The academic history profession has a problem with intellectual integrity. Over the past decade, a cottage industry has emerged in elite university departments that explicitly aims to tear down free-market economists (often misnamed as “neoliberals”) by accusing them of racism, fascism, and similarly discredited beliefs.
Although these are serious charges, the historians who make them seldom have evidence to back their accusations. Instead, they misrepresent historical records, make up falsehoods out of thin air, and even rearrange quotations by their targets to make them appear racist. One of the worst offenders in this regard is Duke University historian Nancy MacLean, whose 2017 book Democracy in Chains tried to portray pioneering Public Choice economist James M. Buchanan as a complicit partner of Senator Harry Flood Byrd’s “Massive Resistance” efforts against Brown v. Board of Education.
MacLean’s thesis collapsed under scholarly scrutiny. To build her case, she mixed up the contents of historical records, misread and conflated footnotes in the secondary literature, and simply fabricated salacious stories wherein Buchanan became a secret admirer of John C. Calhoun and Agrarian Poetry, despite providing no evidence of either. When she wasn’t making them up out of thin air, MacLean also altered quotations to change their meaning, usually in ways that depicted their authors as monsters. In a more honest academic climate, it’s the type of behavior that would earn a professor a stern reprimand from the dean and perhaps a few article retractions.
Six years have passed since this episode, but MacLean is still up to her old tricks. Her newest target is the South African economist William Harold Hutt, who wrote a blistering critique of racial apartheid in 1964. MacLean’s interest in Hutt stems from the fallout over Democracy in Chains, because Buchanan recruited Hutt to the University of Virginia as a visiting faculty member in 1965. Having a prominent opponent of apartheid in Buchanan’s department did not mesh well with MacLean’s attempts to depict Buchanan as an agent of the arch-segregationist Byrd machine.
To get around this obstacle, MacLean has now seeks to besmirch Hutt. She has a new article out in the History of Economics Review, co-authored with Duke professor William S. Darity and graduate student M’Balou Camara. Its “thesis,” if it could even be called that, is to accuse Hutt himself of being a “white supremacist.”
Most of the new article is a recycled and slightly updated version of an error-riddled working paper that advanced similar claims. Art Carden and I dissected that paper last year, finding multiple instances where MacLean and her co-authors misrepresented their source materials to make their flimsy charges stick. But MacLean’s latest piece adds a new line of attack on Hutt, containing one of the most egregious examples of quote-editing that I have ever encountered in an academic work.
To support their contention that Hutt was a “white supremacist,” MacLean et al. excerpt a passage from his 1963 anti-apartheid book, The Economics of the Colour Bar. I reproduce their treatment of that passage here in full:
[Hutt] went further, admonishing that ‘races which grumble about the ‘injustices’ or ‘oppressions’ to which they are subjected can often be observed to be inflicting not dissimilar injustices upon other races (Hutt 1964, 39). The choice of verb (grumble) along with the scare quotes around injustices and oppressions illustrate how Hutt aimed to undercut the legitimacy of apartheid’s black South African critics, who were gaining international support as he wrote. His aim can be readily inferred: to deny the victims of apartheid the moral high ground claimed by the anti-apartheid movement.
In fact, this quoted excerpt is one of the main pieces of “evidence” that MacLean and her co-authors deploy to support their claims. As they describe it, “These passages attest that Hutt clearly saw the world through the lens of white racial superiority.” By allegedly denigrating the victims of apartheid in their cause, Hutt “demonstrated his belief that the fundamental source of racial disparity in South Africa and elsewhere was dysfunctional black behaviour.”
This is a serious charge to make against another scholar. It is also a falsehood.
Compare MacLean et al.’s portrayals to the full passage from page 39 of the Economics of the Colour Bar. The excerpted part of the quotation is in bold:
“Races which grumble about the ‘injustices’ or ‘oppressions’ to which they are subjected can often be observed to be inflicting not dissimilar injustices upon other races. We find a very clear case of this in any study of the grievances of the Afrikaners against ‘British imperialism’ and their fight against the threat of ‘Anglicisation’. In their policies towards the non-Whites, they are inflicting injustices which are remarkably similar to those of which they themselves have complained.”
If you’re wondering how these transgressions on the text passed basic peer review with the journal’s editors, you are not alone. Contrary to the claims of MacLean and her co-authors, Hutt was not attempting “to undercut the legitimacy of apartheid’s black South African critics.” He was writing about the racist hypocrisy of South Africa’s white Afrikaner community. The Dutch-descended Afrikaners often complained of historical injustices against their community at the hands of British colonial authorities, yet as Hutt pointed out, they turned around and perpetrated injustices against black Africans in the form of apartheid.
MacLean et al. took Hutt’s attack on white racists and, through selective excerpting of the original quotation, altered it into an attack on the victims of apartheid.
If this quote-editing exercise was a single incident, it might be possible to chalk it up to sloppiness or incompetence. But Hutt’s explicit reference to Afrikaner hypocrisy appears in the very next sentence, making a careless oversight unlikely. More importantly, MacLean and her colleagues have a long track record of similar behavior, misrepresenting sources and abusing historical evidence.
To academics like MacLean and Darity, both of whom write from positions of power, holding endowed chairs at an elite institution, historical inquiry is no longer an exercise in pursuing truth and understanding about the past. It is a tool for their own far-left political activism. To borrow a phrase from ethicist Nigel Biggar, they treat history as “an armoury from which to ransack politically expedient weapons.” In the process of that ransacking, they cross the line into willful misrepresentations of their source material, all in the service of a modern-day political cause. It’s a pattern of scholarly dishonesty that the academy has tolerated (and even elevated) for far too long.