Agitators Of Outrage Have Lazily Misconstrued A Duke Professor’s Comment On Conservatives And Autism

Duke University Shutterstock/Chadarat Saibhut

Font Size:

We don’t think the headline on The Daily Caller’s February 13, 2018 article “Duke Prof: Conservatives Vote The Way They Do Because They’re Probably Autistic” fairly represents Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s meaning during her talk at New York City’s Unitarian Church of All Souls. Professor MacLean did not intend to insult autism, or make sweeping generalizations about conservatives and libertarians. Rather, she was speculating about the origins of a particular group of scholars’ ideas and of James M. Buchanan’s ideas in particular.

Yes, she finds it “striking how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum — you know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have difficult human relationships sometimes.” But she qualifies this by saying she is speculating. A charitable listener should hear it as a clumsy answer during Q&A, not a considered judgment about people of particular political persuasions — or for that matter, neurological conditions, about which MacLean has no expertise.

MacLean simply speculates that combining Buchanan’s southern upbringing, personal experiences, and University of Chicago economics education could, when combined with a mindset that struggles with “solidarity or empathy with others,” lead to the kind of intellectual program Buchanan pursued. That could be wrong — and we think it is wrong — but it’s not beyond the subjects a scholar might plausibly speculate about in biography.

The reason we object now is that — ironically, for those who have read her book, “Democracy in Chains” — MacLean is on firmer ground here than in some earlier claims about Buchanan. The book is a deeply misleading, historically skewed picture of James M. Buchanan, and of the origins of the “public choice” school of economics.

In the case of the “Probably Autistic” comments, though, there’s at least some empirical evidence suggesting a connection. True, MacLean should not have used “autism” as the description. But libertarians really do, on average, score lower on (admittedly flawed) measures of political and social empathy.  Here is the abstract of a 2012 paper “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians“:

“Libertarians are an increasingly prominent ideological group in U.S. politics, yet they have been largely unstudied. Across 16 measures in a large web-based sample that included 11,994 self-identified libertarians, we sought to understand the moral and psychological characteristics of self-described libertarians. Based on an intuitionist view of moral judgment, we focused on the underlying affective and cognitive dispositions that accompany this unique worldview. Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness. As predicted by intuitionist theories concerning the origins of moral reasoning, libertarian values showed convergent relationships with libertarian emotional dispositions and social preferences. Our findings add to a growing recognition of the role of personality differences in the organization of political attitudes.”

Yes, it’s off-putting that MacLean and her audience seem to agree that Buchanan and anyone following him must be mentally ill or morally corrupt. We hope even opponents will entertain the notion that Buchanan — and those of us who use and extend his ideas — arrived at those ideas carefully, reflectively and deliberately. That’s why we raise a note of protest about the All Souls controversy. The cause of academic freedom is poorly served when an off-the-cuff remark is misinterpreted and blown up in the internet’s short attention-span outrage machine.

Art Carden is associate professor of economics at Samford University. Michael Munger is professor of political science, economics and public policy and director of the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University. Both are also affiliated with organizations that receive funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.