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Dog biots Mon

Sam Dumitriu of the Adam Smith Institute has written a piece called “Fake news in the Guardian.

Oh dear, how embarrassing. The Guardian’s George Monbiot appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for Nancy Maclean’s poorly (dishonestly?) researched book Democracy in Chains.

Democracy in Chains smears Nobel Laureate James Buchanan (amongst others) with deliberate misquotes and pernicious accusations of racism. It asserts that Buchanan sat at the centre of an elaborate academic conspiracy to undermine democracy and replace it with ‘a totalitarian capitalism’.

Yeah, I know, the presence of fake news in the Guardian is not news. It’s a “Dog bites man” story if ever there was one. But Mr Dumitriu’s article is still well worth a read. With terrier-like tenacity (I had to justify the “dog” bit of my title somehow) he worries away at the arguments made in George Monbiot’s article and by extension at the arguments in Nancy MacLean’s book. Dumitriu backs up his claim that MacLean misrepresents Buchanan with copious supporting links to Buchanan’s actual words, demonstrating that he has actually read the books concerned. Monbiot usually prides himself on providing references to enable the reader to check his sources but appears to have taken MacLean on trust.

This paragraph shows how little she deserves that trust:

This wasn’t Maclean’s only ‘mistake’. David Henderson at EconLib highlighted a particularly egregious misquote.

Maclean writes

‘People who failed to foresee and save money for their future needs’, Buchanan wrote in 2005, ‘are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to . . . animals who are dependent.’

Contrast that with what Buchanan actually wrote

The classical liberal is necessarily vulnerable to the charge that he lacks compassion in behavior toward fellow human beings – a quality that may describe the conservative position, along with others that involve paternalism on any grounds. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” can be articulated and defended as a meaningful normative stance. The comparable term “compassionate classical liberalism” would approach oxymoronic classification. There is no halfway house here; other persons are to be treated as natural equals, deserving of equal respect and individually responsible for their actions, or they are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to that accorded animals who are dependent.

Maclean doesn’t just get this quotation wrong—she edits it so that it says exactly the opposite of what Buchanan actually wrote.

This isn’t an aberration. It’s not a sloppy mistake in an otherwise well-researched book. This is Maclean’s modus operandi.

Added later: Gene in the comments has pointed out this detailed and damning analysis of MacLean’s book by Professor Michael C. Munger. It begins,

This essay is a response to the recent book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by my Duke University colleague, Nancy MacLean, a professor in our distinguished Department of History.

It is, let me say at the outset, a remarkable book.

He makes very clear that he does not mean “remarkable” in a good way. It is indeed remarkable that the Professor of Political Science, Economics and Public Policy at Duke University is willing to say the following about a colleague he might meet on campus:

The misuse of the cut-and-paste feature of MacLean’s word processor is not accidental, and it is not intended ironically. MacLean knew perfectly well that the main points of Public Choice are that checks and balances are actually crucial, and that “social consensus in favor of the Constitution” is good, not bad, for Public Choice scholars. Thus, it is not “fair to say” that Cowen was writing a handbook for fifth-column subversion. But the truth is rather boring, and that just wasn’t the story she wanted to tell here. As you read the book, you may notice that when something like “fair to say” is used for a paraphrase, that paraphrase is destructive of the meaning the person being quoted actually intended.

23 comments to Dog biots Mon

  • Paul Marks

    The obviously deliberate twisting in the book “Democracy in Chains” shows, yet again, a point that needs to be understood – whilst ordinary leftists may simply be mistaken (and may have the best of intentions), the leading leftists are evil. Yes evil – they deliberately set out to deceive and for the purpose of taking power (absolute and unlimited power).

  • Gene

    There’s another detailed and careful take-down of this book by political scientist Michael Munger that is a very good read (and doubles as a pretty good primer on the thinking of Buchanan):


  • This is the comment I left on the Guardian when someone praised that Monbiot article…

    And I just love Monbiot, he is like a dependable compass that always points south (met him once, we did not really get on). So now he thinks less state appropriation of other people’s money is ‘totalitarian’ eh? I feel a famous quote from the fictitious Inigo Montoya coming on as I don’t think George knows what ‘totalitarian’ actually means (all those concentration camps and secret policemen that feature in totalitarian systems don’t build themselves or pay their own way, they need appropriated money, suggesting George is bandying about the term ‘Public Choice Theory’ without really understanding it).

  • Pat

    One problem that constantly bedevils us is that few understand the difference between liberal democracy, and social democracy.
    In a liberal democracy effort is made to accommodate all views. Of course this is not always possible, sometimes the choice is binary, such as does Britain make and administer its own laws or does Brussels do that for Britain. We cannot be 52% independent and 48% subservient.
    But we can have, say, 52% of pubs smoke free and 48% smoking.
    In a social democracy the majority get their way, so smoking is either banned everywhere or permitted everywhere.
    Social democrats view every choice as binary. They also think that everyone else does too, hence they tend to view liberal democrats as not democrats at all.

