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Don Boudreaux

Don Boudreaux

He is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Previously, he was president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Articles by Don Boudreaux

Nancy MacLean Seriously Misrepresents Jim Buchanan’s Tax Criterion

22 hours ago

As many knowledgeable readers of Nancy MacLean’s fabulist tale, Democracy in Chains, have pointed out, few are the pages of her book that don’t contain either a demonstrable error or a presentation by MacLean of one of her many hallucinations as if that hallucination were a fact.  Here’s a rather routine example from her book (page 149; footnote excluded; original emphasis):
But for [James] Buchanan, once again the issue was personal. “Why must the rich be made to suffer?” he asked pointedly. If “simple majority voting” allowed the government to impose higher taxes on a dissenting individual in the minority – “the citizen who finds that he must, on fear of punishment, pay taxes for public goods in excess of the amounts that he might voluntarily contribute” – what distinguished that

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Some More MacLean Links

24 hours ago

Here’s the second of Jon Cassidy’s devastating reviews of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.  Some slices:
MacLean has been caught distorting quote after quote to suit her purposes. (Jonathan Adler is keeping a tally.) She seems to think the methods of a deconstructionist can be applied to history, that she is free to slice and dice source text to mean whatever she wants. One of her most common tricks is to take a descriptive statement and pretend that it’s a normative one. For example, James Buchanan once explained that classical liberalism (libertarianism) and George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” were categorically incompatible due to the question of paternalism, i.e., one’s attitude toward his fellow man. Either “other persons are to be treated as natural equals… or they

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Quotation of the Day…

1 day ago

… is from page 62 of Randy Simmons’s 2011 Revised Edition of his and the late William Mitchell’s 1994 volume, Beyond Politics, which is an excellent primer on public-choice scholarship:
Despite their rhetoric, interest groups are not organized for the intention of improving the working of the economic order; they form for the sole purpose of increasing their members’ welfare and will do so knowing full well that it comes at a cost to others.  Interest groups do not, then, seek public goods for the nation but to obtain more private goods that could not be gained in the private economy.  Special interests and especially those representing producers seek to have income and wealth redistributed to themselves.
DBx: This insight is central to public-choice analysis, yet it pre-dates

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Jim Buchanan’s Own Favorite Quotations

2 days ago

On pages 127 through 146 of his 1992 autobiography, Better than Plowing, Jim Buchanan shares with us a number of quotations that, throughout his life, he wrote in a personal journal.  As Art Carden, Vincent Geloso, and Phil Magness point out, nowhere on this list are John C. Calhoun or Donald Davidson.  But among Buchanan’s quotations is this one from David Hume’s essay “On the Independency of Parliament”; I quote it here exactly as it is quoted on page 133 of Better than Plowing:
DAVID HUME: [It is] a just political maxim that every man must be supposed a knave: Though at the same time, it appears somewhat strange, that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact . . . men are generally more honest in their private than in their public capacity, and will go to greater

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Optimal Majoritarian Taxation

2 days ago

While writing my commentary on today’s “Quotation of the Day” I recalled Jim Buchanan’s and Yong Yoon’s excellent April 1995 Southern Economic Journal paper, “Rational Majoritarian Taxation of the Rich: With Increasing Returns and Capital Accumulation.”  In this paper – reprinted in Debt and Taxes (2000), which is volume 14 of the The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan – Buchanan and Yoon ask, on the assumption that majority coalitions are free to tax and spend as they wish [page 321 of Debt and Taxes]:
What rate of taxation should the political majority rationally impose on high-income recipients if this majority is motivated strictly in the interests of its members?
Buchanan and Yoon discover that, under a variety of different assumptions, a rational and materially self-interested

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Occam’s Razor Isn’t Meant to Slash Reality

2 days ago

In my latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I warn against simplistic thinking – simplistic thinking of the sort that runs throughout Nancy MacLean’s latest book.  A slice from my column:

Or consider Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s thesis in her new book, “Democracy in Chains.” MacLean argues that Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan (1919-2013) was secretly a racist enemy of the people and friend of rich oligarchs.
Her evidence? None, really — except that Buchanan eloquently and often argued that democracy works only if it is properly restrained by constitutional rules. Because Buchanan’s assessment of the workings of majoritarian democracy was less rosy than is MacLean’s, MacLean simplistically concludes that Buchanan sought to silence voters so that

