All Commentary
Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Gordon Tullock, Student of Society

The science of human action has just lost a giant


Editor’s Note: Gordon Tullock died on November 3, 2014 — just before Election Day. The timing is perhaps a strange irony to those familiar with his work. Or maybe it was not irony at all, but his parting jab at a world he understood better than most. He was 92.

Gordon Tullock stood transfixed by an anthill outside the Center for Public Choice in Virginia. When another scholar asked him what he was doing, Tullock replied brusquely: “Research.” 

It must have indeed been research, because Tullock would go on to publish The Economics of Non-Human Societies shortly thereafter. The book was an answer to the problem he saw in the anthill: how do autonomous creatures with highly limited intelligence divide labor among themselves and coordinate without command? 

Termites, for example, ventilate their mounds to keep them within a certain temperature range. Yet while no single individual knows, or needs to know, the optimal overall temperature, by adjusting to the carbon dioxide level in their immediate surroundings, they benefit the whole society.

Not content to study such remote forms of organization, Tullock was relentless in studying all facets of human society, too — both the logic of action and the rules that emerge unintended from action.

Biographical sketch

Born February 13, 1922, Tullock received his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1947 and then became an officer in the Foreign Service. There, he read Ludwig von Mises’s treatise Human Action. It helped inspire him to pursue a broad research agenda with the individual as the unit of analysis (methodological individualism) and the individual’s understanding of her social context as the analyst’s data (methodological subjectivism). Just as individual termites respond to their own distinctive environments, so too do individual humans.

In 1956, Tullock left for the Hoover Institution. In 1958, with the help of now-Nobel laureate James Buchanan, Tullock secured a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Center, which Buchanan had cofounded to promote a rebirth of classical political economy. 

Tullock went on to found Papers in Non-Market Decision Making (later to become Public Choice) and to cofound the Center for Studies in Public Choice. Along with Buchanan, he was the epicenter of the Virginia school of political economy — or public choice — so-called for its prominence at the University of Virginia, first, followed by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and George Mason University. 

Several scholars whom Tullock influenced broadly, including Elinor Ostrom, have won the Nobel Prize. Naturally, many have put forward Tullock himself as a Nobel contender for his many contributions to economics.

Constitutional choice

His first revolutionary contribution was the 1962 foundational work in constitutional political economy, co-authored with Buchanan, titled The Calculus of Consent. The two authors explored one solution humans — but only humans — have devised to the problem of coordination faced by the termite and all other social creatures: they change the rules of the game. 

What rules allow all parties to improve their welfare? Whereas in markets, voluntary transactions make all parties better off, in politics, the same is true only when the rules require unanimity. Under that rule, individuals exchange consent for one another’s favored projects, and all benefit. 

In thus treating politics as a form of exchange, Buchanan and Tullock developed the concept of logrolling. They showed that despite its unsavory connotations, logrolling is a symptom of, but not confined to, pork-barrel politics. It is only harmful when a simple-majority rule allows the interests of some to override the interests of others. 

Buchanan and Tullock noted that the absence of unanimity in ordinary politics doesn’t in itself suggest that a majority runs roughshod over minorities. Individuals acting in their self-interest recognize that the harms that come from majority rule should be considered side by side with the difficulty of reaching consensus under a unanimity rule. A qualified-majority rule and a bicameral legislature are two ways polities can strike a balance.

When politics gets unbalanced, though, humans consume scarce talent in competing to curry favor with lawmakers — a phenomenon identified by Tullock and later termed “rent-seeking.”

Bureaucracy

Aside from political markets, both benign and malignant, and of course the price mechanism operating through the conventional market, humans can coordinate through command. Indeed, without hierarchy, they would face prohibitive costs to many transactions.

But hierarchy has inherent limits. In Tullock’s Bureaucracy (1965), he explored how higher-ups and subordinates face insuperable problems in coordinating their disparate bits of knowledge. Whereas in markets, profit-and-loss signals allow independent individuals to adjust their actions to the needs of others — even though each knows only a small piece of the whole — individuals don’t have anything like that in politics

Conclusion

In these ways and others, Tullock’s insights have so revolutionized the way we think that they sound unremarkable today. You can honor his contributions by thinking of him when you hear about how humans advance their ends through vote trading — or even when you marvel at how the ants work wonders in your backyard.

R.I.P.


  • Harry David proofreads and copy edits for clients including Laissez Faire Books, Demand Media Studios, and several peers and professors he met during his time in graduate school studying economics at George Mason University. His website is HarryDavid.net.