Fun with Footnotes (A game of scholarly discovery)

“Let’s … have … fun … with … footnote[s],” MacLean said.*

Here is a simple game of scholarship that anyone can play and everyone who plays by accepted norms of scholarship wins!**

How to play:

Take the recently published book Democracy in Chains, open it randomly to a page in the text, find a footnote referring to James M. Buchanan (or any other economist, political scientist, philosopher, or other writer not suitably left-leaning in the view of that book’s author), find the source noted in the footnote, and then compare the most likely meaning of the footnoted passage in Democracy in Chains to the most likely meaning of the source passage(s) noted in the footnote.


  • If the meanings of the two passages are aligned then you score a “CONFIRMED.”
  • If the meanings of the two passages can possibly be made to fit, but only by stretching the plain meanings of one or both passages, then you score a “PLAUSIBLE.”
  • If the meanings of the two passages cannot, even under the most elastic and charitable reading, be said to say the same thing, then you score a “BUSTED.”

Solitaire play:

Give yourself a +1 for each “CONFIRMED,” 0 for “PLAUSIBLE,” and -1 for each “BUSTED.” Play until you reach +5 or -5. Either way you win because you gain a better understanding of the work of James M. Buchanan and public choice theory.

Team play:

Pair up with one or more friends, pick a time limit, and see who can assign a score to the most passages in the time allotted. Share the footnotes and sources, but not the scores, with each other and score the others’ footnote selections too. Compare scoring and discuss areas of agreement and disagreement. All who play well will win, just as with solitaire play.


A player opens the book to pages 150-151 and scan the footnotes available, if any, that are candidates for future examination. The pages from Chapter 9, “Never Compromise,” contain footnotes 84 to 90. Footnote 90 looks compelling, so the player selects it for review.

Here is the text from Democracy in Chains:

But if not by willing consent, then how could the cause stop citizens from turning to government? Buchanan wanted to see, somehow, a “generalized rewriting of the social contract.” American needed “a new structure of checks and balances,” well beyond that provided for in its founding Constitution, itself already a very pro-property-rights rulebook, as he well knew. He advised “changes that are sufficiently dramatic to warrant the label ‘revolutionary.’” The time when it seemed as if normal adjustments might be enough had passed. Buchanan closed with “a counsel of despair” that troubled him. “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”90

The player composes a summary of the passage including the footnote: The author says Buchanan wanted a rewriting of the social contract with new checks and balances. This new social contract would be so different as to be called revolutionary. Normal adjustments no longer enough, so Buchanan offered what he called a counsel of despair: Despotism may be the only alternative. In short, the author suggests Buchanan believed despotism may be the only way to get his system into place.

Now the player looks up footnote 90, on page 277, finding:

  1. Ibid., xvi, 208, 212, 215, 220-21.

The “Ibid.” refers to Buchanan’s book Limits of Liberty, referenced in note 88. Lucky break as the full text of the Buchanan book is available freely online. The player Googles the phrase “Despotism may be the only organizational” with the quote marks. Just three results show up, two to the book Limits of Liberty in the online collected works of James Buchanan and one to the book Democracy in Chains.

Clicking the first link lands the player on Chapter 10 in Buchanan’s book. To save time the player types “Despotism” into the search box and finds the source in paragraph 30 of the chapter, the last paragraph in a section labeled “Intellectual Bankruptcy.” Here is the section, with some cuts for length:

In sociopolitical matters, the 1970s can be described as an era of intellectual bankruptcy. Theoretical welfare economists continue to develop sophisticated demonstrations of market failures; public choice theorists, who have been charged with dabbling in “welfare politics,” match the welfare economists with their own demonstrations of governmental failures. The theorems of the economists are put to alleged practical usage in the discussion of pollution-environmental issues that occupies policy debates. The “solutions” that are proposed, however, involve widening the sphere of bureaucratic control rather than shrinking it. The libertarians are scarcely preferred over their liberal counterparts. […] Both liberals and libertarians alike presume implicitly that their task is to offer advice to some nonexistent but benevolent wisdom that will accept rational argument.