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Quotation of the Day…

2 days ago

… is from page 443 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague James Buchanan’s Spring/Summer 1994 Cato Journal article, “Notes on the Liberal Constitution,” as this article is reprinted in Choice, Contract, and Constitutions (2001), which is volume 16 of The Collected works of James M. Buchanan (footnote deleted):
A central principle inherent in the classical liberal constitution dictated that, regardless of what governments do, and whether or not collective activities are contained within the indicated limits, all persons and groups are to be treated equally.  The generality principle, applicable to the law, was to be extended also to politics.  There was no role for governmental action that explicitly differentiated among separate factions or classes of persons.  In the classical liberal

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Nancy MacLean Seems to Be an Historian Who Doesn’t Know the History About What She Writes

2 days ago

Here are two more devastating essays revealing some of the countless errors in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.
The first is what will be at least two essays in The American Spectator by Jon Cassidy on MacLean’s fabulist tale.  The title of Cassidy’s essay is spot-on: “‘Democracy in Chains’ Is So Wrong It’s Funny“.  Here are some slices:
The book’s ostensible subject is the economist James Buchanan, Nobel laureate and filthy capitalist running dog. Also, it’s about some sort of secret plot/public movement by libertarians to bring back plantation ideology. “From the start,” MacLean writes early on, “the notion of unwarranted federal intervention has been inseparable from a desire to maintain white racial as well as class dominance.” Her proof: old John C. Calhoun resisted the

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

3 days ago

… is from pages 9-10 of the Introduction by Fred S. McChesney and William F. Shughart to their invaluable 1995 collection, The Causes and Consequence of Antitrust: The Public Choice Perspective:
Homo politicus and homo economicus are the same.  The critical implication of this assumption of universal self-interest is that the observed differences between public choices and private choices emerge not because individuals adopt different behavioral objectives in the two settings, but rather because the constraints on behavior are different.  Different outcomes emerge not because public choices are guided by motives different from those guiding private choices, but rather because in private markets self-interested voters and politicians make choices that mainly affect themselves, while in

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So Much for MacLean’s Accusation that James M. Buchanan was Southern Agrarian Racist

3 days ago

Art Carden, Vincent Geloso, and Phil Magness have just written a paper that explains in great detail why Nancy MacLean’s assertion that Jim Buchanan was a southern-agrarian racist is utterly without merit. One nice feature of this new paper by Carden, et al., is that, in addition to destroying MacLean’s dark fable of Buchanan-the-racist, it supplies additional evidence of Buchanan’s hostility to racism (or, indeed, to any ‘ism’ that classifies some groups of people as less-worthy than other groups of people).  Here are some slices:
The hypothesis that Buchanan’s intellectual system was influenced by the Agrarians does not fare well. Buchanan does not cite or discuss [Donald] Davidson. Nor, for that matter, does he cite or discuss any of the other contributors to [the 1930 Southern

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Where are Nancy MacLean’s Defenders?

3 days ago

In a comment in a Facebook thread on why no notable left-leaning professional historian has yet weighed in to criticize the countless criticizable parts of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, David Bernstein (a GMU colleague from over in the Scalia School of Law) observes that no prominent historian has, as yet, come to MacLean’s defense (at least none that David is aware of; I, too, am unaware of any such defense).
David’s observation is a good one.  Might the reason be that, while not wishing to criticize someone who criticizes the Kochs (however shabby and without evidence that criticism might be), any decent and self-respecting historian understands that he or she would imperil his or her own professional reputation by attempting to defend the intellectual merits of a book that

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Nancy MacLean Refuses to Publicly Debate Mike Munger

3 days ago

Gene Epstein, who runs the Soho Forum in New York City, offered to pay Nancy MacLean a generous fee to debate Mike Munger on the thesis of her book Democracy in Chains.  MacLean has refused.
Of course, it’s possible that MacLean has a long-standing policy of not doing debates.  (I myself do not like this form of wrestling with ideas.  I rarely accept such invitations.)  But because MacLean has yet, with one weak exception, to offer even in writing and in interviews any substantive defenses of her book, it’s fair to wonder if her refusal to debate Munger springs from her correct realization that she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about.  My guess is that MacLean is simply afraid to debate someone such as Munger – someone who actually knows the material that MacLean, despite her

