Professor Gordon Tullock: A Personal Remembrance on His Centennial
By Richard B. McKenzie
- (A revised and extended version of a tribute to Gordon Tullock published as Professor Gordon Tullock: A Personal Remembrance, by Richard B. McKenzie. Library of Economics and Liberty, December 1, 2014.)
He will long be remembered by economists around the world who never met him. 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 reflected, at the time of his death, on how Gordon could well have been on the so-called “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—through lobbying and campaign contributions—monopoly profits, or “rents,” from 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 no longer needs to be placed in quotes.
Gordon Tullock, An Original Academic Character
Beyond his many path-breaking accomplishments, however, Gordon was a real character. Many who knew him still carry the sting of a (usually gentle) 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. For Gordon, argument was a sport that gave his life meaning, and he was a gracious sportsman, never willing to press points with those who found him difficult.
On his death, law professor and economist David Friedman related a personal story similar to those of others who could draw from their memories of Gordon, “My wife remembers meeting [Gordon] when she was my girlfriend. He started the conversation by asking why she was wearing a backpack. Her interpretation was that the only form of conversation he knew was argument. He knew only two things about her—that she was my girlfriend, and she was wearing a backpack—so she flipped a mental coin and chose the backpack. He never made the common mistake that an argument was a quarrel.”
As National Review columnist John Miller recalled at the time of Gordon’s death, Gordon was proud to announce that he didn’t vote, with Gordon explaining that the late “Anthony Downs [one of the earliest public-choice economists] convinced me long ago that I stand a greater chance of being killed in a car accident on the way to the polls than I do of making a difference with my vote. So why bother?” Miller added that his friends, colleagues, and students delighted in pinning their “I voted” stickers to his office door. I am confident that Gordon was silently pleased to see the stickers. After all, they engaged him, albeit at a safe distance.
One might surmise from Gordon’s allegiance to marginal economic thinking that he was always and everywhere a cost minimizer. On the contrary, I’ve never encountered a more principled and generous economist, or human being, which I suspect was at the heart of the outpouring of tributes on his death. He gave of his time generously in argument with colleagues and students alike, always leaving them with grist to ponder. But then there was his willingness to develop comradery among his colleagues and students, current and former.
Gordon was not a cook, which means he shied from entertaining in his townhouse in Blacksburg. But he was “old school” and firmly believed that convivial interactions among colleagues over wine and cheese and dinners was important to department cohesion and to the advancement of intellectual arguments.
Many of Gordon’s colleagues and students know that I am referring to the many dinners he hosted for twelve to twenty invited guests and spouses at an upscale French restaurant outside of Blacksburg. These events started at his townhouse with cheese, crackers, and wine but would soon move in a caravan of cars to the restaurant Gordon had reserved for the evening. The conversations were never chit-chat—for long. They quickly became substantive as Gordon and Jim Buchanan, or other guests, would spike discussions with observations. Never have academic discussions been so wide-ranging and productive for me.
When I was invited back to Virginia Tech in summer 1977 as a visitor, Gordon arranged one of these dinners for me. He misunderstood when I would arrive in Blacksburg, which was after his gathering had left for the restaurant. My townhouse was doors away from his, which means I heard the guests returning late after their dinner. When I realized the mistake, I knocked on his door to apologize as profusely as I could for my absence. I was surprised and greatly relieved at his cordial reaction, “No problem. I will arrange another one for tomorrow night,” which he did.
A Natural Economist
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, he received his JD degree from the University of Chicago without having an undergraduate degree. With a publication record in economics journals that has rarely been 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. He seemed convinced that being an untrained economist was an advantage, because he could freely think outside the box that he was never in.
A Fountain of Insights
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 pressed a new and, at the time, startling insight: “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 in the group dared to challenge 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 has 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 vividly 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 and unobservable. On hearing an economic novice make that point in the Center’s hallway, Gordon snapped, “Do 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, calling Gordon “Professor Tullock.” A year after I graduated, Gordon rebuked me for addressing him so formally: “You know, you can now call me ‘Gordon’… although I really prefer ‘Your Majesty.'” I suspect that a number of Gordon’s students have, like me, borrowed that quip.
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 its outlandish (for the era) applications of economic analysis—from sex to dying, from mate search to marriage to divorce, and from presidential elections to crime. A life-long bachelor and very private person, Gordon asked me, “Please tell people I didn’t write the sex chapters.” I assured him, “Gordon, I don’t think you need to worry.”4
A Keynesian Maverick
In the 1970s, the “Phillips curve,” which graphically describes the presumed tradeoff between inflation and unemployment rates, was still the rage in macroeconomic circles (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 the then dominant Keynesian economists, who were committed to the downward-sloping Phillips-curve, which they considered sacrosanct. Gordon’s point about the slope of the Phillips curve eventually won the argument (at least through the 1970s and 1980s).
Following the substantial success of our New World of Economics, publishers pursued us to write a full-year economics textbook. On agreeing to write our introductory text, 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 left his dictated 500 or so manuscript pages on macroeconomics on my desk. After reviewing what he had done, I had to press 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.” I was lost for an answer that he would find convincing, other than explaining to him that all other textbooks had a dozen or so chapters on Keynesian economics and adding that our book would be dismissed for adoptions as a result. This was an argument that left Gordon unmoved. I agreed to add the missing content if he would add chapters on public choice economics, which no other textbook had.
The Buchanan/Tullock Calculus
Sadly, people’s personal reflections on Gordon’s career will soon fade from historical relevance as the many students he directly affected age out of their careers. 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” (the book’s descriptive subtitle.)6 In that book, Gordon and Buchanan dared to assume (at least for theory’s sake) 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 assumptions (again, if for no other reason than for the sake of a coherent theory), 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 for 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 powerful, explanation: The benefits governments provide (for example, crop subsidies) often become capitalized in the market value of capital (say, farmland). 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.
A second notable 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 (or were forced to check their growth by “managers”), they all could receive as much sunlight as with unchecked growth, with less energy spent on becoming spindly.
Hence, Gordon 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.
A Lasting Legacy
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, Gordon, along with a few others, changed the way hordes of people across the globe assess constitutions, politics, and bureaucracy, as well as outlining the important issue of the appropriate division between the public and private sectors. Many people, far removed from academies who provide political commentaries today, don’t know they are relating versions of arguments Gordon originated and nurtured during his long career. 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 the Liberty Fund Book Catalog).
 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.
 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 the Liberty Fund Book Catalog.
 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 the Library of Economics and Liberty.
 Gordon Tullock. 1967. Toward a Mathematics of Politics. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.
*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. His latest book in economics is The Selfish Brain: A Layperson’s Guide to a New Way of Economic Thinking (2021).
Photo of Gordon Tullock courtesy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
For more articles by Richard McKenzie, see the Archive.