Has the Left Given Up on Authentic Scholarship?

Two years ago, Duke history professsor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America was published. Similar to Jane Meyer’s earlier book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, MacLean argues our current political predicament is “the [American political] right’s relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, stop action on climate change, and alter the Constitution”; furthermore, this campaign finds its origins in the writings of James M. Buchanan, an economist who sought to re-assert Calhoun’s doctrine of states’ rights in the wake of Brown v. Board. Given the Left-wing slant of the story, publications such as NPR and The Altantic praised the book.

What made the backlash so important? It is easy to disprove MacLean’s thesis. For example, economist David Henderson noted back in June 2017 that they “who knew [Buchanan] well are more skeptical [of the central thesis of the book], partly because he was so bookish, so into thinking about fundamental ideas about governments and societies, and not really up to date on this or that political skirmish or current politician”.

Then came Russ Roberts’s article “Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology”. He dealt with MacLean’s remarks on pp. 222-224 concerning Tyler Cowen’s 2000 essay “Why Does Freedom Wax and Wane?”. Roberts provided evidence MacLean (1) took two statements from Cowen’s paper out of context, and (2) “ignores anything in Cowen’s essay that conflicts with her portrayal of Cowen as a sinister enemy of American institutions and democracy”. Henderson also pointed to selective quotation, this time from Buchanan himself. Regarding Buchanan’s Agrarian intellectual heritage, historian Phil Magness has shown how MacLean’s story “appears to be completely made up”; economist Donald Boudreaux wrote an open letter to MacLean’s interview in The New Republic, stating that Buchanan frequently cites “Adam Smith, James Madison, the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell, the American economist Frank Knight, and the Austrian-British economist F.A. Hayek”, while “the number of times that Calhoun is cited in any of Buchanan’s published works is zero”.

The criticism did not just come from those right-of-center, mind you. Henry Farrell and Steven Teles wrote an article for the left-leaning publication Vox accusing MacLean of presenting a “conspiracy theory in the guise of intellectual history”. Jennifer Burns of Stanford University points out in her History of Political Economy review that MacLean’s book is ” too heated, partisan, and shallow to accomplish [its] tasks successfully”, and is “rife with distortions and inaccuracies”. While Burns is no sympathizer to libertarianism, she concludes MacLean’s book “is not a book of scholarship, but of partisanship, written to reinforce existing divides and con¥rm existing biases”. Perhaps the most damning indicement comes from Michael Munger’s review in The Independent Jurnal:

…Duke University’s Department of Political Science is located on the main campus in Durham, North Carolina, and is listed in the campus phone book. Anyone at Duke who wants to find it will have no difficulty doing so. Anyone at Duke who wants to find it will have no difficulty doing so. Further, the department has two past presidents of the Public Choice Society (Geoffrey Brennan and Michael Munger) and one current president (Georg Vanberg). . . . I would expect that a sophomore undergraduate who is writing a paper on Buchanan, even a one-off paper for a classroom assignment, would recognize the value in consulting Brennan, at a minimum, and probably also Vanberg (who was a family friend of Buchanan since childhood). But neither Brennan nor Vanberg were ever consulted, nor even contacted, by MacLean. Nor, if it matters, was I.

I need not detail every criticism of MacLean’s book – Jonathan Adler of the Washington Post has already done so. To date, MacLean’s only response to her critics comes in the form of an interview for The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to MacLean, “Such rhetorical bullying” is “part of a pattern on the right of escalating attempts to intimidate scholars who disagree with them”.

What nuance in a time of bulverism.

Fast forward to Thursday, 23 June 2019. In an interview with Matthew Street on her new book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love, Dr. Naomi Wolf claimed she found “several dozen executions” of sodomites in mid-19th century Britain according to “the Bailey records”. Citing the 1835 Thomas Silvo case, Street stated “Silvo wasn’t executed”; the phrase used in the case, “death recorded”, was “a category created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing sentences of death” (see here). When asked for the sources of his understanding, Street pointed to the defintion from the Old Bailey Records website, “a newspaper report about Thomas Silvo”, and “the prison records that show the date of his discharge”. (The relevant audio starts at the 24:30 timemark.)

Almost a week later, Dr. Klein complained on her Twitter feed that “the debate ove[r] executions of men for sodomy is resulting in completely false belief that men were not executed”. Twitter user Ragnar Danneskjöld retorted, “You got schooled live on the air about a basic term, and now you’re doubling down. You cited a famous hoaxer as one of your sources”.

