Fardels Bear

Arguing With Libertarians

George the Pug

I’m spending the next few days dogsitting George the Pug (pictured above). Claire Potter has written a nice and insightful review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains over at Public Seminar. I spent the evening playing fetch with the tireless George and responding to criticisms of Potter’s piece by Professors David E. Bernstein and Phil Magness. I wrote some rather lengthy comments, patted myself on the back for a job well done, and George and I turned in for the night.  This morning I woke up and found the the Disqus commenting system had marked those two lengthy comments as “spam” and didn’t post them. Maybe I should have left out the part about how you can make thousands of dollars from your home?

At any rate, I’m going to post them here just to get them out in public. I recommend you go read Potter’s review and the comments if you feel like you’ve been dropped in halfway  through the movie.

Calhoun and Buchanan

God help us all, they brought up Calhoun again.  Phil wrote, “MacLean presented Davidson & Calhoun as intellectual influences upon Buchanan, both as direct assertions and innuendo (“seemed” etc)” and “Oh, and yes. MacLean is absolutely does claim that public choice’s lineage traces back directly to Calhoun.”

At one point I say I’m not going to engage in this argument about Calhoun since I already addressed it. Ha, ha!  Just kidding. The continuous strawmanning of MacLean’s position by the libertarians is just so annoying I can’t help but rise to the bait.  I’ve been trying to drive a stake through the heart of this Calhoun thing. One more time as it rises from the grave….

Magness’s and Bernstein’s argument about Calhoun rests on her use of the word “lodestar” in the introduction. What could she have meant by that word? It could mean that Buchanan was completely guided by Calhoun directly and always checked to make sure his own writings were in line with The Master’s Works. That is one thing it could mean, but not the only thing. Another thing it could mean is an argument like Corey Robin’s in The Reactionary Mind. He argues something like Calhoun wrote X. X was taken up by subsequent thinker A who influenced B who influenced C who influenced someone like Buchanan. If that were the case, then Calhoun would be the lodestar and Buchanan wouldn’t even realize it himself, having only read those who were themselves influenced by Calhoun.

Or, it could mean something else entirely. “Lodestar” could mean something like what Jürgen Kocka meant by a comparative approach:

The comparative approach presupposes that the units of comparison can be separated from each other. It is neither the continuity between two phenomena nor the mutual influences between them that constitute them as cases for comparison. Rather they are seen as independent cases that are brought together analytically by asking for similarities and differences between them. In other words, the comparison breaks continuities, cuts entanglements, and interrupts the flow of narration. But the reconstruction of continuities, the emphasis on interdependence as well as narrative forms of presentation, are classical elements of history as a discipline.” (Kocka, Jürgen. 2003. “Comparison and Beyond.” History and Theory 42 (1): 39–44. at 41)

What could MacLean have meant by bringing Calhoun together with Buchanan? Could she have meant a comparison as Kocka describes it? That is, after all, what Aranson and Tarrabok & Cowen do in the articles she’s citing, so its possible! Let’s try to answer that question by looking at where she discusses Calhoun in the rest of the text and see what kind of thing she might mean.

She argues that the thought of Buchanan and others in the 20th century “mirrors” (p. 1) that Calhoun. Koch-funded libertarians (not necessarily Buchanan) had an “appreciation” (p. 2) for Calhoun (pointing to Rothbard here). She pointed out a parallel between Buchanan & Tullock’s “minority-veto power” of the constitution and Calhoun’s similar idea, and argues that Madison would have rejected B&T’s ideas as he did Calhoun’s (p. 81). She claims that the libertarian’s “cause…cause traces back to John C. Calhoun” (p. 224). And, in her conclusion she writes, “Now, as then, the leaders seek Calhoun-style liberty for the few–the liberty to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness to the many.” (p. 234).

That is the entirety of her connections between Calhoun & 20th century libertarian thought. She seems to be doing exactly what Kocka calls the “comparative approach” which is hardly outside the boundaries of historical methodologies, since as Kocka says such comparisons are “classical elements of history as a discipline.” That must be what she meant by “lodestar.”

jPhil, show me where MacLean makes the claim you attribute to her, which is apparently something like: “Buchanan admired Calhoun and based his public choice theory on Calhoun’s theories.” If you think she wrote something like that, tell me where in the text it is. You seem to falsely attribute to MacLean what Kocka calls, an “entangled-history point of view” when I think the comparative approach is the one supported by the text.

