theorize shadowy political conspiracies involving key players like Buchanan and Koch, it’s that she theorizes oversimplistic shadowy political conspiracies, reducible to an overly narrow set of key players like Buchanan and Koch. Figures like Buchanan and Koch are representative of broad swathes of the intellectual and economic elites of our society, and yes, people like that are constantly engaging in coordinated plans to advance their shared interests and hiding those plans in various ways from broader scrutiny, whether you call it by an unserious whackadoodle term like “conspiracy,” or a less controversial-sounding but functionally identical term like “strategy” or “institution-building.” In the same way, the problem with many of MacLean’s critics isn’t that they’re wrong to point out flaws in MacLean’s conspiracy theories, it’s that they dismiss MacLean in a crudely oversimplistic way, tangling an overly broad range of political analysis in the dragnet of their dismissal.

14

Cian 09.19.18 at 5:21 pm

Wow that Mirowski review is brutal. Fair, but brutal.

His book on neoliberalism is everything that this book isn’t. People should read that instead.

15

engels 09.19.18 at 7:42 pm

I don’t know anything about this book but I’m disappointed that Jennifer Burns, the Ayn-Rand-institute-approved biographer of Ayn Rand, didn’t like it.
http://www.jenniferburns.org/ayn-rand-read-the-rand-archives/yu

16

Harry 09.19.18 at 7:52 pm

“If Book A has ten errors found after careful searching, and Book B had ten errors found because they were just too big to miss even though nobody was particularly looking… it’s fair and reasonable to say that book A is “less erroneous” than book b even though the number of identified errors is the same”

Insert ‘only’ between “found and “after”. and this is right. But Henry found the errors immediately and easily without any prompting. I don’t think that the Kochs had to pay people to find the errors; if they paid it was to have them publicized. Maclean’s attacks on Teles and Henry are an embarrassment. (I should say, I haven’t read the book, and I won’t).

17

Orange Watch 09.19.18 at 8:19 pm

There’s also the matter of the severity and scope of the errors. Not all errors are equally significant or pervasive. A book with hard-to-find but fundamental errors cannot reasonably be described as “less erroneous” simply because how deeply wrong it is took more work to demonstrate than a book with an equal number of glaringly obvious but comparatively minor or peripheral errors.

18

Robert 09.19.18 at 10:26 pm

I immediately discount those who ignorantly assert that Bill Gates is self-made. Geoffrey Brennan just isn’t very bright.

19

Kindred Winecoff 09.20.18 at 10:46 am

There are many things about this episode that really bother me. But one of the biggest is the implication that any financial interest, in any institution that one is a member of, automatically corrupts all intellectual activity, just because it does. Let’s be plain about this: Nancy MacLean has a named professorship at Duke. Where the hell does she think her money comes from… the unblemished peasants of New Jersey? Hah. Should we infer from her institutional affiliation that she is a Wall Street shill? I’m quite sure that she would say “no,” but there is a decent probability that she has profited more from that association than Buchanan ever did from the Kochs.

You would think that it would be obvious to someone in a position like MacLean’s, in a place like MacLean’s, that the ideological link between funding and intellectual output isn’t 1:1. Guess not.

This is obviously a stupid line of argument, so I won’t pursue it further, but then I didn’t write a book with that premise.

After all the dispute one question remains inescapable… either her book was written maliciously or she is just oblivious. Henry is gracious once again in this post in attributing no ill motive. But she did not interpret her targets charitably, so I’m not sure why she should expect it from others. A not-insignificant number of people who knew Buchanan personally occupied offices a stone’s throw from MacLean’s at Duke, communicated with him regularly, even collaborated with him. Many others were within a few hours’ drive. She talks about her time spent in Charlottesville in his archives, but did she interview anyone while there? Why didn’t she talk to any of these people to try to understand whether her narrative had merit? Is this the method of a sincere historian? To ask the question is to answer it.

