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From the Vault: My Correspondence with Robert Lekachman

Summary:
In cleaning out old files recently, I came across some correspondence with Robert Lekachman in January 1987. For those who don’t know, Lekachman was kind of a big deal in those days: a left-wing economist who often wrote op/eds in the New York Times. Lekachman was one of the early public intellectual economists, in the 1970s and 1980s, when there weren’t nearly as many of them as there are now. As you’ll see from the correspondence below, I want to be fair to those I criticize and the addition of three words by an editor at National Review changed the tone of my criticism of Lekachman to make me look unfair. So I wrote him and he replied. First, the context. I had written a short piece in National Review titled “Buchanan’s Prize.” It ran in the December 31, 1986

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In cleaning out old files recently, I came across some correspondence with Robert Lekachman in January 1987. For those who don’t know, Lekachman was kind of a big deal in those days: a left-wing economist who often wrote op/eds in the New York Times. Lekachman was one of the early public intellectual economists, in the 1970s and 1980s, when there weren’t nearly as many of them as there are now.

As you’ll see from the correspondence below, I want to be fair to those I criticize and the addition of three words by an editor at National Review changed the tone of my criticism of Lekachman to make me look unfair. So I wrote him and he replied.

First, the context. I had written a short piece in National Review titled “Buchanan’s Prize.” It ran in the December 31, 1986 issue. I commented on the unusually hostile reception to James Buchanan’s being awarded the prize, and defended the idea that his work was important enough that he deserved it.

Here’s a relevant segment:

Since then [1974, when Hayek won the Nobel], three (relatively) libertarian economists have won the Nobel: Milton Friedman in 1976, George Stigler in 1982, and now James Buchanan in 1986. Few economists questioned Friedman’s or Stigler’s qualifications. In Buchanan’s case, it has been different. Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, made fun of Buchanan in the Wall Street Journal. Hobart Rowen [I should have written “Rowan”] of the Washington Post likened Buchanan’s scholarly contributions to those of George Will, Richard Wirthlin, and William Safire. And the socialist economist Robert Lekachman, of City University of New York, wrote in the New York Times that Buchanan’s scholarly achievements are “modest.”

Then I went on to detail Buchanan’s contributions to public choice and to the economics profession’s thinking. In the interest of saving space (and my typing hands) I won’t quote from that section. I note in passing, though, that that section is quoted accurately in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains (on p. 188.)

Then my piece ended:

By undertaking a systematic analysis of political incentives, Buchanan and his colleagues are making a more fundamental critique of government intervention than the usual free-market economist’s critique. As the moral philosophers tell us, ought implies can: To say that government should do X is to say that it can do X. By casting doubt on whether it can, Buchanan challenges the idea that it ought to try. Which may explain the particularly hostile treatment given Buchanan by Rowen [should be Rowan] and Lekachman, if anything can.

So on January 4, 1987, I wrote Lekachman. Somehow I had found his home address.

Dear Professor Lekachman:

I am writing in case you say [saw] my recent piece in National Review (Dec. 31) in which I defended James Buchanan’s Nobel. While the article actually printed otherwise reflected my views, three words added by the editors gave the article a different tone. Those three were the last words in the article “if anything can.” In context, those three words gave the implication that I thought there could be no other explanations for your views or even that you hold your views independent of logic or evidence. Since I don’t know you, I couldn’t say that.

Yours truly,

Etc.

Lekachman typed his own response on the same page as my letter and sent it back. He wrote:

I appreciate your letter. The three words added represent quite well the usual snottiness of Bill Buckley and his associates. We obviously differ on the merits of Buchanan’s work. But as your essay suggests, Stigler and Friedman were not attacked by me or others for the simple reason that we respected their work while opposing their politics. My problem with Buchanan is not his politics but his quality as an economist. I don’t know of a single liberal or radical who now or ever imputed disinterested benevolence to politicians. Buchanan attacks a straw man, moreover in terms which distort his opponents’ positions.

I didn’t agree with Lekachman’s evaluation, either of Buchanan or of “liberal or radical” economists. But I achieved what I wanted with the letter. I have no idea whether I wrote Rowan.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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