The Volokh Conspiracy

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Gordon Tullock, RIP


The great economist Gordon Tullock passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Along with his longtime collaborator, Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan, Tullock was one of the founders of public choice theory, the application of economic models to the study of politics. Their 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent, is probably the seminal work in the field. Tullock also made pathbreaking contributions to the study of voting, interest group lobbying, jury trials, and many other issues. Brian Doherty and Tyler Cowen summarize some of his achievements.

His work had an immense influence on political science and legal scholarship, as well as economics. Many economists believe that Tullock deserved to share the Nobel Prize with Buchanan, since his contributions to the development of public choice were of at least comparable significance. As Tyler Cowen notes, Tullock became one of the greatest economists of his time, even though he did not have even an undergraduate degree in economics, and only took one economics course in his life.

Although Tullock was most famous for his work on the economic analysis of democratic governments and constitutional systems, some of my favorite Tullock articles focus on the economics of authoritarian regimes, and revolutions against them (collected in this book). Tullock provides a powerful explanation of how repressive regimes manage to stay in power, and also of why revolutions against them often result in the establishment of successor governments that are as bad or even worse than what they replaced.

It is a little sad that his passing may get less notice than it should, because it happened on the day of a major election. But this also makes it a good time to take note of his excellent book, The Vote Motive.

I was honored to have had Tullock as my colleague at George Mason University (he had a joint appointment in the economics department and the law school) since I arrived in 2003. In addition to being a great scholar, Tullock was also a great character. People who knew him better than I did tell Tullock stories that easily top any of mine. But I will briefly recount one.

When I gave a presentation at the Economics Department about one of my early articles on political ignorance soon after arriving at George Mason, Tullock forcefully criticized me for being overly optimistic about the problem. Taking me to task for complacency on this particular subject may seem a little like attacking Genghis Khan for not being warlike enough. But, as usual, Tullock had some insightful reasoning to back up his position, and I ended up revising some of my later work to address his objections.

Gordon Tullock will be greatly missed by many. I extend condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.