Farrell and Teles on Nancy MacLean
By David Henderson
A deep, historical study of public choice would be welcome, and Buchanan’s role in the development of the thought and organizational infrastructure of the right has generally been overlooked. Unfortunately, the book [by Nancy MacLean] is an example of precisely the kind of work on the right that we do not need, and the intellectuals of the left who have praised it are doing their side no favors.
This is from Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, “Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them.” Vox, July 14, 2017.
Farrell is definitely a man of the left and this whole article is refreshing and well worth reading.
MacLean is undoubtedly correct that the ideas of Buchanan, an economist who taught at George Mason University, and his acolytes are important. Their writings reshaped the way we think about regulation, governments, and markets. For example, public choice economists have argued that many US Department of Agriculture rules for food are intended not to protect consumers, but to protect influential businesses from smaller competitors that have difficulty in complying with these standards. Public choice suggests that regulatory agencies are often “captured” by narrow interests, and that the best solution is often to minimize government bureaucrats’ ability to regulate.
By the way, at a forum at the San Francisco Fed in March 1981, two of the main speakers were Robert Hall and the late James Tobin. The discussion was of Reagan’s first budget, which had just been released. Tobin, also a man of the left, had criticized many of Reagan’s proposed cuts and said that Reagan should have proposed other cuts instead. In Q&A, I asked him what he wanted to cut. The main one he highlighted was farm subsidies.
One final excerpt:
Those on the left might be inclined to think that the libertarian and conservative critics of the book are lashing out, or overemphasizing a few errors, because MacLean has revealed the dark side of one of their heroes and the unsavory modern history of their movement. Or alternatively, as MacLean has publicly claimed is the case, one might see this criticism as a counter-campaign by “Koch operatives” aimed at discrediting her. Yet while we do not share Buchanan’s ideology — and we would love to read a trenchant critical account of the origins of public choice — we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.
FYI, here is an earlier blog post in which Farrell and I had a reasonably civil disagreement.