The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Some dubious claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains,’ continued

Wednesday, I discussed how Nancy MacLean at best wildly exaggerated the influence of John Calhoun’s thought on modern libertarianism (further elaboration from Phil Magness here) and how she asserted that a libertarian author who praised Brown v. Board of Education was actually praising southern resistance to Brown. Co-blogger Jonathan Adler enumerates other controversies about the book’s accuracy here.

Now, I’m going to discuss some other errors and distortions in “Democracy in Chains,” all relating to my own academic home, George Mason University. Here I have the advantage of first-hand knowledge in some instances.

Let’s start with Page 182, where MacLean identifies staunch conservative Edwin Meese, one-timer rector at George Mason, as “chief” among the “cadre” of the “libertarian cause.” On Page 198, in describing the makeup of George Mason University’s Board of Visitors, she asserts that it “now included such libertarian cadre members” as “Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation” and “Weekly Standard editor William Kristol.” She also identifies two conservative politicians with some libertarian sympathies, Dick Armey and James Miller, as Visitors who were part of this “libertarian cadre.” Her identification of Kristol as a libertarian made me laugh out loud, especially because there are few conservative writers less popular in libertarian intellectual circles than Kristol. But the notion that Meese, Feulner, et al., are “libertarian cadre members” is almost equally absurd.

It’s of course much easier to assert a successful radical libertarian takeover of a university if you misidentify mainstream Republican conservative Visitors as libertarian radicals in the Koch orbit, but it’s also historical fiction, written by an academic historian. How did these conservative Republicans get to be Visitors? Not because of the Koch-funded libertarian conspiracy, but because the Board of Visitors is appointed by the governor, and Republican governors chose to appoint staunch Republicans. Not surprisingly, future Democratic governors replaced these Republican appointees with Visitors with Democratic ties, ending the “libertarian” takeover. (It’s also worth noting that outside its economics department and law school, George Mason was and remains a typical strongly left-leaning university.)

I also chuckled at MacLean’s account of the Institute for Humane Studies’ move from Menlo Park, Calif., to George Mason (IHS is devoted to nurturing the careers of young libertarian academics), which she suggests was part of an attempt to make IHS a player in the political world. MacLean asks, “Was it the high energy he saw coming out of [economist James] Buchanan’s team [at George Mason] that led Charles Koch to move the institution closest to his heart…? Did his earlier decision to give up on the Libertarian Party as a hopeless cause make him more receptive to other routes forward? We don’t know.”

Well, actually, we do know. Or at least I know. IHS moved from California to Virginia against the strong preference of everyone involved because it had to. IHS awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships annually to promising students, and thanks to recent tax reform, all of this money would suddenly be taxable unless IHS was affiliated with a university. Not too many universities were interested in hosting a radical libertarian academic organization. George Mason was willing to. Now if I know that, why wasn’t MacLean able to find that out, instead of speculating?

Then there is MacLean’s false depiction of Henry Manne, who was appointed dean of George Mason’s law school in 1986. MacLean writes, “Manne rejected the idea of open searches for the best talent, in favor of hiring kindred thinkers, all white men who felt ‘unappreciated’ at other schools.”

Manne, who promised to put George Mason Law School on the map by making it a law and economics powerhouse, did quickly hire a group of scholars whom he knew from law and economics circles. That, however, doesn’t mean the law school eschewed open searches. I can think of several colleagues who were hired through the normal law school “meat market.” In fact, Manne hired me through that process.

The notion that he only hired white men, meanwhile, is patently false. It’s rather surprising that MacLean overlooks Bruce Kobayashi, a Japanese American, given that he is explicitly mentioned in the source cited by MacLean in her footnote. In 1987, Manne hired Joseph Broadus, an African American. By the time I joined the faculty in 1995, the Manne hires on our small faculty included two African Americans, two Asian Americans and two women. At least one other woman had joined the faculty but was hired away by the Bush administration. I can’t think of a good excuse for MacLean not checking into this before falsely claiming that Manne only hired white men.

MacLean continues, “‘At George Mason,’ he could soon advertise to right-wing donors, ‘the entire curriculum is permeated with a distinctive intellectual flavor, emphasized and developed by almost every professor.'” MacLean is not, in fact, quoting from donor material, but from a pamphlet Manne wrote in 1993 called “An Intellectual History of the George Mason University School of Law.” This pamphlet was distributed to all participants at George Mason Law and Economics Center events; I know because I received one at such an event in 1995. Moreover, rather than revealing a secret plot to make George Mason into a bastion of right-wing thought, the “distinctive intellectual flavor” Manne refers to is economic reasoning and the use of quantitative methods. Read in context, this is obvious (see for yourself), and MacLean is being dishonest or incompetent in suggesting otherwise.

Indeed, she immediately gives as an example of this “intellectual flavor” that “Manne’s law school would stake out a position on the side of corporations against ‘consumerism and environmentalism,’ two causes that had grown in popularity and influence since the 1970s. His faculty would advocate the superiority of ‘unregulated corporate capitalism’ and assert, as Manne himself argued in print, that companies needed liberation from ‘the distortions created by government intervention.'”

MacLean’s footnoted sources for claiming that the George Mason Law School would “stake out” particular political positions are as follows: John Saloma, “Ominous Politics: The New Conservative Labyrinth” (1984), and M. Bruce Johnsen, ed., “The Attack on Corporate America: The Corporate Issues Sourcebook” (1978). I have the latter source in front of me. In it, Manne argues that the weight of the academic literature favors unregulated corporate capitalism. It says nothing about imposing that view on any law school faculty, then or in the future. I will update this post when I get ahold of the Saloma book, but one thing should be obvious; given that Manne wasn’t offered the deanship at George Mason until well after the book was written, it won’t support the claim that Manne was asserting that he would have George Mason Law School stake out a position on anything. And indeed, the law school has never, ever, attempted to force or encourage its faculty to take a particular position on any given issue or set of issues, and that includes during Manne’s rather imperious reign as dean.

Almost all of the above is tangential to MacLean’s overall thesis about the influence of James Buchanan on American politics, but it seems to be part of troubling pattern.