Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 22, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Reality Is Not Optional, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 916 of my late colleague Gordon Tullock’s ingenious July/August 1971 Journal of Political Economy article, “Public Decisions as Public Goods“:

Here, we encounter another very important public-good problem.  The individual citizen, in choosing what car he will purchase, is making a private decision, the full cost of which will fall upon himself.  Thus, he is motivated to put an optimal amount of energy into finding out what is the best car for him.  In addition, if he makes a mistake, no one pays for it but himself.  If, on the other hand, he is considering voting, then, as Kenneth Arrow (1969, p. 107) points out, “since the effect of any individual vote is so very small, it does not pay a voter to acquire information unless his stake in the initial issue is enormously greater than the cost of information.”  The individual voter is producing a public good when he casts his vote, and he has very little, if any, reason for acquiring information to see to it that his vote is properly cast.  The probable cost to him of miscasting his vote is trivial.

Under the circumstances, we would not anticipate that the voter would bother to become very well informed.

DBx: Gordon’s insight (and that of Kenneth Arrow) is important if we are to understand political decision-making realistically rather than romantically.

Note, by the way, that Gordon’s quotation from Arrow is from Arrow’s Spring 1969 article in Public Choice titled “Tullock and an Existence Theorem.”  Nancy MacLean – in her fabulist history of public choice – described Tullock’s publication record in 1967 as being “undistinguished.”  As I show here, that description is completely mistaken.  But to further expose MacLean’s ignorance of the professional status of Gordon Tullock in the mid-1960s, note that one of the most pre-eminent economists in the world then, Kenneth Arrow, was inspired around this time to write and publish an article with “Tullock” in the title.  Economists with undistinguished publication records do not draw such attention from giants in the economics profession.

While I’m on this topic of Tullock’s prominence, let me mention two facts about Tullock that I forgot to mention in my earlier post.  First, in 1967 Tullock also published (with the University of Michigan Press) his book Toward a Mathematics of Politics.  Indeed, it is this 1967 book by Tullock that inspired Arrow’s article.

Second, around this time Tullock was invited to contribute a paper to a festschrift for F.A. Hayek on the latter’s 70th birthday.  This volume – Roads to Freedom: essays in honour of Friedrich A. von Hayek – was published in 1969; Tullock’s contribution to it is titled “The New Theory of Corporations.”  Some of the other contributors to this festschrift are P.T. Bauer, Jim Buchanan, Fritz Machlup, and Karl Popper – highly prominent scholars all, as was Tullock.


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