Lastly, one of the less-stated objections to MacLean is that she (inadvertently, I think, because she doesn’t “get it”) slanders by implication an entire intellectual tradition that includes assuredly non-Koch-whores like Knight and Ostrom, who were trained in economics, but also political scientists (like me) who find quite a lot of overlap between some strands of public choice and… Marx. This is implied in some of Henry’s responses, at least I think I can infer that from him, but I think it’s worth stating straight-up. She is trying to destroy an intellectual apparatus that is very, very useful for the left.

20

Cian 09.20.18 at 1:46 pm

But one of the biggest is the implication that any financial interest, in any institution that one is a member of, automatically corrupts all intellectual activity, just because it does.

There is a huge difference between an endowed chair, where the endowee has no influence on who receives it and a department which is set up by and funded by external funders who have influence over hiring decisions, or are involved in some way with the institution. I suspect you know this.

To choose a non-Koch brother example. There’s a fair bit of evidence that drug money influences university research in a number of ways (not least the pressure created by administrators to keep the funding flowing).

This is in no way to defend Nancy Maclean’s book which I think is very bad.

21

WLGR 09.20.18 at 6:04 pm

I’m inclined to go at least as easy on MacLean as Henry does for the way she’s responded to her many and often disingenuous critics. She may not be properly attuned to the scope or composition of the political networks and institutions she’s writing about, especially since she seems to be suffering from the common mind-virus of interpreting global political events through a narrowly parochial US-focused lens, but on a base level she’s still essentially correct that people like Buchanan and the Kochs are part of large networks of coordinated political activity on the right, one objective of which is to obscure the mainstream understanding of how these right-wing political networks themselves operate. (Ironic that this might also easily explain why so many neoliberals have seemed eager to critique and thereby signal-boost her flawed account of their project, even while largely ignoring more erudite scholarly critics like Mirowski.) As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you, and just because they’re really out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not still paranoid.

Incidentally, Kindred Winecoff, prostitution as the go-to metaphor for a degrading and contemptible form of subservience stands out to me as a trope from a bygone era of casual misogyny, best swept into the dustbin of history as soon as possible… but maybe that’s just me speaking as a brainwashed Millennial victim of the grand politically-correct postmodern cultural neo-Marxist conspiracy, eh?

