June 29, 2022

Remembering a Giant in Economics

Gordon Tullock’s contributions to economics and political science will stand the test of time. They are immense.

Less than nine months before the much-anticipated US midterm elections, it’s not too soon to ask an old question: Is it rational to vote?

Posing that question to almost any audience evokes passionate reactions on both the “yes” and the “no” sides. In a public setting, most people would take the affirmative position and probably suggest that patriotism demands it—even if in practice, a lot of them don’t bother to show up at the polls. Those from the negative perspective will denounce the choices with which the voters are presented and, on that score, I’m almost always sympathetic.

On this matter, there’s not much middle ground. There’s also not a lot of deep thinking. Fortunately, a great economist born 100 years ago today—February 13, 1922—gave the world the best and most studied answer yet offered. His name was Gordon Tullock. This is not only the centennial date of his birth, but also the 60th anniversary year of the seminal book he co-authored in 1962 with another economist, James M. Buchanan. Titled The Calculus of Consent, it is generally regarded as the best and most influential work either one produced. Together, these two men pioneered “public choice theory”—the application of economics to politics.

Buchanan, who passed away in 2013, won a Nobel Prize for his work in this intriguing corner of social analysis. Tullock, who died in 2014, should have been so honored as well. Nobel committees don’t always make good decisions, a fact which itself awaits a prize for whoever figures out their thought processes and biases.

On the voting question, Tullock was as adamant as he was scholarly. If you vote because you think your vote will make a difference, you’re not rational. It almost never does. On those rare occasions when the outcome suggests that a particular non-voter could have made a difference, that non-voter couldn’t possibly have known that in advance anyway. On the other hand, if you vote because doing so preserves the “democratic” element of our republic, then that’s rational. As Tullock put it, “If nobody voted, the president would be a dictator.”

The short video below, titled Long Division: The Next Big Threat to Democracy and featuring Tullock himself, should clear up any confusion about his perspective.

Gordon Tullock was born on February 13, 1922 in Rockford, Illinois. After a stint in the military during World War II, he served in the US Foreign Service for a decade. Reading Human Action by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises set his life on a very different trajectory and his collaboration with James Buchanan began shortly thereafter. His teaching and research career, from the late 1950s on, would land him prestigious positions at such places as Virginia Tech, University of Arizona and George Mason University.

In a 2001 essay at FEE.org, The Imperial Science, economist and FreedomFest founder Mark Skousen explained that public-choice theorists like Tullock and Buchanan argue,

that politicians, like businessmen, are motivated by self-interest. They seek to maximize their influence and set policies in order to be re-elected. Unfortunately, the incentives and discipline of the marketplace are often missing in government. Voters have little incentive to control the excesses of legislators, who in turn are more responsive to powerful interest groups. As a result, government subsidizes vested interests of commerce while it imposes costly, wasteful regulations and taxes on the general public.

If you think that people act to improve themselves in the private sector, but they take their self-interest Derby off and put their altruism Stetson on when they enter government, you’ve been drinking some nasty Kool-Aid. Public choice economics is the antidote.

When Tullock died in 2014, Harry David penned a splendid tribute to him and the public choice notions he and Buchanan developed.

As a fall-term undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh half a century ago, my major was Political Science. While learning Austrian, free market economics on my own time, I came to the conclusion that the terms “Political” and “Science” were oxymoronic when placed side-by-side. If it’s Politics, I figured, it’s not Science. It’s just A buying B’s vote with C’s money. So I transferred mid-year to Grove City College where I could major in Economics taught as it should be. As my understanding of the insights of Buchanan and Tullock grew, I came to appreciate that there’s much more going on in Politics even though my assessment of its merits never changed.

When I taught Economics at Northwood University in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my students used Gwartney & Stroup’s Economics: Private and Public Choice as the primary text. Why? Because it was so well informed by the insights of Tullock and Buchanan.

In this brief essay, I cannot possibly do full justice to Tullock or his (and Buchanan’s) profound wisdom. It deserves volumes, and indeed, volumes on it have been penned. I refer interested parties to the recommended readings below, as well as the links embedded herein.

Gordon Tullock’s contributions to economics and political science will stand the test of time. They are immense. Without the tools and observations that he helped give us, nobody but a fool can ever claim angelic powers for government without embarrassing himself. On the centennial of Tullock’s birth, I raise my glass and toast him with a smidgeon from The Calculus of Consent:

If all men were equal in interest and endowment, natural or artificial, there would be no organized economic activity to explain. Each man would be a Crusoe. Economic theory thus explains why men cooperate through trade. They do so because they are different.

For Additional Information, See:

Public Choice: A Primer by Victor Stepian

Gordon Tullock Deserved the Nobel Prize by Peter J. Boettke

Rent-Seeking: A Primer by Sandy Ikeda

Selected Works of Gordon Tullock from Liberty Fund

Economics: Private and Public Choice by James D. Gwartney and Richard L. Stroup

This article, Remembering a Giant in Economics, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.