Gordon Tullock, R.I.P.


The great economist Gordon Tullock, who contributed greatly to the intellectual zeitgeist of libertarianism thanks to his role, along with Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, in developing the "public choice" school of economics, has died at age 92, his colleagues are reporting on Twitter.

Peter Suderman blogged earlier today with a video in which the brilliant Tullock explains why it doesn't much matter if you vote.

Tullock was, among other accomplishments, the intellectual father of the concept of rent-seeking, summed up well by David Henderson. An excerpt:

It has been known for centuries that people lobby the government for privileges. Tullock's insight was that expenditures on lobbying for privileges are costly and that these expenditures, therefore, dissipate some of the gains to the beneficiaries and cause inefficiency. If, for example, a steel firm spends one million dollars lobbying and advertisingfor restrictions on steel imports, whatever money it gains by succeeding, presumably more than one million, is not a net gain. From this gain must be subtracted the one-million-dollar cost of seeking the restrictions. Although such an expenditure is rational from the narrow viewpoint of the firm that spends it, it represents a use of real resources to get a transfer from others and is therefore a pure loss to the economy as a whole.

I wrote about the importance of Tullock and Buchanan's contributions in a libertarian context in my 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism. Excerpts:

[Buchanan] and his old partner Gordon Tullock, with whom he did the early foundational work in the school of economics that has come to be known as Public Choice, have unquestionably given libertarians a valuable intellectual and ideological tool. Buchanan and Tullock helped build a professional consensus and a rigorous scholarly apparatus around the notion that—despite what many economic professionals used to assume—the behavior of government agents can fruitfully be modeled the same way we model individual behavior in markets; that is, as largely motivated by maximizing the personal utility of the government worker or politician, not some empyrean concept of the "public good" or an overall "social welfare function" that a technical economist could calculate.

As Tullock explains it, "the different attitude toward government that arises from public choice does have major effects on our views on what policies government should undertake or can carry out. In particular, it makes us much less ambitious about relying on government to provide certain services. No student of public choice would feel that the establishment of a national health service in the United States would mean that the doctors would work devotedly to improve the health of the citizens."….

The Buchanan/Tullock public choice approach also came to be known as the "Virginia School" of political economy because of Buchanan's formative years teaching at the University of Virginia. (Buchanan had been, unsurprisingly, an economics student at the University of Chicago.) The Volker Fund was one of the early supporters of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy that Buchanan ran there, and helped them bring in other libertarian thinkers such as Hayek and Italian legal scholar Bruno Leoni for half-year stints. Buchanan sums up the libertarian implications of his research program: "The Virginia emphasis was, from the outset, on the limits of political process rather than on any schemes to use politics to correct for market failures."….

Tullock was a curious character in addition to his great intellectual accomplishments; he once troubled himself to write a letter to the editor to Reason wondering on that age-old intellectual conundrum: in Lord of the Rings, why didn't they just give the ring to a flying eagle to deposit in Mt. Doom?

His colleagues long believed he deserved his own Nobel Prize. He will be missed, but his insights will be undying.