Nancy MacLean's Distortion of James Buchanan's Statement
By David Henderson
My Econlib colleague Russ Roberts has pointed to a passage of Nancy MacLean’s recent book, Democracy in Chains: A Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, in which Professor MacLean left key words out of a quote from Tyler Cowen, thus seriously distorting his meaning.
A Facebook friend, Christopher Fleming, has pointed out that she has done the same thing with a quote from James Buchanan, the main player in her book. See if you can tell the difference between what he says and what she claims he says.
Here’s Buchanan, unedited, from “Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative”:
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. In a very early comment, Dennis Mueller noted that there was nothing in the Rawlsian principles of justice that would condemn a person for beating his dog. Nor should there have been. The Rawlsian discourse was strictly within the classical liberal framework, with natural equality among persons remaining a basic presupposition of the whole enterprise.
Now here’s how Professor MacLean states it:
Koch learned as a young adult, from his mentor Baldy Harper, that “the great social problem of our age is that of designing the preventive medicine that will stop the eroding of liberty in the body politic.” Harper warned that “once the disease has advanced, a bitter curative medicine is required to gain already-lost liberty.” James Buchanan revealed just how bitter the medicine would be. 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.”
In short, she has taken the two options Buchanan laid out, in a passage in which, from context it is clear that he favors the first option–treating people as “natural equals”–and has rejected the second option–treating people as “subordinate members of the species”–and, without even mentioning the first option, she asserts that he favors the second option. This is either incredibly sloppy or incredibly dishonest. How likely is it that it’s just sloppy?