The Ides of March: Gordon Tullock Strikes Again
By David Henderson
Phil Edwards over at Vox has written a fun piece on the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March. Most of us know what we “know” about it from Shakespeare. Bad idea, says Edwards, and he shows why. His piece is appropriately titled “6 myths about the Ides of March and killing Caesar.”
The whole thing is worth reading, and my favorite story was about the person who warned Caesar about his impending murder. But one thing that caught my economist’s eye was Myth #2. The reason: it’s consistent with the late Gordon Tullock’s work on the economics of revolution.
Myth #2 is that “All the conspirators were idealists who wanted to restore Rome to the people.” Edwards writes:
“I think politicians don’t have a firewall between ideals and practical benefits,” [Barry] Strauss [a Cornell classics and history professor] says. “They think what’s good for the country is also good for themselves. The senators who joined the conspiracy against Caesar can sincerely say he was a threat to the republic and to them and their way of life.”
Before Caesar, Roman nobility and military were free to plunder the provinces they ruled. But under Caesar, Rome controlled the process and sent inspectors to check up on everything, so they could only exploit their provinces under Caesar’s supervision.
Here’s my summary, in “Public Choice and Its Two Founders: An Appreciation,” in Dwight R. Lee, ed., Public Choice, Past and Present, Springer 2013, of Tullock’s work on the economics of revolution:
In it [his paper on revolution], he pointed out a simple but powerful insight: Any one person’s decision to participate in a revolution does not much affect the probability that the revolution will succeed. Therefore, when each person considers participating in the revolution, the benefits he expects to be 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. However, he added, 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 high-level job in the new government. 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, he explained, because such people are particularly well situated to replace the incumbent office-holders.