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Some Links on Nancy MacLean and Public Choice

3 days ago

The great Leland Yeager, who was a long-time colleague of Jim Buchanan, Warren Nutter, and Gordon Tullock at the University of Virginia.  Here’s Leland’s short essay – “Buchanan the Wicked?” – in full:
Morbid curiosity tempts me to buy and read Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains, but I have resisted so far; for I don’t want to add to the unearned wealth that her book’s notoriety will probably bring her. I know enough from reviews, favorable and unfavorable, and from a published interview with the author herself, to understand that one main theme is the supposed wicked influence of James Buchanan.
I knew Buchanan very well from 1957, when, as Economics Department chairman, he brought me to the University of Virginia. There I was his academic colleague and friend. After he

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Quotation of the Day…

3 days ago

… is from pages 1-2 of Christopher Achen’s and Larry Bartels’s important 2016 Princeton University Press book, Democracy for Realists (footnote deleted):
In Abraham Lincoln’s stirring words from the Gettysburg Address, democratic government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” That way of thinking about democracy has passed into everyday wisdom, not just in the United States but in a great many other countries around the globe. It constitutes a kind of “folk theory” of democracy, a set of accessible, appealing ideas assuring people that they live under an ethically defensible form of government that has their interests at heart.
Unfortunately, while the folk theory of democracy has flourished as an ideal, its credibility has been severely undercut by a growing body

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

4 days ago

… is from chapter 12 of John Stuart Mill’s 1861 Considerations on Representative Government:
[T]he very principle of constitutional government requires it to be assumed, that political power will be abused to promote the particular purposes of the holder; not because it always is so, but because such is the natural tendency of things, to guard against which is the especial use of free institutions.  However wrong, therefore, or however foolish, we may think it in the electors to convert their representative into a delegate, that stretch of the electoral privilege being a natural and not improbable one, the same precautions ought to be taken as if it were certain.  We may hope that the electors will not act on this notion of the use of the suffrage; but a representative government

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Some Links

4 days ago

Tom Woods talks with David Hart about Frederic Bastiat.
Jeff Jacoby observes that Obamacare has already failed.
As he does so well, Jeff Miron reveals an ill unintended consequence – in this case, the promotion of violence – of the so-called “war on drugs.”
Shikha Dalmia is correct: today’s GOP hates immigrants more than it hates big government.
An American in Paris.
Marian Tupy decries the totalitarian instincts of many environmentalists.
From 1987: David Henderson on James M. Buchanan.
Here’s Steve Horwitz’s full-length review of Nancy Maclean’s fictional tract, Democracy in Chains.  A slice:
It is clear throughout the book that MacLean simply does not have the intellectual background and tools to understand the ideas she is dealing with. She is not familiar enough with the economic

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Yet Another Inconsistency from Nancy MacLean

4 days ago

On page 120 of her fictional tale, Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean – in the course of explaining my late colleague Jim Buchanan’s role in the 1970s in trying to secure funding for academic programs to promote Virginia Political Economy – gives her readers what she regards to be a helpful reminder about Buchanan:
Remember, to him, venal self-interest was at the core of human motivation; the trick was to establish new providers.
I’m amused by MacLean’s “to him.”  MacLean wants her readers not to forget that Buchanan believed that people are motivated overwhelmingly by narrow material self-interest – and that, with this belief, Buchanan was seriously out of touch with reality.
I’ll here overlook MacLean’s failure to understand the use by public-choice scholars (and by

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Quotation of the Day…

4 days ago

… is from pages 26-27 of Vol. 19 (Ideas, Persons, and Events [2001]) of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan; specifically, it’s from Jim’s 1992 autobiographical essay ”From the Inside Looking Out”:
I resist, and resist strongly, any and all efforts to pull me toward positions of advising on this or that policy or cause.  I sign no petitions, join no political organizations, advise no party, serve no lobbying effort.  Yet the public’s image of me, and especially as developed through the media after the Nobel Prize in 1986, is that of a right-wing libertarian zealot who is anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, and anti-scientific.  I am, of course, none of these and am, indeed, the opposites.  Properly understood, my position is both democratic and egalitarian, and I am as much a

