Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Gordon Tullock

Today I was reached by the incredibly sad news that Gordon Tullock passed away on Monday, 3rd November, at age 92. These past few years have seen the demise of many of my great heroes, among whom Alchian, Becker, Coase, and now Tullock, stand out. What a dismal endeavour to go through the list in any detail. I never got to meet him, but the stories I hear all tell of an amazing character. Case in point: visited by what may have been the Governor of Virginia (if I recall the story correctly), then GMU Professor Tullock, always forthright, said to him: "So you're from the government? Very good. Then maybe you can do something about the leak in my ceiling". Actually these were also among the last words spoken between them.

Gordon Tullock is of course best known for his work on Public Choice and he was the founding editor of the eponymous journal, but his interests and articles showcase an astonishing breadth and depth of thought. He even had a publication in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. He wrote extensively on history and it is a great understatement to say that he was very well read. One article of his is 'An Economic Theory of Military Tactics', joint work with Geoffrey Brennan, in which they analyse the general's problem of getting the soldiers not to run away from battle. I have blogged about that article before, and several times about the late legend.

Tullock had a few paradoxes to his name. One, a wee note called 'The Purchase of Politicians' in the Western Economic Journal (now Economic Inquiry), says that political favours are bought for much less money than they reward, a phenomenon known as the Tullock Paradox which as far as I can tell lacks a satisfactory explanation. A better-known paradox of his is, of course, that of revolution: The individual faces great risk from participating in a protest against a tyrant, who might order the firing squads on the protestors, and the benefit he receives from doing so are hardly greater than what he would have got if he hadn't taken part in the protests.

With Tullock's passing, the world also loses a refreshing observation on the lack of necessity of formal training to be educated. Tullock never obtained a PhD in Economics even though he was surely among the two or three greatest economists to have been alive for over 40 years of Nobel Prize announcements and never received one - and a far greater recipient than many a Laureate. Tullock held a JD from the University of Chicago and only took one economics course for that degree. His works are rigorous without the formulae, which he would refer to as "ornamental mathematics". It is a tremendous loss to economic science that his example is no longer among us.

Of the tributes which I have seen, I particularly like the one by Professor David Friedman. Mine cannot compete, but I humbly add it to the pile, along with a piece of evidence as to how much Gordon Tullock has influenced my own thinking: I still do not know how yesterday's American election turned out. That will change soon enough with the number of interactions I have with others, but if it were not for them, I probably would not find out until I accidentally saw the headline on the news or maybe encountered it as part of some data crunching for a project.

We have lost a great economist and a remarkable character.

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