Gordon Tullock

by Don Boudreaux on April 22, 2009

in Politics

Gordon Tullock, who retired last August from GMU, was back on GMU's campus today — visiting from his home in Tucson with his lovely sister Mary Lou and his brother-in-law Bob — to discuss economics with our students.  What a treat!

At 87 Gordon's mind is as sharp as ever.  No scholar has done more than Gordon to disabuse people of any romantic or religious notions that they might have about the nature of government.  Gordon did this disabusing, along with Jim Buchanan and other public-choice scholars, with world-class scholarship.  His ten-volume Selected Works are a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the nature of government — and a must-avoid for anyone interested in maintaining his or her faith in politicians' goodness or specialness, or any faith in the capacity, or even the willingness, of government officials to work together to make people generally, rather than just politicians and interest-groups, better off.

Among the most important of Gordon's insights are

- his demonstration that good political decisions are public-goods no less than are the public-goods that allegedly are provided in only sub-optimal quantities on private markets;

- his demonstration that people and institutions spend resources in socially (if not privately) wasteful ways seeking privileges from government;

- his demonstration that there is nothing at all special about majority rule as a means of arriving at collective decisions; that is, a supermajority rule is at least as likely — and, probably, more likely — to maximize welfare over time than is a rule of simple majority.

I've always believed that, if there were such a phenomenon as reincarnation, that Gordon must be the present embodiment of Jeremy Bentham — a mind brilliantly creative, bowing to no dogmas; a yearning (a bit too eager for my taste) to re-engineer legal institutions; an absolute inability to see the world romantically; and a capacity for work that embarrasses us mere mortals.

No economist still living deserves the Nobel Prize in Economics more than does Gordon — and only Armen Alchian deserves it as much.  It's a damn shame that neither Gordon nor Alchian has yet received this award.

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{ 44 comments }

dg lesvic April 22, 2009 at 4:01 pm

I've always been puzzled at what was meant by Public Choice Economics. How does it differ from economics per se? Isn't there just economics and non-economics?

Debashish April 22, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Professor Boudreaux – it seems your hyperlink meant to point to Jeremy Bentham's bio errorneously points to Armen Alchian's bio.

Kevin April 22, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I don't know Tullock, but since you analogize him to Bentham, is he anywhere near as *crazy* as Bentham was? For instance, does he think the pleasure from reading poetry and the pleasure of rolling around in the mud are equivalent? Or does he intend to leave his body stuffed in the GMU trustees office, as Bentham did with his body at UCL? Or does he have similarly insane views?

JP April 22, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Or does he intend to leave his body stuffed in the GMU trustees office, as Bentham did with his body at UCL?

I think that's a perfectly sane thing to do. He just needs to be more careful about the procedure to be used for preserving his head.

Jayson Virissimo April 22, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Don, is there anything you can do to bring back Exchange and Production? As far as I know, it is out a print.

Methinks April 22, 2009 at 8:39 pm

dg lesvic,

I believe Public Choice is the study of government – specifically, the behaviour of those in government. It's not different from economics in general but rather a specialization in political behaviour.

dg lesvic April 22, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Methinks,

Since economics is the study of action itself and not the motivations that lead to it, it sounds as if your Public Choice Economics is really Public Choice Psychology.

MnM April 22, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Public Choice Theory.

Don't sell PCT short. It's a way of examining politics from a economic perspective. To my knowledge it was never done until Tullock looked at it. Dr. Boudreaux, correct me if I'm wrong, but prior to Tullock government wasn't even looked upon as a economic agent (by economists).

dg lesvic April 22, 2009 at 10:05 pm

I have nothing against Public Choice Theory, just its confusion with economics.

Economics proper isn't concerned with the motivations of public do-gooders, whether they really want to do good or not, but with their capability of it. It is concerned not with what they really want to do, but can do, and leaves their motivations to another field, Psychology.

MnM April 22, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Economics concerns a wide array of things (including the motivations of market agents). You'll often hear economists say that "incentives matter." What is this, if not the motivations of market agents?

