Fake news in The Guardian

Oh dear, how embarrassing. The Guardian’s George Monbiot appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for Nancy Maclean’s poorly (dishonestly?) researched book Democracy in Chains.

Democracy in Chains smears Nobel Laureate James Buchanan (amongst others) with deliberate misquotes and pernicious accusations of racism. It asserts that Buchanan sat at the centre of an elaborate academic conspiracy to undermine democracy and replace it with ‘a totalitarian capitalism’.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Monbiot’s been taken in by a BS Vendor who happens to share his political biases – he frequently cites Naomi Klein’s sloppy Shock Doctrine which proposed a similar right-wing academic conspiracy with Milton Friedman at the centre (thoroughly debunked by Johan Norberg at Cato).

Unlike Maclean herself, it’s not clear if Monbiot actually understands what public choice theory (the field where Buchanan made his name) is.

He writes:

James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called public choice theory. He argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes were forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.

Not quite.

Public choice theory isn't a set of political conclusions, it's a method of study pioneered by centre-left academics Kenneth Arrow and Anthony Downs who applied the tools of economics (e.g. rational choice theory) to the problem of political science. Buchanan describes it as “politics without the romance”. Essentially, it is a theory that predicts politics will be closer to Yes Minister than The West Wing. Indeed, Anthony Jay created Yes Minister to popularise the ideas of public choice theory.

Supporters of free and open markets tend to be drawn to Buchanan’s work in particular as it helps to answer questions like:

· Why do industrial strategies always end up subsidising losers rather than backing winners?

· Why is one bureaucrat at the Department of Agriculture for every three farms in the USA?

· Why do NIMBYs have so much power?

There are legitimate criticisms of Buchanan’s approach to public choice theory. It isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a theory of everything. As Ben Southwood points out, voters don’t vote solely out of self interest, they vote for the policies that they think will be best for society as a whole.

But Nancy Maclean doesn’t make those criticisms. She resorts to sloppy misquotes to paint James Buchanan as a supporter of racial segregation. An accusation repeated by Monbiot here:

He explained how attempts to desegregate schooling in the American south could be frustrated by setting up a network of state-sponsored private schools.

An explosive claim, but untrue. David Bernstein in the Washington Post writes

Meanwhile, in Chapter 3, MacLean claims that contemporary libertarians “eschewing overt racial appeals, but not at all concerned with the impact on black citizens, framed the South’s fight as resistance to federal coercion in a noble quest to preserve states’ right and economic liberty. Nothing energized this backwater movement like Brown.” MacLean identifies only two such libertarians, Frank Chodorov and Robert LeFevre. I can’t check her citation to LeFevre, because it’s from private correspondence that I don’t have access to. But her citation to Chodorov fails to support her assertion.

The article she cites by Chodorov can be found here. In it, Chodorov praises Brown: “The ultimate validation of the Court decision, which undoubtedly ranks among the most important in American history, lies in the fact that it is in line with what is deepest and strongest and most generous in our historical tradition.” Chodorov goes on to point out that merely prohibiting segregated schools won’t lead to integration because of residential segregation, and concludes that hostility to integration may lead some southern states to open up publicly-funded education to competitive private schools, which would mean “what began as an attempt to evade an unavoidable change in an obsolete system of racial segregation might turn into an interesting educational experiment.

This wasn’t Maclean’s only ‘mistake’. David Henderson at EconLib highlighted a particularly egregious misquote.

Maclean writes

'People who failed to foresee and save money for their future needs', Buchanan wrote in 2005, ‘are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to . . . animals who are dependent.’

Contrast that with what Buchanan actually wrote

The classical liberal is necessarily vulnerable to the charge that he lacks compassion in behavior toward fellow human beings - a quality that may describe the conservative position, along with others that involve paternalism on any grounds. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" can be articulated and defended as a meaningful normative stance. The comparable term "compassionate classical liberalism" would approach oxymoronic classification. There is no halfway house here; other persons are to be treated as natural equals, deserving of equal respect and individually responsible for their actions, or they are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to that accorded animals who are dependent.

Maclean doesn’t just get this quotation wrong—she edits it so that it says exactly the opposite of what Buchanan actually wrote.

This isn’t an aberration. It’s not a sloppy mistake in an otherwise well-researched book. This is Maclean’s modus operandi.

Russ Roberts highlights a passage from Maclean smearing the economist Tyler Cowen.

The weakening of the checks and balances” in the American system, Cowen suggested, would increase the chance of a very good outcome.” Alas, given the pervasive reverence for the US Constitution, a direct bid to manipulate the system could prove ‘disastrous’.

Maclean describes Cowen as “creating…a handbook for how to conduct a fifth-column assault on democracy.” A claim that will seem absurd to anyone familar with Cowen's work.

Compare that to Cowen’s original passage

While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it would also increase the chance of a very bad outcome. Furthermore, the widely perceived legitimacy of the US Constitution suggests that such a change would involve disastrous transition costs.

As Roberts writes

MacLean left out the word “While” that begins Cowen’s sentence. Then she left off the key qualifier that completes the sentence — the point that the downside risk of weakening checks and balances is substantial. There is nothing here suggesting Cowen is in favor of weakening democracy or the Constitution. By quoting only a piece of Cowen’s sentence, MacLean reverses his meaning.

It would be easy to list a dozen more errors but Michael Munger, Christopher Fleming, Phil Magness and Greg Wiener have already done it for me.

Regrettably, The Guardian’s George Monbiot has been taken in by Maclean’s selective quoting and sloppy research.

I am sure it was not Monbiot’s intention to mislead his readership and I expect he will retract his article, clarify his mistake and apologise to the scholars who have been a victim of Maclean’s academic malpractice.

Clarification: Viktor Matheson points out that I misread PJ O'Rourke's reference to the US Department of Agriculture. There's one bureaucrat for every three farms not the other way round. Still too high, but not quite as extreme. I apologise if anyone was misinformed by this.