Liberty Matters

The Irreverent Gordon Tullock

A colleague of Tullock's at the University of Virginia, William Breit, once told me the following story.  Every day they would go to the faculty club for coffee or tea, but one day they were slightly off schedule; so when they arrived, their usual seats were taken. Two seats were open, however, at a table where the dean was meeting with a visiting sociology professor from Columbia whom UVa was attempting to entice to join the faculty.  Tullock and Breit sit down as a conversation was going on about the current nuclear arms race.  The professor was discussing the logic of unilateral disarmament.  Rather than stay respectfully quiet, Tullock couldn't take it and piped up: "What do you think would happen if the U.S. unilaterally disarmed?"  The professor replied, "Well, the Soviet's would under world pressure follow suit."  Tullock scoffed at such a suggestion and said, "By world opinion, you mean you and your friends on the upper west-side of Manhattan."  Visibly annoyed, the professor responded, "Well, what do you think would happen?" Tullock quickly replied, "The U.S. would be invaded by Mexico tomorrow."  At this the dean and the professor left the faculty club in a huff.  Tullock, according to Breit, showed no emotion, took a sip of his coffee and asked Breit in all seriousness, "Why do you think the administration will not promote me?"
Anyone who knew Gordon Tullock could tell a ton of similar stories.  But as Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard mentions in his comment, it is a mistake to view Tullock as rude.  He is just efficient in conversation and willing to push conventional boundaries to track the truth as he saw it.  Pursuing a logical argument to its bitter end simply didn't bother him.
One of the great aspects of Gordon Tullock's writings is his complete irreverence toward conventional wisdom. He challenged anybody and everything. It is impossible to understand Tullock unless you see he was willing to question everything that was taken for granted in polite society and ask, "Really? Are you so sure that is what is going on?"
A list of the key ideas he challenged would range from the most basic assumption to the most elaborate system of law, politics, and society.  And in doing so, his goal was to upset the intellectual complacency of economists and other social scientists.  Tullock's blunt way of presenting his argument was intended to get his point across -- like his proposition that a dagger coming out of an auto's steering wheel would be a more effective safety device than seatbelts.  Think through the logic and you will get what he is trying to communicate about incentives.
Let's consider another of his most jarring propositions.  He would state bluntly that we human beings do not care about others in the least. (See Tullock 1981.) We constantly say we care, especially about the least advantaged. But our actual behavior, Tullock would say, doesn't reflect such caring.  At best, he would postulate, we provide around 5 percent of our income to charitable causes outside our immediate interests and family.  If we give more, he would argue, we are probably deeply religious. But even in that case, Tullock would add, we give not to help others, but to save ourselves from going to hell. 
So what does he purchase with this in-your-face challenge to sensibilities?  Well, he uses that method to get economists to think hard about what is really going on in the economics of redistribution.  The War on Poverty, Tullock pointed out, was not having the expected outcomes.  There was a disconnect between stated goals and the impact on the poor.  Starting from that empirical reality, Tullock asked his fellow economists and social scientists to enter the "why nexus" – why is what is happening happening? Tullock's hypothesis was that redistributive policies and the accompanying institutional apparatus are not about ameliorating extreme poverty, but rather about individuals using the coercive apparatus of the state to benefit themselves at the expense of others.
How do we, as social scientists concerned with making sense of reality, mediate between the public-interest view of redistributive programs and private-interest view, and what have we found in past exercises?
That exercise is precisely what Tullock encouraged among social scientists, and it required him to poke holes in the comfortable conventional wisdom of 20th-century progressive social reform.
But Tullock didn't stop there. He was willing to ask these sorts of questions about history, law, politics, and even nature. In each area, he encouraged an intellectual horse race between the persistent and consistent application of the economic way of thinking – the logic of choice, the situational logic of institutional analysis, and spontaneous-order theorizing – and all alternative theoretical frameworks. He used casual empiricism as well as formal analysis to press his point.
Perhaps we can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Tullock's approach in this conversation, and we can ask what lessons we can draw for our own thinking about and practice of social science today.
Tullock, Gordon. 1981. "The Rhetoric and Reality of Redistribution." Southern Economic Journal 47(4): 895-907.