Getting W.H. Hutt’s Life And Work All Wrong

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Reprinted from Forbes

“The enemy is not refuted, enough to unmask him as a bourgeois.” It’s how Ludwig von Mises described Marxist analysis in his 1922 book Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. It describes the methodology and hermeneutics of a growing body of research in intellectual history, which does not seek to refute libertarian thinkers as much as it seeks to connect them with bourgeois causes and discredit them with insinuations of racism. A June 2022 working paper with an accompanying blog post from the Institute for New Economic Thinking by the economist William Darity, the researcher M’Balou Camara, and the historian Nancy MacLean is a recent contribution to this genre. It builds on MacLean’s claims about 1986 Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan’s alleged involvement in Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to school desegregation and accuses the British economist W.H. Hutt, who moved to the University of Virginia upon his retirement from South Africa’s University of Cape Town, of white supremacy.

My coauthor Phillip W. Magness and I documented their errors in a working paper of our own that stretched to 57 pages and an accompanying article for the American Institute for Economic Research. Now, after passing before the discerning eyes of editor Daniel B. Klein’s and a pair of anonymous referees, a heavily-revised version of our paper appears in the new issue of Econ Journal Watch.

Their argument falls apart under scrutiny. The version of Hutt they present is like the version of Buchanan that MacLean presents in her book Democracy in Chains: an unrecognizable caricature.

First, Darity and coauthors don’t get the facts straight. They claim that Hutt finished his career at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn. He didn’t—he had an affiliation, but he finished his career at the University of Dallas. They claim he “cagily” criticized the Warren Court, though not by name, in an article on “Civil Rights and Young ‘Conservatives’” he wrote for Modern Age, but they get the source wrong: Hutt’s references to the courts were referring to South Africa in an article that appeared in the Italian journal Il Politico. Darity, Camara, and MacLean are not discovering “cagey” veiled references to the Warren Court. They’re mixing up citations and forgetting what is in what article.

Second, they omit a lot of relevant context with the snippets they quote from Hutt’s work. They give the reader the impression that Hutt is dedicating a manuscript to Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, for example, without noting that Helms and Thurmond are just two among a group of legislators in the dedication of one of his manuscripts, and it’s clear from the manuscript’s context and the historical setting as well as the list of people to whom the manuscript is dedicated that Hutt is not interested in racial politics but matters of public finance and labor policy.

Third, they attribute to Hutt views that he explicitly disavows clearly and repeatedly throughout his work. They mistakenly believe Hutt is talking about genetics when he describes the institutions, educational limitations, and the disease environment as “natural handicaps.” Referring to the allegedly “uncivilized” natives, Hutt writes very explicitly in a 1934 essay:

“we do not think of the peasantry of pre-War Russia or eighteenth century Ireland as ‘uncivilized’. If we made a comparison between them and the modern Bantu, clothing would be the most relevant distinction; and that is largely a matter of climate!”

We go point-by-point through a long and tiring list of accusations. Econ Journal Watch has invited them to respond to our critique, but they have not yet done so. I’m frankly not sure how they would, given that their paper is filled with unambiguous interpretive errors, historical errors, factual errors, incorrect citations, and misleadingly-edited quotes so egregious as to leave their thesis indefensible. Maybe we’re wrong, but perhaps we can be forgiven for suspecting that they are just sneering at Hutt, not making a good-faith effort to present Hutt’s ideas carefully and accurately.