Political Entrepreneurs

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On Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean, Part 1

July 15th, 2017 by Edward Lopez

I only yesterday finished reading Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. Until now I haven’t commented publicly on the book, besides brief editorials when sharing posts on social media. Now I will begin writing my substantive responses. This first post is meant to establish some context that will help me be clear in later posts.


I first disclose my involvement with the subject matter. I am not mentioned in MacLean’s book, nor have I been a part of the heated discussion to date. In this sense, I am decidedly an outsider.

However, James Buchanan was very influential on me during my time at George Mason University (1993-98), Bob Tollison (Buchanan’s most prolific student and long-time colleague) was my dissertation director, and Tyler Cowen (‘successor’ I suppose to Buchanan) was on my committee and has written job market letters of recommendation for me. Also, in 2012 I became the president of the Public Choice SocietMadmen_Covery, which Buchanan co-founded, and I have been the Executive Director of it since. In the summer and again in the fall of 2012, I met with Buchanan to talk about the future of the Society. In this part of my work, I feel ownership over this part of Buchanan’s legacy. I also have a dog in this hunt. My 2013 book, co-authored with Wayne Leighton, offers our own intellectual history of public choice, which we portray as a counter-revolution to the dominance of neoclassical welfare theory that emerged in the first half of the 20th century. I’ll come back to that more in later posts. For now, let me just say that while I may be an outsider to the subject matter, I am not a distant one, and some people might consider me to be right in the mix actually.

Furthermore, I have also received Koch funding, initially in the form of two graduate fellowships at GMU, and most recently with a $1.8 million gift to my current employer to launch the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise at Western Carolina University. Over the years I have worked with organizations that receive Koch funding, including the Association of Private Enterprise Education (I’m a past president and current board member) and Mercatus Center where I recently received a small grant to write a working paper on the history of U.S. fiscal policy. In the past, I also have administered projects funded by Koch, in which my time on the project was compensated. Namely, in 2010 I organized a group of academics who had shared interests in writing distilled versions of their research papers for broader audiences. I have received support through Institute for Humane Studies, both as a participant in their conference and a recipient of small funding amounts for conference travel. I have also taught at IHS seminars numerous times, and was a program officer there in 2008. Aside from the recent working paper I just mentioned, none of my research publications have received Koch support. Instead, my research support has come from grants/fellowships sponsored by my home campus administration, or from these private foundations: Earhart Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, Liberty Fund, Social Philosophy and Policy Center.

In short, I am not a neutral observer, and I want readers of my responses to MacLean to be aware of that. (I might update this disclaimer as I remember, or am reminded of, additional involvement.) Okay now, on with the show.

The Discovery:

I first learned about Nancy MacLean’s new book in April when I saw a flyer for a then upcoming talk at the New School. The flyer reads “Slavery Race Capitalism” at the top, and below lists the talk title as “Public Choice Theory: The Billionaires’ Bid to Undermine Democracy.” As a public choice economist and past president of the Public Choice Society, I was like “whaa?”

I quickly learned that the May 8th talk would be based on a then forthcoming book. Quickly I found the book description. I read that my “academic grandfather” James Buchanan was not a successful scholar whose work established an enduring research program, but instead was a supremacist architect of the plan later fueled by Charles Koch into the ultra capitalist conspiracy to disempower majorities of people in marginalized groups. I found this language to be bombastic and concerning. Overall I was a little shocked at how distorted that portrayal is from the way I knew Buchanan and from how I understand public choice. Dang hombre, I said to myself, this is close to home. Quickly, again, I started asking different people who I thought were likely know about a new intellectual history of James Buchanan and public choice. No one I asked had heard of the book or seen chapter drafts. I sat back in my chair and was like: Okay this is going to be a thing, I mean she’s a respected history professor at Duke.

Ah, but Duke! People in the biz also know that Duke is a veritable headquarters for public choice thought. Three Public Choice Society presidents are on the political science and law faculty, namely Geoff Brennan, Michael Munger, and current president Georg Vanberg. Munger and Vanberg are also the past and current chairs of the Department of Political Science there at Duke. You’d think that the author of a book on public choice would have conferred with the eminent public choice scholars just a short walk away. But they all found out about their colleague’s new book, four years in the making, this past April just like the rest of us did.

I have to admit. I grew increasingly skeptical at what would be found in the book. I was eager to get my copy.

The Book:

When I started reading, my skepticism would be vindicated.

