Liberty and Power

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  • Of McLain and "Of Mess and Men"

    by David T. Beito

    The odds are fairly strong that while Nancy MacLean was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, she read "Of Mess and Men: The Boardinghouse and Congressional Voting, 1821-1842," co-authored by my mentor, Allan G. Bogue in his well-attended seminar on political history

     Bogue had a habit of assigning this article (a critique of historian James Sterling Young's methods) for his students . It was intended as a cautionary tale illustrating the dangers of academic misconduct.

    Bogue particularly called our attention to pages 225-26 (see below) which featured Young's edited quotation of the words of Rep. Josiah Quincy alongside the full original quotation. The upshot, as emphasized by Bogue, was that Young had misled his readers by twisting the actual meaning to fit his thesis. I doubt that anyone who sat through this seminar would have forgotten it.

    During other weeks of the seminar, Bogue reeled off similar examples of academic misconduct. These were more than classroom exercises. As a leader of the profession (he was a past president of the Organization of American Historians), Bogue often went out of his way to expose colleagues guilty of similar offenses, even when it risked the loss of long-time friends.

  • On Buchanan's Intellectual History and MacLean's Missing Leviathan

    by Phillip Magness

    Several defenders of Democracy in Chains have argued that the book's critics don't understand the methods and practices of "intellectual history." I argue here that the book fails as an intellectual history as well, because its author completely misses the central role that philosopher Thomas Hobbes played in Buchanan's body of scholarship.

  • Nancy MacLean's Segregationist Sins of Omission and Commission

    by Phillip Magness

    MacLean's narrative about UVA is badly flawed. In order to portray Buchanan as a collusive and acquiescing partner of Virginia's segregationist political machine, she omitted a critical piece of evidence that contradicts her narrative.

  • We Win Screenwriting Contest (T.R.M. Howard Historical Film)

    by David T. Beito

    Our screenplay (co-authored by Linda Royster Beito), "Keepin' It Mighty Hot," which focuses on T.R.M. Howard's role in the Emmett Till case, won first prize the 2017 Screenwriting Competition of the Alabama Writers Conclave.
    The Conclave is one of the oldest writers' organizations in the United States, and probably the leading one in the state. It supports aspiring writers and artists. The picture shows Howard in his office at the Friendship Medical Center in Chicago (about 1973).

  • How Nancy MacLean Went Whistlin’ Dixie

    by Phillip Magness

    In her new book about the origins of the radical right she claims that economist James M. Buchanan drew his inspiration from the segregationist poet Donald Davidson. But her story appears completely made up. 

  • Misrepresenting the Austrian "Revival"

    by Phillip Magness

    Wasserman’s claim chafes with the history of the 1970s program, even to the extent that many of the economists he places on the outside of the aforementioned revival – Fritz Machlup and Gottfried Haberler – were actually active participants in a much broader discussion than his narrative permits.

    The first modern Austrian conference occurred in June of 1974 at South Royalton, Vermont, and is ably recounted in an article by the late John Blundell. I conversed extensively with Blundell about this and other events of the Austrian resurgence before he passed away last summer, making an effort to document the economists of note who participated in these formative conferences and panels. What struck me at the time, and what Blundell repeatedly emphasized, was the broad range of prominent scholars who took an interest in what was happening in the Austrian camp at this point in history. Not all agreed with a doctrinaire reading of Hayek and Mises, but contrary to Wasserman’s claim, the “revived” Austrian school of the 1970s had multiple thoroughly ecumenical dimensions that linked it back to its historical early 20th century presence in Vienna and London.

    The “revived” Austrian school’s Vienna and LSE connections:

    The most glaring omission in Wasserman’s piece is undoubtedly Ludwig M. Lachmann, a German-born economist who studied the original Viennese Austrian school in the 1920s, subsequently taught with Hayek at the London School of Economics, and went on to a lengthy academic career at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. Along with American-trained Austrians Israel Kirzner and Murray Rothbard, Lachmann was one of the three primary lecturers at the 1974 conference. He lectured at 11 additional IHS conferences before his death in 1990, and spent his retirement on an annual winter visiting professorship at NYU from 1975 to 1987.

