Is This Error Just Amusing?
Errare humanum est and I don’t want to cast the first stone lest I be lapidated immediately. But an error I just noticed is so amusing that it is difficult to keep it for myself. I was skimming through a book I thought I should read: Gerry Mackie’s Democracy Defended (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Mackie, a political scientist, defends democracy against social choice ideas according to which the political aggregation of individual preferences results in collective choices that are either irrational or dictatorial. See my review of a classic book by William Riker, who, with the help of social choice theory, deflated the pretensions of democracy to represent some sort of “will of the people” and who is one of Mackie’s favorite targets.
On page 443, I stumbled on a sentence that seemed consistent with a few others that caught my attention:
The new academic attack on democracy resuscitates discredited elite theory with the formally authoritative tools of social choice theory
I wondered if the author was cognizant of Nobel economics laureate James Buchanan (1919-2013), who was simultaneously a strong anti-elitist, a strong believer in constitutional democracy, a strong opponent of mobbish democracy, and a strong critic of social choice theory. My article “The Impossibility of Populism” (Independent Review 24-3) evokes some of Buchanan’s ideas. At any rate, James Buchanan is one of the most interesting and challenging economists and philosophers of our time.
I surveyed the bibliography in Democracy Defended and I saw no reference to any of Buchanan’s articles and books. I then looked up the index and did find an entry “Buchanan, James.” It points to eight pages of the book. The first page (p. 28) does mention the Nobel laureate but without any introduction:
Schumpeter, Arrow, Buchanan, and their followers subsumed democracy to the market model and likened the voter to the consumer.
This struck me as a rough shortcut at best; but remember that I haven’t read the book. Wanting to learn a bit more, I followed the remaining pointers to the seven other pages of the book: I discovered with amusement that these pointers to the same “Buchanan, James” are all about the homonymous James Buchanan (1791-1868), the 15th president of the United States! In other words, the index grossly confuses the two Buchanans.
One hypothesis is that the index of Mackie’s book was subcontracted to a third party, a common practice requiring of course that the indexer understands what the author is talking about. I am quite willing to hypothesize that Mackie simply made an error in hiring his indexer. Yet, the fact that Mackie seemed ignorant of the work of James Buchanan, and likely not very cognizant of public choice theory either (at least when he wrote this book), suggests that Democracy Defended is perhaps not essential reading after all.