Liberty Matters

Gordon Tullock and the Predatory Economist


Let me begin where Pete Boettke begins, with a conversation with Gordon Tullock. This conversation, which we have just published (Levy and Peart 2017b), was prompted by his off-hand remark at our Summer Institute that Ludwig von Mises's Human Action greatly influenced his work. Sandra Peart and I were puzzled, so we asked if we had understood correctly:
Yes. In the first place, let's begin with the fact that at the time I had one course in economics, which lasted 12 weeks, it was supposed to last 13 weeks but I was drafted, and that had got me to reading economics journals. I saw at the Yale Co-Op, when I was studying Chinese at Yale, I saw a pile of books bound in red that said Human Action and I picked one up. The thing which made a big impact on me was the early part where he talked about that you can use the same kind attack on things other than economics. I'd never heard anyone say that before.  I read the book actually three times and during that time I came to the conclusion that I was going to write a book about bureaucracy on the same kind of self-interested motives on the part of the participants as economics.  He did not maintain that it also led to good results even though it did in economics. [Our emphasis.]
Save for the last sentence and some autobiographical detail, Tullock's published tribute to von Mises says much the same thing. (Tullock 1971, 2:375)
What intrigued me in our follow-up conversations on von Mises is suggested by the last, emphasized sentence. Tullock pressed the noncatallactic dimensions of purposive action. I'll leave his work on birds as purposive creatures to someone better qualified and instead stress purposive predation. One of these dimensions needs no introduction: rent-seeking.  Of course Tullock should have received the Nobel prize for this work. Indeed, in the fullness of time, the Nobel snub of Tullock's work on rent-seeking will be seen in the same light as the Nobel snub of George Danzig's work on linear programing.  Peart and I are putting together Tullock's extensive correspondence with Karl Popper from which it is completely clear that he was expecting the prize on the merits of the case. Those of us who knew him in his old age could not miss the sadness. But from the doctrine Tullock taught, why would we expect the merits of the case to be sufficient? The crude misunderstanding of public choice -- we don't confuse what is and what ought to be the case -- leaves no room for sadness and thus misses the point.
Perhaps the most overlooked of Tullock's contributions is his stress on scientific replication as a way to prevent predation inside a community of researchers. Scientific results are a collective good; what links the incentives to a researcher for contribution to the commons? Perhaps I see this clearly because I talked with him about econometric replication when I met him so long ago, a point which Peart and I have stressed recently. (Levy and Peart 2012, 2017a, 2017b) All too many have simply ignored Tullock's thesis that economics is more of a racket than a science because we don't practice replication. (Tullock 2005, 158) The usual testing procedure has an obvious incentive compatibility issue: we both propose and test a theory even though we are rewarded for success and punished for failure. Replication separates the incentives of proposers from the incentives of testers. It is in this context that Tullock did something that even von Mises did not; he extended purposive behavior to economists themselves.
I have no special insight into why the Nobel committee passed Tullock by, but perhaps the documents we discovered as we were looking into the manuscript of Organization of Inquiry (originally published in 1966) he sent to Duke University Press might help us understand why this great work has been so neglected. With the surge of interest in replication, one might have expected Organization of Inquiry to be hailed as the classic in the public choice of the philosophy of science, as Eric Schliesser has described it. That of course has not happened.  Tullock had a certain disdain of the scholarly niceties, something easy to see in his half-hearted attempt to find a reference in Hobbes's Leviathan. (Levy and Peart 2012) His mis-citation of Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery as Logic of Scientific Inquiry -- something to which Popper himself called to his attention in a letter thanking Tullock for the copy (Levy and Peart 2017, 203) -- might not be his fault. Tullock explained to the Duke editor when he passed on Popper's letter that his prepublication copy of Popper's book had that title. We first published Popper's reaction earlier this year, in which he explained he knew all about the problems of factionalized science that are central to his discussions with Thomas Kuhn.
Duke's handling of Tullock's manuscript seemed exemplary, and he was enormously pleased with the lovely book they printed for him. (I remember how delighted he was when he gave me a copy.) Nonetheless, Duke's editor strongly resisted Tullock's desire to have a preface to the book by F. A. Hayek. The editor's resistance flowed in part from a concern over a rekindling of the controversy over the 20-year-old Road of Serfdom. Hayek had indeed offered to write a preface, but because his eyesight was failing he wanted to work with an easy to read typeset manuscript instead of something produced on a typewriter. There is no hope (I believe) in finding what would have been in the preface, but perhaps we can guess. Hayek's "scientism" speaks to the unwarranted importation of the methods of the natural sciences into the social sciences. Tullock's distinction between the two is not a methodological point but rather institutional. The natural sciences replicate; the social sciences do not. Institutions carry incentives. Without replication we can expect predation by scientists. It is not difficult to believe that Hayek's thoughts on this argument would have been enormously important. 
The predation of economists comes in many guises. Years ago I teased von Mises and Hayek themselves for ignoring the incentives in economists of the central-planning debate. (Levy 1990) Knowing how much abuse von Mises and Hayek received for their mild concerns over central planning, I thought it would be rude beyond belief to criticize them! Had I known the remarkable things von Mises wrote about how socialists opposed special interests and then neglected to mention the interests of socialist economic planners (von Mises 2005, 175-78), I might have hardened my heart. It should surprise no one that Tullock published my paper, taking about a day to make the decision. A public choice model of central planning is one of predation; shortages are created by economist price setters to allow for their rent extraction. Von Mises seems to have closed his analytical eyes to predation of economists, something Tullock never did.
Tullock supposes motivational homogeneity; everyone has the same purposes. (Levy and Peart 2017b) The central planner will not become a better person when power comes. An axiom of purposive behavior is of no help without something akin to the stability of purpose. This is the great improvement Tullock made, but of course I'm a self-interested witness!
Levy, David. 1990. "The Bias in Centrally Planned Prices." Public Choice 67: 213–36.
Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2012. "Tullock on Motivated Inquiry: Expert-Induced Uncertainty Disguised as Risk." Public Choice 153: 163–180.
_________. 2017a. Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
_________, 2017b "Gordon Tullock's Ill-fated Appendix: 'Flatland Revisited'." Constitutional Political Economy 28: 18–34.
Mises, Ludwig von. 2005. Liberalism in the Classic Tradition. Translated by Ralph Raico. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.
Tullock, Gordon. 1971. "An Application of Economics in Biology." In Toward Liberty: Essays in Honour of Ludwig von Mises on the Occasion of his 90th Birthday, September 29, 1971. Ed. F. A. von Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Leonard E. Read, Gustavo R. Velasco, and F. A. Harper. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies 2:375–91.
Tullock, Gordon. 2005. The Organization of Inquiry. Volume 3 of Selected Works of Gordon Tullock. Ed. Charles K. Rowley. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.