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MacLean's Book Takes Progressive Conspiracy Theories to a New Level

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It has been nearly two decades since progressive historian Michael A. Bellesiles published Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, his attempt to discredit the 2nd Amendment right to gun ownership. Bellesiles maintained that during the colonial period of American history, firearms were rare and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that “gun culture” became prevalent in American culture. The book received much fanfare and acclaim among scholars seeking to validate their intellectual opposition to private gun ownership until much of the scholarship was found to be fabricated.

RELATED: "MacLean on James Buchanan: Fake History for an Age of Fake News" by David Gordon.

The Belleisles episode is on a lot of people’s minds again with the recent release of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Duke University professor Nancy MacLean. MacLean undertakes a path like Bellesiles’s. She attempts to validate the views of progressives who say that free markets are incompatible with democracy, stating that professors and scholars have been poisoned by grants and financial assistance provided by rich free market proponents like the Koch Family. The main target of her attack is the late Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan, who she believes threatens democracy, and the field of public choice in which he provided many key contributions.

Democracy in Chains has been met by a chorus of criticism, with numerous scholars and writers seemingly uncovering new errors and misrepresentations every day. The critics span the ideological spectrum, though understandably the loudest response has come from Buchanan’s public choice fellow travelers and other libertarian scholars. Contrary to the expected behavior of a tenured historian, MacLean has seized on this fact to avoid addressing the substance of the criticism and has instead played the victim of a vast, Koch-funded conspiracy.

RELATED: "The Problem with James Buchanan's Positivist Economics" by Joseph Salerno

A common thread among the criticisms is that MacLean lacks a fundamental understanding of public choice and the scholarship and views of the man she singled out for attack. The fact that she refuses to respond in substance to well-documented refutations of her claims, choosing instead to engage in ad hominem and conspiracy mongering, only confirms the status of her book as a partisan hit-job and not a serious work of scholarly research.

James M. Buchanan and Public Choice

Buchanan called public choice “politics without the romance.” He stripped away the nostalgia and naiveté of the legislative process, which is most often not a battle of good and evil but a fight between competing interests rent-seeking at the public till. Recognizing that government is not a tool used solely by angels, Buchanan was a strong supporter of limiting its power.

RELATED: "An Interview with James Buchanan" from the Austrian Economics Newsletter. 

In other words, Buchanan did not believe in simple majoritarianism. Majorities often trample on the rights of minorities, and so repression is a likely outcome from strict majoritarianism. It is odd that MacLean would decide that such a pedestrian view, one found throughout the nation’s founding documents, is somehow indicative of a desire on the part of Buchanan to subvert, rather than enhance, America’s political system. It is also rather ironic that she smears Buchanan as a closeted racist when it is precisely the sort of limits on majority rule he sought that was used to override the southern majorities that supported Jim Crow.

Rather than provide an alternative framework for understanding democracy, or honestly analyzing and debating with Buchanan’s ideas, Nancy MacLean has chosen to construct a house of cards by flimsily connecting Buchanan, a respected libertarian scholar, to statists, Southern agrarians, and — of course — the Koch Brothers.

MacLean misrepresents, or misunderstands, public choice theory by claiming that under the theory “The enemy was the public itself, expressed through the tyranny of majority rule. … It wasn’t enough to elect true-believing politicians. The rules of government needed to be rewritten.” MacLean’s conclusion: Buchanan was an enemy of representative democracy because he supported policies that protected property owners and segregationists. Contrary to her conspiratorial insinuations, MacLean has neither broken new ground nor discovered a smoking gun, but instead has created false correlations to paint an advocate of limited government as a racist simply for not believing in ever growing government.

Defending Buchanan

Dan Mitchell, a former student of Buchanan, was among the first to push back that Buchanan was none other than a champion of liberty, individualism, and economic freedom. While Mitchell points out that MacLean’s smear job was unfortunately funded by the taxpayers — through a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment of Humanities — he begins to chip away at a key premise, noting there is simply no evidence to link Buchanan and true advocates of limited government to racists who advocated state-sponsored segregation. Segregation is a form of statist intervention, the very power of government Buchanan spent his life attempting to control and limit.

While Mitchell jabbed at the underlying premises of the book, others began to land real body blows. Illustrating not only her shoddy scholarship but also her laziness. Daniel Bier at the Skeptical Libertarian found that MacLean made up and misattributed a quote to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in order to smear “the Koch-sponsored radical right.” Behaving more like your average forwarder of chain emails full of partisan red-meat than a serious historian, MacLean couldn’t even be bothered to simply Google the quote she thought she remembered, where she would have quickly discovered that it had no basis in reality.

Russ Roberts locates another effort by MacLean to modify a quotation, this time from Tyler Cowen, the Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University and general director of the Mercatus Center, to better fit her premise that champions of liberty are enemies of democracy. The Cato Institute's David Boaz was similarly misquoted, and J.C. Bradbury uncovers where a Buchanan quote appears to be made up, or at the very least does not exist at the source MacLean provides.

