Comment of the Day: Six Faces of Right-Wing Chain-Forging Economist James Buchanan...: It's by, well, me:

What seems to me a very strange comment on Twitter from Henry Farrell https://twitter.com/henryfarrell/status/931227926779047937, who appears to deny that he (and Steve Teles) bend over backwards to be "fair" to Buchanan, while providing no such charity to McLean:

As I read our essay, our positive claims are (1) that public choice has some intellectual value and (2) that Buchanan saw himself as engaged in a project of counter-entrenchment. For the rest, we extend to Buchanan only that minimal form of intellectual generosity we'd all like-that when someone is accused of looking to protect the Southern way of life against the civil rights movement, masterminding Pinochet's constitution, & being the sinister intellectual Svengali behind the rise of the anti-democratic right, one would like to see supporting evidence.

As we explicitly note in the essays, we would not at all be discomfited if evidence emerged showing that either Buchanan or other public choicers had problematic views or pasts-on the basis of my run-ins with Charles Rowley, I know that there is a lot of nutty thinking there. But basic standards of intellectual argument demand that if you make very strong claims, you had better have good evidence. The reason MacLean's book is a bad one is that it does not have such evidence, and grossly misinterprets the evidence it has.

It reads as though you are interpreting our essays as an intervention in a political fight within economics. They are not. They are interventions in a fight about the standards that one ought to have when one makes strong arguments as an academic in the public sphere. Finis.

But I read this as a strange denial—indeed, as an explicit admission that they bend over backward to be "fair" to Buchanan—in a way that I think winds up being unfair to their readers. I think this largely because I do not see McLean as making "very strong claims". I read this as, essentially, what I said: a hermeneutic of immense charity towards Buchanan; a hermeneutic of immense suspicion against McLean. As I said, I think Will Wilkinson gets it right:

My response:

Like I said: a hermaneutic of enormous charity directed in favor Buchanan; a hermeneutic of enormous suspicion directed against McLean.

"If you make very strong claims, you had better have good evidence". The claim that an upper class mid-20thC white southerner looks to protect the Southern way of life against the civil rights movement is not a "very strong" claim: it is the default assumption of everyone.

"Masterminding Pinochet's constitution"; the claim that Mt. Pelerin circles were deeply, deeply committed toward making the Pinochet regime a success, and that they had frequent discussions among themselves and Chileans about how to turn the admittedly regrettable excesses into a proper Lykourgan moment is not something anybody has ever denied. That Friedman and Buchanan hoped to get their ideas into the government of the Chicago Boys is not a "very strong claim", but obvious.

And as for "being the sinister intellectual Svengali behind the rise of the anti-democratic right", I always assumed that Buchanan was trying to use the Kochtopus to fund both public choice and the rollback of the New Deal", there I think McLean oversteps. Buchanan was not as pro-democracy as Friedman, but not as anti-democratic as Hayek and company. The unanimity-beyond-the-veil-of-ignorance assumption did exercise a definite pull, at least after he gave up seeing Massive Resistance as a useful ally.

It's interesting: the breach of academic standards that drives me batshit in this whole thing is Buchanan's promise to Darden that only "'Manchester' liberals who emphasize individual freedom as the central feature of the good society" and "Western conservatives who emphasize the importance of Western traditions in preserving the good social order" need apply for his patronage and mentorship. This used to drive Mancur Olson absolutely batshit too.

That seems to me that is worth making a stink about: we certainly do not operate that way here at the B.

Comments