Liberty Matters

Tullock: Praxeologist or Economic Imperialist?


Prof. Boettke initially brought up the issue that Gordon Tullock really should be seen as closer to the Austrian school than is commonly acknowledged—a point already pursued here by Prof. Levy regarding how Tullock had been influenced by Mises's Human Action. (Mises 1949/1966)
Now we seem to be facing two interpretations that easily could seem at odds.  On the one hand, there are the indications suggested by Boettke and Levy that Tullock had more of an "open-ended" (broad) rationality assumption, closer to the human-action perspective of the Austrian school than is usually acknowledged.
On the other hand, Tullock has usually been seen as almost the intellectual embodiment of homo economicus—the economic imperialist par excellence.  He embraced the label of "economic imperialism" himself (e.g., Tullock 1972/2004), and a collection of some of his (rejected) papers was entitled On the Trail of Homo Economicus. (Tullock 1994)  This was also how close friends and collaborators saw him, e.g., Buchanan in his description of Tullock as a "natural economist" (Buchanan 1987)—a perspective Buchanan distanced himself from.
So which picture of Tullock is right?  Boettke (and Levy) suggest the former, Buchanan the latter.  How about Tullock himself? Let me say that I think that both sides are right but that Tullock possibly created confusion about his own "approach."
What we perhaps should keep in mind is the distinction Buchanan made to highlight the differences between himself and scholars like Tullock (Buchanan 1979: 41-51, 57ff): between the ("high") abstract levels of the "pure logic of choice" and the (low) concrete levels of specific models with narrower assumptions, e.g., those associated with what Buchanan called "the abstract theory of economic behavior."  This is to a large extent the distinction between Misesian praxeology and day-to-day economic analysis, as in, e.g., applications of the theory of the firm.  Or as Buchanan suggested: it is the distinction between a game-theoretical model with only preference orderings given and one where objective payoffs are used.  With the former, the structure of the preferences alone may tell us something important but quite general about human action—but it cannot tell us very much about any specific situation.  In contrast, as soon as we limit what may enter the utility function and the size of specific payoffs, we can be more precise in our predictions—but with the cost being at a lesser level of generality.  (Some may here see a similarity to "Austrian" discussions of the use of ideal types, e.g., Kurrild-Klitgaard 2001.)
Seen in this perspective, one could say, as Buchanan suggested, that his analyses mostly operated at the "higher" levels, while Tullock mostly did so at the "lower" levels.  But the two levels are not necessarily opposed—they are simply different and may be relevant for different kinds of analysis.  In The Calculus of Consent, where Tullock himself used the term "praxiological" (sic), he too, like Buchanan, was interested in a more abstract type of analysis than when he was analyzing, say, U.S. social policies (Tullock 1986), military tactics (Brennan and Tullock 1982), or survival strategies of medieval monarchs (Tullock 2001).  Tullock, simply put, operated along all the steps of the ladder of abstraction—but usually without spending much time on philosophy of science and methodology, preferring instead the narrower, more empirical applications. 
And permit me here to return to the issue of Tullock's personality: teasing, politically incorrect, and actively seeking out intellectual opposition, features that no doubt led him to make oral (re-)statements of his thought more "outrageous" than they really were.  Many people have, for example, heard Tullock quip that his favourite piece of literature was Dickens's A Christmas Carol—except, Tullock said, "for the unhappy ending when Scrooge goes soft." This, of course, was a joke, but what did Tullock mean when he widely claimed, as Boettke mentions, that people are 95 percent narrowly self-interested?  Of course, he did not mean that it always and everywhere was exactly 95 percent, as if it was a natural law.  He meant it at the "low" level as an empirical generalization, and a falsifiable one, most importantly--and one admitting, implicitly, that people are not exclusively narrowly self-interested.
Does it matter?  It does to some extent.  The Virginia school is usually distanced—sometimes by its adherents, most often by its opponents—from two of its "cousins": The Bloomington school of the Ostroms and the Rochester school of Riker. (Mitchell 1988)  The Bloomington institutionalists are often seen as more interested in the softer institutions and informal norms. (Aligica and Boettke 2009)  And the game theorists of the Rochester school have for decades allowed utility functions of actors to consist of virtually anything and sometimes as quite abstract and open-ended. (Riker and Ordeshook 1973)  These are genuine differences when compared to Tullock's rhetoric and predominant practice. But when Buchanan's distinction is kept in mind, they are not polar opposites as much as different points along a continuum.
Aligica, P. D. and P. J. Boettke. 2009. Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School. Abingdon: Routledge.
Brennan, G. and G. Tullock. 1982. "An Economic Theory of Military Tactics." Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 3, 225-42.
Buchanan, J. M. 1979. What Should Economists Do? Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press.
_________. 1987. "The Qualities of a Natural Economist." In C. K. Rowley, ed., Democracy and Public Choice: Essays in Honor of Gordon Tullock (pp. 9-19). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Kurrild-Klitgaard, P. 2001. "On Rationality, Ideal Types and Economics: Alfred Schütz and the Austrian School." Review of Austrian Economics 14 (2/3), 119-43.
Mises, L. v. 1949/1966. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics 3d rev. ed.. Chicago: Henry Regnery.
Mitchell, W. C. 1988. "Virginia, Rochester and Bloomington: Twenty-Five years of Public Choice and Political Science." Public Choice 56, 101-19.
Riker, W. H. and P. C. Ordeshook. 1973. An Introduction to Positive Political Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Tullock, G. 1986. The Economics of Wealth and Poverty. New York: New York University Press.
_________. 1994. On the Trail of Homo Economicus: Essays by Gordon Tullock. R. D. Tollison & G. Brady, eds. Fairfax: George Mason University Press.
_________. 2001. "Monarchies, Hereditary and Non-hereditary." In W. F. Shughart and L. Razzolini, eds. The Elgar Companion to Public Choice (pp. 140-56). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
_________. 1972/2004. "Economic Imperialism." In C. K. Rowley, ed., Virginia Political Economy (pp. 3-15), The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 1, C. K. Rowley, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.