The Scandal of the Liberal Mind

Some years ago the evangelical scholar Mark Noll wrote an influential book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It was a critique of the lack of intellectual seriousness and depth among his fellow evangelicals, and a clarion call to for evangelical thinkers to step up their game. Christianity Today named it the “Book of the Year” in 1994, and it provoked far-reaching and long-lasting discussion among evangelicals.

I wonder if it isn’t long past time for someone of broad gauge to write The Scandal of the Liberal Mind. To be sure, there are a couple of fragmentary efforts at something like this, such as Peter Beinart’s 2006 book The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. I have a hunch Beinart regrets the last part of that subtitle (heh), and in any case he implicitly repudiated much of this book in his next book, The Icarus Syndrome. (You can find my review of that book here.) Paul Berman and Michael Walzer deserve honorable mention for their public chiding of thoughtless liberalism in recent years.

Instead popular liberalism today seems to consist mostly of name-calling and conspiracy mongering (chiefly involving the Koch brothers). It’s become a cliché that liberals call you a racist because they’re about to lose an argument, but the swiftness with which liberals today deploy this debate-stopping label is a sign that they can’t even begin an argument any more.

The current example of this is Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. This book has rapidly become the largest academic publishing scandal since Michael Bellesiles’s fraudulent 2000 book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. That prize-winning book eventually had to be withdrawn from the market (and the prizes revoked) when Bellesiles’s massive fabrications were discovered.

MacLean’s book does not suffer from fabrications (though there appear to be a few) as much as an intellectual shoddiness so obvious that it is astounding that the book was published at all. I’ve been meaning to comment on this unfolding scandal for weeks now, but the story keeps developing so fast that it’s been hard to keep up. David Bernstein offers an apt summary of what it’s all about:

The theme of the book is that Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, a founder of public choice economics and a libertarian fellow-traveler, was the intellectual leader of a cabal ultimately supported by Charles Koch intent on replacing American democracy with an oligarchy based on constitutional protections for property rights.

Bernstein adds in a later note:

It’s really amazing how careless MacLean is with even tangential facts. For example, I just noticed that she wrote that the Federalist Society’s founding was inspired by Ed Meese, something I had never heard before. Checking her footnote, she cites to Meese’s famous speech on Originalism, delivered in July 1985. The Federalist Society was founded in 1982. You really wonder whether any fact presented in the book can be trusted at face value.

But of course it isn’t long before MacLean gets to the real heart of the matter: Buchanan is a racist—the fellow traveler if not the heir of southern agrarians.

Where to begin. Start perhaps with Buchanan’s Nobel Prize in economics, for his pioneering work in public choice theory, which is basically the economic analysis of politics. I’ve had fun over the years pointing out that since the Nobel Prize in economics was started in 1969, it has been dominated by conservative or free market economists. Think of other winners like Buchanan: Milton Friedman, Fredrich Hayek, Ronald Coase, Douglass North, George Stigler, Gary Becker, James Heckman, Vernon Smith, Robert Mundell, Robert Fogel, Eleanor Ostrom, Eugene Fama, Jean Tirole, Angus Deaton—well, you get the idea. A few liberals have won it—Paul Samuelson, Gunnar Myrdal, Paul Krugman (but for his early work on trade that most free marketeers like), but in general the overall roster does not offer much help for liberalism, unlike the egregious Nobel Peace Prize.

It must be awfully discouraging for the left to see such overwhelming intellectual dominance in such a key area. As we are seeing with the results of the minimum wage in Seattle, the facts of economics get in the way of liberal dreams. What to do? If you can’t beat their arguments, try to delegitimize them by calling them racists, oligarchs, tools of the Koch brothers, opponents of democracy, etc. You would think this playbook would get tiresome, except that the liberal echo chamber can always be relied upon to boost these tendentious efforts and give them the patina of credibility.

Now, the shame of this is that there are some good arguments to be picked with Buchanan and public choice theory. I’ve dissented from Buchanan myself on some points. I think public choice theory is right about 90 percent of the time, but that the other 10 percent—like the small portion of goods that generate the most profit in most retail establishments—is where the real action is in political life. Public choice theory does a poor job, for example, in explaining radical Islam, though I know some public choice devotees think they are up to it.

