In Memoriam: Gordon Tullock

I write this Tuesday night as TV pundits drone on in the background. The Republicans may win control of the Senate, though races are too close to call in Virginia and North Carolina and Florida. Looks like there will be a runoff in Louisiana. Then that droning on shifts from eager anticipation to more esoteric questions about, “What have we learned?” or “How do voters feel?”

Who cares?

I say this not to suggest this election does not matter or that changes in political leadership cannot create opportunities for positive change. I say it because there are bigger things than politics.    

I say it to honor of a former colleague who died on Monday, ironically, on the eve of a midterm election that may change the political landscape and influence the 2016 race for the White House. 

Ironic because that man was Gordon Tullock, co-founder of the theory of public choice economics. And if you knew him and his gruff personality, “who cares” is exactly what he’d say. 

Lots can be said about Gordon—that “shoulda been” a co-Nobel prize winner in economics, along with his co-author and George Mason University colleague James Buchanan. Yet, Gordon’s tendency to speak his mind—combined with the fact that the academic purists on the 1986 selection committee found his lack of a PhD unforgiveable—probably cost him joining that hallowed club. If you want a list of his bona fides, visit the Mercatus Center website for an appropriate tribute. No reason for me to rehash what should already be known about him. 

Gordon’s office—we actually called it “Gordon’s Grotto”—was a spacious thing. The “I Voted” sticker on his office door never failed to bring a chuckle to anybody walking by who knew something of public choice. Gordon once said, “Anthony Downs convinced me long ago that I stand a greater chance of being killed in a car accident on the way to the polls than I do of making a difference with my vote.” 

Even after Florida’s hanging chads and eventual Supreme Court decision put George W. Bush in the White House, when it most seemed an individual’s vote could sway a major election, Gordon stuck to his guns. He always believed he’d make more of a difference with his pen than with pushing a lever. That multiple generations of economists have preached his message to hundreds of thousands students are testament to the strength of his insights. 

Gordon fully understood the most important lesson of economics: Incentives matter.  He refused to accept that “public servants” can behave differently because they remain somehow detached from the hustle and bustle and profit motives of private industry. He was fiercely critical of government attempts to solve problems compared with the actions of private actors and institutions. He well knew it is wishful thinking for government bureaucrats to implement policies that benefit the common good, as if they could always remain aloof from trivial parochial concerns.

He’d agree with that Depeche Mode lyric—people are people. Public choice rests on a simple truth: People are guided chiefly by their own self-interests. Government workers are therefore motivated no differently than are those in private markets. As such, they seek greater power and bigger budgets, and thus government becomes dysfunctional. It’s one of those “well, duh” moments—but remember that it takes academia decades to prove through complicated reasoning and peer-reviewed publications what we may already know intuitively. 

A criticism of Gordon’s philosophy I often hear is, “Public choice is a theory of sin … but what about virtue?” That may well be true, but it’s an effective starting point for addressing how we can create public policies that promotes limited public institutions, free enterprise, and individual economic liberty. 

Incentives matter. Want to improve Americans’ driving habits? Then mandate that each car manufacturer install a metal spike in the middle of every steering wheel. As Gordon would say, “They’ll pay more attention.” Extreme, perhaps? But true, and likely conducive to more realistic solutions. Want to reduce concussions among NFL players? Require them not to wear helmets. See how hard they hit each other then. 

In the field of regulation, there’s a role for government. In Gordon’s world, it was simply to incentivize people to own their own lives. Gordon’s scholarship forced regulators to recognize their motivations were paternalistic rather than preventive. It reflected a “you figure it out, just don’t kill anybody” approach to legislation. It’s not popular with the elites and scaremongers that pervade progressive political interests these days. But it’s correct. 

In the last few years we’ve lost some intellectual giants—Elinor Ostrom, James Buchanan, Ronald Coase, Leonard Liggio, Gary Becker, and now Gordon.  Their absence will be felt, long after this election night comes and goes. Eventually we’ll forget who beat whom and when. But we’ll all remember that spike in the steering wheel.