McKenzie on Tullock
By David Henderson
Gordon Tullock was, in James Buchanan’s words, a “natural economist” who saw economics as his way of understanding all of life. He talked and wrote much about personal interest and profit as motivations in markets and politics. Yet he gave much of himself and his time to others–especially to his students, including me, early in our careers–by promptly reviewing countless of our papers.
Gordon did not have an economics pedigree, and that made him proud. Indeed, with a publication record in economics journals that was rarely matched, he was never more pleased than when he told people that he had taken only one formal course in the subject, which, he insisted, provided poor training at best and freed him to find insights where traditional economists believed they should not tread.
These two paragraphs are from Richard B. McKenzie, “Professor Gordon Tullock: A Personal Remembrance,” one of the two Econlib Feature Articles for December. Richard was a student of Tullock’s as well as a co-author.
On Tullock’s abrasive personality:
Gordon could be abrasive, especially in his early years and especially when he could readily pick out flaws in arguments. Some who felt (and may still feel) his sting, but did not stay around long enough to really know him, may remember him as mean-spirited. But those of us who lingered came to realize that he was virtually incapable of being intentionally mean-spirited. He was an economist who saw argument as a serious sport. He would not drop arguments or even sugarcoat them out of concern for political (or personal) correctness.
I agree with Richard that Tullock was not intentionally mean-spirited. That’s what made it relatively easy, after an adjustment period, for me to talk to him. Richard doesn’t say this in the piece, but there is no virtually no doubt in mind that Tullock’s abrasiveness cost him a Nobel prize.
Here’s what I wrote in Reason in “James Buchanan and Company” in November 1987:
Tullock, who grew up in Chicago, has a cherubic face that makes him look like an overgrown kid. He is very abrasive. He loves to tangle people in knots when he disagrees with them and will push until they cry uncle. My guess is that his abrasiveness cost Tullock a Nobel. (The Nobel decisions was apparently a cliff-hanger; Tullock claims he was told that the committee split at the last minute on whether to make a joint award.)
Back to Richard McKenzie’s article. It’s a nice mixture of professional appreciation and personal reminiscence. The main new thing I learned from it (besides the fact that Tullock was concerned that people would think he wrote the sex chapters of a book he co-authored with McKenzie) is Tullock’s application of the “tragedy of the commons” to trees: not people cutting down trees, but trees acting like people.
By the way, on my to-do list for the Christmas holiday is writing a bio of Tullock (and completing bios of some of the recent Nobel winners, including Krugman) for The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Richard McKenzie’s piece on Tullock gives me a head start.