Gordon Tullock, R.I.P.

My friend and former colleague Gordon Tullock passed away on Election Day eve at the age of 92.

Gordon was one of the great polymaths of the past more than half-century. Known best as the co-author (with Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan) of The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (1962), Gordon invented the concept of what became known as “rent seeking” in a paper published in 1967 (the term actually was coined by Anne Krueger in 1974), contributed extensively to the literature of the law (owing to the high error rates of judges and juries in common law regimes, he favored continental civil law processes), and wrote much about the economic behavior of non-human societies (e.g., “The Coal Tit is a Careful Shopper” is one of my favorites). In The Social Dilemma, Gordon explored the benefits and costs of revolutions and coups d’état; he also brought his fertile mind to bear on autocratic regimes, which he observed correctly are much more prevalent in human history than democracies.

Many of us thought that Gordon should have shared Buchanan’s Nobel Prize and, until very recently, held out faint hope that a Nobel would be awarded to him for launching a vast literature extending his rent seeking logic, perhaps jointly with Anne Krueger. Alas, that was not to be.

In addition to co-authoring The Calculus, to which Gordon contributed some of the first applications of game theory to problems of collective decision making, he single-handedly launched the academic journal now known as Public Choice, was present at the creation of the Public Choice Society, and as journal editor fostered the careers of many young scholars by publishing their work. (It is for that reason that the journal’s publisher, Springer, funds the honorarium paid to the winner of the annual Gordon Tullock Prize for the selection by the journal’s current editorial team of the best paper published by a younger scholar in Public Choice.)

Gordon was famous for insulting his friends good-naturedly and not interacting much with people he didn’t particularly like. I count myself as one of Gordon’s friends because not long after I succeeded the late William C. Mitchell as book review editor of Public Choice, he remarked that I hadn’t been doing as bad of a job in that post as he had expected me to do.

Gordon was proud to say that he took only one undergraduate course in economics (taught by Hebert Simon) and that because he had not fulfilled all of his degree requirements prior to being accepted into (and later graduating from) law school, he didn’t even have a college diploma.

It is somewhat ironic that Gordon passed away on the day before Election Day 2014. He was famous for telling anyone who listened that he never voted. He practiced what he preached: voting is irrational, as public choice reasoning explains.

If you have failed unaccountably to become familiar with Gordon Tullock’s incredibly creative contributions to the literatures of public choice and beyond, a good place to start is the 11-volume Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, edited by the late Charles K. Rowley and published by Liberty Fund.

William F. Shughart II is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice.
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