Well, this has been exciting. My post on Nancy MacLean’s new book (Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America)—what a friend of mine has dubbed “the libertarian kerfuffle”—has brought new readers to this normally quiet space, for which I’m grateful. I’ve been dubbed “not particularly compelling” by Jonathan H. Adler at the Washington Post! As wonderful as that is (I’m thinking of making it the new tagline for my blog) I feel we ended up spinning our wheels in the comments. So, I’ll try again here and perhaps we can make better headway.
To defend Buchanan, and to defend themselves as inheritors of his intellectual program, many have reacted with accusations that MacLean is a bad scholar, that her citation practices are shoddy, and that she should be sued for libel. It is all very exciting. Well, as exciting as academic arguments get anyway. I’m not saying this is Game 7 of the World Series or anything.
Let’s pick up the argument with the accusation that MacLean imagined a link between southern writer Donald Davidson and James. N. Buchanan.
I’m focusing on a rather small claim in the book and will go through it in some (I hope not-too-painful) detail. My reasons for this are because, as Andy Seal has argued, critics of the book have largely ignored the over-arching focus of the book, which is not Buchanan but Koch and what MacLean sees as his attacks on democracy. Seal concluded: “The silence surrounding her attack on Koch might be because by now such attacks are expected, or it might reflect some of the underlying divisions among libertarians—not all think that Koch has been good for the cause.” As a result, the attacks on the book have focused on MacLean’s treatment of Buchanan and very specific claims about his career.
If you read…MacLean’s new book…you will probably come away thinking that the late economist James M. Buchanan believed himself to be something of an intellectual heir to the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930s. According to MacLean, these now-obscure southern literary figures were a main reason Buchanan wanted to go to Vanderbilt University.
Even though Buchanan’s family ultimately could not afford to send him to the prestigious university, MacLean claims that Buchanan owed these men a direct intellectual debt. They allegedly “stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.” One of the Agrarians in particular, she claims, had a “decisive” influence on “Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system” – the poet Donald Davidson.
MacLean has a very specific reason for making this claim, and she returns to it at multiple points in her book. The Agrarians, in addition to spawning a southern literary revival (the novelist Robert Penn Warren was one of their members), were also segregationists. By connecting them to Buchanan, she bolsters one of the primary charges of her book: an attempt to link Buchanan’s economic theories to a claimed resentment over Brown v. Board and the subsequent defeat of racial segregation in 1960s Virginia.
MacLean’s argument presents a challenge. 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. The Agrarians, and specifically Davidson, serve this purpose in her narrative by becoming formative intellectual influences on Buchanan.
However, Magness claims that MacLean’s claim “appears to be completely made up” because “her footnotes to the passages on the Agrarians don’t actually check out, and the Davidson link in particular appears to be a figment of her own imagination.” Magness claims that, having checked her footnotes and finding no support for these claims, the link between the Agrarians and Buchanan is an “invented connection.” He concluded this after he “walked through the sources in detail.”
Magness’s claim about MacLean’s imagination has been repeated in other, less able, critiques. Magness has made a rather extraordinary claim here: he is not saying that MacLean has made a poorly substantiated argument. He is not saying that her case is weak. He is not saying that MacLean has overstated her evidence. He is not saying that the link between the evidence for her claim is attenuated. He is saying that she “made it up.” He is saying that she “invented” this link between Davidson and Buchanan. There is no way, he is saying, that her claim is supported by the evidence she has provided. He is, to put the matter bluntly, calling her either a liar or deluded. If there is another way to read his evaluation of MacLean, I would love to hear it.
To help us sort this out, I’d like to use a distinction nicely drawn by Allan Megill between recounting and justification:
- Recounting: What is the case? This is a descriptive task: has MacLean accurately described the influence Davidson had on Buchanan? Further, has Magness accurately described MacLean’s view of that influence?
- Justification: What evidence is there? What is the evidence provided by MacLean to support her claim for Davidson influenced on Buchanan? What is the evidence that Magness has that MacLean “made up” he whole thing?
Recounting: Davidson’s Influence on Buchanan
Magness quotes the offending passage in his review. The key sentence is:
“The Nashville writer who seemed most decisive in Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system was Donald Davidson, the Agrarians’ ringleader, who portrayed the growth of the federal government since the Progressive Era as a move toward ‘the totalitarian state’ that was destroying regional folkways” (p. 33).
Note the differences between MacLean’s claim and Magness’s formulation of it. MacLean is hedging by saying Davidson seemed most decisive; Magness omits the qualifier. In so doing, he raises the bar for the evidence required to prove the claim by making the claim stronger than she did. Moreover, it is not clear that Davidson was the “most decisive” writer because Buchanan was the most enamored of him or because he was the “Agrarians’ ringleader.”