22

Mitchell Freedman 09.21.18 at 1:18 am

I think MacLean’s book is written in a breezy style, though the promoters of the book claim it to be scholarly, and that is where people attack the book for not being able to fully connect all the dots. Still, Henry and even the Burns review say the larger points about the confluence of racism and libertarianism’s rise is unmistakably true. Burns herself falls victim to not connecting dots, too. She has to strain to make the argument about the Old Left and anti-democratic viewpoints, when the Old Left was rife with dissent from Stalinism from the start. One thinks immediately of Emma Goldman and Bertrand Russell, and a host of splits that occurred throughout the western world among socialist and communist parties. Burns and others love to quote page 42 of MacLean’s book about Buchanan being an “evil genius” but I think critics make more of what is there than appropriate, and obscure a major points she is making in the context. She writes: “Where (Buchanan’s) interest and genius lay–even if you could call it an evil genius–was in his intuitive grasp of the importance of trust in public life. If only one could break down the trust that now (then?) existed between governed and governing, even those who supported liberal objectives would lose confidence in government solutions.” (Parentheses both times added). I think this is an important insight to make for those of us who believe in New Deal values especially, and those who, like many of the Founders, were mercantilists. The loss of respect for the very idea of governing, shared by the counterculture of the left and libertarian right, and fostered further by corporate power think tanks, has brought us to this destructive political atmosphere. While Buchanan was not quoted in the mainstream quite as much, his Nobel Prize, and who relied on him (many of the younger libertarian law professors, and writers) is significant. Yes, MacLean overstates Buchanan’s presence, but she is not really overstating his influence, and nobody denies the Koch Bros. found him useful. I analogize this to the way CBS Reports producer George Crile wanted to blame the Tet Offensive intelligence failure on General Westmoreland, when there was an institutional failure and failures up the line to the Rostow brothers, the CIA chief, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a whole. When Westy sued for libel, the depositions proved Westy still played a significant role in suppressing the CIA analyst, Sam Adams (love the name), who was saying the Viet Song were planning a major offensive for Ten holiday. Burns’ point is MacLean makes Buchanan bigger than he was, and that MacLean should have written a longer book to deal with Frank Knight, Buchanan’s mentor, and the way in which Buchanan’s ideas on public choice even influenced some “liberals.” Yes, but…until MacLean’s book came along, how many knew what Henry knew, and people like me only felt…which is the coalition between libertarianism’s rise and the white backlash against Brown v. Bd. of Ed. and social or cultural liberalism as a whole? How many besides Henry and here, I’ll include me, knew about the way libertarian doctrines support the abridgment of democratic/republican values when such values were used to promote any regulation of business or try to arrest cultural norms of discriminatory behavior against minorities of various types in our society? (I love quoting to libertarians Madison in Federalist Paper no. 10 where Madison wrote that the “principal task of modern legislation” is the regulation of the varying economic interests that grow up in a society; and Federalist Paper no. 37 where he talks about the fact the Constitution’s vague phrasings means it would only be understood in posterity after litigation over its meaning). I am not going to defend MacLean’s failure to connect all the dots she believes she connected in her intro and conclusion. But damn, if MacLean has not shone an important spotlight on Buchanan in a way that needed to be done, and exposed the two points even detractors such as Henry and Jennifer Burns recognize as valid. Let’s put it in a colloquial way: “Democracy in Chains” ain’t Richard Hofstadter, but it is miles ahead of Jonah Goldberg.

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Robert Zannelli 09.21.18 at 1:51 am

The problem with MacLean isn’t that she’s wrong to theorize shadowy political conspiracies involving key players like Buchanan and Koch, it’s that she theorizes oversimplistic shadowy political conspiracies, reducible to an overly narrow set of key players like Buchanan and Koch. Figures like Buchanan and Koch are representative of broad swathes of the intellectual and economic elites of our society, and yes, people like that are constantly engaging in coordinated plans to advance their shared interests and hiding those plans in various ways from broader scrutiny, whether you call it by an unserious whackadoodle term like “conspiracy,” or a less controversial-sounding but functionally identical term like “strategy” or “institution-building.” In the same way, the problem with many of MacLean’s critics isn’t that they’re wrong to point out flaws in MacLean’s conspiracy theories, it’s that they dismiss MacLean in a crudely oversimplistic way, tangling an overly broad range of political analysis in the dragnet of their dismissal.

In response to WGRL

Exactly right.

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CDT 09.21.18 at 5:46 am

I am less disturbed by the fact this book is apparently flawed than I am by the fact that the Kochs and others are close to convincing enough states to call for a constitutional convention, at which point all bets are off.

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Robert Zannelli 09.21.18 at 1:51 pm

CDT WRITES

I am less disturbed by the fact this book is apparently flawed than I am by the fact that the Kochs and others are close to convincing enough states to call for a constitutional convention, at which point all bets are off.

Yes this seems slightly more important than criticizing a book that lays out the Koch brothers agenda. Sounds like a conspiracy to me.

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ph 09.21.18 at 11:56 pm

Hi Henry. As usual I enjoyed your OP very much. The comments and links are equally good, for the most part, and perhaps even better. So, kudos.

I didn’t feel I had anything specifically useful to add to the commentary, but do have a broader complaint about the crafting and purposes of histories. Around the time of 9/11 I was studying US colonial history under an academic who happened to be a specialist in early American-Islamic relations. She/he called our attention to the surge in histories of the US attacks on the Barbary states, observing that these histories were perhaps written as much with a view of shaping our decision-making in the present and immediate future as about our understanding of the past.

Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost” (a book I like) seems to me very much written with an eye as much on the future, as on the past. Philip Gourevitch’s “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with our Families” is superficially more neutral, but as a cautionary note, nonetheless offers a form of advice.

My own thesis director drew a sharp distinction between the bulk of my own research and that of many other ‘professional’ historians, noting that my descriptive efforts could be seen as antiquarian studies, rather than essays on history. There are other distinctions to be made but you get the point. Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s “A Biographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in France in Germany” served as the foundation for Licquet, who translated Dibdin, which in turn stimulated a number of other fine studies in French.

The point being we live, as Scott Adams observes, we live now, and perhaps always, in a world where historical accuracy: a/doesn’t sell books; b/doesn’t sell books; and c/doesn’t sell books as well as publishers might like. MacLean stands on firm ground with her intended audience, who are far less concerned with rigor than readability and a good story to tell. The fact that her efforts may in fact be counter-productive is a second-order priority for them, a possibility that must have at least occurred to her and to her intended audience, unless we consider them fools, which I certainly do not.

I’m struck by the repeated use of conspiracy, a term I dislike on both a personal and professional level. We have concerned interests advancing agendas, often publicly.

What prompted me to write today, however, was the news reported in the NYT that, based on no evidence at all (his quote), he and other senior career officials discussed removing the president from office by a variety of means. Historians normally employ the word “coup” to describe non-elected officials overturning a democratic election.

As with the Koch-funded effort to move towards a constitutional convention, this is something that occurred, and is still happening now in real time. Both seem serious.

https://www.wral.com/rosenstein-suggested-he-secretly-record-trump-and-discussed-25th-amendment/17863723/

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Teek 09.22.18 at 12:58 am

CDT and Zannelli, you don’t have to be worried. About 28 states have called for a balanced budget amendment. In the unlikely event a convention is ever called, it would likely be limited to that issue. Either way, any amendment would still need to get through a supermajority of the stats.

As to the convention of the states that MacLean is obsessed with, she is conflating that movement with the balanced budget movement. The more radical convention idea she is referencing has only passed in something like six states.

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Robert Zannelli 09.22.18 at 2:45 am

Libertarians come in two flavors. True believers , those who fall for the con job , and the con artists who promote this nonsense to destroy all the social progress humans have made after many hard fought battles. I love debating libertarians , it’s what you call light work.

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Robert Zannelli 09.22.18 at 9:48 am

Teek Writes
CDT and Zannelli, you don’t have to be worried. About 28 states have called for a balanced budget amendment. In the unlikely event a convention is ever called, it would likely be limited to that issue. Either way, any amendment would still need to get through a supermajority of the stats.

As to the convention of the states that MacLean is obsessed with, she is conflating that movement with the balanced budget movement. The more radical convention idea she is referencing has only passed in something like six states.

I don’t know how you can be so confident a constitutional convention would be limited to this one issue, given how inconvenient for many powerful extremists groups the constitution is. The nature of a convention doesn’t point to any limitation. As for the balanced budget amendment, I don’t think there are many economists who don’t think this is a wing nut proposal and would gut government’s ability to be anything but a spectator given another potential bank collapse or a severe depression. It takes a profound ignorance of monetary theory and economics to think a governmental budget is like a household budget. Also, the very people who push this stupidity have never seen a tax cut for billionaires coupled with outrageous increases in militarily spending they didn’t love. Why don’t they just stop doing that?

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Robert Zannelli 09.22.18 at 10:09 am

Based on the quality of these attacks on this book, it must be pretty good. I look forward to reading it.

