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Nancy MacLean apologizes for remarks that founders of libertarianism seem to be on 'autism spectrum'

After making controversial comments connecting the founders of libertarianism to autism earlier this month, Nancy MacLean has finally addressed her earlier statement.

The controversy was initially sparked when MacLean, William H. Chafe professor of history and public policy, spoke at New York’s Unitarian Church of All Souls in early February. At the talk, which was about her book, “Democracy in Chains,” one audience member asked a question about the motivations of the late economist, James Buchanan. In her book, MacLean writes that Buchanan was one of the founders of libertarianism.

In response to the question, MacLean suggested that Buchanan might have been on the “autism spectrum.”

“It's striking to me how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum,” she said an hour into the talk. “You know, people who don't feel solidarity or empathy with others and who have difficult human relationships sometimes.”

The comments drew opposition from Duke students. Senior Hunter Michielson, president of Duke Young Americans for Liberty, posted a petition in the All Duke Facebook page, asking Duke to condemn her remarks. The petition had 85 signatories as of Monday evening.

In a written response emailed to The Chronicle, MacLean apologized and promised to never use such language again.

“I do apologize.  It was a long night and rather than take the time to find the right way to express what I wanted to say, I reached for a reference that was inappropriate and just wrong,” she wrote. “You can be sure I will never again speak as I did here. Having sought deeper knowledge about autism I was already learned my error about empathy and solidarity. I will continue to learn more going forward.”

She also pushed back on how she felt some commentators had construed her remarks, emphasizing that she was speaking about specific individuals and that she clarified her comments were speculation during the talk.

“I was speaking of a few particular individuals, in 'speculation,' in response to a specific question about those individuals, which you will see if you review the actual video, not the commentary being circulated on the right,” she wrote.


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