David R. Henderson  

McKenzie on Tullock

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Gordon Tullock was, in James Buchanan's words, a "natural economist" who saw economics as his way of understanding all of life. He talked and wrote much about personal interest and profit as motivations in markets and politics. Yet he gave much of himself and his time to others--especially to his students, including me, early in our careers--by promptly reviewing countless of our papers.

Gordon did not have an economics pedigree, and that made him proud. Indeed, with a publication record in economics journals that was rarely matched, he was never more pleased than when he told people that he had taken only one formal course in the subject, which, he insisted, provided poor training at best and freed him to find insights where traditional economists believed they should not tread.

These two paragraphs are from Richard B. McKenzie, "Professor Gordon Tullock: A Personal Remembrance," one of the two Econlib Feature Articles for December. Richard was a student of Tullock's as well as a co-author.

On Tullock's abrasive personality:

Gordon could be abrasive, especially in his early years and especially when he could readily pick out flaws in arguments. Some who felt (and may still feel) his sting, but did not stay around long enough to really know him, may remember him as mean-spirited. But those of us who lingered came to realize that he was virtually incapable of being intentionally mean-spirited. He was an economist who saw argument as a serious sport. He would not drop arguments or even sugarcoat them out of concern for political (or personal) correctness.

I agree with Richard that Tullock was not intentionally mean-spirited. That's what made it relatively easy, after an adjustment period, for me to talk to him. Richard doesn't say this in the piece, but there is no virtually no doubt in mind that Tullock's abrasiveness cost him a Nobel prize.

Here's what I wrote in Reason in "James Buchanan and Company" in November 1987:

Tullock, who grew up in Chicago, has a cherubic face that makes him look like an overgrown kid. He is very abrasive. He loves to tangle people in knots when he disagrees with them and will push until they cry uncle. My guess is that his abrasiveness cost Tullock a Nobel. (The Nobel decisions was apparently a cliff-hanger; Tullock claims he was told that the committee split at the last minute on whether to make a joint award.)

Back to Richard McKenzie's article. It's a nice mixture of professional appreciation and personal reminiscence. The main new thing I learned from it (besides the fact that Tullock was concerned that people would think he wrote the sex chapters of a book he co-authored with McKenzie) is Tullock's application of the "tragedy of the commons" to trees: not people cutting down trees, but trees acting like people.

By the way, on my to-do list for the Christmas holiday is writing a bio of Tullock (and completing bios of some of the recent Nobel winners, including Krugman) for The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Richard McKenzie's piece on Tullock gives me a head start.

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CATEGORIES: Obituaries

COMMENTS (3 to date)
Bostonian writes:

"He was an economist who saw argument as a serious sport. He would not drop arguments or even sugarcoat them out of concern for political (or personal) correctness."

Tullock was not simply un-PC but nasty, according to statements from this blog. Quoting Caplan's "Two Tullock Stories":

'All doubt vanishes, though, during a post-seminar dinner with me, Tullock, and Donald Wittman. Tullock is recounting one of his many lessons on Chinese history, ending with, "Chiang Kai-shek was a butcher, but he wasn't as bad as Hitler or Stalin."

Then Tullock stares right at me and says, "You're as bad as Hitler or Stalin. But not Chiang Kai-shek."'

There was no serious argument for saying Caplan was as bad as Hitler or Stalin. If gratuitous nastiness causes someone to lose a Nobel Prize, good. That may discourage other eminent economists from being nasty.

David R. Henderson writes:

Think about the Caplan episode. Caplan is as bad as Hitler or Stalin. But he’s not as bad as Chiang Kai-shek. Implication: Chiang Kai-Shek is worse than Hitler and Stalin. But then go to Tullock’s original discussion. Chiang Kai-shek is not as bad as Hitler or Stalin. You see? I’m sure Tullock trusted Bryan, of all people, to get transitivity.
It’s not my sense of humor, and in my view it’s kind of silly, but it’s not nasty.

Richard McKenzie writes:


When I first read your comment posted to David Henderson’s blog on Bryan Caplan’s encounter with Gordon Tullock, I was aghast because I assumed, initially, your interpretation of what Gordon said to Caplan was correct. The comment did seem unnecessarily crass, especially when related to a colleague Gordon respected. I had not come to know the Gordon Tullock you described.

Thankfully, David Henderson (with help from Dwight Lee) came to my rescue by pointing out the (somewhat obscure) non sequitur in Gordon’s statements, which totally nullifies your interpretation of Gordon’s comments and your assessments of him, at least in this instance. I now can imagine that Gordon made his comment to Caplan with a smile and maybe a chuckle, knowing that Caplan would get his point, albeit with a momentary delay.

I hope you now understand you were wrong in your post and will consider withdrawing it, for your own sake as well as for the sake of Gordon’s internet legacy.

Richard McKenzie

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