Professor Gordon Tullock: A Personal Remembrance
By Richard B. McKenzie
Professor Gordon Tullock will be remembered by economists around the world who never met him, much less walked in his considerable academic shadow. Gordon—I call him that because he was a mentor, co-author, and good friend—was one of the hundred most influential economists of the twentieth century. Many still lament the fact that Gordon did not share the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics with James Buchanan, who won it for his development of public choice economics. Gordon, along with Buchanan, nurtured public choice from its birth in the late 1950s, co-authoring or authoring several of the subdiscipline’s classic works.
Many economists will reflect on how, at the time of his death at age 92, Gordon could well have been on the “short list” for a future Nobel for his path breaking work on “rent seeking,” which is concerned with how businesses and other interest groups seek—with lobbying and campaign contributions—monopoly profits, or “rents,” through government-provided largesse or market restrictions.1 Gordon’s work on rent-seeking spawned a mountain of journal articles that changed people’s assessment of how political processes work. The concept of rent-seeking is now so widely adopted in economists’ public commentaries that the expression need no longer be placed in quotes.
Beyond his many path-breaking accomplishments, however, Gordon was a real character. Many who knew him still carry the sting of dismissal or insult, while others remember epiphanies that Gordon freely distributed. 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.
Gordon Tullock was, in James Buchanan’s words, a “natural economist” who saw economics as his way of understanding all of life.2 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.
In spite of Gordon’s occasional barbs, a privileged group of economists who were his students and colleagues will remember Gordon fondly for his many and varied oddball observations of the world. These observations abounded with insights and were sometimes laced with the peculiar humor of a purebred contrarian.
The foyer and hallways of the Public Choice Center at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia were yeast vats for fruitful and sometimes off-the-wall arguments, fueled by Gordon’s relentless search for those prized new ideas, big and small. I remember, as a young graduate student in the early 1970s, listening to several faculty members in the foyer discussing the case for regulating the internal safety of automobiles, then an emerging hot political topic. They were refining standard arguments regarding mandates for the installation of seatbelts, collapsible steering columns, padded dashes, and airbags, all proposed to save lives.
Gordon emerged from his office on hearing the discussion and insisted: “You have it wrong! Interior safety features in cars will reduce the costs of accidents for drivers and encourage them to drive more recklessly, causing more pedestrians deaths. To reduce deaths, the government should require the installation of a dagger at the center of the steering wheel with its tip one inch from the driver’s chest. Who would take driving risks then?” One of the economists challenged Gordon, “I think you have it wrong. If there were such daggers on steering wheels, drivers about to hit pedestrians crossing the street would not hit the brakes. They would hit the accelerator so the car would jolt very little on impact. The daggers will increase deaths of pedestrians.” Gordon adjusted his argument, “My point is that greater safety in automobiles should be expected to increase pedestrian deaths.” Subsequent econometric research proved him right.3
Today, many economists delight in generating such oddball arguments. Back then, such arguments were viewed in some quarters as peculiar, if not reckless. (Interestingly, this small academic anecdote has been repeated so often in so many places that it has many “fathers,” but I am fairly confident that it originated with Gordon that day. Even if the dagger argument was not original to Gordon, it describes the way his mind worked.)
Large groups of economists insist that they have no professional expertise in determining what people want, or should want. After all, they say, preferences are subjective. On hearing an economic novice make that point in the Center’s hallway, Gordon snapped, “You really believe that? Well, I am fairly certain that you would not want me to pour a bucket of boiling oil over you.” He then quickly turned and retreated to his office. Indeed, he often made a quick about-turn just after he twisted his verbal knife.
Gordon was on my dissertation committee. After reading all 252 manuscript pages of my dissertation within twelve hours of my submitting it, Gordon caught me in the hallway to give me his terse assessment: “Minimal but acceptable.” To which I replied, “That’s optimal. Done.”
After completing my Ph.D. and taking a professorship, I continued, out of respect, to call Gordon “Professor Tullock.” A year after I graduated, Gordon rebuked me for calling him Professor Tullock: “You know, you can now call me ‘Gordon’… although I really prefer ‘Your Majesty.'”
In the mid-1970s, Gordon and I co-authored The New World of Economics, which was the Freakonomics of the era and was widely adopted for what seemed to be outlandish applications of economic analysis—from sex to dying, from mate search to marriage to divorce, and from presidential elections to crime. Gordon asked me, “Please don’t tell people I wrote the sex chapters.” I assured him, “Gordon, I don’t think you need to worry” (Gordon was a lifelong bachelor).4
In the 1970s, the “Phillips curve,” which graphically describes the presumed tradeoff between inflation and unemployment rates, was still the rage in macroeconomics (although it was beginning to lose professional respect). Gordon caught several of us in the Center’s foyer to show us a roughly-drawn graph without the axes labeled but with scattered points on it that formed an upward sloping band. He asked us to guess the variables on the axes. No one tried. He then announced that they represented the combinations of the inflation and unemployment rates over the past two decades or so, a revelation that suggested that higher inflation could be hiking unemployment, a bit of macroeconomic heresy to Keynesians, who were committed to the downward-sloping Phillips-curve.
On agreeing to write our introductory textbook, Modern Political Economy, in the late 1970s, Gordon and I divided the workload. He would write the macroeconomics half and I would write the microeconomics. This was a questionable division of labor, given that macro was hardly Gordon’s professional comparative advantage. After six months, he sent me his 500 or so pages on macroeconomics. After reviewing what he had done, I told him, “Gordon, you have only five manuscript pages on Keynesian economics. That won’t work.” He quickly retorted, “Well, tell me what I left out that’s important.”