When you pigeon holing economics you'll miss out on many of its key insights.

dg lesvic April 22, 2009 at 11:08 pm

MnM,

Incentive is just an axiom, a given of economics, and not its subject matter, something that it must analyze and explain.

The question of what people are motivated to do and what they are capable of doing are two separate questions. It is not to exclude the one to say that it shouldn't be confused with the other. It is not to say that economists ought not go beyond their field, but only that when they do so they ought to know what they're doing.

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

To sum up, the question of motivation is irrelevant to economics, for it says that even if the public do gooders were truly motivated to do good, they couldn't.

MnM April 23, 2009 at 8:03 am

Did you read the link I provided?

Methinks April 23, 2009 at 8:28 am

Economics proper isn't concerned with the motivations of public do-gooders

Economics is the study of trade-offs. Trade-offs are simply decisions. Decisions arise from people's motivations, thus Economics is at the core a study of both motivations and actions. You cannot completely divorce Economics from aspects of Psychology and Sociology because it is the study of human behaviour.

Christina April 23, 2009 at 11:44 am

Why is it that Tullock and Alchian have not received Nobel prizes? Is it a political thing?

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 1:18 pm

MnM,

I did read your link.

Methinks,

You wrote,

"Economics is the study of trade-offs. Trade-offs are simply decisions. Decisions arise from people's motivations,…"

Right.

You went on:

"thus Economics is at the core a study of both motivations and actions."

Only half right. It doesn't study the motivations. They are given. It studies the actions that arise from them. They are not given, but must be studied through the chain of reasoning known as economics.

You wrote,

"You cannot completely divorce Economics from aspects of Psychology and Sociology because it is the study of human behaviour."

Right. The axioms and givens are essential to the science, but do not enter into its analysis. They are the starting point of it. That is all.

MnM April 23, 2009 at 1:27 pm

From Wikipedia:

James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock coauthored The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (1962), considered one of the landmark works that founded the discipline of public choice theory. In particular (1962, p. v), the book is about the political organization of a free society. But its method, conceptual apparatus, and analytics "are derived, essentially, from the discipline that has as its subject the economic organization of such a society."

You realize that much of what you read by Don and Russ here at the Cafe is Public Choice Theory, right?

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 1:45 pm

From WikipediaPhobia,

There is no Public Choice Economics, Labor Economics, Business Economics, Agricultural Economics, Macro, Micro, or any other kind of economics, distinct from other kinds. There are no branches of economics. There is just economics and non-economics. For, as Mises put it, all the problems are linked with one another. The specialist cannot contribute to economics because he cannot see all the interconnected problems of the indivisible market process. Almost inevitably his specialization degenerates into a narrow special interest ideology.

And if Don or Russ or God Himself thinks otherwise, I would disagree.

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

MnM

Why don't you ask them if they would disagree?

I am sure they would not.

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

I meant, disagree with me.

MnM April 23, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Oh, God, I don't know why I bother.

Sorry dg, I forgot that Mises is Economic Gospel and everything else is Apocryphal.

MnM April 23, 2009 at 2:15 pm

There is no Public Choice Economics

That's why it's called Public Choice Theory. Try reading The Calculus of Consent before you so dismiss it.

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 2:42 pm

I have already told you that I don't dismiss Public Choice Theory. I just object to the confusion of psychology with economics.

As for Mises, I have my disagreements with him, too, but still say that he stands head and shoulders above all others, and that, if we can see beyond him, it is because we have his giant shoulders to stand upon.

MnM April 23, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Why don't you ask them if they would disagree?

I am sure they would not.

That must be why Boudreaux believes Tullock deserves the Nobel in Economics.

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I can't recall having read any of Tullock's work, but if Boudreaux thinks he deserves the Nobel Prize, I am sure that he does.

But that doesn't mean that he was right about everything. I have the most fundamental differences with Milton Friedman, and about the same sort of thing, the confusion of history with economics. But I have still said he richly deserved his Nobel Prize. He both served and disserved economics. He deserved his prize for his services to it, but not for his disservices. He was a great man, but, as you have informed me of Mises, for which I thank you, not God.

dg lesvic April 23, 2009 at 3:09 pm

And isn't the Nobel Prize in economics a bit overrated?