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A Third Reason Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology

5 days ago

On page 290 of Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes that in 1998
[Tyler] Cowen had published a new book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, which elaborated on old shibboleths from Ludwig von Mises.
The good people at Harvard University Press, publisher of Tyler’s 1998 book, must be distraught to learn from MacLean that Tyler’s book merely “elaborated on old shibboleths” from a long-dead Austrian economist.
Fortunately, the Harvard University Press crowd can breathe easily, for MacLean’s description of Tyler’s book is wholly inaccurate.
Nowhere in his book does Tyler mention Mises.  Why not?  There’s no doubt that Tyler has closely studied Mises’s works.  And there’s no doubt that Mises wrote about the connection between commerce and art.  And yet Tyler doesn’t mention Mises.

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Yet More Careless Mischaracterization by Nancy MacLean

5 days ago

On page 290 of Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes the following:
[Tyler] Cowen’s first book, The Theory of Market Failure: A Critical Examination, was a collection of essays copublished by the Cato Institute and designed to refute the key argument for government intervention: that markets often fail. Offering tribute to public choice economics, it showcased nonscholars on the payrolls of three different Koch-funded nonprofits.
Wow!  Seems as though this book is filled with hack works by hack writers.  It must be a book devoted, in good part, to ‘showcasing’ nonscholars doing dirty work for evil oligarchs.
Let’s take a look at the “nonscholars” whose papers are collected in this book (listed below in order of appearance in the book) and where their papers originally appeared:

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Geoff Brennan, and Others, On James M. Buchanan

5 days ago

David Hart just reminded me that, soon after Jim Buchanan died in January of 2013, Liberty Fund’s on-line “Liberty Matters” series for March 2013 was devoted to the life’s work of Buchanan.  I’m surprised and chagrined that I did not link to this symposium when it first went on-line.
The lead essay in this symposium is written by Buchanan’s frequent co-author Geoff Brennan.  Other contributors to this on-line symposium are Pete Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Loren Lomasky, Ed Stringham, and Viktor Varberg.  The whole thing is worth reading.  (Nancy MacLean – who recently wrote what is alleged to be an “intellectual biography” of Buchanan – doesn’t cite this symposium in her book and, judging from her book’s contents, apparently did not read what these collaborators and students of Buchanan

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Yet Another Nancy MacLean Error

5 days ago

Among the most-recent of the late Jim Buchanan’s writings are his essays on what he called “parentalism”: the desire of many people to have others take some responsibility for their lives.  (Many of these essays are gathered in this 2005 collection.  I reviewed this collection here.)
True to form, Nancy MacLean recklessly uses quotations from these later writings of Buchanan in ways that give the appearance that Buchanan held views that he certainly did not hold.  James Taylor uncovers one such careless use by MacLean of a Buchanan quotation.
Nancy MacLean seems to possess extraordinarily poor reading comprehension.  She is either incapable of understanding what she reads, or she reads so spottily from the materials that she uses in her research that she misses the meaning of these

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Quotation of the Day…

5 days ago

… is from pages 34-35 of Christopher Snowdon’s excellent 2015 monograph, Selfishness, Greed and Capitalism: Debunking Myths about the Free Market (link added):
An ill-informed decision at the ballot box has practically no private cost to the individual.  Even in the extremely unlikely event of his vote being decisive, the costs of electing a fool or a knave will be dispersed over a large population.  In short, voters can afford to indulge their irrational impulses at virtually zero cost every few years.
This is very different from being irrational with one’s own money in the market.  A poor decision in the marketplace will cost us our hard-earned money.  A mistake at work might cost us our job.  It is because the private costs of making a bad choice are so much greater when our own

