Friday, July 21, 2017

Polemic or Scholarship: A Historian's Choice

Before I begin, let me confess to having attended several conferences hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), a group funded by the Koch brothers. I had a great time listening to lectures, I met scholars such as Michael Munger, Steve Horwitz, and Phil Magness, drank beer and had late night philosophical discussions with other graduate students from around the world. I strongly deny ever being present for any sessions outlining a plot to overthrow American democracy. In all seriousness, there was shockingly little discussion of practical policy or political strategy at all. Most of us were there because we had some kind of affection for libertarian philosophy and we engaged in a lot of talk (including disagreement) about theory. So much for there being some kind of plan, Koch hatched or otherwise.  

A basic feature scholarship is a need for a clear line to be drawn between the gathering of information and what implications might be drawn from it. This is most obvious in the realm of public policy. For example, if you were an analyst working for the Bush administration in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the question of whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, you could not be in any way connected to making the argument that the United States should invade. The moment it was established that you believed in the invasion, any evidence you produced in favor of there being weapons of mass destruction must be discounted. It should be assumed that you came into your research with the agenda of making a case for invasion and therefore, perhaps even unconsciously, you fell into the trap of confirmation bias. Instead of seriously considering the possibility that there might not be weapons of mass destruction, you assumed that there were, interpreted everything in that light and came to believe that the evidence for such weapons was overwhelming. Much can be made of the fact that the Bush administration did not take such intellectual precautions and was surprised when it turned out that the weapons did not exist.           

As historians, we may have our ideological preferences but our credibility as historians requires that we submit ourselves to a historical methodology designed to keep our biases in check. It is not that upon becoming historians we stop being biased, but the method is designed to produce something close to an unbiased result from the mass work of biased people. This is much the same way as Adam Smith's hidden hand produces social good from the mass labor of selfish individuals. As with other forms of scholarship, we need to distance the gathering of facts from their implications. First, we need to recognize that we are not going to achieve any great knockout blow for our cause. Second, if we do find a text that supports our cause, we must bend over backward to read it in a fashion favorable to the other side, forsaking any advantage for our own cause. Ultimately, ideological polemic and history are distinct fields and you can only engage in one of them at a time.  

This brings us to the recent uproar over Prof. Nancy MacLean. Over the past few weeks, a guilty pleasure of mine has been following the controversy over MacLean's book, Democracy in Chains. I have not read the book (I am waiting for it to go on sale on Audible) so I will refrain from making any judgments on the book itself and restrict myself to the discussion surrounding it. What strikes me as interesting is that MacLean is plainly trying to be both a polemicist and a historian. She is a self-conscious progressive, who rejects libertarianism intellectually on its merits and, at the same time, claims to have unearthed documents that are damaging to the credibility of a particular libertarian, the late economist James M. Buchanan. It is important here to recognize that I am not attacking either MacLean's progressivism nor her evidence against Buchanan. On the contrary, for the purposes of this post, I am willing to assume that both are correct. She may be right in terms of facts but her willingness to be both polemicist and historian destroys her credibility to be the latter. 

Let us give MacLean the benefit of the doubt. Let us imagine that she snuck into the late Prof. Buchanan's office and discovered the secret protocols of the Elders of Wichita along with Buchanan's KKK membership card. While we are at it, let us throw in a letter stating: 

Dear James Kilpatrick,

John C. Calhoun is my intellectual lodestar. The southern agrarian poets are the greatest. I find myself really inspired by Donald Davidson. I never realized that Hobbes' Leviathan could be the federal government. Brown vs. Board of Education is the worst. I hate n******. I want to keep them from voting so we can overthrow democracy and put Donald Trump (our own August Pinochet) into power. MAGA

Heil Hitler, 

James M. Buchanan

P. S. Did you get the suitcase full of cash from the Koch brothers?

Assuming all of this were true, MacLean, as a historian, would have two options. The first would be to publish this information in the most charitable way possible. Perhaps Buchanan had a strange sense of humor or was an informant for the FBI. It would make sense to walk across campus to present the evidence to Michael Munger or any of the other prominent public choice theorists at Duke to get their interpretation. Under no circumstance should she imply that this evidence challenges libertarians. If other people wish to try to use this information in a polemical fashion, that is their issue. This way, despite her progressive beliefs, her scholarship would be beyond reproach. 

There could be a second option if MacLean was a supporter of public choice theory. As an admirer of Buchanan's work, she could acknowledge that she discovered a dark side to him, mainly that he was a racist, who plotted to overthrow democracy. On a serious note, as a libertarian, I readily acknowledge the existence of a dark side to libertarianism. This ranges from the personal issues of Ayn Rand to the white nationalist outreach of the paleo-libertarians. While I do not think that Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul were racists, they were certainly willing to associate with actual racists as part of a strategy of allying themselves to anyone openly hostile to the federal government. This is a problem that libertarians need to face, particularly as it led to a failure on the part of many libertarians to actively oppose Trump. Very well, Buchanan might have been of a similar stripe or worse. I am not about to reject such a position a priori.   

Understand that I can say these things about libertarianism precisely because, as part of the libertarian family, I am not trying to score ideological points. I am criticizing myself as much as anyone. These same words coming from an outsider are going to come across very differently and perhaps should not be said. This is not different from how there may be very real problems in the black community but I, as a white person, should not be the person to talk about them no matter how right I might be. No matter how good my intentions, my words are going to sound wrong and prove counter-productive. Let me address the problems of my community (libertarian, Jewish or otherwise) and leave it to others to address the problems in theirs.

If MacLean wants to engage in polemics against libertarians in her free time, in addition to her scholarship, that is fine. One can do legitimate research and have an ideology at the same time as long as they are no obvious connections. A reader should be able to buy into your scholarship completely without there being any expectation that your work will affect what they do inside a voting booth. With MacLean, not only are there obvious ideological implications, she eagerly connects her book to the ideological clashes of today all while using her status as a historian to bolster the legitimacy of her own progressive views. For example, in defending herself, she doubles down on the idea that she is the victim of a Koch attack. If she was serious about defending the integrity of her scholarship, she should have avoided any mention of ideology. She could have just explained how her critics were factually incorrect and left it at that. Let other people try to fathom the larger implications of her work; she is just a humble scholar wanting to be left alone to do research with no expectation that it should be of interest to a wider world.   

There is a place for research into the history of libertarianism, even when it turns up problematic material, and there is a place for polemics against libertarianism. I welcome both but they need to be kept in distinct spheres and carried out by different people. The moment that line is crossed, the research is tainted and must be dismissed. It is quite possible that MacLean is correct and she has real dirt on Buchanan. If that is the case, let another scholar not contaminated by progressive activism go back through her sources and write another book confirming her thesis. In the meantime, I have no choice but to reject her as an illegitimate historian who fails to follow the historical method.  

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