It is important to remember who the “Jim Buchanan” MacLean is referring to here: it is not the Nobel prize winner who wrote “20 volumes” of papers, it was the 18-year old Jim Buchanan, straight out of high school and looking to college. Buchanan was a brilliant young man from Tennessee; it is reasonable that he would have read Tennessee’s most celebrated authors and they would have an influence on his emerging intellectual system, if not his mature one.
My reasonable supposition is that the Agrarian’s vision had some kind of influence on Buchanan. But a reasonable supposition does not evidence make. So lets turn to the evidence for why MacLean might think a young man might be influenced by famous writers from his home state. Why does it seem to MacLean that Davidson influenced Buchanan?
Not only does Magness misread the strength of MacLean’s claim (by omitting the qualifier) but he also misses the context in which she is offering the claim. He argues that “MacLean has a very specific reason for making this claim, and she returns to it at multiple points in her book”, the reason for doing so being to link Buchanan to massive resistance to the Brown decision in Virginia politics. This is simply wrong because this is not the context in which MacLean is linking the Agrarians to Buchanan.
Despite Magness’s claim that MacLean’s entire mission is to paint Buchanan as a racist, she explicitly denies this is the case. MacLean is quite explicit that racism alone cannot explain the white south’s reaction to Brown:
It is true that many observers at the time, and scholars since, have reduced the conflict to one of racial attitudes alone, disposing too easily of the political-economic fears and philosophical commitments that stiffened many whites’ will to fight. So a ‘both/and’ construction would be reasonable. (p. 69)
Following her logic, it is not necessarily Davidson’s undisputed commitment to white supremacy that might have attracted the young Buchanan but something else about his writing. When leading us into the discussion of the Agrarians, MacLean explains, “Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan–one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.” (p. 33, my emphasis). What aspects of this cultural project could she be talking about?
Magness is off to a bad start in trying to discover what aspects of Davidson might have attracted Buchanan. He claims, “MacLean’s purpose here is to identify Davidson as the font for one of Buchanan’s most frequently enlisted concepts from his academic work—the all-powerful Leviathan state”—but notes that Buchanan cites Hobbes, not Davidson, in his work. Hobbes was the originator of the term “Leviathan” for the state, and Magness notes that even MacLean “begrudgingly concedes” that is the case. (Not to go too far afield, but Magness is engaging a bit of poisoning the well here: the idea that MacLean “begrudgingly concedes” this point rather than merely straightforwardly tracing of the term’s origin.) This misses MacLean’s main point, which was that Buchanan found Davidson’s regional conception of the Leviathan attractive, not the concept itself. Davidson pointed, not to a theoretical concept of “Leviathan,” but to the specific Leviathan found in Washington D.C. which was running roughshod over Davidson’s beloved southland. As we will see, this American context is important for MacLean’s argument.
In summary: Magness removes an important qualifier from MacLean’s claim to make it stronger than it she did and he misunderstands the important American context of Davidson’s concern about the northern Leviathan in the American context.
Justification: What Evidence Does MacLean Supply?
For Magness, the idea that Davidson influenced Buchanan is disproven by a search of Buchanan’s papers “does not yield a single hit for the name.” Thus, Magness concludes, MacLean must have “made it all up.” But why would Buchanan’s earliest influences necessarily turn up in his later work? I’m no scholar of Buchanan’s stature, obviously, but one of my earliest influences as an undergraduate was philosopher Stephen Toulmin, someone I don’t think I’ve ever quoted or possibly ever referred to in my published work. Magness obviously knows this too (about the young Buchanan, not about Toulmin and me) and thus he examines her references. He then concludes, “Her footnotes to the passages on the Agrarians don’t actually check out, and the Davidson link in particular appears to be a figment of her own imagination.” I’m not sure what Magness means by “check out” here. True, nothing MacLean cites is a quotation from Buchanan saying: “I read Davidson when I was trying to get into Vanderbilt and I’ve dedicated my whole career to enacting his vision because, like him, I believe in white supremacy! Gosh, I hope no one ever finds out!” In this regard, the point goes to Magness.
Still, lets “check out” those sources ourselves. First on our list is MacLean’s citation to Buchanan’s autobiography. Writes Magness,
The page appears below and consists of a single passing reference to the Southern Agrarians having been influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s famous concept of the yeoman farmer. [It contains] no references to Donald Davidson. No segregationist visions, or pining over the Confederacy. No claims about wanting to study with the Agrarians at Vanderbilt. No intellectual nods to them at all, aside from a brief factual statement that they espoused a well known Jeffersonian argument about the agricultural lifestyle.
