Comment of the Day: Joe B: Six Faces of Right-Wing Chain-Forging Economist James Buchanan...: "It seems to me that you need to provide some concrete examples of being "struck by the contrast". Where in the text, exactly, do Farrell and Teles bend over backward to be fair to Buchanan and unfair to MacLean?..."

Fair question...

Let's look at: Henry Farrell and Steven Teles: When Politics Drives Scholarship...

Let's go to paragraph six, in its entirety:

MacLean also has a tin ear for how libertarians and public choice economists actually think and argue. Reading the book provides the impression that MacLean is like an anthropologist trying to explain a culture that she has never encountered directly, even though it can be found a short distance from her own office building. Much of her evidence is correspondence with Buchanan’s donors, evidence that is inherently problematic on its own as a guide to underlying intent, as anyone who has ever communicated with a donor can confirm...

Actually, few academics lie to their donors. For one thing, it's wrong to lie. For another, lying to your donors is an easy way to get a reputation as, well, a liar—and with a community that you very much want to trust your bona fides. To claim that Buchanan simply did not mean what he wrote to Darden and Koch is definitely leaning far over backwards. Correspondence with donors is no more inherently problematic than any other evidence.

Farrell and Teles's claim at the top of the paragraph—that "MacLean... has a tin ear for how libertarians and public choice economists actually think and argue..." is, I think, more complicated to evaluate. I want to say: yes... and no. MacLean cites, as evidence of continuity between neoconfederacy—hell, pre-confederacy—and public choice, this:

Alexander Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen: The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun: "'Who will join me in offering to make a small contribution to the Texas Nationalist Party? Or to the Nantucket Separatists?' James Buchanan [1987, 274]...

...Abstract: We treat John C. Calhoun as a precursor of modern public choice theory. Calhoun anticipates the doctrine of public choice contractarianism as developed by Buchanan and Tullock and expands this approach in original directions. We consider Calhoun's theory of why democracy fails to preserve liberty and Calhoun's suggested constitutional reform, rule by unanimity. We also draw out parallels between Calhoun and Hayek with regard to theories of social change and Hayek's analysis of "why the worst get to the top." The paper concludes with some remarks on problems in Calhoun's theory...

I believe that Farrell and Teles would say that MacLean miscites The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun—that it is an explanation of Calhoun's "valid and interesting contributions" about how to use quasi-unanimity—"concurrent majorities"—to keep a stable majority from "oppressing" a stable minority, rather than a declaration of allegiance to the white supremicist cause, rather than a genuine declaration of intellectual allegiance and filialship.

The article does not contain the words "Black", "African", or "African-American" anywhere. It contains the word "slavery" in three places:

  1. "The Jackson presidency, in particular, marked a turning point... a massive increase in Presidential power as illustrated by the Mayville Road veto...and Jackson's war against the Second Bank of the United States. Calhoun observed these events in conjunction with increases in government spending, employees, revenues raised through the tariff, a press funded and operated by the newly formed political parties. This growth in federal power would have been enough to disquiet Calhoun, but in addition Calhoun saw that the North and South were becoming increasingly separated over the issue of slavery..."

  2. "A shift in political power to the large and rapidly growing North and an increasing feeling in the North that compromise over slavery was impossible. The Civil War would not have surprised Calhoun..."

  3. "Calhoun furnishes only weak ethical foundations for his advocacy of the concurrent majority.... This lack of ethical foundations shows up in Calhoun's defense of slavery, which continues to hurt his reputation and draw attention from his more valid and interesting contributions. A modern revision of Calhounian political theory should consider a more consistent ethical base..."

I read this piece as Tyler and Alex engaged in epater le bourgeoisie. But the dog-whistle is definitely there: the vibe is definitely one of southern white oppression of Blacks much less important than the federal government as a threat to the property and liberty of southerners. This vibe is a standard part of how "libertarians and public choice economists actually think and argue". Is MacLean's the tin ear in hearing it? Or are Farrell and Teles's ears tin in failing to hear it? In paragraph 7 Farrell and Teles write that "MacLean’s account lacks what Clifford Geertz recognized as the essential cultural background to understand what a statement or document means in context". But too much "contextualization" leads to a study of fish that makes no mention of the water in which they swim.

On to paragraphs 8 and 9!:

MacLean, for example, is careful to note that there is no evidence that Buchanan was any more racist than other white Southerners of his generation. Still, she argues that the entire school of public choice emerged as a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. She claims that Buchanan looked at Brown as an example of coercion by Northern liberals who demanded the right to tell Southern whites how to run their society. For example, in analyzing a letter Buchanan sent to the president of UVA, requesting funds for a new center, MacLean extrapolates his words to give us her interpretation of his reasoning: he wanted to “fight” the Northern liberals who looked down on Southern whites like him, by “us[ing] the center to create a new school of political economy and social philosophy.” The center would have a “quiet political agenda: to defeat the ‘perverted form’ of liberalism that sought to destroy their way of life, ‘a social order,’ as he described it, ‘built on individual liberty,’ a term with its own coded meaning.”

The problem with MacLean’s claims about Buchanan’s underlying motivations—and Steinbaum’s gloss on them—is that they are her own interpolation rather than directly grounded in the source material she provides. MacLean does not back up her contention that the foundation of Buchanan’s entire school of public choice was motivated in his white Southern resentment of Yankee intervention with textual evidence. Instead, the reader has to rely on her belief that “individual liberty” had a coded meaning for Buchanan and the president whom he was writing to. This is a decidedly slender reed to support such a massive claim...

Are Farrell and Teles seriously claiming that, to an upper-class white pro-segregation (or, perhaps, anti-"involuntary"-integration) Virginian of the 1950s, a key part of one's "individual liberty" was the liberty to oppress African-Americans? Remember: in this decade Rand Paul claimed that he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Right Act because of its "pubic acommodation" title:

All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin...

It's not a slender reed.

As I have said a number of times: I think MacLean gets a lot wrong. But to claim that "individual liberty" for Buchanan in the 1950s did not include at its core the right to do what you wanted with your property, and that the right to do what you wanted with your property included at its core the right to exclude Blacks from your lunch counter—well, as I said, hermeneutics of suspicion toward MacLean, hermeneutics of charity toward Buchanan.

Comments