burns v. mclean

Last year, Nancy McLean of Duke University published a book called Democracy in Chains, which  claims that economist James Buchanan was a shill for segregationists. I’ve read some Buchanan and, while it can be criticized, it is dry public choice economics, so the book’s claims surprised me. Until the McLean book came out, I had never heard that there was anything racial about Buchanan’s work. Later, critics noted weird things, like that Buchanan’s collected works do not mention segregationist thinkers and there is indirect evidence to believe that he did not support segregation, such as his long standing association with anti-apartheid academics. Other critics, like Phil Magness, have argued that McLean simply doesn’t seem to understand the documentary evidence, makes ample errors, and relies on suggestion rather than provide concrete evidence of racial animus.

Jennifer Burns, a historian at Stanford, deepens the critique and essentially calls Democracy in Chains propaganda for the left. The review in the History of Political Economy is brutalRather than being a critique and review of Buchanan’s works, Burns finds it totally disconnected from evidence. I do not exaggerate:

While it is always diffcult to establish influence between thinkers or across generations, MacLean is working at the edge of accepted historical methodology, relying on assertion and suggestion rather than evidence. Such a move is not impermissible, particularly for a senior scholar, or for a topic that has generated few surviving documents. But typically, an analytic stretch of this nature would be quali¥ed more directly in the text, and draw strength from previous discussions rooted firmly in archival or documentary evidence. Or, it would be buttressed by the scholar’s immersion in the oeuvre of the thinker in question. To insinuate a connection between a reviled racist and an esteemed contemporary figure with such flimsy evidence is risky business. But emphasizing Calhoun’s with MacLean’s larger scholarly effort to document connections between the conservative movement and Southern regionalism, or what she called in the title of a separate essay, “Neo-Confederacy Versus the New Deal.”

And there’s more. The book is not even scholarship, in Burns’ view:

In the end, Democracy in Chains is characterized by a fundamental lack of curiosity.
The book is disconnected from not just economics or political theory, but from all
social sciences. Its citations draw almost exclusively from recently published books
about American social or labor history. As such, it bears witness to an alarming parochialism. The narrative of American history it presents is insular and highly politicized, laying out a drama of good versus evil with little attention paid to the larger worlds—global, economic, or intellectual—in which the story nests. Ultimately it is not a book of scholarship, but of partisanship, written to reinforce existing divides and con¥rm existing biases. As such it will not stand the test of time, but will stand rather as testimony to its time.

I’m the type of person who thinks personal freedom is an important value and that the private economy is a good thing. So I think it is important to criticize people who use freedom as an ideological and rhetorical against minorities. Thus, there is a value for calling out people who do not live up to standard of decency. At the same time, that is not a license to essentially push personal smears as scholarly analysis. There are skeletons in the closet, but they’ll lie happy and undisturbed if this the best that can be brought to bear.


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Written by fabiorojas

September 19, 2018 at 4:12 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. you’re quite behind on the various critiques and not really picking the good ones. check out the material in the Monkey Cage, for example, or just use google.



    September 19, 2018 at 2:22 pm

  2. Given Burns was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, her views aren’t surprising. I also don’t think reducing Democracy in Chains to question of race is an accurate read on the book. Go to Maclean’s Wikipedia page, and it is clear there’s much more going on.



    September 20, 2018 at 1:37 pm

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