The facts are different. Both markets and governments fail, and there is no such benevolent wisdom. The man of the 1970s is trapped in his own dilemma. He recognizes that the “grand alternatives,” laissez-faire and socialism, are moribund, and that revival is not to be predicted. What modern man does not recognize, in either an intellectual or an intuitive sense, is that the pragmatic alternative is equally suspect, and that viable social order may be seriously threatened by long-continued failure to consider his situation systematically and nonincrementally. […]

In this respect at least, the modern radical revolutionaries may be correct; improvement may well require changes in the system, not in the personnel that man it and not through peripheral adjustments. But if both markets and governments fail, what is the organizational alternative? […]

Social order may be imposed by a despotic regime, through either an individual ruler or through an elite ruling group. Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe. In which case, those who claim no special rights to rule had best judge existing institutions in a different light. This would amount to a counsel of despair, however, and there may be alternatives worthy of consideration.

[Emphasis added to highlight the sentence quoted in Democracy in Chains. One footnote deleted from the quoted text, but it can be easily found in the online collected works. Please read the whole thing online to see the material excised and marked with ellipses.]

The player now summarizes the meaning of the source referenced in the footnote: Buchanan notes some economists find markets fail and public choice theorists find that governments fail, and in response both offer advice as if to some “benevolent wisdom.” There is no such benevolent wisdom and improvement may require a change in the system. If both governments and markets fail, what is the alternative? “Social order may be imposed by a despotic regime” said Buchanan, then the line quoted in Democracy in Chains, followed by Buchanan claiming that to urge a despotic approach “would amount to a counsel of despair” and noting there may be a worthy alternative to despotism.

The player considers the two summaries, checking the two books as necessary for further clarification.

The verdict? The author of Democracy in Chains claimed Buchanan put forward the idea that despotism may be the only way to secure the system he wants though such a recommendation was a “counsel of despair.” In Limits of Liberty actual Buchanan observed that one analytic alternative to laissez faire and socialism would be despotism, but it would be disheartening if despotism were the alternative.

The two sets of passages seem sufficiently different in meaning that no amount of charitable reading can bring them into alignment.***

The player scores Democracy in Chains, Ch. 9, footnote 90, as “BUSTED.”

The book has hundreds more footnotes to explore, so get to it!

Advanced game:

Democracy in Chains is not the only book you can use for scholarly fun and games. The library is filled with other books to explore! Try out the footnotes in Buchanan’s books for a more challenging exercise. Can you get to -5 before you get to +20? Give it a try!


*MacLean, 2017, pp. 84, 85, 86, 235. (Each of the five words quoted appears in Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains, as confirmed by a Google book search, but the word “fun” may only appear in the electronic edition. Words not necessarily in the book in the order presented in the quote.)

**The norms of scholarship urge honesty, thoughtfulness, and fairness in assessment of claims, among other things.

***In case the reader wonders what alternative Buchanan was really promoting in the passage, the section immediately after the paragraph mentioning despotism is titled “The Contractarian Revival,” and in it Buchanan noted quite approvingly the approach taken by John Rawls in the book A Theory of Justice. Buchanan favored a contractualist approach over the identified alternatives laissez faire, socialism, and despotism.


3 thoughts on “Fun with Footnotes (A game of scholarly discovery)

  1. Good analysis of a book and a common phenomena. One has to read a bit of what “the other side” claims, but this effort of yours was heroic.

    I am personally at the moment reading a bit on democratic theory and got Robert A. Dahl, “On Democracy”. According to the blurb, The Economist had something good to say about.
    What unsubstantiated left-wing rubbish… Apparently, you can be the foremost political scientist of the US without knowing much about your subject. Unfortunately as well, that book cannot be used for Footnote Bingo, as there are hardly any.
    Erik Lidström

  2. Russ, I’d say any author “deserves … even-handed treatment” to start. But given that her response has been the equivalent of “the goons are after me! the goons are after me!” I don’t think the book deserves to be treated as a piece of scholarship.

    After all, if the author of the book won’t treat it as a piece of scholarship, why should those of us that know less about her research and writing process treat it as a piece of scholarship?

    But the thing is, the book is so obviously flawed if one already knows something about the topic she write about (or takes the time to, say, follow-up a handful of footnotes), that critics can stick to the scholarly high ground of pointing out the errors and let her conspiracy-mongering response do its damage to her scholarly reputation.

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