September 17, 2018

A Response to Nancy MacLean



I have honestly tried as hard as possible to maintain my equilibrium and good nature when engaging with Professor Nancy MacLean around the subject of her book, Democracy in Chains. And I sincerely attempted to have my say last year in a couple of pieces with Henry Farrell and leave it at that, but Professor MacLean insists on repeating outright falsehoods that could be avoided by a two minute Google search.

Prof. MacLean chose to slander me on Facebook, a medium that I have had the good sense to avoid. Here’s what she had to say:

Let’s start with the simply wrong and move on from there. First, Bill Niskanen was not president of Cato, but chairman of the board. That’s a pretty big difference. She can find the evidence right here on Wikipedia. If she had done any research on the Niskanen Center whatsoever, she would recognize that Bill Niskanen’s work has very little in common with the Center’s, beyond a willingness to call things as we see them. Second, when the book was published Brink Lindsey was no longer at VP at Cato, as he had moved to Niskanen. She would have found that here.

Third, the Niskanen Center does not describe itself as libertarian. For those who are interested, here’s Niskanen’s “About” page. It is certainly true that a lot of Niskanen’s staff came out of libertarian organizations, including Cato. And it’s right that Jerry Taylor’s original motivation for starting Niskanen had a lot to do with his rejection of climate science denial. But she might also find that Jerry was very involved on one side of the battle over control of Cato, with a certain bête noire of hers on the other side.

In any case it’s certainly not even remotely correct to say that that Niskanen “holds on to the libertarianism.” Has she even bothered to visit the Niskanen website before saying things like this? If she had, she’d have run into, for instance, Sam Hammond’s excellent work on the “free market welfare state,” which argues that in an era of market disruption the cause of social insurance is even more vital than ever.  If that was too long she could have read Jared Bernstein’s interview with Sam, craftily hidden at the Washington Post.   

Looking around elsewhere on the Niskanen site, Prof. MacLean might have read our Vice-President for Research Will Wilkinson’s attack on the Republican tax bill last year, which traces its flaws back to libertarian ideas. It was deep in the dark web…no, it was in the New York Times, which is easily available in Durham. She might also be interested in Will’s argument with a prominent George Mason University libertarian, Ilya Somin, on what he sees as libertarianism’s fundamental conflict with democracy. The piece, by the way, says that Professor MacLean is right on the question of libertarian hostility to democracy, but that, among other things, she is “overly fond of Infowars-style dot-connecting.”

If Professor MacLean was under the impression that Niskanen is just a libertarian mouthpiece, she could have also picked up my book with Niskanen VP for Policy Brink Lindsey, The Captured Economy. There are two copies in Duke’s library, for her reading pleasure. There she would have found us arguing for reversing Republicans’ cynical cuts in Congressional analytical capacity, which we argue simply empower lobbyists for concentrated interests. She might have also looked on the New York Times website, where she would have found Brink and I criticizing the Trump administration’s record on regulation as simply advancing upward redistribution and rent seeking. Neither of these are the standard argument around the halls of Reason or Cato.

Why does Professor MacLean make such basic errors and misstatements of motivation? The answer, I fear, is that she cannot imagine any criticism of her work that is not motivated by partisanship and financial conflict of interest. But the truth is that there are now significant scholars who are not on the right who read her book and had much the same reaction that Henry and I had. Those range from the sociologist Elizabeth Popp Berman at Albany (who describes the book as “hyperbolic, overly speculative, and sometimes uses sources in misleading ways”)  to the Stanford University historian Jennifer Burns (“Democracy in Chains is characterized by a fundamental lack of curiosity. The book is disconnected from not just economics or political theory, but from all the social sciences…it bears witness to an alarming parochialism.”) And that’s just as a taste.

It’s also worth noting that the co-author of my critical essays, Henry Farrell, is a full-throated Irish-born social democrat and ringleader of the wonderful but quite lefty blog Crooked Timber. And given that she quotes me extensively in her book, Prof. MacLean clearly thinks my scholarship is valuable and not just financially conflicted ideological claptrap.

Prof. MacLean cannot, despite all the evidence to the contrary, imagine this as anything but a political dispute, when it is at its core a scholarly disagreement. At the end of her post she says that this whole conflict is a waste of time because “people could be our (sic) registering voters and canvassing to stop the cause the two [myself and Geoff Kabaservice] are at pains to defend.” I will let Geoff account for his own partisan leanings.

But Prof.MacLean seems to have a very mistaken impression of where I’m coming from where electoral politics is concerned. That’s because she is now reading backwards from scholarly criticism to partisan motivations, and in doing so simply embarrassing herself. But where the general elections of 2018 are concerned, there is no daylight between myself and Prof. MacLean. Neither was there in the general election of 2016. Or 2012. Or 2008. Or…well, any general election since I first voted for president back in 1988.

My scholarly impression of Prof. MacLean’s work, however, has nothing to do with any of this. It’s just that, wearing my scholar’s hat, I came to the same impression as Professors Berman, Farrell and Burns—that Prof. MacLean had written a very poor piece of scholarship, regardless of my agreement with some of her positions. She can disagree with that, but she should do so as a scholar, responding to the specific criticisms that have been made of her book. My original pieces with Henry Farrell are here and here. I would hope that she would finally address them substantively, along with the other work cited above, and cease hurling slander at her critics as a way of avoiding responsibility for the scholarly merits of her work.