In 2005, the comedian Stephen Colbert (re?)introduced the word “truthiness” to the English speaking world. And what, pray tell, is that? How about “a truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something not because of supporting facts or evidence but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true.” It is an accurate description of the body of scholarship purporting to show that 20th century “neoliberal” economists enabled racists or were the venal mouthpieces of sinister bourgeois interests. It makes many claims that are very truthy, but few of its key claims are true.
Nancy MacLean’s 2017 book Democracy in Chains has become a quintessential example of this literature. The book’s primary villain – described in MacLean’s words as an “evil genius” – is 1986 Nobel laureate economist James M. Buchanan, who she places at the center of an elaborate academic conspiracy to “enchain democracy” at the behest of a plutocratic elite. Race naturally plays a central part in MacLean’s argument as she places Buchanan in league with the segregationist “Massive Resistance” movement of 1950s Virginia as part of an intellectual project to allegedly rehabilitate the pro-slavery constitutional theories of John C. Calhoun.
In a paper published in 2019, we subjected MacLean’s thesis to careful scrutiny, including retracing her steps through the archival materials she claimed to have used and adding other sources that she missed. The results were not pretty for MacLean’s thesis. We found that she had failed to substantiate her central allegation of Buchanan’s complicity with the segregationists, while also ignoring extensive evidence that worked against this claim. Her archival work produced a long list of misrepresented sources, misread documents, mistaken citations, faulty inferences, historical anachronisms, and outright factual errors. They nonetheless allowed her to construct a narrative about Buchanan that many on the political left accepted for its “truthiness.” Quite simply, MacLean had told a tale that seemed “true” to others who wanted to believe it. Her evidence did not support that story.
One of the main areas where MacLean’s segregationist narrative falters is the case of South African economist W.H. Hutt. In 1965, Buchanan recruited Hutt for a year-long visiting professorship at the University of Virginia. Shortly before he arrived, Hutt published The Economics of the Colour Bar – a withering economic broadside against the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. The book built on decades of Hutt’s anti-Apartheid work, which had previously induced the South African government to suspend his passport in an effort to silence him. After arriving at UVA, Hutt continued his attacks on Apartheid and gave a string of public lectures pointing out its similarities to the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow South. Clearly, something did not add up in MacLean’s book. If Buchanan’s project at UVA existed to give an academic cover to the segregationist “Massive Resistance” movement, as MacLean maintains, why would Buchanan personally invite an economist who was widely known as an outspoken critic of Apartheid?
One of us investigated this inconsistency further in a 2020 article for the journal Public Choice. Hutt, it turns out, was one of many visitors Buchanan brought to UVA in the 1950s and 1960s for the explicit purpose of speaking against segregation in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa. University of Chicago economist Frank Knight also visited, giving an anti-segregation lecture that Buchanan later edited and published as part of a book. Cambridge University development economist Peter Bauer also visited, lecturing against Apartheid. So did Gary Becker, the author of the groundbreaking The Economics of Discrimination. Buchanan even sponsored a graduate fellowship for Francis Wilson, a PhD student at Cambridge who came to Charlottesville to write a dissertation on the harms of Apartheid in the South African mining industry. MacLean’s attempts to link Buchanan to racial segregation, it appears, were not only without merit – they almost willfully ignored the extensive counter-evidence found in Buchanan’s direct sponsorship of anti-segregationist research by Hutt, Knight, Bauer, Becker, and Wilson.
Earlier this month, MacLean (along with two co-authors) published what she imagines to be a rebuttal to this evidence. Rather than amend her thesis to account for its errors of fact and interpretation, the Duke University historian has chosen to expand her foray into the world of truthiness. She now sets her sights on Hutt, lambasting him as a “white supremacist” and advancing an elaborate narrative that aims to discount the sincerity of his anti-Apartheid scholarship as well as its links to Buchanan.
In the interests of a correct historical record and a fair hearing for ideas that, we believe, are most conducive to liberty, prosperity, and equality than those endorsed by the radical left, we offer a paper-length corrective to the claims William Darity, M’balou Camara, and Nancy MacLean make in their recent Institute for New Economic Thinking working paper, “Setting the Record Straight About Libertarian South African Economist W.H. Hutt and James M. Buchanan.” What they call an “irrefutable” demonstration that Hutt was a “white supremacist” is, in reality, a collection of strained interpretations, mistaken citations, factual errors, and general unfamiliarity with Hutt’s work as an economist.
Our full response may be accessed at AIER’s working paper series, but here are some highlights:
First, Darity, MacLean, and Camara attempt to link Hutt to Virginia segregationists by a simple confusion of citations in Hutt’s work. Their mistake introduces an impossible anachronism into their timeline, dealing a serious blow to their thesis. Darity et al write:
P. 6: “And at a moment when students and faculty in Virginia and elsewhere in the country were demanding an end to the exclusion of African Americans, Hutt advised that owing to this principle of free association, the proscription of discrimination ‘does not mean that the courts must force…every white university to admit non-Whites.” Footnote 3 (to this sentence) reads “Indeed, in this piece written for young American conservatives, Hutt criticized the Warren Court twice (cagily, not by name). ‘Hutt, An economic plan for the Negro–Civil Rights and Young “Conservatives,”’” 793.