Now, I frankly have no interest in someone who has authored books with titles such as Vagina: A New Biography, or intellectual history premised on the hermeneutics of suspicion. However, both scholars find themselves in situations comparable to the Two Minutes Hate directed at the students from Covington Catholic High School. Furthermore, unlike the Covington Catholic incident, both scholars are recognized experts in their areas of expertise. So why would they publish books containing fundamental misunderstandings of their subject matter? (While I recognize that Wolf has made far fewer mistakes compared to the litany of charges against MacLean listed above, it seems the mistake pointed out in the BBC interview has the power to discredit the major argument of her book. That is the aspect in which I believe her book is comparable to MacLean’s.)

If you read Edward Feser’s take on the “Bizarro world of left-wing politics”, you will understand that modern American liberalism is characterized by “a Marxoid hermeneutics of suspicion deployed in the service of” a counter-morality to the Judeo-Christian tradition. When compared to the botched roll-out of the Green New Deal proposed by House Democrats and recent claims that Attorney General William Bar is a Russian operative, it becomes apparent this hermeneutics of suspicion is starting to take root in the academy as well as the mainstream Left. If you are not convinced of my conclusion, I would like to pose the following questions:

  1. If you are an historian writing a book on one of the most influential economists of the last century, why would you focus on archival material to the exclusion of his published works?
  2. If you are an American scholar dealing with British legal documents, why would you not spend the time to make sure you understood the meanings of key legal terms?

I’m not saying the Right never does this. It most certainly does. However, debate such as that between Jaffa and DiLorenzo was not covered in mainstream publications. Naomi Wolf is a well-known author and former advisor to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Nancy MacLean’s work on the Ku Klux Klan and American labor history has earned her several awards. Why would either scholar wish to ruin her reputation on the basis of elementary mistakes?


Yes, Virginia, There Is A Spiritual Problem in Western Society

Recently I had the privilege of coming across an old blog post by J. Budziszewski on “What’s Wrong with Universities?”:

[Conservatives] are right about the need for [academic] reform, but they are mistaken about what kind of reform is needed. And they are utterly confused in thinking that the problem is that universities are “still tied to medieval origins.”

Medieval students had to master seven elementary studies before going on to advanced degrees. The first three, called the trivium, were grammar, or the laws of language; rhetoric, or the laws of argument; and dialectic, or the laws of clear thought. The next four, called the quadrivium, were arithmetic, or the laws of number; geometry, or the laws of figure; music, or the laws of harmony; and astronomy, or the laws of inherent motion.

Why these seven? Because medieval universities were organized around the view that the universe makes sense, that knowledge is grasping that sense, that the mind can really grasp it, that all knowledge is related, and that all of its parts form a meaningful whole.

By contrast, our universities are organized around – what? Actually, they aren’t universities at all, because they have given up their vision, the coherence of universal reality and its friendliness to the rational mind. . . .

This is not the sort of problem which can be solved by cost-savings, team-teaching, or distance learning. Such solutions are merely economic. The problem is spiritual.

J. Budziszevski’s point came back to my mind when reading a few recent arguments on the state of marriage in America. The first comes from a post by Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition, which attributes our current problem to “de-condensation”.  Quoting Sarah Perry, he states, in the past, “time, artifacts, institutions, and even people are more condensed”; however, in this year of our Lord 2019:

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation:

it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to.

Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech.

First off, the idea of “de-condensation” makes little sense to a social scientist like myself. Does writing count as an instance of “de-condensation”? If so, is there anything wrong with abstracting the function of thought away from direct communication? Does technological advance always result in this process of abstraction?

It would seem that the example of markets might help us: “Markets de-condense production and consumption”. But that’s simply not true. The market was understood for most of human history as a meeting place for buyers and sellers. It’s also important to note that the market as understood in economics is a process, not a place or institution (though it might rely on extra-economics institutions to function).

Justin Taylor goes on his post to turn to Alastair Robert’s thoughts on marriage and “de-condensation”:

Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. . . . The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it: provision, security, welfare, healthcare, education, investment, employment, public representation, community, religious practice, etc., etc. However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies. Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community. Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.

