Conspiracy and Condemnation
by Art Carden
Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean and her defenders are promulgating the idea that critics of her book (like me) are part of a sinister conspiracy to discredit her book. It might make a good plot for an X-Files episode (or The Simpsons), but we’re still firmly on this side of the looking glass.
Consider this less-conspiratorial and (in my experience, far more accurate alternative) to the “coordinated attack” hypothesis:
A lot of people who appreciate James M. Buchanan‘s work are part of the same social networks. We go to the same conferences and read the same journals. We’re friends on Facebook, and we follow one another on Twitter. In short, it’s exactly what you would expect from a community of scholars interested in similar topics and methods.
We also weather various “who is funding this?!” storms and assaults on our character when we try to hold a conference, start a center, host a speaker, etc. We see things like the faculty reaction to the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago in 2008 and this year’s faculty-wide denunciation of an honorable scholar (James Otteson) at Wake Forest. We read books like The Shock Doctrine and articles like Jane Mayer’s 2010 New Yorker piece that are…less than careful with the ideas we think are essential to a free and flourishing society and that boldly slander thinkers we respect. Suffice it to say we’re a bit wary.
Word gets out that there are a few books in the pipeline, Democracy in Chains being one of them, that carry the “right wing conspiracy” torch. On learning the premise of Democracy in Chains, a lot of people get interested. I, for one, offer to review the book for Regulation, a publication of the Cato Institute, for which I have written several reviews.
I–and I assume, a lot of other people–think nothing further of it. Someone in our network starts reading it and puts up a couple of Facebook posts about some of the book’s egregious errors. We bat some of these claims back and forth on social media. It becomes clear that there is something seriously wrong with the book. Instead of waiting for Viking to send me a review copy, I swallow hard and drop $15 or so for the Kindle version so I can go ahead and get the review off my desk. By this point, there’s a decent amount of social media chatter about the book, and people are posting and sharing some of the biggest problems they find. More people decide they need to take a look.
People learn that Michael Munger is working on a review and decide not to go beyond social media with what they’re learning by reading MacLean because we wanted to see what Professor Munger has to say first. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Mike is known and loved in our circles, and he is the epitome of the careful and fair scholar we should all strive to be. Second, Mike is a colleague of MacLean’s at Duke, and some of us (me, anyway) wanted to see how he was going to handle this. Third, I suspect a decent number of people were waiting for Mike’s review so they could see whether the book was really as bad as they thought.
Professor Munger circulated his review, and it was consonant with what a lot of other people in our network had found. The floodgates opened and the discussion went from Facebook to the blogosphere. As I mentioned in an article for Forbes.com, “Munger’s essay is remarkable in that it is utterly devastating to MacLean’s thesis without being an exhaustive inventory of her mistakes”–mistakes which have been compiled by Jonathan Adler, David Bernstein, and Ilya Somin at the Washington Post‘s Volokh Conspiracy blog, Steven Horwitz at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Phil W. Magness at his own blog and the History News Network, Russ Roberts on Medium, and myself at Forbes.com.
And then something interesting happened. Instead of responding to the criticisms and defending her findings as one might at a seminar or academic conference or upon receiving a critical referee report, MacLean issued an appeal to her ideological fellow travelers claiming that she was being “smeared” by Koch operatives. Suddenly, there were boatloads of five-star reviews of her book on Amazon.com that hundreds of people were finding helpful–and that a fakespot.com analysis showed to be largely unreliable.
And all the while, she and her defenders are not actually responding to her critics–critics who are exercised about this book because of the amount of publicity it has gotten, the serious problems of interpretation it presents, and the fact that it has the potential to do real, serious harm to the humane studies by slandering an entire body of scholarship as, somehow, a racist reaction to Brown v. Board of Education.
Instead of explaining why MacLean, who to her credit admits that she is not a specialist, is correct in her interpretations of Buchanan while experts on Buchanan’s work are wrong, she and her defenders are simply chanting “hocus pocus Charles Kochus” and hoping it suffices to discredit or refute her critics. One of her defenders pointed out that the book is “strongly footnoted.” Indeed, it is, and the Norwegian Blue is a remarkable bird with beautiful plumage. A dead parrot with beautiful plumage is still a dead parrot, and a fundamentally flawed book with a lot of footnotes is still a fundamentally flawed book.
It saddens me that basically any action will be interpreted as evidence for a conspiracy. Buchanan’s admirers and students come to his defense? Clearly proof of a coordinated conspiracy. What if Buchanan’s admirers and students had ignored Democracy and Chains and gone on with their lives? We would stand condemned as it would be clear from our stunned silence that MacLean had uncovered the conspiracy and set us reeling. It really is tragic. Buchanan was a serious thinker and an insightful, subtle scholar. His legacy deserves better than this. Indeed, the entire academy deserves better than this.
Art Carden is Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University’s Brock School of Business, and he is by his own admission as Koched up as they come: he has an award named for Charles G. Koch in his office, he does a lot of work for and is affiliated with an array of Koch-related organizations, and he has applied for and received money from the Charles Koch Foundation to host on-campus events.