Liberty Matters

Tullock’s Praxeological Imperialism


Praxis often means "practice," but it's closer to "doing."  It comes from the Greek prattein.
Prof. Boettke, in his lead essay, makes a very particular claim about Gordon Tullock, one I had never seen before and certainly had never thought of.  Boettke claims that Tullock is:
a praxeologist who from a methodologically individualistic perspective would study human action across all social arrangements.  Individuals pursue purposes and plans, and in doing so must arrange their means to obtain their ends as efficaciously as is in their power.  Tullock's subject matter was humanity in all settings, and that included not just markets, but nonmarket setting such as law, politics, and charity. 
Tullock's own characterization of his early self was simply "the world's only independent scholar." I have said that Tullock was "Public Choice's Homeric Hero," because Gordon's life was given to academic and intellectual contestation. In fact, I compared Gordon to the Iliad's Hector. One reason is that Gordon hectored people constantly, especially if he liked them. But Tullock was "our" Hector also because there was no battle he would avoid, even if he should have expected to lose.
On reflection I think that Boettke has a point. Gordon had no one subject; he had a method.  Of course, to a man who uses his method as a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Is "praxeology" really a method, and was it Tullock's method?
We might think that praxeology is "the study of praxis," and since praxis is practice or the application of theory, that might mean Tullock studied applications.  But that would be a misunderstanding of praxeology (though it is one I have seen from the untutored).  Praxeology derives from the Greek prattein, meaning to do or to act.  The sense in which Ludwig von Mises Mises used the term followed the neologism of Alfred Espinas (1890, 114), but appropriated a more narrow meaning. For Mises, praxeology is the study of human action from a strongly  a priori and theoretical perspective. The foundation of the approach is that human action is purposive. (For much more on the history and use of the term, see Roderick Long's 2008 book.)
Boettke notes that:
A lot can be understood simply by recognizing that individuals strive to achieve the best they can as they perceive it, rather than asserting that they achieve best outcomes in their actions.  And, similarly, a lot can be understood by stressing the evolution towards a solution involved in market and social interactions rather than focusing exclusively on solution states.  [Emphasis in original.]
This is in keeping with Austrian orthodoxy, and Boettke is right to point it out. I often suggest that students who are encountering the Austrian approach for first time avail themselves of certain tips. Specifically, T.I.P.S.:
  1. Time. Many actions are taken, and other actions are not taken, because of the influence of time. We buy a suit of clothes to have access to the stream of services associated with that ownership.
  2. Ignorance/Information. Information is not just incomplete, but idiosyncratic. We have "personal probabilities," as Bayesians say, and our perception of the best course of action may well depend on our perceptions of the distributions of likely outcomes.  It may be useful to inquire whether we are correct in these beliefs, but it is more useful to recognize that, "correct" or not, such beliefs inform the way we act on our goals, given what we say as our available means. Further, information is so scattered and fragmented that no one knows everything she would need to plan even her own actions, much less the actions of a group.
  3. Purposes and Plans. Purposes and plans are not automatically harmonious; far from it, in fact. Some mechanism for reconciling purposes and plans is the core of the problem of institutionalism as a science. 
  4. Subjectivity. Both preferences and beliefs are idiosyncratic. But so also are the structural parameters that govern social interaction.  This is why both the "evolution towards a solution" and absence of "solution states" are part of the analysis.
Tullock's most important emphases, as Boettke rightly notes, are on the purposes and plans and subjectivity components of the approach.  Markets, under some circumstances, present individuals with price information, around with the coordination of inconsistent and even contradictory plans can take place. In economics, the price mechanism has pride of place. But Tullock recognized that other forms of institutions, some of them quite different from prices and markets, may be just as important.
The fact that the journal now known as Public Choicewas at first named Papers in Non-Market Decision-Making reveals just how brave Tullock was.  It's difficult enough to analyze how conflicting subjective purposes and plans are reconciled even in settings where the price mechanism is available and works effectively. To kick over the traces and explore this same problem in settings where other institutions of adjustment and reconciliation are necessary takes pluck.
