A Missed Opportunity for Mutual Learning
“…it’s still a cautionary tale on wading into areas of others’ expertise, calling them all corrupt, and then failing to seek help from anyone familiar with what you’re writing about.”
Over the summer, Steven Horwitz referred to finding errors in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains as “the academic version of Pokemon GO!” After a couple of articles, a review for Regulation, and a long paper with Phil Magness and Vincent Geloso, I turned my attention to some looming deadlines.
Recently, in trying to do a bit of spring cleaning in my Dropbox, I read an old Wall Street Journal article MacLean cited in her discussion of the law and economics scholar Henry Manne. I decided to reopen the book because I wasn’t sure she had told the full story.
She hadn’t. Admittedly, this is a minor-ish point because Manne is only one of the minor villains in Democracy in Chains, but it’s still a cautionary tale on wading into areas of others’ expertise, calling them all corrupt, and then failing to seek help from anyone familiar with what you’re writing about.
I looked for where the WSJ article is cited and was directed to page 122:
“Lawsuits waged on behalf of property owners: it was that sense of possibility that had led Henry Manne to launch an annual Summer Economics Institute for Law Professors, in which some of Buchanan’s colleagues served as lecturers.”
Who were those colleagues? They were Armen Alchian (who a lot of economists, myself included, think should have won a Nobel Prize before he passed away) and Harold Demsetz (who might still win one, and should). Throughout Democracy in Chains MacLean doesn’t get Buchanan’s ideas straight and doesn’t seem to understand where the scholars she is discussing fit in the overall scheme of things. Mancur Olson is simply “one critic.” She writes of Gordon Tullock that “his publication record–apart from the book he had coauthored with Buchanan–was undistinguished” (page 99). This was untrue even in the 1960s, and in 1997 the American Economic Association thought highly enough of Tullock’s record to name him a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association. Her failure to acknowledge that Alchian and Demsetz were (by their own right) extremely accomplished scholars of the first rank is just one more piece of evidence that she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
Manne gets similar treatment. She writes of him and of his intellectual entrepreneurship (page 123): “Unable to secure a post in a top law school in his early years, he instead persuaded the aspiring presidents of a string of lesser schools to let him re-create their programs in his image.”
Perhaps; this might have been true in the 1950s and early 1960s, but over his career he held appointments at Saint Louis University, the University of Wisconsin, George Washington University, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, the University of Miami, Emory University, George Mason University, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University. He was, at one point, offered a faculty position at Yale University which he turned down because he had committed to starting the law and economics center at the University of Miami. When he passed away he was on the faculty of the Ave Maria Law School in Naples, Florida.
Manne was hardly a fringe academic or undistinguished scholar at the time he was running the law and economics institutes at which Alchian and Demsetz taught. In 1971, he was the Kenan Professor of Law in Rochester’s political science department–a department that was chaired by William Riker. Riker was a political scientist so influential that he is the namesake of the William H. Riker Book Award given by the American Political Science Association (incidentally, the 2016 winner of that award was David Skarbek, a George Mason University economics PhD currently holding a tenured appointment in the political science department at Brown). If there were a Nobel Prize in political science, he surely would have won it. Manne had moved to Rochester because he was going to start a new law school, but he was blocked by competitors that successfully lobbied against the new school’s accreditation.
Like Buchanan, Manne was an intellectual entrepreneur. His approach to building the law school has been described as being like Moneyball, the famous process by which Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics built a championship team on a shoestring budget by finding players with overlooked-but-valuable talents (like the ability to get on base rather than simply the ability to hit). Manne took a similar approach to building the law school at George Mason into a top-50 program.
Manne, like Buchanan and Tullock and so many others working in the public choice tradition, had a scholarly career that was well outside the mainstream. It paid off, however, as Manne (like Buchanan) had a lasting impact through influential, high-quality scholarship and academic entrepreneurship.
Peter J. Boettke has called the controversy about Democracy in Chains a missed opportunity for mutual learning (I paraphrase from memory). He’s exactly right, and when the dust settles I hope one lesson we all learn is that we should descend from our ivory silos and actually talk to one another. Had she taken the time to consult with people who actually know Buchanan’s work, Manne’s work, and the importance of “colleagues” like Alchian and Demsetz, she would have written a much more accurate–and much better–book.