As I had written many years ago,

Academic economics is a backward march of science marked by Nobel Prizes for embroidered intellectual byplay, denials of economics, and appeals for more socialism and another madman's guns at our heads. Most of them are worth about as much as the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasir Arafat. While Hayek and Friedman richly deserved their awards, what has economics gotten from almost all the other "beautiful minds" but mathematical doodling and bad writing, erudition in the air, without any visible points of departure from solid ground?

Charlie April 23, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Haha, how about this dg:

There is no Cardiology, Endocrinology, Gastroenterology, Pulmonology, Rheumatology or any other kind of medical science, distinct from other kinds. There are no branches of medical science. There is just medical science and non-medical science. For, as Mises put it, all the problems are linked with one another. The specialist cannot contribute to medical science because he cannot see all the interconnected problems of the indivisible biological process. Almost inevitably his specialization degenerates into a narrow special interest ideology.

But then again, I guess there is no medical science, chemistry, biology, physics, just science and non-science…

Just so you know, that's how silly you sound to people who know what they are talking aboug (and Mises too).

As far as Tullock and the prize go. He's an interesting candidate. His citation ranking is not very good 266 according to Coupe's website. On the other hand, he had a big hand in bringing together law and economics and govenment and economics, so his citation ranking may be vastly underrated. I don't know enough about the fields to know if Tullock is still influential. It'd be interesting to see his citation ranking in Gov't/law/political science journals.

dg lesvic April 24, 2009 at 2:58 am

Charlie,

If there are branches of economics, Public Choice Theory is not one of them.

Since Public Choice tells us that public policy is not as well intentioned as it is made out to be, and economics that, well intentioned or not, it doesn't work, Public Choice doesn't make any difference in economics. How, then, could it be a part of it, and anything but irrelevant to it?

As for any other branches of economics, I am completely in the dark, and await your enlightenment.

Biomed Tim April 24, 2009 at 3:25 am

I'm surprised there hasn't been an EconTalk interview with Gordon Tullock yet. Professor Roberts, can we do something about this?

TrUmPiT April 24, 2009 at 7:21 am

I heard Prof. Turlock explain why he never voted. He said that his vote had almost a zero probability of affecting the outcome of an election and that he would have to "enjoy" voting to make it worth his while, and he didn't. I'm paraphrasing, but that is what I gleaned from his opinion on the matter. The problem with that position is that if many people refused to vote, then others will decide the fate of those that choose not to vote. I think Kant understood that outcomes of close elections can be affected if people stay home on election day to play tittley winks. This "dilemma" can be resolved in favor of voting by fining people $100 for not voting, unless they have a legitimate excuse like serious illness that incapcitates them.

Methinks April 24, 2009 at 10:09 am

Well said, Charlie.

dg lesvic April 24, 2009 at 11:51 am

Methinks,

You wrote,

"Well said, Charlie."

What was well said, beyond his non-sequitur?

Charlie April 24, 2009 at 6:27 pm

"Since Public Choice tells us that public policy is not as well intentioned as it is made out to be, and economics that, well intentioned or not, it doesn't work, Public Choice doesn't make any difference in economics. How, then, could it be a part of it, and anything but irrelevant to it?"

You have a very skewed view of what economics is about. I think it is understandable, because when economists are in public they more often have their advocate hat on than their scientist hat, but one thing economics tries very hard to not say is whether something "works." "Works" is a normative term requiring value judgements. Economics is an attempt to tell what is or will be and not offer a judgement about what should be.

Public choice is extending that same reasoning to government action. It makes the types of assumptions economists tend to make and ask how it effect how government actors behave. If such and such bill is introduced, how will gov't actors vote. If such and such rule is changed how does it affect the gov't. If such and such technological change happens, how will a population change its voting behavior.

dg lesvic April 24, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Charlie,

You wrote,

"You have a very skewed view of what economics is about."

I certainly hope so, from your point of view, if you think that economics is not about what works, and that the concept of what works is a normative one.

Methinks April 27, 2009 at 11:50 am

dg,

Charlie's analogy was spot on. That's what I meant by "well said". Economics is the study of trade-offs. Why should the study of trade-offs for political actors not be considered Economics while the trad-offs in the labour market is?

