David R. Henderson  

Tunisia: Tullock's Model Fits

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A True Conversation on the Pol... If They Had Asked Me...

The first time I met Gordon Tullock, as I tell here, was in the fall of 1971 when he gave a paper at a conference at the University of Western Ontario. The paper was titled "The Paradox of Revolution."

Here's my summary of the relevant points that I wrote up in my above appreciation of Gordon:

In it [the paper], he pointed out a simple but powerful insight. Any one person's decision to participate in a revolution, he noted, does not much affect the probability that the revolution will succeed. Therefore, when each person considers participating in the revolution, the expected benefits that he takes account of that are generated by the revolution are not much affected by his own decision to participate. This is true, noted Tullock, even for the most visible and influential participants. On the other hand, noted Tullock, a nasty government can individualize the costs very effectively by heavily punishing those who participate in a revolution. So anyone contemplating participating in a revolution will be comparing heavy individual costs and small benefits that are simply his pro rata share of the overall benefits. Therefore, argued Tullock, for people to participate, they must expect some benefits that are tied to their own participation, such as a job in the new government or whatever. Tullock noted that, in fact, the typical revolution involves many of the people who are actually in the government they are revolting against. This is evidence for his model, Tullock said, because such people are particularly well situated to replace the incumbent office-holders.

The paper was published in Public Choice, 1971, Vol. 11, No. 1: 89-99.

Now consider this excerpt from Robert Fisk's report on the Tunisian revolution:

But the "unity" government is to be formed by Mohamed Ghannouchi, a satrap of Mr Ben Ali's for almost 20 years, a safe pair of hands who will have our interests - rather than his people's interests - at heart.

Don't get distracted by the "our interests" point. The interesting thing is how well this fits the spirit and letter of Tullock's article. Revolutions, noted Tullock, are commonly conducted by insiders against other insiders. That's true of the Tunisian revolution. And 40 years ago, Tullock showed why.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Mark Brady writes:

How well does Tullock's model of revolution explain the American Revolution? And if it doesn't, perhaps it isn't much of an explanation for recent events in Tunisia.

Eric Hosemann writes:

Give Pete Townsend some credit too--call it Gordon Tullock's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" model!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Brady,
I think not well, but I'm not sure.
@Eric Hosemann,
I had almost titled this post with the name of that song!

Gian writes:

Tullock models holds for French, English and the first Russian Revolution (that brought Kernesky) but not for the Second Russian Revolution (that brought Lenin).

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Mark Brady, David R. Henderson, and Eric Hosemann,

The model holds extremely well for the American Revolution. Most of the revolutionaries were high-level government officials in the colonial establishments. Certainly they were extremely well off commercially. Witness the plantations of some of our founding fathers! Note that the revolution succeeded only by the aid of the French navy. France had much to gain by the success of the American Revolution but do you seriously think the French would have tasked a navy and potentially further antagonized a world power unless the people asking for help were already well known by the French nobility? By any reasonable standard, the people who led our revolution were the elite of their societies.

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss":

Sort of but not quite. Generally, a fledgling government simply cannot survive unless most of the people in charge have IQ's above ~140. This is not to say that high IQ's guarantee survival of course. In addition, revolution requires resources: political connections, cash, influence, etc... The only people who even have the capabilities to pull off a successful revolution are those who are already part of the elite --- usually the lower elite (otherwise it wouldn't be a revolution). The masses can groan, froth, and complain all they like but they are poor, disorganized, untrained, and therefore irrelevant. The general pattern for revolutions is that the nobility become weak and alienated from the violence that brought them to power in the first place. At that point, some members of the lower nobility who are still capable of violence rise up to lead the plebians through a revolt and incidentally, themselves to significantly more lucrative positions.

Also, I do not wish to belittle Tullock's work but there is nothing new here. Everything I have read here on sociology, and I do mean everything is either flat out wrong, dangerously naive, or a bad version of something Pareto wrote in his Mind and Society. Sociology has made no progress in the last sixty years. Dear Drs. Henderson, Kling, and Caplan, if you are going to continue to pontificate on this subject, I beg of you to familiarize yourselves with the greats that have come before you. If you want a reading list, any of the following would make a great start:

  • The Machiavellians by James Burnham

  • On Power by Bertrand De Jouvenel

  • Mind and Society by Vilfredo Pareto

  • Political Parties by Robert Michels

In particular, the first chapter of The Machiavellians is online here and Political Parties by Michels is a very approachable read.

liberty writes:

I think Tullock's point about expected personal benefits - but not about being well situated by already being in government - fits the Bolshevik revolution. Those who took part, from Lenin right through, expected to get a place in the new government and to benefit from that, at least in terms of power to decide how things would go (if not in terms of perks, prestige and comfort as well).

I'm not sure it fits the communist revolution in China though. It probably fits some of the new democratic revolutions that dismantled communism in Eastern Europe--like Solidarity in Poland.

Tom Grey writes:

Revolutions need a massive number of people, looking for (such insider?) leaders to tell them how to revolt, and what needs to be done.

I'm pretty sure there was huge issue about the post-Hitler "revolution" in Germany, with the allied occupation.
... and how many (ex?) Nazis?

I think lots of Iranian anti-Shah "pro-democracy" folk were secular insiders, but their anti-Shah alliance with commies and with the theocrats resulted in an surprising victory for the Islamists, who weren't really prepared to rule, but were fast learners at killing/ exiling the other insiders.

In Czechoslovakia 1989, most of the very top were really dissidents, but many protest leaders and early new gov't folk were ex-communists (like Meciar in Slovakia), and the vast majority of institution workers had been Party members.

The true dissidents were often willing to risk their own lives "on principle", but this made many of them quite lousy at consensus building or doing deals when democracy required majority decisions to be made.

Often two dissidents might agree on 90% of the issues, but spend most of their time arguing about the 10% -- with such disagreements leading to, not friendly toleration, but personal animosity and mutual insults about character. (Like Libertarians!)

I think most of Africa's post-colonial "revolutions" were NOT of this insider type, and the resulting chaos was partly because of the lack of any insiders with an idea on "how things should work".

Educated ex-commies, who only joined The Party in order to Get Ahead, on average make better capitalist entrepreneurs and business partners than political idealistic dissidents, or student protesters.
(Almost 20 years now in Slovakia.)

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