Gordon Tullock, R.I.P.

Published November 7, 2014

Gordon Tullock, one of the truly great economists of the 20th century, passed away on Monday. He was 92.

Tullock is best known for the role he played in founding the “public choice” school of economics, which subjects political decisions and programs to rigorous economic analysis, and for promoting the idea of “rent seeking,” whereby the origins of many regulations are tracked back to the self-serving efforts of corporations and interest groups.

The Calculus of Consent, coauthored with the late James Buchanan in 1962, was a seminal work on public choice theory and my first introduction to Tullock’s work. Parts of the book are difficult to understand, but much of it is accessible and well worth the time to understand. He wrote many smaller books and essays, a complete list of which can be found here.

A neat thing about Tullock is that even though he never took a course in economics, he served variously as a professor of economics and law and was widely viewed as a candidate to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. His only earned degree was a JD from the University of Chicago, his undergraduate studies having been interrupted by military service. His academic career and considerable contributions to economics are a tribute to the fact that you don’t need a license, or even a college degree, to practice economics and do it well.

Many of you probably already know that one of my all-time favorite essays is “The Transitional Gains Trap,” which Tullock wrote in 1975. I came across it while doing research for one of Heartland’s first policy studies, on taxicab deregulation. Tullock observed (as Mike Rappaport accurately summarizes the argument at the link above):

The government takes an action that initially benefits a particular group, although at the expense of imposing an inefficient policy on the public. But over time, even that special interest group will not benefit from the government program. Yet that group will fight hard to prevent the program from being eliminated, since eliminating it will make that group worse off.

So taxicab companies insist on imposing common carrier laws on ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft even though those laws have crippled their own ability to innovate and profit, and the public certainly would be better off if existing laws were repealed. It’s a great insight, and it can be applied widely.

[SPOILER ALERT! Regrets follow.]

I met Tullock on only a couple occasions, and talked at length with him only once at a meeting of the Association of Private Enterprise Education some years ago. He was gracious and generous with his time and advice, and it was easy to see why he was one of the most popular people at that event. I failed to take advantage of opportunities after that to get to know him, much to my regret and loss. I didn’t realize until reading an obituary that he was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, and passed away in Iowa. We’re practically neighbors.

So pick up and read anything you can find by Gordon Tullock. Remember that public choice theory and “rent-seeking” are important parts of our intellectual approach to the world. And don’t fail to correspond and meet with the people you admire, because they won’t live forever… and neither will you.