It is a regrettable fact, but a fact nonetheless, that too many students of economic and monetary history have no idea where the principles and theories they espouse really came from. So many important thinkers, with unconventional and truly inquisitive minds, have been shut out of mainstream textbooks and were robbed of the prominent place they deserved in all our memories to make room for those with more expedient ideas.
One such man is Gordon Tullock, an economist and law professor, whose groundbreaking work on Public Choice Theory forever changed the way we think about the interaction between economics and political science. During his professional career spanning 65 years, he developed concepts and ideas we still rely on today, like rent seeking, and made invaluable contributions to our modern understanding of the economics behind majority voting and democratic decision making.
On February 13th, which would have been his 100th birthday, Václav Klaus penned a personal and insightful account of his own memories and impressions of Tullock, which you’ll find below, commemorating his work and providing a succinct introduction to his ideas for those who haven’t had the pleasure of delving into them yet.
Claudio Grass, Hünenberg See, Switzerland
The Forgotten Anniversary: Gordon Tullock would have turned 100
Economics and economists fall into oblivion. I am convinced that this is to the detriment of all of us. On Sunday 13 February, it was 100 years since one of the greatest economists of the 20th century, Gordon Tullock, was born in Rockford, Illinois. He lived to the ripe old age of 92 and died in 2014. He never won the Nobel Prize, but many economists think he should have.
Tullock’s name has often been associated with the name of James Buchanan (who won the Nobel Prize in the mid-1980s). Together, in 1962, they wrote The Calculus of Consent with the subtitle The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, which is considered to be the precursor to the public choice school, which in an original way applied economic reasoning and economic methodology to the field of politics. It assumed that politicians – like businessmen and indeed all other people – are motivated by their own, i.e. private (as opposed to public) interests and that they seek to maximize their influence and get re-elected. It is not because they have a “public interest” that they are suddenly – when they become politicians – total altruists. This approach by Tullock and Buchanan has completely changed the way we think about the state (and government) and the behavior of the state.
Tullock is no less famous for his pioneering work on whether it is rational for a person to participate in an election when his single vote can virtually never decide anything. Tullock’s reasoning that “if you go out to vote and think your vote can make a difference, you are not rational” was, of course, misunderstood and challenged from many quarters, but it became canonical and led to the emergence of an entire school of political reasoning. As I was writing this essay at home tonight, I found in my library a little book by Tullock, published in 1976 by The Institute of Economic Affairs in London, under the title The Vote Motive. As I flipped through its pages, I discovered a subchapter I once underlined – “The Benevolent Despot, or the End of Illusions”.
Tullock was a very broad-minded and very theoretically-oriented economist. While writing this text, I could not find at home a booklet he gave me about 15 years ago, in which he examined – as a parallel to the centrally disorganized market – a community of equally centrally unorganized ants building their nest. They too, though unorganized, do nevertheless build large and highly structured nests.
We met repeatedly. Sometime in the 1990s, we were both invited to give a keynote speech at a meeting of the European Public Choice Society. In 1997, I received an honorary doctorate from “his” University of Arizona. I remember that the western-like landscape of Arizona was fascinating. It suddenly occurred to me that I had completely forgotten to mention his contribution to the concept of “rent seeking”. But I’m not writing an analysis of Tullock, just a short note to commemorate his name. More than others, often better known, he deserves it.
In Prague, February 16, 2022
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