This defect was never more evident than in one of the greatest intellectual clashes I ever saw in person in 1988, when Buchanan, fresh off his new Nobel fame, was paired in a panel with Allan Bloom, fresh of his new fame and riches from The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom gave his own very artful critique of Buchanan and public choice theory (sometimes called, as Bloom did then, “rational choice” theory), and I thought Bloom ran circles around Buchanan, so badly in fact that Buchanan was nearly helpless to respond. My favorite line from Bloom in that debate was: “It seems to me that the willingness to die for something always mucks up rational choice theory.” Boom!

MacLean doesn’t take up any of the serious critiques that might be made of public choice theory. Instead we get a cartoon villain portrayal that is so laughably bad that it ought to end her academic career, but naturally won’t. But even some liberals have noted the shoddiness of it, such as Henry Farrell (who once attacked me on the Monkey Cage blog) and Stephen Teles at Vox:

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 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. . .

In language better suited to a Dan Brown novel than a serious nonfiction book, she describes Buchanan as an “evil genius,” and suggests he had a “diabolical” plan to permanently “shackle” democracy, so that the will of the majority would no longer influence government in core areas of the economy. In MacLean’s account, Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the contractual and constitutional bases of decision-making but is nearly unknown to the public, prepared the plan that the Koch brothers and other conservative funders and activists have been carrying out ever since. . .

Why have so many left-wing readers embraced such a transparently flawed book? The most persuasive explanation is that MacLean confirms and extends their deep preexisting suspicions.

Many people, like the ever gentle Russ Roberts, have pointed out that MacLean constructs her arguments by quoting her targets incompletely and out of context, often twisting their meaning into the exact opposite of what they clearly mean to say.

Another egregious example of MacLean’s ignorance was spotted by Donald Boudreaux:

An unintentionally comical example of MacLean’s ignorance of the basic facts of her subject matter appears in an interview that she gave at Alternet.  There, she asserted that by naming his and Alex Tabarrok’s blog “Marginal Revolution,” my colleague Tyler Cowen was “gesturing” to a devious right-wing scheme to slowly undermine democracy.  In fact, the term “marginal revolution” refers to one of the most celebrated episodes in the history of economics – namely, economists’ discovery in the 1870s that the economic value of a good or service is determined not by the amount of labor used to produce that good or service but, instead, by the usefulness to human beings of an additional unit – a “marginal” unit – of that good or service.  If the amount of a good or service that’s available changes, its economic value changes.  This discovery of the importance of “marginal” changes reinforced economists’ more general understanding that thriving societies seldom change radically, in giant leaps, but instead gradually, as small change upon small change accumulate over time.

MacLean’s suggestion that an economist’s use of the term “marginal revolution” refers to a nefarious modern American political plot is no less ridiculous than had she suggested that a physicist’s use of the term “Newtonian revolution” refers to a plot to stuff all cookies with filling made of figs.

Now, there’s a lot more I can say about this really bad book, but interested readers should see Mike Munger’s forthcoming essay in The Independent Review, and consult also Georg Vanberg and especially Phil Magness, who is all over the case. The point is: it ought to be an intellectual scandal that a book so deeply defective should be celebrated, let alone published. The book really ought to be withdrawn.

But here’s the punch line: MacLean’s book was funded by the taxpayer, through a special National Endowment for the Humanities program that offered $50,000 grants for work on conservatism. Perhaps the NEH had in mind that they might award these grants to actual conservatives, and indeed when I saw this grant program advertised in National Review a couple years ago, I considered applying for my recent book on Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns. But once I saw all the bureaucratic rigmarole involved, and asked myself, “Why do I need a federal grant to write a book? I already have a job. . .”, I decided against it. So the grants apparently went mediocre leftists instead, or at least did in this case. Another reason Trump should simply try to abolish the NEH and NEA. Not reform—abolish.

Exit quotes on the general theme, from Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

“Liberalism faltered when it turned out it could not cope with truth. . . The liberal project began to fail when it began to lie. That was the mid sixties…the rot set in and has continued since.”

As I say, what will it take for some liberals to call out this scandalous state of affairs?