Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is Under Bombardment

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is Under Bombardment July 20, 2017


Nancy MacLean’s new book on James Buchanan, public choice economics, and the “radical right” isn’t faring well. On the surface, it’s an awkward project, given that Buchanan wasn’t all that influential of a libertarian – not compared with Ayn Rand, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. You’d have a bit more luck casting one of those titans as the “evil genius” behind a clandestine libertarian operation to overthrow American democracy. I suspect a part of the trouble with that idea is that none of those popular figures were Southern-born white men. Accusations of racism and bigotry don’t stick quite as well to European immigrants and New York City natives.

I found out about Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America in this review from Jacobin. It’s a favorable summary, but it’s hard to take a work of history seriously when it tries to cast American libertarianism and free-market economics as having roots in slavery and Jim Crow. My first impression was that MacLean doesn’t really understand the movement she’s writing about or the ideas her political opponents support, and the guilt-by-association tactic she employs with respect to John C. Calhoun ought to be beneath a Duke University history professor. So I’m not surprised by the avalanche of critical reviews.

Here are a number:

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