MacLean goes to great lengths to suggest that Buchanan was influenced by John C. Calhoun and Southern agrarians despite nowhere mentioning them in any of his vast collection of works. By making this claim, she can link Buchanan to advocates of slavery and segregation and thus dismiss him and the libertarian movement on moral grounds. But there just aren’t any facts to support this charge.

Writing at the History News Network, Phillip Magness decimates the claim that Buchanan’s thinking was influenced by an obscure Nashville writer named Donald Davidson. Magness makes a compelling case that MacLean “appears to have simply made up an inflammatory association and tacked it onto Buchanan to paint him as a racist. ... One could legitimately note that there are more references to the pro-segregation Vanderbilt Agrarians on Nancy MacLeans own CV than in the entire Collected Works of James M. Buchanan.” Magness joined with Art Carden and Vincent Geloso to author a paper explaining in full detail just how utterly lacking in merit is MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan as a racist. Not only do they destroy her case, but they provide evidence of Buchanan’s hostility to racism.

David Bernstein, writing at the Washington Post, noted some other “dubious conclusions” that Democracy in Chains reaches, and that further demonstrate MacLean’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter she covers. Among them:

Let’s start with Page 182, where MacLean identifies staunch conservative Edwin Meese, one-timer rector at George Mason, as “chief” among the “cadre” of the “libertarian cause.” On Page 198, in describing the makeup of George Mason University’s Board of Visitors, she asserts that it “now included such libertarian cadre members” as “Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation” and “Weekly Standard editor William Kristol.” She also identifies two conservative politicians with some libertarian sympathies, Dick Armey and James Miller, as Visitors who were part of this “libertarian cadre.” Her identification of Kristol as a libertarian made me laugh out loud, especially because there are few conservative writers less popular in libertarian intellectual circles than Kristol. But the notion that Meese, Feulner, et al., are “libertarian cadre members” is almost equally absurd.

Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from fellow Duke professor Michael Munger. In a thorough review, he calls Democracy in Chains “a work of speculative historical fiction.” Among the many faults he attributes to MacLean is her refusal to consult any of the many living scholars who worked alongside Buchanan, three of whom could be found right at Duke, and her decision to play “Six Degree of Charles Koch.” He concludes that “as a book Democracy in Chains is well-written, and the research it contains is both interesting and in many cases illuminating. But as an actual history, as a reliable account of the centrality of the work of James Buchanan in a gigantic conspiracy designed to end democracy in America, it turns far away from its mark. It is the story of an alternative past that never actually happened.”

Even some on the left have weighed in. Henry Farrell, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, co-wrote at Vox.com that MacLean’s writings were “conspiracy theories about the right” and suggested the book was a model for “how not to write about 'radical' libertarians.”

This list could go on and on, but the point has been made. To quote Jason Brennan, “She is a contemptible liar.”

Defense of MacLean has largely been limited not to the intellectual or scholarly underpinnings of her work, but to the underlying premise that free market advocates are racists and critics are on the payroll of the Koch Brothers. For instance, The New Republic interviewed MacLean by tossing softballs about the Kochs and the strange influence libertarians seems to have on the body politic.

MacLean, for her part, has largely refused to address the substantive complaints, choosing instead to whine about “bullying” and a vast, right-wing conspiracy to defame her. She's even continued her pattern of misrepresentations by charging that a Jonah Goldberg comment about the “libertarian super-posse” dissecting MacLean’s work, an explicit reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was somehow a threat to her personal safety. Sadly, it seems that the end of her book did not also mark the end of her fabulous tales.


MacLean’s premise that libertarians calling for limits on the power of the state are enemies of democracy is a farce. The same claim can be made against the architects of our Constitution, who set up institutional barriers designed to restrict mob rule. Pure majoritiarianism will destroy liberty as quickly as pure authoritarianism. Some of the greatest causes of liberty in history were efforts to limit mob rule rather than impose it. The modern civil rights movement, which MacLean claims to champion, was an example of it. The mob in some areas of the nation wanted state-sanctioned racism, but the Constitution ultimately won the day and limited their ability to impose it.

The core of MacLean’s failure is her inability to concede that those with whom she holds political disagreements could be honestly seeking to advance what they believe is the best interest of the people. What she sees as a sinister conspiracy to undermine democratic norms and benefit a wealthy elite is nothing more than an ordinary effort among like-minded people to make the government work better for everyone. All of her cherry-picking, misrepresentations, and fabrications flow from this all too common political tendency. But while this sort of mindset has sadly become expected among average citizens, academia ought to be better. Duke should be embarrassed of its affiliation with such a shoddy piece of fake scholarship.

Brian Garst is Director of Policy and Communications for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Brian Garst is Director of Policy and Communications for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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