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Robert Zannelli 09.22.18 at 5:08 pm

Having informed myself of the content of Maclean’s book I can’t help but think that the extreme attacks on this book that seems to go beyond merely pointing out any flaws it may have, provides some evidence that we may have people carrying water for the Koch Brothers, wittingly or unwittingly. No one who has been semi consciousness and even slightly politically engaged since the 1980’s can hardly have missed that the Koch bothers by, literally spending over a billion dollars , have completely taken over the republican party and are forcing our politics in a very vicious and destructive direction. To go on and on about how bad this book is crying over being called a Koch operative ( me think thou protests too much) while seemingly being unconcerned about this is really suspicious behavior as far I am concerned

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Robert Zannelli 09.23.18 at 10:15 am

Views on democracy[edit]
Writing in Cato Unbound, the organ of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, Thiel wrote,
…I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible… The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.[123]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Thiel

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ph 09.23.18 at 11:45 am

@31 Some on the right are genuinely interested in open debate. I’d say the Kochs fall into that camp, as do the Cato scholars. Maclean could, if she wished, post here. I’d be surprised if she’s unaware of Henry and his most recent post. Correcting the work of others is sometimes a thankless task. As others have observed, the fact that Maclean refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the complaints is at least as troubling as the errors themselves. I see the errors as significant, and the failure to respond fairly even more significant. My own work always has errors: both clumsy and careless errors, and errors I make because I’m always (not sometimes) operating with an incomplete understanding of my topic, and with the resources currently available. Maclean’s may fall into the first category, and I hope fall into the second. The third possibility is that she’s aware she’s fudging, and knew she was fudging, but pressed ahead because a conspiracy unmasked by an ace archival detective sells better.

Her primary audience, I suggest, should the Cato scholars and others. It’s their sloppy/suspect work Maclean attacks.

Instead, she appears to be preaching to the choir (surprise!), perhaps on advice from her publishers, or because she prefers to peddle in conspiracy tales for an audience that is now, sadly, happily embracing the concept of guilty until proven innocent, and that too much truth can be a bad thing.

When liberals no longer defend the concept of innocent until proven guilty, who exactly do they believe will? Conservatives? I know a few who will. However, we now live in a world where the mere mention of the T word causes a significant subset of liberal intellectuals to begin drooling like Pavlov’s dogs. Maclean’s sloppy work and refusal to respond as an adult permits the right to dismiss the parts of the book that are well-grounded. She knows that, I suspect, and strangely doesn’t seem to care.

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Max Sawicky 09.23.18 at 2:01 pm

Haven’t read MacLean, and I doubt that I will. I’ve rubbed shoulders–and nothing else–with Buchanan people, on and off, since the 80s. I’d be the last to discount the malignant influence of the Koch network on politics and public policy, but their influence in mainstream economics from where I sit has always been limited. Their flagship department is George Mason Univ., a second or third-tier department as far as prestige goes. The real heart of neoliberal economics is not the math-lite Buchanan folks. It’s what used to be and still is to some extent the Chicago school — Friedman and company–and arguably their “saltwater” political rivals at MIT etc. They all use the same rational choice-based micro, which gives rise to a multitude of errors. I’ll also put in a word for public choice, which I read in grad school. You could say it is dominated by libertarian types, but it includes a non-trivial contingent of more objective people. Dennis Mueller (full disclosure, on my dissertation committee) is my favorite example. Whatever his politics may be, detecting it in his teaching was well-nigh impossible. And I think my antennae are pretty good.

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Robert Zannelli 09.23.18 at 6:24 pm

I would love to know exactly what “conspiracy” she relates in her book that isn’t true. What factual errors has she made? Surely someone from the esteemed CATO institute, dedicated to truth and the American way, can explain where she does this. Something more than I knew him and he wasn’t like that I would hope. Also lets understand your bias. My bias falls on the side of progressive and liberal Now be honest please. Don’t do a RT false flag move.

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Cian 09.24.18 at 1:55 am

Robert – the problem with the book isn’t that it attacks the Koch brothers, or Public Choice theory. The problem with the book is that it’s bad history, poorly sourced, fails to support her (rather tenuous arguments) and misunderstands the terrain she’s studying. I’m well to the left of Maclean, but I still think her book was garbage.

