The Incomparable Tullock
By Bryan Caplan
I am all-in for Gordon Tullock, my Nobel-worthy colleague who retired last year. He is notorious as a homo economicus reductionist. If you actually read his works, however, you will see that his view of human nature is far subtler and more profound. Tullock knows very well that rational self-interest doesn’t describe all of the people all of the time. But he also knows that it describes most of us most of the time – and that people pretend to be far less selfish than they really are.
My two favorite books by Tullock are The Social Dilemma and Autocracy. When I was preparing my graduate public choice syllabus, I was delighted to learn that these two masterpieces are now under one cover: volume 8 of The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock. I just finished a full re-read, and find myself admiring his scholarship more than ever.
I’m going to be periodically sharing the highlights of The Social Dilemma and Autocracy for the next month or two. There’s so much material to work with. For tonight, I’ll just start out with two random, brilliant passages.
Tullock on the unintended consequences of Stalinist managerial incentives:
As a rough rule of thumb, anyone who rises to really high
rank must be planning on following a rather opportunistic course of
action. This may in fact be one reason
for refusing promotion. I was told by a
member of the British Intelligence Service that in Russia under Stalin you
normally found that the brightest and most competent man in any given factory
was not the manager, but the deputy. He
normally had refused several opportunities to acquire the much larger prestige
and income of a manager because it also involved a much larger chance of going
Tullock on conspiracy, conversation, and coup prevention:
One thing that is frequently discussed in this area, and
which I believe is almost never found in reality, is a carefully laid
plot. The trouble with a carefully laid
plot is that too many people have to know about it. Even discussing a coup with one or two
persons is dangerous…
There is an exception to the above rule in those cases in
which coup and attempted coup are perfectly ordinary parts of life, as, for
example, in South America. It seems
likely that most South American armies are so accustomed to coup that the
potential of overthrowing the government or supporting it would be a rather
ordinary topic of conversation in the officers’ mess. Although this is true enough, the very highest
military officers had better not engage in this kind of conversation. It’s not possible for the dictator to get rid
of the bulk of the junior officer corp, but he can make his chief of staff the
ambassador to Australia.
If the Nobel committee doesn’t recognize Tullock soon, drastic action may be required. But you didn’t hear it from me!