Marriage once powerfully represented the condense and integrated meaning of human sexuality, a deep mystery of the union of man and woman, the wonder of the other sex and the deeper reality of our own, the most fundamental common project of all human society, the union of our most animal of drives with the highest of our ideals, the connection between our bodies and our deepest selves, the significance of the loving and committed sexual bond as the site where the gift of new life is welcomed into the world, the difference between human making and human begetting, the miracle of the development of new life, the wondrous natural blossoming of private sexual unions into public families, a bond that stretches over generations, the deep union of blood, the interplay and union of the sexes in all areas of human life and society, the maturation of man and woman together and in union through all of the seasons of their lives, until they cross the threshold of death.

This meaning hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it is fast fading. Through many and various developments, the meaning of marriage in relation to human sexuality has been slowly eroded. Human sexuality is being de-condensed. Contraception and prophylactics separate sexual relations from procreative potential and reduce the need for discriminating choice of partners, reducing sex to primarily genital stimulation. Porn offers to satisfy our unruly lusts, compartmentalizing our sexuality. Reproductive technology separates procreation from sexual congress. It abstracts bodily material from persons and biological parenthood from social parenthood. Surrogacy abstracts child-bearing from motherhood. The coming together of bodies is no longer presumed to necessitate a uniting of selves. Sexual reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy reinforce the abstraction of one’s gender from one’s natural bodily sex. Social science de-condenses the function of ‘parenting’ from the condense reality of being a mother or father.

I don’t know if any serious scholar would disagree with the sketch given above, but I’m not quite sure “de-condensation” is the boogeyman these bloggers present it to be. Allan Carlson has noted some of the blessings bestowed on family life by the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, “children were also routinely beaten and sexually abused”, and “[i]nfanticide of a more deliberate sort was also practiced”. However, after “a counter-culture began to take shape” whose “earliest expressions could befound in art”, which led to ” the breakthrough and cultural victory of these revolutionary new human sentiments — conjugal family bonds, maternal love, and domesticity”. Carlson concludes that “it unlikely that either the modern family or the free enterprise system could long survive the demise of the other”.

The point I wish to make clear is that if we believe “de-condensation” is the problem, it didn’t arise in the Industrial Revolution or the rise of classical liberal thought. The origins of our problems have to be sought in more recent years, such as the demise of the family wage in the 1960’s, the deterioration of social conditions favorable to family formation, or the failure of leaders in the Evangelical church to prepare adolescents to change from bobby socks to stockings. It’s also not clear that market-oriented solutions to the modern problem of marriage and families will make things better, either. Such experimental policies were tried in Finland and failed.

So what’s behind our crisis in marriage and inability to fix it? I believe it’s a spiritual problem attributable to three ideologies which arose during the Sexual Revolution — the Divorce Ideology, the Contraceptive Ideology, and the Gender Ideology. None of these beliefs can be sustained in a natural social order, and thus need the support of the state to support their existence. We might call this the Sexual State, and we need to understand it and where it came from. Most importantly, we need to understand that “man does not live by bread alone” and requires spiritual goals to give direction to his actions.

Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito.

Raphael on Adam Smith

D.D. Raphael. Adam Smith. Past Masters series. Oxford University Press, 1985. vii+120 pp.

Adam Smith has become quite the figure in conversations regarding faith and economics, from John D. Mueller’s denouncement of Smith the economist to Kenneth Barnes’ appraisal of Smith the moralist. Regardless of which aspect one assesses Smith, all participants in this discussion would benefit from understanding Smith as he understood himself. D.D. Raphael’s short volume Adam Smith does just that. Writing for the Past Masters book series. Raphael was a well-known political philosopher and Smith scholar who helped edit three volumes of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (now in reprint from Liberty Fund). The book serves as an introduction to Smith and nothing more; however, it is an introduction to Smith, rather than an introduction to Smith the moralist or Smith the economist. After an appraisal of Smith as “a master for many schools” (chap. 1), Raphael recounts the broad outline of Smith’s “Life” (chap. 2), the role of sympathy in Smith’s “Ethics” (chap. 3), an overview of Smith’s “Economics” (chap. 4), some “Comparisons” between the two preceding chapters and some other works of Smith’s (chap. 5), and a concluding chapter on Smith’s views on the relations between “Philosophy, Science, and History” (chap. 6) followed by a list of books for “Further Reading”. Besides being an excellent introduction to Smith’s thought, Raphael presents some wonderful remarks countering J.A. Schumpeter’s criticism of Smithian economics. You may find this book in a library collecting dust, but it is a dusty book worth reading.

