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For My Zilsel Friends, Gordon Tullock and Public Choice: The Dissenter as Gadfly April 17, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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I. Gordon Tullock and Joseph Agassi- A Brief Digression.  

In the course of talking with Joseph on the first day of my questioning of him, I mentioned Gordon Tullock. Tullock and Joseph were good friends. Agassi met him where he was at Stanford and Tullock tried to work with Popper.  Undeterred by Popper’s inability to work with Tullock, Tullock then went on to be a post-doc at the University of Virginia (though he only had a J.D) while spending most of his later years at George Mason University.  Tullock, throughout his writings acknowledged his fondness for Popper, particularly his suspicion of dogma.  By dogma, Tullock meant almost all of economics not written by Gordon Tullock.  There are many Tullock anecdotes related to me by Agassi, but one which I shared with him was Tullock’s objection to seat-belts.  Seat-belts were instituted in the 1970s to protect drivers from death.  No, Gordon responded, the way to make drivers safe is to place a knife in the middle of the steering wheel, so that if drivers speed and shop short, they will be impaled instantly. There is also a page of Tullock insults.

II. The Social Position of Gordon Tullock

Gordon Tullock is lionized by his students, followers and admirers.  Mainstream economists ignore him entirely. Tullock was able to publish in over fifty academic journals.  But, his influence in the policy profession is minimal and he is not regarded highly outside of the “Virginia School of Political Economy.” His education was not even in economics but in law. As a result he was not taken seriously by most economists.  He had so many problems publishing that he founded his own journal, Public Choice

He did however publish widely on the topic of rent-seeking and was co-author with James Buchanan (the Nobel Prize winning economist) of the Calculus of Consent (originally published in 1962.)  Buchanan and Tullock’s methodology is more or less that of economic imperialism- choices in voting behavior, the behavior of the individual in politics, is much the same as the behavior of individuals in markets.  In the market and in politics, individuals pursue their own interests.  As importantly, so do politicians and bureaucrats.  That is why Tullock argued especially that there could be no such thing as the public good, as politicians, though they make a great deal of noise about public goods, do nothing but attempt to follow their own interests.  Politics is therefore a messy business that is bound to disappoint idealists.  The Calculus in many ways made both authors very famous, but it illustrates the perils of the dissenting inquirer, especially for Tullock.

III. At the Root of Every Dissenting Science, An Individual and a Method

In my previous post on Napoleon Chagnon, I wrote that his theory about cultural evolution is more or less a reduction of Yanomami tribesmen into “maximizers.” The Yanomami understand costs and benefits.  This is why they are aggressive, because although it may lead to death and dismemberment in the short term, in the long-term aggression can serve as a deterrent.  As importantly, being aggressive and being good at fighting leads to higher status and this leads to higher reproductive success.  It is as Chagnon and Jim Nell would say “good to be headman.” Bellicosity has an evolutionary advantage (and is therefore encouraged) because fighting is a deterrent and wife-capture good for the demographics of the village (morals play no role in Chagnon’s analysis.)  Pursuing self-interest is according to the dictates of evolutionary biology good for one and one’s kin and is therefore encouraged by Yanomami.  In the work of both Tullock and Chagnon, their subjects are always “the economic man.”

What is fascinating however is the degree to which Tullock was able to apply this insight to  all manner of works.  In his rather puckish essay, “The Coal Tit as Careful Shopper” Tullock contended that the coal tit was much like a lady window-shopping.  It had a sense of the costs and benefits of its foraging, it knew where it could gain the most benefit for the least cost.  Hunter-gatherers act like this as well in optimal foraging theory. Likewise,  in his pamphlet on The Economics of Non-Human Societies (1984), Tullock said that all of nature from man to amoeba was rational, so it was quite an insult to call someone irrational: he was worse than an amoeba.  Tullock also applied this economic model to the child labor problem.  Children were terribly expensive in terms of resources, did they have any use?  What Tullock argued was that yes, indeed, children are very good labor sources, especially in agricultural societies. This explained why farm labor intensive regimes had younger populations.

IV. Why We Need a New Taxonomy to Describe Sciences

But here perhaps is the root of Tullock’s position and the key to the wilderness of the dissenting stance.  Brilliant though he was, Tullock by applying the economic rationality and the rational choice model without reservation to almost anything (he did however have suspicious about sociobiology, noting that it was unclear if any science could explain both man and “slime mold.”) he perhaps diluted his influence.  His “gadfly” “curmudgeon”  stance towards modern, especially Keynesian economics and the politics and prospects of government intervention, his inability to take his own personality out of any publication, ensured that his influence only extended to those whom he knew personally.  He had few students and many followers, and legions of admirers.  But Tullock is an extraordinary example of why we can simply not describe sciences as “sciences” and “pseudo”, for if it is just these categories, how can we describe economists like Tullock who trained as a lawyer and who without any humor at all, compare children to a good martini?

We historians and sociologist must find a way to describe the work of such a man who knew, perhaps early on, that his intellect would not lead to his acceptance, but to the ingestion of a kind of academic hemlock.  Tullock by the end of his life was overlooked for the Nobel, and discussed avidly only by those who knew him.  After his death retrospectives described the sparkle of his genius, but he founded no real school and did not publish in any of the major academic journals.  But we can not describe his work in the same breath as necomancy and astrology.  Neither we funny, and neither makes you rethink E.O. Wilson’s work.




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