As we show, the quote in this passage is not found in the source they cite, nor is it even about Virginia. It is from Hutt’s 1965 Il Politico article “South Africa’s Salvation in Classic Liberalism,” which was written before Hutt arrived in Virginia and which is entirely about South Africa. Hutt “cagily” does not mention the Warren Court by name because the Warren Court has nothing to do with the article they are quoting, and unless we have overlooked it, nothing to do with the article they are citing. They simply transposed the article’s date with another and misinterpreted its contents as a political commentary about the United States.
The errors rack up from there. For example, MacLean and her co-authors repeat a thoroughly-debunked claim about Buchanan allegedly “advising” Augusto Pinochet’s government in the creation of a new Chilean constitution. As Andrew Farrant has shown, the archival evidence simply does not support MacLean’s claims – in fact, she attributes clauses in the Chilean constitution to a 1980 academic lecture in Chile by Buchanan, even though they were already written long before Buchanan’s speech. Curiously, MacLean has yet to respond to this evidence, undermining one of her book’s main charges.
Another of MacLean et al’s errors unfolds in almost comedic fashion. In their new paper, they claim that we “invented” the association between James M. Buchanan and Hutt’s work on Apartheid and its connection to his residency at UVA. We didn’t. The documents we deal with tell a different story.
- They specifically allege that Buchanan maintained a career-long silence on the importance of Hutt’s The Economics of the Colour Bar. To support this claim they invoke and cite a 1983 interview about Hutt that Buchanan did with the Manhattan Institute. Apparently MacLean and her colleagues did not research very deeply into this interview. A full transcript of it exists in Hutt’s papers at the Hoover Institution. When given the chance to comment on Hutt’s work, Buchanan specifically recommends his anti-Apartheid research and links it directly to Hutt’s term at UVA. It appears that MacLean and her co-authors only used a truncated version of the interview in print, despite citing it to the Hoover Institution records. They accordingly missed Buchanan’s extensive praise for Hutt’s anti-Apartheid work.
- Reading Economists and the Public and Plan for Reconstruction carefully would have shown Darity et al. that some elements of Hutt’s analysis they attribute to “white supremacy,” like the importance of honoring people’s established expectations, were applications of more general ideas Hutt had applied to the eventual British recovery from World War II. Buying off special interests might be noxious in the short run, but Hutt saw it as a tiny price to pay for higher long-run growth.
- Our original argument was that Buchanan’s invitation to Hutt, author of The Economics of the Colour Bar, at the height of the Civil Rights era seemed difficult to reconcile with MacLean’s claims about Buchanan’s alleged role in Massive Resistance. MacLean might have anticipated an objection like this, but by her own admission, she didn’t talk to anyone who really knew Buchanan well or who could have helped her understand Buchanan’s ideas because they were considered anathema because of their Koch associations. The past presidents of the Public Choice Society (Geoffrey Brennan, Michael Munger, and Georg Vanberg) and the eminent Hayek scholar (Bruce Caldwell) on MacLean’s own campus at Duke almost certainly would have been happy to help.
In yet another passage, MacLean and her co-authors attempt to link Hutt to Leon Dure, a moderate segregationist who was active in the Charlottesville area in the 1950s and 60s. They allege that Dure’s ideology imprinted itself upon how Hutt interpreted race relations and how he wrote about segregation in his subsequent works. Keep in mind that there’s no evidence that Hutt ever had any meaningful interactions with Dure while at UVA. Instead, MacLean et al purport to infer it by claiming to see similarities between the ways that Dure and Hutt italicized certain words in their respective writings.
We are honestly not sure if this is a serious claim or a subtle prank by scholars trying to see how much time they could get Hutt defenders like us to waste digging into a silly assertion. We decided to play along and discuss this to give readers an idea of the quality of the interpretive methods one can expect to see in this paper and others like it. We played a few rounds of “Hutt Italics Roulette” with a few of Hutt’s books and show that his italicization style predated his visit to Virginia by decades.
Elsewhere, we show that their charges of “white supremacy” against Hutt arise from plain misconstructions and misrepresentations of Hutt’s own words. In one telling passage, they write that Hutt blamed Africa’s “natural handicaps” on alleged “genetic” characteristics of black Africans. He did nothing of the kind. The “handicaps” in the passage they misquote refer to geography, the tropical disease environment of the continent before the advent of modern medicine, and political institutions – not genes. Elsewhere in documents MacLean and her co-authors cite (but evidently did not read with any care), Hutt explicitly states that he does not believe in race-based hereditary theories.
In our paper, we go on. And on. And on, for about four dozen pages with a long bibliography. With William Darity and M’Balou Camara, Nancy MacLean claims to have “set the record straight” with “irrefutable” evidence that Hutt was a white supremacist. They have in fact set nothing straight, and their argument, far from being “irrefutable,” wrecks itself upon the rocks of at least one major citation error, selective use of documents, and willful misreadings of Hutt’s words devoid of their original context.