But that's what Tullock did.  His work on bureaucracy, rent-seeking, and sociobiology all considered different mechanisms for reconciliation of conflicting subjective plans and purposes.  In his review of The Politics of Bureaucracy, James Anderson (1966) seems shocked to hear anyone claim that we might use a model of "economic man" to understand bureaucrats. Anderson writes, archly, and quoting from Tullock, on the heresy of assuming "economic man" in state employment:
Who is the "politician"? Well, he appears to be "an intelligent, ambitious, and somewhat unscrupulous man," located in the lower levels of the government's administrative hierarchy, and motivated primarily by a desire for personal advancement and promotion. If his personal goals and the organizational goals conflict, he will act to promote the former. Given the desideratum of personal promotion, Tullock's "politician" appears to be quite akin in his actions to '"economic man," both being motivated primarily by the desire to maximize their personal well-being.
It is important to see this scowling, knee-jerk reaction, precisely because from our current vantage point in history we take the post-1980 success of Tullock's approach so much for granted.  Anderson's reaction to the very idea of economic man, and the implied notion that acting on one's own goals is "unscrupulous," shows what the state of theorizing about bureaucracy was before Tullock and the Public Choice revolution.
More importantly, the mechanism for reconciling the conflict between the plans and purposes of the organization and those of the individual functionary, it would now be orthodox to say, rests in the specification of the contract. (As Barry Weingast told me many times in graduate school: "They are called 'agencies' for a reason!") Thus, Tullock was simply exploring what later came to be known as "Principal-Agent Theory," but reviewer Anderson thinks that simply stating the thesis (accurately, it is true) is enough to discredit it. 
Likewise with rent-seeking. There is a problem with many people pursuing a "rent," or an artificial prize created by government.  The prize might be cash, or it might be protection from competition or a special exclusive license to operate. How much would individuals "invest" in this socially fruitless pursuit, given that it represents the present value of a valuable stream of income that extends into the future. Tullock roughed out an answer that is still used today: the reconciliation of the conflict will take the form of a contest, now often called a "Tullock Contest," in which the chances of winning approximate the share of total effort devoted to the pursuit of the rent.  If the sum of the shares of dissipated effort approximate the rent, then rent-seeking tends toward efficiency (Konrad, 2009), but only from the perspective of the participants. From the perspective of the larger society, rent-seeking is always nonproductive.
Boettke summarizes nicely the reasons why the caricature of Tullock's view is not entirely wrong, but it is wrong in important ways. Just as capital makes labor more expensive, institutions make individual human actors smarter and better cooperators.  The "homo economicus" assumption is indeed a problem to be solved, but any analysis that starts without it is likely to miss the reason why important rules and institutions exist in the first place.  Tullock's place as one of the inventors, and most productive practitioners, of noncatallactic praxeology is worth celebrating and preserving.
Anderson, James. E. 1966.  "Review:  The Politics of Bureaucracy. Gordon Tullock." Journal of Politics v. 28, No. 1, pp. 205-207.
Espinas, Alfred. 1890. "Les origins de la technologie," Revue Philosophique de la France et de l'Étranger v. 30 (July-December), pp. 113-35.  <>.
Konrad, Kai A. 2009.  Strategy and Dynamics in Contests. New York: Oxford University Press.
Long, Roderick. 2008. Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action: Praxeological Investigations. Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2018.
Munger, Michael. 2015. "Public Choice's Homeric Hero -- Gordon Tullock (1922-2014)." Independent Review 19. 599-604. <>.
Tullock, Gordon. 1965. The Politics of Bureaucracy. Washington D.C.: Public Affairs Press.
Tullock, Gordon. 1980. "Efficient Rent Seeking." In Toward a Theory of the Rent-Seeking Society. Ed. J. Buchanan, R. Tollison, and G. Tullock. College Station: TX A&M University Press, Series 4, pp. 153-79.