You might be familiar with the story of David and Goliath. If not... here's a nutshell. The Philistines and the Israelites were about to fight each other. But before the battle began, the Philistine's best warrior, Goliath, challenged the Israelites... "I'll fight your best warrior. If I win you'll be our servants. If he wins, we'll be your servants." This freaked out the Israelites because Goliath was a beast. Each day for 40 days he issued the same challenge. But not a single Israelite was willing to rise to it. Then a boy named David showed up. He had been tending some sheep but had been asked to deliver food to the camp. When he heard about Goliath's challenge, he accepted it and used a slingshot to bring Goliath down.

Right now there's a battle going on between liberals and libertarians. Even though it's primarily an intellectual battle, the idea of having champions fight each other is just as relevant. Then the question is... who should the champions be? From my perspective, one of the best possible champions for libertarians is the Nobel economist James Buchanan. He's an intellectual beast! So it's very understandable, yet very frustrating, that liberals don't choose to fight him. Well... he died in 2013 but his arguments are still alive and formidable.

Recently I was thrilled to learn that a liberal decided to fight him. Nancy MacLean, a professor at Duke University, wrote a book called Democracy In Chains. Her book primarily focuses on James Buchanan. I haven't bought it though because, while it's wonderful that she decided to fight him, there's plenty of evidence that she doesn't address, or even acknowledge, his arguments. If she doesn't actually understand his arguments then obviously she can't correctly gauge their strength. This would explain her decision to fight him.

One thing to consider is that MacLean doesn't teach economics. She's in the history department. It's doubtful that she has seriously studied economics. And it's not like Buchanan's arguments are so easy to grasp. Matthew Yglesias, who is a relatively intelligent liberal, admitted that he didn't understand Buchanan's work. Yglesias read these quotes by Buchanan and said that they sound like "gibberish". It stands to reason that most of Buchanan's work sounds like gibberish to MacLean.

Plus, in order to truly appreciate Buchanan's work, you have to understand the context. In 1954 the Nobel economist Paul Samuelson wrote a paper that correctly recognized that private goods and public goods are different. People can benefit from national defense, for example, even if they don't help pay for it. If the amount of money that people spend on national defense does not accurately reflect their true valuation of it, then the wrong amount will be supplied. So the problem is not that people wrongly value national defense. The problem is false signals. Samuelson correctly argued that taxation is necessary and that the government should supply public goods. However, he simply assumed that government planners would be able to correctly guess the true signals. Samuelson's assumption did not sit well with Buchanan. In 1963 he wrote a paper that argued that, since people are paying taxes anyways, if they are given the opportunity to earmark their tax dollars to specific public goods, they'd have no incentive to give false signals. If your valuation of national defense is $1000 of your tax dollars, but you only earmark $100 tax dollars to national defense, it doesn't mean that you'll be able to spend the difference on private goods (ie clothes, food). It means that you'll have $900 tax dollars to earmark to other public goods (ie education, healthcare)... which you value less than national defense. Therefore, there's absolutely no incentive to give false signals.

MacLean is correct that Buchanan's work is anti-democratic. But, I sincerely doubt that she grasps that his work is anti-democratic because it's pro-truth. If voting accurately revealed society's true valuation of national defense, then this really wouldn't only be true for public goods. We should entirely replace shopping with voting. If, on the other hand, government planners can correctly guess society's true valuation of national defense, then again, this really wouldn't only be true for public goods. Shopping and voting would be pointless.

If you're going to attack an economist, it helps to have a decent grasp of economics. Unfortunately, the precious few liberals who do have a decent grasp of economics rarely attack Buchanan. Will they overcome their reluctance/prudence now that MacLean has attacked him? If so, she might be the closest intellectual equivalent of Leeroy Jenkins.

Some possible talking points:

1. Should our intellectual champions battle each other?
2. If so, who would you choose to be your side's champion?
3. Does MacLean understand Buchanan's work?
4. Is she more like David or Leeroy?
5. Should I buy MacLean's book?
6. Are you going to buy it?
7. Should bananas be banned?