In the end you might be able to say that “lodestar” was a poorly chosen word for MacLean. What you absolutely cannot say is that her argument is out-of-bounds for historical scholarship and that she “made up” the comparison between Calhoun and 20th century libertarian thought. And finally, even if they are right about this, it means little: if it wasn’t Calhoun’s thought that made Buchanan a segregationist, it was something else.

Phil tells me:  “you’ve failed the most basic standards of citing your sources – literally the type of thing that gets you a failing grade on a term paper for a freshman year American History 101 survey course.”  I know I’m a smart-ass, and I know I can be flip. I try to keep it within the bounds of good humor and I don’t always succeed. So, I apologize if I’m out of line with this. But I’ve written/edited six books, five of which are on racial ideology in the US. My two most recent articles are historiographical about when evidence can and cannot support a historical claim, particularly about race. I like to think that I have some skill at this kind of thing. So, could we please back off on the “you don’t understand historical methodology” kind of remarks?  They do not advance our argument.

But, I doubt they will back off from those kind of remarks, and I doubt they will stop making false claims about MacLean and Calhoun. They are succeeding in getting us to talk (at length in my case!) about this rather trivial matter so we won’t talk about the important stuff like the fact that Buchanan was a segregationist.

Buchanan was a Segregationist

Phil writes:

She claims to know Buchanan’s innermost thoughts about black schools in 1950s Virginia. Where’s her evidence? And no, an innuendo-laden misreading of an obscure and highly abstract academic article on the economics of school vouchers doesn’t even come close to substantiating the spin she’s giving here.

Phil gives no evidence of having read the “highly abstract academic article on the economics of school vouchers” and shows no evidence of having read the newspaper articles based on them from 1959, so I don’t know the basis he has for claiming the report prepared for the legislature was a “highly abstract academic article.”   I invite Phil to track down those articles before making pronouncements about how “highly abstract” they are. Here’s the citations from MacLean’s footnote:

I’ve read the newspaper articles and my analysis is here.  They contain exactly nothing about racial justice or concern for African American rights under the Constitution.

Phil’s repeated pleas of  “Where’s her evidence?” is frustrating given that he studiously ignores the evidence MacLean presents.  That, combined with the strawmanning about “Buchanan’s innermost thoughts” is getting very tiresome. Buchanan’s “innermost thoughts” are completely and utterly irrelevant to MacLean’s case. The documents are public. The evidence is public. Phil pretending it isn’t there does not change that.

My argument is that Buchanan actions were consistent with segregationist wishes. Phil find this, for some reason, an outrageous claim. Apparently, we are supposed to believe that Buchanan, being so brilliant or so outside his time or so transcendently above the politics of his university and state did not do so. Phil’s ONLY piece of contrary evidence is W.W. Hutt’s visit to Virginia in 1965 .

In the meantime, here’s what MacLean has to support her argument that Buchanan’s actions were consistent with segregation, and we await Phil’s avalanche of evidence to the contrary. (no page numbers to the quotations, I’m hanging with George the Pug and my hard copy of MacLean is back home so these quotations are from the e-book).
MacLean reporting Buchanan’s views of Little Rock:

Back in Virginia that September, James Buchanan, fresh from the recent Switzerland meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, privately called Eisenhower’s “dispatching of troops” to Little Rock a terrible mistake. “The whole mess” of school segregation versus desegregation, he argued, should have been “worked out gradually and in accordance with local sentiment.” He never acknowledged that this is exactly what the school board of Little Rock and those in three districts in Virginia that wanted to admit some black students to white schools had tried to do, only to be overruled by the power elites of their states.

MacLean on Buchanan’s utter disinterest in the welfare of Prince Edward County or Virginia’s black citizens more generally:

Throughout those five years, as James Buchanan developed the Virginia school of political economy, he remained mute about the well-publicized tragedy. He saw no reason to distinguish the liberty white county leaders claimed as self-justification for denying education to a community that had dared to challenge them in federal court from what he was seeking to advance with his new school of thought. Quite the contrary, he aggressively defended his adopted state. As the Prince Edward schools remained padlocked and Virginia used tax revenues to build up an infrastructure of segregated white private schools (in a formally color-blind voucher system that survived court challenge until 1968), while keeping black voters from the polls, another southern-born economist, Broadus Mitchell, reached out to Buchanan. Mitchell, who had resigned from Johns Hopkins University two decades before over its refusal to admit a black student, challenged the Thomas Jefferson Center to leave the realm of fine philosophical abstraction and hold a program on “democracy in education”—and, in the name of “social decency,” stand up for the integration of UVA. Buchanan answered curtly that “Virginia, as a state, has, in my opinion, largely resolved her own problems” in education. He then sent the new university president his own rebuke to the “annoying” letter, calling Mitchell “a long-time joiner of all ‘soft-headed,’ ‘liberal’ causes,” and lied that his critic had made “no notable contributions” as a scholar

