Gordon Tullock on the Origins of Public Choice

by Don Boudreaux on July 22, 2017

in History, Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

In 1997 my late colleague Gordon Tullock (1922-2014) – widely and correctly recognized to be among the founders of public-choice scholarship – published an article entitled “Origins of Public Choice.”  It is reprinted in The Economics of Politics (2005), which is volume 4 of the Selected Works of Gordon Tullock.  Had Nancy MacLean read (or read carefully) this article, she would have  learned that many of her fanciful suppositions about the roots of public choice are mistaken.  Here’s Gordon’s opening sentence:

Public Choice started long ago with the Marquis de Condorcet, and in modern times Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, and Anthony Downs have written books which are to this day read as classics [p. 11]

Tullock’s claim here is one that is familiar to anyone who knows public-choice scholarship.  Curiously, however, Nancy MacLean – in writing a book in which she poses as someone who knows the history of public choice – never once mentions Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017) (despite Arrow being a 1972 Nobel laureate economist) or Duncan Black (1908-1991).  She mentions Anthony Downs (1930 –  ) only once, when she quotes from his review of Buchanan’s and Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent.  MacLean does not mention Downs’s pioneering and influential 1957 public-choice book, An Economic Theory of Democracy.  Too bad, that, for had she given these pioneering figures the recognition that they deserve in any book that is fancied to reveal the true origins of public-choice scholarship, MacLean’s account of public-choice being rooted in southern U.S. racism and “Southern Agrarianism” would have been immediately exposed as dubious.

Condorcet (1743-1794) was a brilliant French mathematician and philosopher who famously held genuinely progressive political views.  Indeed, as is said correctly about Condorcet’s political views on his Wikipedia page, “Condorcet’s work was mainly focused on a quest for a more egalitarian society.”  It would severely complicate the narrative of public choice as a racist plot – one that has as its “intellectual lodestar” John C. Calhoun – to have to explain what Condorcet is doing as a founder of public choice.  (To avoid any possible confusion, note that Calhoun had just turned 12 years of age when Condorcet died.  Therefore, Calhoun’s influence on Condorcet was likely negligible.)

Here’s another passage from Tullock’s 1997 essay:

Those who feel that public choice started on the far right should bear in mind that Kenneth Arrow regarded himself as a socialist, that Duncan Black [a Scot] voted for Labour, and that both Anthony Downs and Mancur Olson are members of the left half of the Democratic party [p. 18].

Mancur Olson (1932-1998) is another justly celebrated early public-choice theorist.  Although MacLean cites Olson, and on page 111 of her book describes him and one of his co-authors (Christopher Clague) as “public choice scholars,” she is either unaware of, or does not reveal, the fact that Olson’s work played, and still plays, a major role in the public-choice literature.

So we have among public-choice’s founders and most-influential early contributors an 18th-century French liberal, an American Nobel laureate economist with socialist (and certainly undeniable left-wing) credentials, a Scottish Labourite, and two Americans – one from Evanston, IL (Downs) and the other from Grand Forks, ND (Olson) – who identified themselves as very ‘liberal’ Democrats.  (Tullock, by the way, was from Rockford, IL.)  Yet Nancy MacLean remained ignorant of nearly all of these facts when telling the world, in her book, that public-choice scholarship traces back to the racist ideas and ideals of John C. Calhoun and the Southern Agrarianism of Donald Davidson.

Methinks that MacLean is ignorant of the topic about which she pretends to be informed in Democracy in Chains.


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