The conclusions of a study – what "works" and what "doesn't work" – have nothing to do with the legitimacy of the study.

dg lesvic April 27, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Methinks,

To Mises, Economics, or Catallactics, was but one part, though the best elaborated part, of a broader science, Praxeology, the science of Human Action, which, as you said, was a science of trade-offs.

But, to say that, because there were branches of Praxeology, there must also be branches of its branches, is a non-sequitur.

If there are branches of economics, why can't you just tell me what they are?

I don't get the point of your last statement:

"The conclusions of a study – what "works" and what "doesn't work" – have nothing to do with the legitimacy of the study."

Methinks April 27, 2009 at 4:43 pm

dg lesvic,

The last statement is in response to "…if you think that economics is not about what works…"

It's not a study of what works. It's a study of trade-offs. In academia there are specializations within specializations within specializations. It just depends on how much researchers want to narrow their research focus. Whether you reject Public Choice as a legitimate area of study or not (which you are free to do) is irrelevant.

dg lesvic April 27, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Methinks,

I am afraid I just don't have the patience to try to convince you that economics is about what works.

So, I guess you win the argument.

Methinks April 28, 2009 at 10:36 am

Well, either you're wrong or I don't know what you mean by "what works". We're not on debating teams, so any "win" has little meaning unless you happen to have gotten your point across.

dg lesvic April 28, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Before the advent of economics: "Social problems were considered ethical problems…The discovery of the inescapable interdependence of market phenomena overthrew this opinion. Bewildered, people…learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of…just and unjust…the 'industrial revolution' was an offspring of the ideological revolution brought about by…the economists." Mises, Human Action, Pp 2, 8

And what was that other aspect from which human action might be viewed?

The aspect of what works and doesn't work.

dg lesvic April 28, 2009 at 1:48 pm

In other words, do the policies aimed at a particular goal actually help or hinder its attainment?

dg lesvic April 28, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Do the policies work, are they appropriate means for the attainment of the given ends?

That is the only question of economics, the science of what works and doesn't work, and nothing else.

So far as the questions of Public Choice Theory are the same, PCT is just another term for economics. So far as its questions are other than what works and doesn't work, they are not questions of economics. Questions of pyschology, or morality, but not economics.

What is that the public officials really want, regardless of what they say they want? That is a question of Psychology, not economics. Economics doesn't ask what their real goals are, but, whatever they are, are their policies appopriate means for the attainment of their ends, stated or real? Will they actually bring about the desired result, or a result that from the standpoint of their advocates is really a less satisfactory state of affairs.

I'm really surprised that you would question that. I had thought it was the most elemental thing. And precisely because it is elemental, it can't be argued about. It's like two and two is four. Either you get it or you don't. If you don't, I can't prove it to you. Denying that two and two is four, you could win your arguments with the geatest mathematicians of all time. Einstein could tell you nothing. And if you deny that economics is not about what works, Adam Smith himself couldn't tell you anything. You could win all your arguments with him, and on behalf of all the other great nihilists of modern times, and socialist dictators and mass murderers.

Methinks April 29, 2009 at 12:17 pm

dg,

Thanks for explaining your positions, but proclaiming that your argument amounts to 2+2=4 does not make it so and telling people that if they fail to accept your analysis they are hopeless also doesn't make it so.

By your logic, all sciences are the study of what works. How decisions are made by politicians is NOT economics? Why not?

What is that the public officials really want, regardless of what they say they want? That is a question of Psychology, not economics.

And that is a very nice straw man you built. PCT is not the study of what politicians want in their heart of hearts any more than any other area of economics is the study of people's deepest desires.

What you haven't accepted is that it's the study of political behaviour – which, like all other behaviours – are driven by incentives. Last I checked, incentives are a pretty big part of economics. PCT assumes political actors are rational and self-interested. PCT also makes conclusions – what works and what doesn't. Some have concluded that government doesn't really work, full stop. I think David Friedman might fall into that category.

dg lesvic April 29, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Methinks,

As I said, you have won the argument, and I'll have nothing more to say about it, to you.

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