If you want to read a good popular book on the Koch brothers, read Jane Mayer. If you want to read a good, critical, history of neoliberalism and the ideas behind it – read Philip Mirowski, or Quinn Slobodian.

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WLGR 09.24.18 at 4:13 pm

Cian, if the’re’s a single kernel of a problem in MacLean’s approach to which all the other problems can be traced, I’d say it’s reducible to the narrowness of focus. (Seems a bit paradoxical to put it in precisely that way, but there you have it.) Obviously there’s the immediate level of historiographical method, as Mirowski indicates, where MacLean the historian of a tangentially related subfield happened to stumble onto this one interesting but not necessarily surprising set of archival material about political coordination between Buchanan and Koch, leading her to an unjustified assumption that these documents in particular had given her a uniquely privileged and subversive glimpse at the very center of the great conspiratorial spiderweb. Obviously one could argue that Mirowski might take on a similarly breathless tone if he were to stumble onto an archive’s worth of previously little-discussed correspondence between, say, Friedrich Hayek and Leo Strauss, but Mirowski at least has a decades-long career as a critical historian of economic thought, so his attribution of special importance to particular moments in the relevant intellectual history seems like it might carry a bit more weight than MacLean’s.

More significantly in my view than the problems at the archival coalface, MacLean’s narrow focus also shows up on a broader ideological level in places like her account of the relationship between libertarianism and racism, as embodied in the connection she draws between Buchanan and John C. Calhoun. On that issue, the book that makes MacLean’s account look like an extended undergraduate term paper by comparison is Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History, which like MacLean’s book uses the example of Calhoun as a framing device in its opening pages, but does so precisely in order to emphasize that Calhoun wasn’t some racist libertarian deviation from the prior antiracist lineage of liberalism, but actually embodied in a particularly pronounced way the exact same tendencies of racist, colonialist paternalism also evident in liberal icons like Locke, Mill, Tocqueville, and Adam Smith, not to mention the slaveocratic “Founding Fathers” of the United States or the white supremacist demagogues of various “populist” strains in US politics ever since. By contrast, MacLean’s account of Calhoun revolves around a bizarre contention that his critique of democracy and equality was somehow antithetical to the noble democratic Constitutional vision of figures like James Madison — as if the Founding Fathers’ deep hostility to the prospect of mass democracy hadn’t been their very reason for scrapping the more decentralized and Iroquois-inspired framework of the Articles of Confederation for the more aristocratic and Roman-inspired framework of the Constitution to begin with.

Maybe that’s the deeper explanation for why MacLean’s book has caught on so readily in the liberal mainstream compared to comprehensively better critiques like Mirowski’s, Slobodian’s, or Losurdo’s: because it gives liberals a way to acknowledge the problems she discusses while also letting themselves off the hook, glossing over the ways in which the evil embodied in figures like Buchanan, Koch, and Calhoun is symptomatic of a deeper rot that extends at least as far as their own ideology too.

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LFC 09.24.18 at 10:10 pm

WLGR @37

While Tocqueville, iirc, was generally a fan of French colonialism/imperialism, his attitude about the position of Native Americans and African Americans in the U.S. is not fairly characterized as “racist paternalism,” and certainly not by the prevailing standards of c.1830, when Tocqueville and Beaumont took the trip that formed the basis for Democracy in America. You don’t even have to read the relevant sections of DA — I think a brief glance at any secondary work will confirm this.

To be sure, some contemporary American conservative writers and pundits love Tocqueville (in the terms of contemp. US politics, he’s more a conservative icon than a liberal one, though you might be able to shoehorn him into ‘the liberal tradition’). But his views on race are enlightened for the time in which he was writing.

As for the Founding Fathers’ motive for scrapping the Articles of Confederation, hostility to mass democracy figures in there, but as one of several reasons rather than the only one.

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