If you follow the link provided by Magness, you don’t actually find a page, you find part of a paragraph. Putting that selection into the context of the larger essay reveals a lot. The essay is entitled “Country Aesthetic” in which Buchanan recounts the pleasure he has in retreating from the tumultuous events of the 1960s and taking refuge in the simple, country life afforded him by a home in the Virginia mountains. Unlike the poet Davidson, Buchanan wrote like an economist, even when he was attempting to relate his personal joy at country living, or how it revealed to him the dangers of modernity:
As I reckon the counters in my own game, I am led to generalize by calling into question the wisdom of policies that, either in some explicit furtherance of collectively chosen objectives or in acquiescence before evolutionary drift, have allowed participants in modern societies to become overly dependent on institutional structures that are dangerously vulnerable to disruption. Modern man and woman, singly or in a family unit, have little or no residual ability to survive the shocks to ordered routine that might emerge from so many different sources. (pp.124-5)
While the prose is not apt to stir the soul, the meaning is clear: Buchanan is waxing nostalgic for a simpler lifestyle, yes, that of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, particularly as portrayed by the southern Agrarians he cites. And the specific Agrarian who comes closest to this vision was Donald Davidson.
We know it was Davidson who came closest because of the work MacLean cited in her footnote 12, but there is little evidence in his review that Magness read that work since he dismisses it as a “fairly boilerplate list of secondary literature on 20th-century racism and its links to the Agrarians.” It seems a bit rude to dismiss entire books as “boilerplate” especially since one makes clear the similarities between Buchanan’s views of the “country aesthetic” and Davidson’s views of the south: the very thing Magness claims does not appear in MacLean’s book.
Magness is quite right that Buchanan, unlike Davidson, did not celebrate the Confederacy or segregationist visions. Nor does MacLean make that claim. What she does claim is that Davidson and Buchanan shared a cultural preference for the “country aesthetic” particularly as found in the American south. She claims that this manifested itself in a hostility toward the federal government and northern culture more generally. Thus, when Buchanan leaves the south for New York in 1941, he saw the city “through lenses wholly crafted Donald Davidson” (p. 34). I think “wholly” is an exaggeration here; the Tennessee boy probably had a lot of reasons to dislike the big city and how he was treated there. But there is a difference between exaggeration and imaginary.
The key work cited by MacLean is Paul V. Murphy’s book, The Rebuke of History: Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought. Murphy writes: “Over the course of the 1930s, Davidson articulated a variant of Agrarianism that he closely linked to the particularities of region and community” (pp. 92-3). “New York City came to represent all that he disliked about America and bore the brunt of his accumulated resentments as a regional literary figure.” writes Murphy of Davidson. “‘I felt I was in enemy territory,'” MacLean quotes Buchanan as saying about his time in New York, “‘I was subjected to overt discrimination based on favoritism for products of eastern establishment universities'” (p. 34). It is this parallel to which MacLean is pointing when she notes Buchanan’s “Davidson-like” language when he encountered discrimination against himself as a southerner in the Northeast. And, like Davidson, she points out that he was especially attuned to prejudice against southerners like himself without a similar empathy regarding discrimination toward “Catholics, Jews, Mexican Americans, working class white man, and, above all, African Americans” (p. 35).
Against the evils of the metropolis, Davidson championed the “yeoman agrarian [who, for example] ran a two-hundred-acre farm and rejected modern conveniences in favor of homemade crafts” (Murphy, p. 102). In “Country Aesthetic,” Buchanan too celebrated his life “without necessary dependence on an electricity distribution system. In my country setting I require neither water, fuel, nor power from external suppliers… (p. 123) before concluding, “my own experience over two decades has impressed upon me the valuational content in Jefferson’s ideal polity of yeoman farmers, latterly put forth by the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s” (p. 126). And while many of the Southern Agrarians championed those yeoman farmers, the one who most closely matched Buchanan’s vision seemed to be Donald Davidson.
It is Magness, not MacLean, who has misrepresented his subject. He offers a strawman argument about the relationship she claims between Davidson and Buchanan. He ignores the context in which Buchanan notes his debt to the southern Agrarians. He doesn’t seem to have read the sources she cites in support of her argument before dismissing them as useless boilerplate.
In conclusion, it is unimportant if Magness, or you,, dear reader, find MacLean’s argument (or my reconstruction of it here) persuasive. It is unimportant if you find it weak or tenuous. I don’t really care if you find it convincing. What is important is that it is a reasonable argument, even if it fails to win you over. Because Magness did not claim that MacLean made a suspect argument linking the two, he claimed “the Davidson link in particular appears to be a figment of her own imagination” and “simply made up an inflammatory association and tacked it onto Buchanan in an effort to paint him as a racist.” He did not claim her evidence was suspect he claimed “there is none;” that “she has no actual evidence” to support it. Unlike MacLean, who made a carefully qualified claim and then argued for it, Magness made extraordinarily strong claims about a fellow scholar’s research, methods, and ethical choices by claiming she fabricated the whole thing. He should either apologize for his review or offer some evidence that Maclean “made it up.” Because we know how picky he is about evidence.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.