Should-Read: One very good line here is that Nancy MacLean’s book is true about Murray Rothbard even though (largely) false about James Buchanan. But I have considerably more sympathy for MacLean than Friedman does: Just how is MacLean supposed to read “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun” anyway? The disjunction between the public statements and the private correspondence of, say, a James J. Kilpatrick makes her—makes one—confident that a bunch of Southern white herrenvolk discourse in the second half of the twentieth century was profoundly Aesopian: “liberty” in large part did mean “our power over Blacks”—and that was what the bulk of conservative Virginians from the 1950s to, well, very recently thought a good political system should preserve. It is hard to find American libertarians for whom liberty-as-power-over-minorities is not in the mix: everyone who draws a distinction between state action and state funding, or between state funding and public accommodation, does so: Jeffrey Friedman: Public Choice Theory and the Politics of Good and Evil: “So now we finally know. Libertarians aren’t the ditzy bumblers exemplified by 2016 presidential candidate Gary (“What is a leppo?”) Johnson…

…Nor are they ideological extremists, like the proprietor of the Ayn Rand School for Tots. In reality, the libertarian movement is a cabal of racist plutocrats engaged in “a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance” at the behest of their billionaire paymasters, the Koch brothers.

Or so Nancy MacLean, the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, tells us in her widely discussed book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. As a long-time critic of both libertarianism and the branch of economics, public-choice theory, on which MacLean focuses most of her attention, I was open to being persuaded by her dark musings. Yet, as a small army of aggrieved libertarian bloggers has pointed out, MacLean presents no evidence for her sensationalistic accusations. Instead what she presents are quotations taken out of context or so mangled by ellipses that they suggest the opposite of the quoted libertarians’ intentions (some examples can be found here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here). As a work of history, this book is a fiasco.

Nevertheless, it is worth reading. Libertarians can benefit from it if they put aside the author’s conspiracy theorizing and think about how their movement is perceived by those outside it. Non-libertarians can take the occasion to wonder if MacLean’s Manichean view of politics is not uncomfortably similar to their own. Theorists of democracy can think about how close public-choice theory is to one of the most common forms of political criticism in mass democracies: the very form of criticism MacLean directs at libertarians. In short, everyone can profit from the chance to reflect on why MacLean, who in previous work showed herself to be a fine historian, was able to call forth no interpretive charity in attempting to understand libertarians in general and, in particular, her bête noir, James Buchanan, the 1986 Nobel laureate in economics and founder of the public-choice school…