Thoughts on Nancy MacLean vs. GMU
Tags Media and Culture
Yes, I know this is all "inside baseball," but I can't help adding my two cents. By now several well-known libertarians and economists have offered rebuttals to Nancy MacLean's new book Democracy in Chains. Our own David Gordon's review gives a good sense of MacLean's shoddy work, her deep misunderstanding of the late economist James Buchanan, and her mendacious axe-grinding on behalf of a wearisome progressive narrative. The shallow waters of her thinking match nicely with the cover of the tome, which depicts (groan) old white men in suits smoking cigars in a shadowy backroom...
But clearly the book struck a nerve with its intended targets: George Mason University, longtime home to Professor Buchanan, and the larger network of organizations funded by Charles and David Koch. The former she views as ground zero for academics who provide convenient intellectual cover for Koch corporate interests (GMU professor Tyler Cowen draws her particular ire), while the latter she portrays as undermining democracy through a campaign of misinformation that a "fully-informed" electorate would reject. And while it's tempting to dismiss her as an open propagandist, even lightweight progressive academics (e.g., Thomas Piketty) unfortunately receive plenty of mainstream media attention. So while MacLean's new book is feted in outlets like the Washington Post and NPR, its rebuttals from the GMU crowd and libertarians like Michael Munger (MacLean's colleague at Duke) will be resigned mostly to the blogosphere.
Let me offer a few brief thoughts about both the book and the controversy surrounding it:
- For all of their complaints about "right-wing" corporate funding for public policy organizations, progressives ignore the deep-pocketed foundations that overwhelmingly donate to left of center groups. Progressives also ignore the obvious reality that virtually every university in the US operates as a de facto left-wing think tank. The vast majority of American professors are deep progressives, with views far to the left of the American people. These professors provide academic and intellectual cover for a host of progressive policy ideas. Thousands of tenured academics, many at state-funded universities, form a vast if loose intellectual cadre that far exceeds anything the Kochs (or George Soros) could hope to fund.
- While MacLean's book is facile and laughably biased, the underlying question of whether academics can be bought is a serious one. James Buchanan by all accounts was not — but it is hard to overcome the perception that patronage is rewarded by friendly public policy ideas. Of course the Left never sees its own academics as self-interested or captured by a system that rewards progressive views.
- No matter how much libertarian academics like Cowen attempt to present their ideas as edgy or "third way," progressives are deeply wedded to a simplistic oppressor/oppressed mentality. Libertarians scratch their heads when it comes to making progress with the Left, but MacLean is a good example of the problem. Suggest cutting one hair on the head of the welfare state, or applying one iota of market discipline to medicine, and any tenuous goodwill generated by talking about the drug war, gay marriage, or universal basic income goes out the window.
- James Buchanan's work in public choice theory hardly marks him as an avatar of libertarianism or Austrian economics. MacLean is wrong to conflate libertarian theory, Buchananite political science, and "right-wing" economics, but she is hardly alone among progressives in doing so.
- MacLean treats Buchanan and GMU the way some critics treat Murray Rothbard and the Mises Institute: she performs only cursory research of original sources, she impugns motives in dismissing views she does not share, she shamelessly attributes "racism" to people she does not know, and she imagines that academic work not in line with her progressive orthodoxy is necessarily "right-wing." Some of those critics, themselves within the Koch funding orbit, now complain of this treatment befalling them. (For the record, the Mises Institute does not and has never received funding from the Koch brothers or any of their network organizations.)
MacLean is unrepentant, even triumphant, about the book — at least if this self-congratulatory interview is any indication. Note her bizarre paranoia about the American South, a place where she now suffers due to her employment at Duke. Imagine Buchanan, a sinister southerner by birth, having the gall to call himself a proud "country boy"! Clearly she sees herself quite favorably, the way Elizabeth Warren does, as an enlightened crusader for what is good and just. Therefore her targets are not good and just, because when it comes to oppressive corporatist oligarchs (at least those on the Right) progressives tend to drop their relativism and see the world in black and white.
As libertarians we cannot worry too much about the Nancy MacLeans of the world, but neither can we allow her and her cohorts to claim the mantle of populism. We do not win people over by sniffing at them.