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

6 days ago

… is from page 916 of my late colleague Gordon Tullock’s ingenious July/August 1971 Journal of Political Economy article, “Public Decisions as Public Goods“:
Here, we encounter another very important public-good problem.  The individual citizen, in choosing what car he will purchase, is making a private decision, the full cost of which will fall upon himself.  Thus, he is motivated to put an optimal amount of energy into finding out what is the best car for him.  In addition, if he makes a mistake, no one pays for it but himself.  If, on the other hand, he is considering voting, then, as Kenneth Arrow (1969, p. 107) points out, “since the effect of any individual vote is so very small, it does not pay a voter to acquire information unless his stake in the initial issue is enormously

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Gordon Tullock on the Origins of Public Choice

6 days ago

In 1997 my late colleague Gordon Tullock (1922-2014) – widely and correctly recognized to be among the founders of public-choice scholarship – published an article entitled “Origins of Public Choice.”  It is reprinted in The Economics of Politics (2005), which is volume 4 of the Selected Works of Gordon Tullock.  Had Nancy MacLean read (or read carefully) this article, she would have  learned that many of her fanciful suppositions about the roots of public choice are mistaken.  Here’s Gordon’s opening sentence:
Public Choice started long ago with the Marquis de Condorcet, and in modern times Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, and Anthony Downs have written books which are to this day read as classics [p. 11]
Tullock’s claim here is one that is familiar to anyone who knows public-choice

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Some Links

6 days ago

Ilya Somin applauds Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken’s embrace of federalism.
The indispensable Institute for Justice weighs in again against the banana-republic practice of civil asset forfeiture.
Speaking of civil asset forfeiture, Justice Clarence Thomas is unlikely to be a fan of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s obscene expansion of this heinous abuse of power.
Here are the highlights of my recent “Ask Me Anything” sponsored by the Foundation for Economic Education.
My Mercatus Center colleague Dan Griswold explains that free trade means that the right stuff will be made in America.  A slice:
The issue is not whether we make stuff in America, but what kind of stuff. Do we make more of what Americans enjoy a special advantage in making? That’s what international trade allows us

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Quotation of the Day…

6 days ago

… is from page 49 of my late Nobel laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s 1979 article “Politics Without Romance,” as it is reprinted in volume 1 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty:
But most of the scholars who have been instrumental in developing public choice theory have themselves been trained initially as economists.  There has been, therefore, a tendency for these scholars to bring with them models of man that have been found useful within economic theory, models that have been used to develop empirically testable and empirically corroborated hypotheses.  These models embody the presumption that persons seek to maximize their own utilities, and that their own narrowly-defined economic well-being is an important component of

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Nancy MacLean Deeply, Profoundly Errs

7 days ago

Perhaps the passage in MacLean’s fictional tract that is richest in irony – and just as rich in error as any other randomly chosen passage – is this one on page 98 (which serves as a source of quotation for many reviewers, including Brian Doherty and Mike Munger) (footnote deleted):
They [public-choice scholars] depicted as “rent-seeking” any collective efforts by citizens or public servants to prompt government action that involved tax revenues. And, in their assumption that individuals always acted to advance their personal economic self-interest rather than collective goals or the common good, Buchanan’s school went further, projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing. Similarly, Virginia school economists deployed the existing term “special interests”

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Brian Doherty’s Devastating Review of “Democracy in Chains”

7 days ago

If any open-minded and rational human being keeping track of the brouhaha over Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains still believes in the remote possibility that this book is not a work of fiction (albeit one that use real names and places), he or she should read this brilliant review of the book by Brian Doherty.  Below are a few slices but, please, do read the whole thing; it reveals that Nancy MacLean’s scholarship is not worthy of your trust.  The woman simply, plainly, and emphatically doesn’t know what she’s writing and talking about.
The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education – the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and

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Quotation of the Day…

7 days ago

… is from page 274 of my late Nobel laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s January 1989 Business Economics article, “On the Structure of an Economy,” as this article is reprinted in James M. Buchanan, Federalism, Liberty, and Law (2001), which is volume 18 of the Collected Works of James M. Buchanan (original emphasis):
Even [Adam] Smith, however, is subject to criticism in his selection of the title of his treatise.  By calling attention to the wealth of nations, Smith may be interpreted as setting up a single-valued criterion by which the functioning of an economy might be measured.  As I have noted, a much-preferred title would have been “The Simple System of Natural Liberty,” because what Smith demonstrated was that there is no need for us to conceptualize a single overriding or even

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