    Fritz Machlup and Ludwig M. Lachmann, Austrian Economics Conference (1978)

    The 1970s revival drew in multiple other veterans of the Austrian school’s Vienna and LSE days. The German-born Emil Kauder, an important interpreter of Carl Menger, participated in the 1975 Austrian conference in Hartford, Connecticut. Princeton’s Fritz Machlup, presented by Wasserman as having been largely excluded from the modern Austrian resurgence, was actually an active presence during the “revival” years. Though distinctively cautious in his own liberalism, he brought substantial credibility to the “new” wave of Austrian scholarly output, working in particular with the University of Virginia’s Leland Yeager and Lawrence Moss to establish what became a lasting Austrian presence at mainstream academic conferences. To this end Machlup chaired an important early session on Austrian thought at the 1974 Southern Economics Association meeting, which was also published in book form, presided over a lunch panel on Austrian thought at the 1975 American Economics Association conference (attended by Haberler as well as future Nobel winners James Buchanan and William Vickrey), and lectured at the 1978 IHS Austrian conference at NYU. Haberler similarly attended a number of Austrian-themed events that IHS sponsored in the early 1970s, as did multiple LSE era veterans of note who crossed paths with Hayek in the 1930s. Other recurring presences at these Austrian events from broadly aligned intellectual traditions included such notables as Buchanan, Harold Demsetz, and Gordon Tullock.

    The LSE group sometimes hailed from outside the Austrian camp, though its members actively conversed with the Austrian literature and shared the common link of studying under Hayek in the 1930s. Two of his students Abba Lerner and G.L.S. Shackle each attended an Austrian in 1974, and Shackle contributed a paper to an IHS-sponsored book of essays on new Austrian research themes. Hayek’s old LSE colleague Lionel Robbins similarly addressed an Austrian conference organized by the London-based Carl Menger Society in 1976, with Hayek present as a commentator and his old LSE student Arthur Seldon as an organizer. John Hicks, the famous Keynesian economist and fellow Nobel laureate, also presented at the 1978 NYU Austrian conference. He contributed a chapter to a book on new Austrian research themes that grew out of the event, praising the anti-inflationary insights of the Austrians and suggested the broader discipline needed room for Mises and Keynes alike. Lachmann – whose academic association with Hicks went back over four decades – provided the response.

    Now it is entirely fair to note that these names include a very diverse and eclectic group. Some such as Lachmann were central contributors to the Austrian resurgence, whereas others simply crossed paths with the historical Austrian tradition at Vienna and LSE. Yet these conferences, panels, books, articles, and edited volumes were all components of an effort to rejuvenate the Austrian scholarly tradition of old, and tap into its renewed academic interest after the South Royalton meeting and Hayek’s nobel. Plainly that interest extended well beyond the “small group of [libertarian] businessmen and radicals” of Wasserman’s simplistic and ideologically tinged portrayal.

    An American-Austrian Parallel:

    Of equally important note, Wasserman grossly misunderstands the historical transmission of Austrian thought to the United States. In his telling, this event flows from Hayek’s 1945 book The Road to Serfdom, and only gains traction after a subsequent generation of libertarian businessmen and other pejoratively-categorized “neoliberals” adopted it into a free market ideological canon. He makes no mention of the prior academic transmission of Carl Menger and Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk through their own German-trained American contemporaries at the turn of the 20th century. These so-called American-Austrians included Princeton’s Frank A. Fetter and Cornell’s Herbert Davenport, both of whom served terms as president of the American Economic Association. Fetter almost single-handedly introduced the Mengerian concept of subjective value to the American economic scene, and later laid the groundwork for a favorable reception of Mises’ work in the United States. Davenport largely framed the Austrian school’s reception in the United States with a series of important essays on its distinct contributions to economic thought. Of equal note, two of his graduate students played significant roles in subsequent American engagement with Austrian ideas. During his long tenure at Cornell, Davenport was the PhD adviser of Frank Knight of later “Chicago school” fame and, less known, F.A. “Baldy” Harper – the founder of IHS who laid the groundwork for the modern Austrian revival before his untimely death in 1973.

    Stunningly, Wasserman seems to be completely unaware that this parallel transmission of the original Austrian school to the United States even occurred. Rather, he views the modern Austrian school in strictly ideological terms that often approach caricature levels. This includes asserting a superficial free market idealism that its modern academic practitioners generally do not espouse, yet in doing so Wasserman also betrays that he does not actually understand the tenets of his subject matter. Modern Austrians are not skeptical of government economic interventions because they violate some sacred laissez-faire ideological precept, and they do not gravitate towards classical liberalism from a belief that markets can do no wrong. Rather it is the Austrian concept of subjective value that makes its practitioners deeply skeptical of the efficacy of economic planning. An Austrian predilection for classical liberalism is not the cause of this belief, but is rather its commonly derived consequence.

