This is the cover a new book by Duke historian Nancy MacLean. I was dreading reading it because MacLean is a terrific historian; I’ve long admired her history of the twentieth-century Ku Klux Klan, Behind the Mask of Chivalry. This new book appeared to be the history I am working on: its thesis is that the white south’s program of Massive Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education was the start of the right wing’s current attempts to disenfranchise voters and to undermine democracy in order to let the free market operate.
MacLean’s book turns out to be much different from the one I hope to write; her focus is on economist James M. Buchanan who moved easily in the corridors of power in Virginia and beyond. The folks I’m interested in consider Buchanan a pseudo-libertarian for these very reasons. In many ways, MacLean’s book is a story of the straightforward successes of libertarians and I hope my work can complement her achievement.
Needless to say, the libertarians, particularly those of Buchanan’s “Public Choice” school, are not happy. Not at all. They feel MacLean has misrepresented Buchanan and public choice theory and, worse, committed historical malfeasance by altering quotations and quoting out of context. There is a lot of dust in the air right now, and a lot of charges being thrown around. Rather than trying to sort out everything going on, I’ll focus on one particular question:
Was James M. Buchanan a Racist?
The Big Picture
If you read the comments on this article, you find comments that MacLean’s book is a “slimy political campaign” and “she painted [Buchanan] as racist. How is that not trashing?” Others ask: “Could you please cite any evidence for the claim that Buchanan was openly opposed to Brown?”, and claim “There is no evidence Buchanan opposed Brown. None at all. MacLean made that up.” One reviewer argues:
“Buchanan wrote very little on Brown or the ensuing school desegregation, and the archival evidence she presents from his papers is both thin and far short of the smoking gun she implies it to be. Instead, she sets out to strengthen her portrayal of Buchanan as a segregationist by tying him to other known segregationists. “
Let’s think about this for a moment: in Virginia in the 1950s, the Brown case and school segregation was the issue of state politics. These writers think the fact that Buchanan wrote nothing about it absolves him of wrongdoing. But, they misunderstand MacLean’s argument: it isn’t that Buchanan and other libertarians actively disliked African Americans. It was that they didn’t care about them. They saw Massive Resistance as an opportunity to advance their own political agenda, which just happened to match that of the segregationists. As for black citizens of Virginia, libertarians did not care about them even enough to address their needs or concerns. It was not hostility, it was indifference that MacLean documents.
Was James M. Buchanan a racist? It is an immensely difficult question to answer and, here’s the thing: MacLean doesn’t attempt to answer it; indeed it is not a question she even asks. In some sense, the answer is a trivial one: Buchanan was born in 1919 in Tennessee, where he spent his formative years, and as an adult he lived in Virginia, ground-zero for “respectable racism” in the decade after Brown where his political allies and many of his colleagues were segregationists. Given those facts, it would be a remarkable thing if Buchanan did not think, at some level, that black people were not as good as white people in his heart of hearts.
MacLean, however, is not interested in what is in Buchanan’s heart regarding race. What she cares about is his actions and his public statements. In those, she clearly shows, Buchanan worked hard to support every move the segregationists made in Virginia. Who cares if he did so because he was defending some strange view of “liberty” rather than white supremacy? The effect at the time and the place were the same. So, was Buchanan a racist? Who cares? What is important is that he worked hard in support of racist policies in Virginia in the 1950s, which is what MacLean shows.
So, if we take the book as a whole, we find that MacLean shows that Buchanan was embedded in a state power structure where only those folks who were reliably segregationist were allowed to work (the famed “Byrd Machine” of Virginia), that he did nothing to rock that boat, and that his theories and arguments were welcomed by those looking to preserve segregation. Was he a racist in his thoughts and beliefs? Not an important question at this point.
The Problem of Inaccurate Quotations
So, prima facie, it does not seem outrageous that Buchanan worked hand-in-glove with segregationists in complete indifference to the rights and fortunes of African-American citizens. But, what about the charges that she makes claims without supporting evidence, or quotes out of context? This kind of fine-level analysis may indeed be damaging to her case. So, it is worth examining a few of those claims regarding Buchanan and racism.
Let’s start with a easy one. Easy because it is not Buchanan but our old pal, Frank Chodorov. Chodorov is only mentioned once in MacLean’s book when she lays out her case that libertarians were happy to work with the segregationists. She offers Chodorov as a bit of supporting evidence. One commenter argues: “[MacLean] claims that libertarian Frank Chodorov praised southern resistance to Brown. This is false, he in fact praised Brown in the very article she cites.”
But MacLean did not claim that Chodorov “praised southern resistance to Brown.” She notes, quite correctly, that Chodorov saw southern resistance as an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate public schooling, which is quite correct. The claim that Chodorov “praised Brown” is equally suspect. If he did it was quite faintly in my opinion. The article in question is here, so you can judge for yourselves.