I’ve floated the idea that Buchanan would have brought Hutt to Virginia to help with his anti-union efforts and put up with his anti-segregation speechs which didn’t amount to much in any case. Phil has given me a citation to a piece by Hutt that he says supports his position. I will have to wait for ILL to get me that article, and I thank him for the citation. In the meantime,  Here’s MacLean’s footnote linking Hutt to anti-union efforts:

Philip D. Bradley, ed., The Public Stake in Union Power (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959), quote on 168; Friedrich A. Hayek to James Buchanan, November 15, 1957, and March 8, 1958, box 72, Hayek Papers; H. W. Luhnow to Hayek, December 7, 1956, box 58, ibid. The Austrian summarized Hutt’s case as showing that when federal legislation and union power managed to “win for some groups of workers higher compensation than they would have collected on an unhampered market, they victimize other groups.” The right way to reduce unemployment and lift wages was “the progressive accumulation of capital”; Ludwig von Mises, preface to The Theory of Collective Bargaining, by W. H. Hutt (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954), 9–10; Lawrence Fertig to James M. Buchanan, August [1961], BHA. On Relm Foundation and Lilly Endowment subsidies, see H. W. Hutt to Henry Regnery, January 3, 1962, box 33, Regnery Papers; Regnery to Hutt, December 26, 1962, Regnery Papers; and Warren Nutter to James Buchanan, May 6, 1965, BHA.

In what might be his most serious misreading, Phil claims, ” MacLean does in fact claim that Buchanan and Nutter’s paper influenced policy. Where is her evidence?”  Just on the surface, this is a weak defense of Buchanan and Nutter’s call to privatize the schools in 1959: “Sure, they tried to influence policy, but no one listened!  So they are off the hook!”  But the problem is deeper, because MacLean claims the very opposite of what Phil  attributes to her. She claims that Nutter & Buchanan’s arguments failed with the legislature:

But when put to a political test, the team failed yet again. The resolution in question—to end the constitutional guarantee of free public schools throughout the state—went down in the House of Delegates by a vote of 53–45. The legislators’ reluctance to go that far is not surprising. Not many bought the argument that, as a state legislator from Appomattox, of all places, expressed it, “it’s not the education of our children that’s so important. It’s states’ rights.” That seemed too radical even for state legislators who had prided themselves on their defiance of the Supreme Court. Most understood that a fire sale of tax-funded public schools to private school operators would be political suicide. They wanted to stop integration, not be ejected from office.
The vote marked the definitive end of the state’s official policy of massive resistance to Brown. “The Byrd machine,” observed one reporter, “misread the feeling of the majority of Virginians.” The Organization never recovered its former power.”

Note, that Buchanan’s failure to influence the legislature in no way exonerates his attempt to do so. Note that the last sentence casts serious doubts on Phil’s idea that Hutt’s visit six years later amounted to much. But, most importantly: it is precisely because the Virginia legislature didn’t listen to Buchanan that he decided that democratically-elected representatives could not be trusted and thus set the path for the rest of his career (and the rest of MacLean’s book):

For his part, Jim Buchanan learned lessons from this experience that informed his thinking for the rest of his life. Faced with majority opinion as expressed in votes, politicians could not be counted on to stand by their stated commitments. Even those who previously had pledged fealty to state sovereignty, individual liberty, and free enterprise would buckle, owing to their self-interest in reelection.

In other words, if MacLean had actually made the argument that Phil attributes to her, she would have undermined the central premise of her own book!  And I’m the one supposedly failing History 101.

Make Your Case, Libertarians

All the libertarian attacks on MacLean’s book amount to trying to pick apart her book. None of them actually build a case for Buchanan’s activities.  I invite my libertarian sparring partners to present some evidence that contradicts her account.  For example:

When making your case, libertarians, please spare us the Freidmanesque “It would have worked if they hadn’t given up!” None of that counterfactual stuff. We want a good, positive, libertarian-approved history of massive resistance that places the libertarians on the side of racial justice. Good luck.


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