    Interestingly enough, Davenport’s student Harper explained as much when addressing this question in his own survey of the Austrian school, penned in 1966:

    “Though some contend that economics is completely and permanently separate from the concerns of political and philosophical matters, most of the persons of the Austrian School of economic thought have been of the classical liberal position. There have been variations, of course, in detail; and the classical liberal position has also been upheld by persons of widely different economic views. But in the main there has seemed to be a close relationship between the two.

    The reason for this is doubtless due to the fact that when one accepts the views of the Austrian School, as to subjective value and all this entails, he sees a deeper meaning in individual rights and the concerns of private property. He sees how one person cannot accept the responsibility of making another person’s decisions for him; he can only make decisions in his own right under abandonment by the other person of his rights.”

    Wasserman would do himself well to attempt a more charitable understanding of this position as well as the rich historical literature on the subject of the modern Austrian tradition before proceeding to more ambitious projects on this subject.

  • Cherry-Pikettying

    by Phillip Magness

    My previous posts on the data problems in Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century have focused almost entirely on errors contained within his data charts and files. But what happens when one tries to reconstruct those files?

    To find out, I conducted a simple experiment using Piketty’s Figure 10.5 – the widely cited depiction of wealth inequality in the United States over the past century. I previously deconstructed and critiqued this chart at length, concluding that it is essentially a Frankenstein graph – a clunky assemblage of cherry-picked data points from multiple divergent sources and arranged in an order that seems to confirm Piketty’s historical narrative about a dramatic upturn in inequality since the early 1980s. The purpose was to reconstruct Piketty’s chart using his own source data and techniques, only I would cherry-pick different “representative” numbers than Piketty did from within those sources as needed.

    The rules:

    1. I had to use the same data sources that Piketty used in constructing the original. These consist of the estate tax study by Kopczuk & Saez (2004) and SCF studies by Wolff (1994, 2010) and Kennickell (2009, 2011).

  • Piketty goes cherry-picking for US Wealth Inequality

    by Phillip Magness

    One of the main critiques I’ve made of Thomas Piketty’s data, starting on this blog last May and appearing in my newly released paper with Robert Murphy on the subject, concerns his Figure 10.5, purporting to show the trend of wealth inequality in the United States. As I pointed out at the time, this chart suffers from severe distortions starting in the 1970s that come about from Piketty’s unconventional decennial averaging techniques. The result is a downward distortion that gives the appearance of a clear bottom point in 1970, followed by a steady increase in inequality through the present day. Piketty attains this composite trend by essentially cherrypicking from different data sources until he produces the story he wants to depict, even as the trend he claims is far more ambiguous in the raw numbers.

    Though his citation practices are often opaque, I reconstructed and labeled the source match-up for Figure 10.5 in the following graph so you can see the cherrypicking at play:

  • An Empirical Critique of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”

    by Phillip Magness

    I first became aware of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century last spring, though not from the onset of “Pikettymania” amidst its skyrocketing to the top of the best seller list. Rather, a couple of faculty colleagues brought it to my attention for its data. Knowing of my own research interests in historical tax data from the turn of the century United States, they suggested it as a new and relevant contribution with a fair amount of empirical overlap with what I was doing. I began reading the book as it gained attention for other reasons – mostly its prescriptive recommendation for an intentionally punitive global wealth tax, with rates not unlike the 75% top income tax bracket that had recently been enacted in Piketty’s native France.

  • APUSH: A Tempest in a Teapot

    by Jonathan J. Bean

    I have read the APUSH document. Frankly, it is not as bad as I thought it might be - certainly far short of the hard-core agenda pushed by the multiculturalist authors of the National History Standards in the 1990s. Yes, APUSH has a "progressive" slant but not as much as some college textbooks. Furthermore, it leaves ample room for AP faculty to pick a college textbook (presumably of their own choosing) and work within the APUSH framework. If I were a contrarian high school teacher teaching AP under the APUSH guidelines, I would roll my eyes at the examples of bias cited by critics but could easily work with it. 

    Criticism of APUSH ranges from it is a "stealth agenda perpetrated by those who failed with the National History Standards” (Peter Wood) to “AP is bad in and of itself” (a sentiment K.C. Johnson seems to embrace in rejecting the entire AP enterprise). I agree with much that Johnson has to say but AP isn’t going away. ‘Tis far better to “light a candle than curse the darkness" by offering workshops on teaching "traditional" history the way critics believe it ought to be taught.

    Preliminary observations on some of the criticisms I have read:

  • My Response to Mike Konczal ("The Voluntarism Fantasy")

    by David T. Beito

    On Thursday night, a segment of the John Stossel Show (9:00 p.m. eastern) on the Fox Business Channel will air a short "debate" which was taped last week between yours truly and  Mike Konczal on the historical viability, or lack thereof, of non-governmental alternatives to the welfare state.  Several months ago, I wrote a rough draft of a response after Konczal's article, "The Voluntarism Fantasy," appeared in Democracy Journal.  In the segment on the Stossel Show, Konczal (who I found to be quite a pleasant fellow) put forward many of the same points raised in his article.