She quotes him accurately in in the proper context. The proper context is this: “Eschewing overt racial appeals, but not at all concerned with the impact of black citizens, they framed the South’s fight as resistance to federal coercion in a noble quest to preserve states’ rights and economic liberty.” (MacLean, p. 50) This perfectly summarizes both the segregationist and libertarian lines in the 1950s. Chodorov’s writing at the time backed up the segregationist position right down the line: He praised Virginia’s move to privatize education, declaring himself agnostic on which side of the segregation issue is right or wrong. He opposed civil rights bills. And we already know he opposed fair employment measures. It is not that libertarians were racists, it was they they did not care about black people. One simply cannot find in libertarian literature of the time ANY concern about the special problems faced by black citizens. And, libertarians somehow convinced themselves that the problem of race would disappear if only we embrace every policy position recommended by the racists.
If we turn to Buchanan who is, after all, the subject of the book, things do not look a whole lot better for the critics. Many point to MacLean’s linking of Buchanan’s thought to that of James C. Calhoun, most famous for his vigorous defense of slavery in the 1830s. MacLean argues that Buchanan’s thought about majority rule and Calhoun’s were remarkably similar. Critics have seized on this argument, perhaps because MacLean makes it on the first page of the book, thus sparing the critic from reading further before declaring her a bad historian. This link between the Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s thought is criticized, rather sloppily, over at the National Review. It is actually better stated on the comment thread I’ve quoted from before:
For example, she devotes the entire preface to John Calhoun, whom she claims was a major influence on Buchanan and libertarianism more generally. This is false (Buchanan, for example, never cited Calhoun, despite citing many other scholars; the entirety of her support for Calhoun’s influence on libertarianism is one citation to an article by libertarian Murray Rothbard, who himself was clearly most influenced by Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand, not Calhoun)…. MacLean appears to have fabricated a claim out of thin air.
This is not the only place reviewers have attempted to refute MacLean’s case by determining whether or not Buchanan cited this or that author. Elsewhere in the thread another critic argues, “MacLean asserts that James M. Buchanan was deeply influenced by the segregationist Agrarian poet Donald Davidson… Davidson is never once mentioned in Buchanan’s entire 20 volume collected works.” I found this strategy rather odd until it was pointed out to me that those 20 volumes can be easily searched online. Thus these critics can read the first page of the book, do a search for “Calhoun” online and show that MacLean is a dishonest researcher in the space of five minutes! Easy peasy!
This strategy is also known as the argument from ignorance: assuming that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Unfortunately, not only do the critics look in the wrong place for evidence, but they misunderstand the very claim MacLean is making. She is expressly not arguing that Buchanan was directly influenced by Calhoun or that he was a “major influence” on Buchanan. What she does claim is that Buchanan’s thought “mirrors” (p. 1) that of Calhoun regarding democracy. That there were parallels between the two schools of thought. She then points out these parallels do not stop with Buchanan, but reoccur in many libertarians funded by Koch, such as Rothbard.
But, where did MacLean get this crazy idea that there were similarities between Buchanan’s thought and Calhoun’s thought? Where did this “smear” originate? Turns out, if you actually read the footnotes she supplies (p. 245), MacLean cites public choice scholars themselves who explain their debts to Calhoun. These articles have titles like “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun” and “Calhoun’s Constitutional Economics.” This is hardly “fabricating a claim out of thin air.”
The abstract of “Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun” reads:
We treat John C. Calhoun as a precursor of modern public choice theory.
Calhoun anticipates the doctrine of public choice contractarianism as devel-
oped by Buchanan and Tullock and expands this approach in original direc-
tions. 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.
This is the exact argument MacLean is making. To be sure, the public-choice authors note some differences as well as similarities between Calhoun and Buchanan’s thought, but it seems Calhoun’s influence on public choice theory originates with the public choice theorists themselves. In the article, authors also note that Calhoun’s vigorous and lifelong defense of slavery was an “ethical error” but apparently not a political one. They feel that this ethical error can be easily weeded out from Calhoun’s political philosophy but are notably silent as to how that would be done (p. 672).
Calhoun came back into fashion in the 1950s: published by conservative presses, lauded by segregationist James J. Kilpatrick (still lovingly preserved at neo-Confederate websites) and libertarians alike. Libertarian Felix Morley reviewed the first volume of the collected papers of Calhoun in 1960 praising Calhoun as “easily the most gifted of our
post-revolutionary political philosophers” (p. 312) but never once mentioning slavery as a topic of interest to Calhoun.
Today’s libertarians face a similar problem that Morley faced half a decade ago. Morley obviously adored Calhoun’s anti-democratic political philosophy, but obviously could not defend slavery; thus slavery simply disappears as a topic in his treatment of Calhoun’s thought. Today’s libertarians admire Calhoun and Buchanan, but they cannot possibly admit that those figures were involved in racial segregation; thus segregation disappears as a topic. We saw the same thing with Constitutional originalists: That the theory was used for decades to defend racial segregation is simply ignored. MacLean has shown how Buchanan did work in an alliance with segregationists. Public choice theorists must face up to this fact as a flaw in their system of thought or admit that they have no answer to her case. They have not yet done so.