  • PapayaSF

    If a graduate student had used that level of duplicity in a PhD thesis, I’d like to think they’d have not only not gotten their degree, but been kicked out of the school. Shameful. This is a small step from Michael Bellesiles territory.

  • NickM

    I read it. If I still had a blog (I will do again soon) I’d have blogged this because…

    I cannot disagree with Monbiot at all. I really can’t. I can and have disagreed with many people in an honest way. I am an agnostic but whilst I disagree with say a Methodist that is a disagreement in the honest sense. Hell’s teeth some people are friends of mine and we can actually debate and enjoy the debate.

    Monbiot is not like that. I don’t disagree with Monbiot because I disagree with him as such. I disagree with him in exactly the same way… Well, it’s like there are various theories in cosmology. Yeah, that is a genuine argument and a healthy one but if anyone in the context argued on the basis that 2+2=300 then that ends the discussion.

    Basically there are things I disagree with and then there are things that are just wrong by any definition.

  • bobby b

    That title was inspired!

  • bobby b

    McClean did an interview with Slate a few weeks ago, discussing Buchanan and his links to the Koch brothers and opining on various subjects of which she seems . . . lacking in foundation. It’s an interesting read in light of the critiques of her book.

  • Laird

    A sort of cottage industry of Public Choice scholars and their supporters has arisen debunking (perhaps “fisking” would be a better word) Democracy in Chains. On his blog Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux, a well-known economist at George Mason University who worked with Buchanan for decades (and himself an expert on public-choice theory) has written extensively on this matter (such as this recent example, or this one), and has provided links to many other economists’ writings in the same vein. Numerous legal scholars (such as this one) writing on UCLA Law School Professor Eugene Volokh’s blog The Volokh Conspiracy have done likewise. MacLean has taken to charging that there is some sort of “conspiracy” out to get her (although when pressed she had to back away from that claim because there is absolutely no evidence of such). And this Duke University “scholar” couldn’t be bothered to walk across her campus and speak with any of the three current or former presidents of the Public Choice Society who currently teach in Duke’s political science department. What honest person would write a book about an intellectual tradition yet couldn’t be bothered to have such a conversation?

    As to her charge that Buchanan (and, presumably, his current supporters) can be dismissed as dupes of the Koch Brothers because of some minuscule amount of funding provided by various of their charities, it should be noted that Nancy MacLean teaches at Duke which has also been the recipient of fairly substantial amounts of Koch largesse over the years. So apparently she must be viewed as irredeemably tainted, too. (Sauce for the goose and all that.)

    MacLean is clearly no scholar; she is a fabulist and a fraud, pushing a political agenda.

  • Lee Moore

    There’s been a tremendous amount of misguided indignation on the right about this book, all based on the fundamental misconception that it is intended as a work of scholarship. It’s intended to generate money, fame and praise for the author by giving the people what they want – the people in question being the sort of people who read, and believe, the Guardian.

    This is like criticising Cristiano Ronaldo for inaccuracy off the tee. Different game, different rules.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Lee Moore @ July 20, 2017 at 11:14 pm:

    There’s been a tremendous amount of misguided indignation on the right about this book, all based on the fundamental misconception that it is intended as a work of scholarship.

    It is being treated as work of scholarship by reviewers at major magazines and journals, and applauded for its research.

    Maclean is not a mere popularizer or opinionist. She is a full professor at Duke with an endowed chair.

  • Lee Moore

    It is being treated as work of scholarship by reviewers at major magazines and journals, and applauded for its research.

    My apologies. I didn’t intend to imply for a moment that there wouldn’t be a wholly tribe of camp followers eager to play along.

    Maclean is not a mere popularizer or opinionist. She is a full professor at Duke with an endowed chair.

    I’m sorry ? That comes across as “He’s not a soldier. He just commands an artillery regiment.”

  • Cal Ford

    Story about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education as well (more sympathetic to Maclean than it should be):

    >If a graduate student had used that level of duplicity in a PhD thesis, I’d like to think they’d have not only not gotten their degree, but been kicked out of the school.

    In practise, if that person was left-wing, writing for left-wing supervisors, and left-wing examiners, it wouldn’t matter one bit, not even if it was noticed.

  • Fraser Orr

    “totalitarian capitalism”

    This illustrates one of the reasons I do not like the word capitalism. To me it completely misses the point. The system it describes isn’t really about capital per se, it is about the right and the benefit of unfettered, unhindered and unencumbered dealings between private individuals. “Free market” is a much better description. And to say “totalitarian free markets” is obviously a contradiction in terms.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie: Great title! :>)

    . . .