    I did not revise my response or publish it because of other priorities.  In anticipation of the show's airing, however, I am putting it up now.  My sources can be found in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State.  I can also provide them upon request.

  • The Free Market Kicks It Some Ebola Ass

    by Wendy McElroy

    The Ebola hysteria raises questions about how a free society would handle contagious diseases. Critics of freedom argue: libertarian principles, like the right against involuntary confinement, means that half the people on the planet could literally die from a lack of centralized state control. Left to their own devices, average people cannot solve their own problems.

  • Of Irish Famines, Slavery, and the libeling of laissez-faire

    by Phillip Magness

    In a recent column for the Washington Post, political scientist Henry Farrell attempted to lay part of the blame of two notorious historical events on what he sees as a “laissez faire” mentality that operates at the expense of human suffering. The occasion for Farrell’s claim is a curious one. He employed an ill-worded and somewhat tactless review of a recent book about slavery in the Economist magazine to remind readers that the same magazine had made similarly callous remarks about the victims of the Irish famine.

    While his observation might carry some weight if it illustrated a standing pattern, his particular offense in the second case comes from a much older column – as in something that was published in 1847.

    If taking modern publications to task for the uncouth musings of long-dead editors sounds slightly odd, it might be similarly observed that the Washington Post is far from immune from an ignominious publication record as this racially charged 1902 headline attests:

    Turning specifically to the famine, a studious reader might also notice that Mr. Farrell seems to have a strange affinity  for flogging this 167 year old hobgoblin whenever the Economist’s masthead comes up for discussion. More problematic from a historical perspective though is the argument he attempts to extract from the episode:

    In both instances, The Economist’s deep-rooted fondness of laissez faire slipped into a shameful tendency to minimize the human costs of those at the wrong end of the system, whether it was those who suffered and were murdered beneath the whip of slavery or those who starved to death, in part thanks to The Economist’s own vigorous advocacy.

    A damning indictment of laissez faire capitalism, one might conclude, if only it were true! Unfortunately for Mr. Farrell, he has his 19th century politics confused, and confused badly at that.

    Consider the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. This hallmark of the very same 19th century “laissez faire” philosophy he derides as callous was actually carried to fruition as part of a conscious effort to relieve famine-plagued Ireland from the artificially onerous food prices that came about under Britain’s agricultural protective tariff regime. Now consider Farrell’s harsh depiction of free markets against the open humanitarian appeal of the following passage from an 1845 free trade speech by Richard Cobden, the chief architect of the Corn Law repeal:

  • Democrats are part of the problem in Ferguson, too

    by Wendy McElroy

    The halls of an adjourned Congress are ringing with passionate calls to address the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., which resulted from the lethal shooting of an unarmed black teen by police. The response of militarized law enforcement who view protesters as "the enemy" and the city as a war zone has become a particular focus. But, even if the cries are sincere, every congressional word or movement until November will reflect election maneuvering.
    Democrats quickly staked a claim to the moral high ground. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) are prominent members of both the House Judiciary Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus. Along with Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), they initiated a call for a congressional hearing on the use of excessive force by American law enforcement. The Republicans will almost certainly cooperate, if only because it would be impolitic not to do so. Moreover, the hearing would be post-election and not necessarily lead to a change in law or policy.

  • Devil is in the Details of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act

    by Wendy McElroy

    On Aug. 7, Hans Bader, a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, reported on one. CASA regulates how universities must approach sexual assault, including producing an annual survey of students' experiences, which will be published online. The penalties for non-compliance are massive: an initial penalty of up to 1 percent of the institution's operating budget and a potential $150,000 fine for each additional violation or misrepresentation — $150,000 per month if surveys are not completed to the standard required. Bader observed, "that [initial offense] would be a whopping $42 million for Harvard alone, since its budget is $4.2 billion."
    Even worse, "a provision ... lets the money be kept by the agency imposing the fine, the Education Department's (DOE) Office for Civil Rights (OCR)." This creates a huge incentive for OCR to be aggressively punitive or to accuse innocent universities of misrepresentation or substandard compliance. Even an inability to comply would not exempt institutions from fines. For example, they are required to enter into a "memorandum of understanding" with local law enforcement. If the latter refuses, then "[t]he Secretary of Education will then have the discretion to grant the waiver." Not the obligation but the discretion.
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