While preparing the opening-dinner talk for this weekend’s 2013 Public Choice Outreach Conference, a comparison dawned on me – a comparison that the two economists involved would likely not endorse. But I fancy that, even if it’s imperfect, there’s something valid to this comparison.
On pages 54-55 of his 1992 essay “Virginia Political Economy” (reprinted here on pages 50-63), Jim Buchanan recollects Gordon Tullock’s initial arrival at the University of Virginia, in 1958:
Tullock acted as what I have called a “natural economist,” who reduced any and all human behavior to that of Homo economicus, at least as an initial working hypothesis. This basically hard-nosed vision of the behavior of persons in bureaucratic roles allowed Tullock to “explain” and to “understand” what he had observed in his nine years of experience in the foreign service bureaucracy. And this basic behavioral model gave him an initial handle on analyzing the workings of majoritarian democratic process.
In a real sense Tullock’s contribution to Virginia Political Economy was to harden the underlying behavioral model, to make the individualistic approach that I had long stressed more amenable to precise analytical manipulation.
In another autobiographical essay (that I cannot now lay my hands on), Jim admitted that, prior his joining forces with Gordon at UVA, he – Jim – wasn’t as consistent as he ought to have been in applying to agents in his analyses of public-sector activities the same assumptions that he applied to agents in his analyses of private-sector activities.
So it strikes me that Tullock was the John Lennon to Jim Buchanan’s Paul McCartney. Tullock gave Buchanan’s work just the edge and near-cocky self-confidence it needed to soar to superstardom heights that it likely would not have otherwise reached.
Please, dear readers, I truly do understand that my comparison is far from perfect – for example, unlike McCartney in the Lennon-McCartney team, Buchanan was the more philosophical of the two in the Buchanan-Tullock team. But the analytical edge and theoretical daring – the singular clarity of vision of the power of basic economic postulates – these were brought to public-choice scholarship by Tullock. And when these combined with Buchanan’s more melodious themes, a uniquely successful partnership bore great and good fruit.
It is, of course, purely coincidental that Buchanan joined forces with Tullock in the very same year that Lennon joined forces with McCartney: 1958.
(P.S. I thank Center for Study of Public Choice Director Alex Tabarrok for giving me the honor of opening this year’s splendid seminar.)