    There is a fascinating discussion of textual analysis (that is, of “careful reading” or “close reading”) as applied to Mr. Henderson’s column.

    Well worth reading.

  • RRS

    In furtherance of Laird (et allia):

    It is possible this writer (MacLean) is being given too much attention.

    She was given a grant of (at least) $50,000 to support this “work” by the National Endowment for the Humanities (a U S governmental “bureau”).
    Here is her application for that grant:

    “Through an accidental discovery followed by extensive archival and other original research, I have unearthed ties between states’ rights activists and leading free-market economists that emerged in the late 1950s and traced their subsequent history of alliance building with sometimes surprising partners over the ensuing half century. Where existing works on neoliberalism begin in the 1970s with crises of profitability and public finance, my work excavates the pre-history of early and ongoing anti-democratic **motives** and goals.”

    [** supplied]

    Parsing that:

    Her “work” EXCAVATES ongoing anti democratic motives and goals.

    As commented at libertylawsite:

    Pre-commitment to confirmation bias can lead to something more like digging in one’s own outhouse.
    There is little doubt what will be found.

  • RRS

    One of the disadvantages of bumping up onto 93 is hearing or reading of purported “history” that one personally experienced.

    For a taste of that in this instance:


    Scroll down the comment to a match for RRS.

  • Eric

    I distrust anyone who supplies quotes laden with ellipses.

    The real question is why she thought this kind of stuff wasn’t going to come back to haunt her. Did she think the book would be read only by credulous lefties?

  • Alisa

    The real question is why she thought this kind of stuff wasn’t going to come back to haunt her. Did she think the book would be read only by credulous lefties?

    Because truth is of no importance, what is important is scoring points with the right people.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Professor Munger’s essay is very worth reading and even re-reading for someone like me, with little knowledge of public choice theory. (I did read Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, and thanks to Brian M. for prodding me with a blog post about it.)

    It is appalling that someone like Nancy Maclean is a professor at an elite US university. As for the issue of whether she is evil, as Paul Marks implies, i’ll risk sounding relativistic and say: it depends on what “evil” means.

    My theory is that Maclean started with the pre-conceived notion that there is a conspiracy to replace “democracy” with “capitalism”, and twisted the facts to support her pre-conceived notion. We all do that, to some extent: the difference is in the lengths we are willing to go, to cling on to our pre-conceived notions.

    Most people on this site are within the normal range (and it is good that there is a range: it is good that not everybody change their mind at once). If my theory is correct, Nancy Maclean is deep into pathological territory. Monbiot is not so bad: the Fukushima nuclear disaster did make him change his mind — in favor of nuclear energy! His reasoning was that, if a tsunami hitting an old-fashioned nuclear power plant did so little damage, then modern power plants located on stable ground should be safe.

  • Snorri Godhi

    One thing that nobody seems to have remarked, but i find hilarious, is that Nancy Maclean thinks it outrageous that Buchanan and his fellow travelers are a risk to “democracy” and the US Constitution.

    The plain fact is that the American ersatz “”left”” has taken The Road to Serfdom as an instruction manual rather than a warning for about a decade (at least), and only care about the Constitution when it serves their purposes.
    (And of course, you cannot be in favor of constitutionalism AND democracy, unconditionally, at the same time.)

  • Laird

    RRS, good to have you back. I saw your comment on the Arnold Kling blog this morning, and was wondering if you were going to put in an appearance here.

  • I have seen reference to this over and over, but what I’d really like to see is a fight where it would count- against her. If you are in her caste, ostracize her. In other words, police the caste. Fight back there. But the torrent of upset over this stupid girl comes after plenty of signalling to this same caste by many of the same people about how they aren’t ‘racist’ like the Trump supporters. I’ve seen various flavors of this from many libertarian outlets.

    The word racist ought to be generally banned from discourse. They are only using the word because their ideas are terrible, and frankly, I think the media is trying to incite violence. It doesn’t even work as a descriptor anymore, because actual racists are capable of coming up with good policy, and if any policy is racist- it is also bad for more basic reasons. Like we need extra adjectives to apply to murder, socialism, etc…

    So, if Munger is in the same university as she is, and the administration is not made aware of the fact that she is a big fat liar and not fit to be teaching anybody anything- he isn’t doing his job. I don’t care how good his internet posting is.

    If they don’t police their own caste, someone else eventually will, and it won’t be pretty. A few generations from now, we may see school children being led through the ruins of Harvard. They will stop at various locations to hear that Ozymandias poem and perhaps the story of Babel, and be warned about the hubris of these academics.