All-Too-Brief Professional Reflections
Sadly, people’s personal reflections on Gordon’s career will soon fade from historical relevance. What will last will be his massive body of work, which cannot be done justice here (selections of which have been collected by Charles Rowley for Liberty Fund.5) Gordon’s lasting impact on the profession, of course, got its biggest boost with The Calculus of Consent, in which he and James Buchanan worked through “the logical foundations of constitutional democracy” (which happens to be the book’s descriptive subtitle.)6 In that book, Gordon and Buchanan dared to assume that the people who toil at building national constitutions and work through the politics of policy making, within constitutional constraints (or binding rules), are very much like people in the market—no better and no worse—and all are driven by their own interests (broadly determined). People in private markets, who pursue their “self-interest,” should not be expected to pursue some grand construct of the “public interest” when they enter political markets. With that shift in founding assumptions, Gordon and Buchanan were able to deduce several necessary constitutional constraints to limit political operatives’ pursuit of their strictly selfish goals, much as competition limits market players’ pursuit of their selfish goals. One such natural candidate of control was the rule of the majority, which avoided the political log jam that would be expected from the rule of unanimity (under which everyone could engage in strategic voting.) Majority rule would also avoid the potentially oppressive outcomes of votes of small pluralities (under which minorities could vote themselves favored government programs and impose the costs on everyone through higher taxes, resulting in a collection of government programs that a large swath of the polity believes fail a cost-benefit test.)
Gordon soon followed The Calculus of Consent with analytical extensions in his Toward a Mathematics of Politics, in which he notably explained why most voters have little incentive to be informed about political candidates’ favored policies.7 Nonetheless, voters from private interest groups would tend to be well-informed on policies that furthered their private agendas.
Among the numerous and diverse topics Gordon covered in his career, two should receive more attention than they do. The first is the concept of “transitional gains trap.”8 Economists have long recognized that government programs (such as farm subsidies) are almost impossible to curb, much less terminate. Gordon provided a simple, yet insightful, explanation: The benefits governments provide (for example, crop subsidies) often become capitalized in the market value of capital (say, farm land). This means that many of the people who currently gain from these programs paid full market value for those gains. If the government curbs or eliminates these programs, it will impose a huge transitional loss on people who never got a windfall in the first place. Those people will lobby intensely to avoid a capital loss.
The second contribution that should receive more attention is his article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, in which he applied the logic of the “tragedy of the commons” to forestry.9 He reasoned that each tree in an unmanaged forest has a private interest in spreading its leaves as broadly as possible and in outgrowing other trees to access as much sunlight as possible. Trees in an unmanaged forest are in something of an “arms race” that must be suboptimal: if all trees checked their growth, they all could receive as much sunlight as with unchecked growth, with less energy spent on becoming spindly.
Hence, he concluded (surely with a smile) that if trees could (which they obviously can’t) be given a choice between being managed or not, they would collectively choose to be managed.
Many of us feel fortunate today as we reflect on how Gordon Tullock affected our lives and careers—so much for the good. We remember the verbal wounds, but we also remember how he made economics productive, fun, and relevant.
In no small way, he, along with a few others, changed the way people assess constitutions, politics, and bureaucracy, as well as the important issue of the appropriate division between the public and private sectors. Much of the modern skepticism about government solutions to market failures—among academics and in society generally—can be traced in significant, albeit unheralded, ways to the flow of words and incisive arguments coming from Gordon Tullock’s pen (or, rather, from his Dictaphone).
Gordon Tullock. 2005. The Rent-Seeking Society, in The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 5, edited by Charles Rowley. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (with details of the collection available from https://catalog.libertyfund.org/#x002D;selected-works-of-gordon-tullock-cloth-detail.html).
For his major writings that pushed the disciplinary boundaries of economics, see Gordon Tullock. 2006. Economics without Frontiers, in The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 10, edited by Charles Rowley. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
See Sam Peltzman. 1975. “The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation.” Journal of Political Economy 83(2): 677, accessible (with a fee or university affiliation) from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1830396?uid=3739560&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21104618032821.
Richard B. McKenzie and Gordon Tullock. 1975 (with following editions in 1978, 1981, 1985, 1989 and 2012). The New World of Economics. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin (first five editions) and Heidelberg, Ger.: Springer sixth edition).
Gordon Tullock. 2005. The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vols. 1-10, edited by Charles Rowley. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (with details of the collection available from http://catalog.libertyfund.org/economics/the-selected-works-of-gordon-tullock-cloth-detail.html).
James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. 2004. The Calculus of Consent: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, in The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 2, edited by Charles Rowley. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. Available online at http://www.econlib.org/library/Buchanan/buchCv3.html.
Gordon Tullock. 1967. Toward a Mathematics of Politics. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.
Gordon Tullock. 1975. “The Transitional Gains Trap.” Bell Journal of Economics, 6(2): 671-678, accessible (with a fee or university affiliation) from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3003249?uid=3739560&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21104618032821.
Gordon Tullock. 1971. “Biological Externalities.” Journal of Theoretical Biology, 33(3): 565-576, accessible from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/002251937190097X.
*Richard B. McKenzie is the Gerken Professor of Economics and Management Emeritus in the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. He co-authored with Gordon Tullock The New World of Economics, which went through five editions (and five foreign languages) and was adopted at one time or another in almost all of the country’s colleges and universities in the 1970 and 1980s. The sixth edition was published in 2012.
For more articles by Richard B. McKenzie, see the Archive.
Photo of Gordon Tullock courtesy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.