The first time I met Gordon Tullock, as I tell here, was in the fall of 1971 when he gave a paper at a conference at the University of Western Ontario. The paper was titled “The Paradox of Revolution.”

Here’s my summary of the relevant points that I wrote up in my above appreciation of Gordon:

In it [the paper], he pointed out a simple but powerful insight. Any one person’s decision to participate in a revolution, he noted, does not much affect the probability that the revolution will succeed. Therefore, when each person considers participating in the revolution, the expected benefits that he takes account of that are generated by the revolution are not much affected by his own decision to participate. This is true, noted Tullock, even for the most visible and influential participants. On the other hand, noted Tullock, a nasty government can individualize the costs very effectively by heavily punishing those who participate in a revolution. So anyone contemplating participating in a revolution will be comparing heavy individual costs and small benefits that are simply his pro rata share of the overall benefits. Therefore, argued Tullock, for people to participate, they must expect some benefits that are tied to their own participation, such as a job in the new government or whatever. Tullock noted that, in fact, the typical revolution involves many of the people who are actually in the government they are revolting against. This is evidence for his model, Tullock said, because such people are particularly well situated to replace the incumbent office-holders.

The paper was published in Public Choice, 1971, Vol. 11, No. 1: 89-99.

Now consider this excerpt from Robert Fisk’s report on the Tunisian revolution:

But the “unity” government is to be formed by Mohamed Ghannouchi, a satrap of Mr Ben Ali’s for almost 20 years, a safe pair of hands who will have our interests – rather than his people’s interests – at heart.

Don’t get distracted by the “our interests” point. The interesting thing is how well this fits the spirit and letter of Tullock’s article. Revolutions, noted Tullock, are commonly conducted by insiders against other insiders. That’s true of the Tunisian revolution. And 40 years ago, Tullock showed why.