The book offers to explain how Republican controlled legislatures and Congress have been ruining the country since 2010 by harming marginalized groups, particularly blacks and poor, in turn by preventing their majority will. MacLean’s main areas of dispute are anti-union actions like right-to-work laws and the Scott Walker saga, climate change (misinformation and policy blocking), public health (Flint, Mich.), schools (anti teacher union policies and funding cuts), and privatized prisons. The arc of control goes from bought-out Republicans to their corporate masters, on throughout a widespread ultra (she likes that word) capitalist ideology, and to an army of bought-out academics who bolster the cause with phony research.

This is where everything comes together in ​her intellectual historiography of James Buchanan and his successor ​​Tyler Cowen​ (my professor and occasional mentor)​. Buchanan is portrayed as ​the segregationist mastermind behind the Koch​-​funded Republican agenda to undermine democracy. She backs her work with intricacy and breadth of documentation​, piled high in 160 pages of endnotes. There are many steps ​in the narrative. But first, the argument begins with the claim that ​​Buchanan ​resented Brown v. Board, ​that he was influenced by the supremacist political ideology of John C. Calhoun and by the segregationist thought of the Southern Agrarians, that he was ​drawn to the power of southern officials, and that he strategically crafted his career in ​their favor to build an academic justification for what would​, in the long run, result in a ​transformation of political institutions that would ​concentrate political power among the economic elites.​ Just as Koch began infusing millions into this idea in the late 1990s, Tyler Cowen took Buchanan’s helm and began captaining the cause to new heights. The conspiracy unfurls from there. Et voila. Here we are, readers. The Republicans have ruined our country, and we in the majority need to take our country back.

Everybody Goes Nuts:

The first critic to come out was Russ Roberts, who said she needed to apologize to Tyler Cowen. She retorted that Roberts was playing gotcha quote games and didn’t read the book, which he admitted to not reading and said he would not. Full exchange here.

There has been lots of activity by David Bernstein and Jonathan Adler at the Volokh Conspiracy, much of which takes issue with bad arguments, quoting out of context, and footnotes that don’t check out, and also substantial piece by Georg Vanberg, arguing that MacLean’s account is flawed by missing Buchanan’s commitment to analytic egalitarianism, whereby all individuals are equal and autonomous, and their use of political arrangement is grounded in consent. Supporters have been making this point, and citing folks like Amartya Sen who have praised the scholarship and public service of Buchanan’s work.

Michael Munger wrote long form response for The Independent Review, which reads devastatingly but has also been pushed-back on by historians. Munger critiques MacLean’s method, calling the book a speculative fiction that violates the principle in intellectual history of giving as charitable a read of the content as possible. Some historians have on Twitter called Munger’s charity point nonsense and laughable, something that no historian would think. Phil Magness, a free market historian, in two essays has challenged MacLean’s claimed connections to Calhoun and to the Agrarians. Magness and the publisher of the second of these two essays, History News Network, have reportedly offered MacLean the opportunity to respond but they did not hear back. Hartmut Kliemt, a friend of Buchanan’s and co-editor of his collected works, criticized MacLean on Liberty Fund’s EconLog blog for breaching Buchanan’s privacy, as well as professional archival research norms, by sifting through his papers before they had been organized.

Gaining Momentum:

As far as I know, MacLean hasn’t responded to any criticism, not since the Russ Roberts exchange. But she did take to social media with a very odd plea for help. She claimed that her attackers are a coordinated hit job by the Kochtopus, and that everybody on her side needs to get on the Internet to boost the book’s favorable reviews so they land at the top of search listings, and vote “not useful” to critical reviews on Amazon. Instantly thousands of people were brawling on her Amazon page. (Boy, I’d like to see that royalty statement!). And in response to that, people discussed the professional ethics of MacLean gaming things in this fashion. For their part, Fakespot downgraded Democracy in Chains to a ‘D’. And back and forth, and back and forth. I can’t do it all justice, but you can find a slanted and therefore juicy overview at Inside Higher Ed. The piece quotes MacLean defenders saying that most of the criticisms only reference the Preface of the book, and all the critics are tied to Koch money. I have to admit. When I read the Inside Higher Ed piece, I thought perhaps the Chronicle of Higher Education might pick it up, as they sometimes do. And I felt like there was momentum.

But, no.

Then two political scientists, Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, who are nowhere near Koch money and who would never be mistaken as right wing, and who MacLean cites in support of her narrative, wrote this lengthy and demolishing review coupled with their positive vision for cross-ideological scholarship. They argue that they have learned from public choice theory even and especially while disagreeing with it. They suggest this is how a book about Buchanan and the legacy of public choice should be written. Not to vilify and demonize, but to understand and to learn from. For this, a MacLean supporter, an academic mind you, called Farrell an ugly name on Twitter.

The discussion goes on. And I’ll be adding more to it in Part 2 and beyond.

NB: Here is Part 2 in this series, “Should Checks and Balances be Removed from the U.S. Constitution”.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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