Karl R. Heintz

9 November 2018

D.D. Raphael on Schumpeter on Smith

51xpw-c2+DL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_A rather interesting passage from D.D. Raphael’s short book Adam Smith (Oxford University Press, 1985):

. . . As in so much else, however, Adam Smith set out with especial clarity  the relation of the relevant points to his system of political economy as a whole.

This indeed is the cardinal virtue of the Wealth of Nations. Not all readers have shared in the general admiration of the book, and the comments of one important scholar are worth noting at this point. J.A. Schumpeter, in his monumental History of Economic Analysis (1954), made a number of deprecatory remarks about the Wealth of Nations as a contribution to economic science. ‘But no matter what he actually learned or failed to learn form predecessors, the fact is that the Wealth of Nations does not contain a single analytic idea, principle or method that was entirely new in 1776.’ Yet Schumpeter felt bound to allow that the Wealth of Nations ‘is a great performance all the same’ because of its ‘co-ordination’. This was intended to be rather faint praise. The task of co-ordination required ‘a methodical professor’ and Smith ‘was fitted for it by nature’.

Schumpeter underrates the character of Smith’s systematization. Methodical co-ordination of the ideas of other people could not have produced a comprehensive system of the whole economic process, all parts of which interact with each other so as to maintain a self-adjusting balance and steady growth. Smith derived much of his material from other people but it needed imaginative vision to use that material as constructively as he did. Even Schumpeter is virtually obliged to contradict himself when he describes the first leading feature of Smith’s book: ‘Though, as we know, there is nothing original about it, one feature must be mentioned that has not received the attention it deserves: nobody, either before or after A. Smith, ever thought of putting such a burden upon division of labor.’ Whether Smith was right or wrong to do so, it was a new idea if nobody else had thought of doing it. In fact this feature of the Wealth of Nations is simply one aspect of the imaginative vision which Smith applied to his materials in order to build a comprehensive system. … It is an example of the way in which Smith’s philosophical interests colour his scientific work.

Schumpeter could not have seen this since he believed that philosophy has nothing to contribute to economics; it simply gets in the way. For all his great learning , Schumpeter had his blind spots. While appreciating the ‘intellectual stature’ of Smith’s Essays on Philosophical Subjects, especially the essay on the history of astronomy, Schumpeter says of them: ‘were it not from the undeniable fact, nobody would credit the author of the Wealth of Nations with the power to write them.’ The words ‘nobody would’ mean ‘Schumpeter would not’. Those who read the Wealth of Nations with more sympathy and imagination than Schumpeter did can see that the philosopher who began the essay on the history of astronomy with a theory of scientific systems is himself applying that theory in his construction of an economic system.

I think those last comments on Schumpeter are a little shrewd, given that his History of Economic Analysis was never finished. Perhaps when the section on Smith was written in the middle of his academic career, Schumpeter did not consider philosophy useful to economic theorizing; however, he seems to have changed his mind when considering Heinrich Pesch and Oswald von Nell-Breuning.

Either way, Raphael’s book is a good introduction to Smith. I’ll be posting a review within the upcoming week.

Christian Politics **Must** Be Moral

I believe the following comments on Tim Keller’s NYT op-ed on Christian politics, are warranted:

(1) Keller is right to point out that “[t]he historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments”. Consider issues relating to human life. Genesis 1:28 reveals that fertility within marriage is a divine command. Many natural lawyers of the early modern era stated that mankind “has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession . . .

“Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”

John Finnis has shown in many places that the unborn has a right to life. Now, when a major American political party promotes late-term abortion, can we say that the political position of a Christian on this issue is not a matter “of biblical command but of practical wisdom”? (See the lengthy quote above in regards to the examples Keller does mention in his article.)

(2) Keller is right that “there are many possible ways to help the poor”. However, it is not clear what he means when he writes ‘[t]he Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture”. Keller’s example of the Misssisssipian reminds me of a quote from the late Francis Schaeffer, in which Schaeffer ended a question on a political matter with something to the tune of “However, I can see how someone might be a Democrat and a faithful Christian”.

Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. A good man was recently accused of being a serial rapist on charges which a member of the US Senate’s investigative council found to be worse than the usual “he said, she said” case. Republican representatives demanded that the claims of the accuser be corroborated; Democrat representatives did not. Who do you think is bound by the dictates of justice.

I agree with Keller that “Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors” and that we can turn to the Bible for “the resources to love people who reject both our beliefs and us personally”. However, I worry Keller is implicitly allowing Christians to idolize the god that failed.