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Alternative Traditions in Public Choice

Remembering Gordon Tullock—The Unconventional Economist: Beyond Homo Economicus and “Economist Borne

En mémoire de Gordon Tullock, l’économiste non-conformiste
Francesco Forte et Gordon L. Brady
p. 107-131


Gordon Tullock a révolutionné le cadre analytique des économistes et des politistes. Seul, ou en collaboration avec James M. Buchanan, Tullock (1922-2014) a apporté des contributions originales à la théorie économique du vote, la théorie des constitutions, la recherche de rentes, le fédéralisme fiscal, la bureaucratie, la redistribution par l’État, la théorie de la demande, la bio-économie, l’histoire monétaire et les systèmes légaux, avec une attention particulière à l’analyse économique de la pollution, du crime, de la peine et du litige. Tullock a appliqué la perspective de l’homo oeconomicus aux questions de droit. Son application originale du paradigme économique à de nouveaux objets a souvent mené à des résultats inattendus qui ont permis de développer de nouvelles voies de recherche. Or, Tullock n’a pas articulé explicitement les liens entre les divers éléments de son économie non conventionnelle. Cet article explore certains des travaux de Tullock en les situant dans le contexte de l’École des choix publics (public choice) et plus particulièrement de l’École de Virgine (Virginia school of political economy).

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Notes de la rédaction

This paper presents itself as a reconstruction of Tullock’s contributions to public choice economics from the point of view of two authors who are known fellow travelers of the Virginia School and living witnesses to the debates raised by Tullock’s contributions to the field. Gordon Brady received his PhD in economics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1976, where he studied under both Buchanan and Tullock. Brady has written several pieces on Tullock’s influence on the Virginia School of Political Economy. Brady was asked by Tullock to inventory and organize his archives at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Brady and Tullock were co-founders of the Henry Simon Society, a dinner discussion group which also met over fifty times at professional conferences. It was in 1955 that Francesco Forte first met Buchanan, who was spending a year in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar. Forte would later join Buchanan at the University of Virginia as a post-doctoral fellow in 1960. Though Forte was offered a full professorship there, he returned to Italy and a position at the University of Torino. When Buchanan resigned from UCLA in 1968, Forte was invited to finish out the academic year for him.

Texte intégral

1This paper examines several of Tullock’s unconventional contributions to economics which provided an interdisciplinary bridge to political science, law, and biology. During his professional career spanning 65 years, Tullock served at six universities, published over 400 papers, 26 books, and made presentations around the world. He received many honors, and was nominated for a number of prestigious awards, most of which he won. The prize which escaped him was the Nobel Prize in Economic Science. However, he was appointed as a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association and held many honorary degrees including one bestowed by his alma mater the University of Chicago. Although he is best known for his joint work with Buchanan which formally began in 1960 with joint authorship of The Calculus of Consent (1962), he also issued many challenges to the profession, and formulated theorems by applying economic analysis to areas considered “unconventional” or “nontraditional” by the economics profession.

2Tullock’s insights so revolutionized the way economists and political scientists think that they may seem unremarkable today. As co-founder of Public Choice with Buchanan, Tullock made seminal contributions to the economic theory of majority voting, constitutions, rent seeking, fiscal federalism, bureaucracy, redistribution, demand revelation, bio-economics, monetary history, and legal and regulatory institutions with focus on pollution, crime, punishment, and litigation. A major although often omitted contribution of Tullock was the founding of the first journal for the new subdiscipline. Initially it was called Papers in Non-Market Decision-Making—later to become Public Choice. As its first editor, Tullock had a major influence on its development and the scope and direction of research. Perhaps it was the lack of formal academic training in economics that freed Tullock to use simple analytics to explore the world he observed. In the mid-1950s, he described himself as desiring to develop a reputation as a “mathematical-economist”, by which he meant the use of numbers, graphs, and diagrams—as opposed to complex econometrics or mathematical modelling.

3The plan of this paper is as follows. Section 1 discusses Tullock’s subjectivist approach to economic analysis and the importance of The Thomas Jefferson Center of Political Economy, the base camp and first official home of Public Choice. Section 2 examines Tullock’s research program from his initial work on majority voting, the rent seeking insight, the economic analysis of bureaucracy, anarchy, autocracy, revolutions, revolts, wars and military tactics. Section 3 deals with Tullock’s exploration of economics to biology. His focus was on the laws of selection and survival for plants, animal, and humans in primitive human societies. Section 4 discusses the influence of Karl R. Popper on Tullock’s The Organization of Inquiry (1966). Section 5 deals with the unconventional nature of Tullock's economic man and his seminal work on the economic analysis of constitutions and legal institutions. Section 6 provides concluding remarks.

1. Tullock: The Subjectivist Homo Economicus

4Tullock’s strict individual utilitarian approach led Nobel Laureate (1986) James M. Buchanan to refer in conversation to Tullock as “economist borne” while others were content to call him simply homo economicus. Buchanan’s use of economist borne adds to our understanding of Tullock, his work, and the factors that shaped him and his unique interdisciplinary bridge to political science, law, and biology. An “economist borne” may be described as

  • 1 Hunter et al. (1897, 88).Evelyn.—Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. II. [Eds. Note that the last pa (...)

One who is frugal and thrifty; a good and frugal manager; an economist. Some, who are husbands of their oil, pour at first the oil alone.1

5In many examples shown in this paper, Tullock was alone in making bold, unconventional statements grounded peripherally in economics, but nonetheless controversial enough for many to categorize his work as out of the mainstream and hence to be ignored—if possible. Tullock favored the carefully crafted challenge to dogma as well as the “studied insult” (Breit, 1986).

1.1 “Pouring at First his Oil Alone”

6Another aspect of Tullock’s crown as nonconventional economist was that his insights often ran against the current stream, often in paradoxical ways. In this respect, Tullock’s work was unconventional also because, as we shall show in this paper, in some important examples, Tullock chose to avoid contradicting the emerging tenets of his own schools, i.e. Public Choice and the Virginia school of political economy.

7Many authors, some of whom were close associates, have sought to analyze Tullock’s thought by focusing on his general contributions, while others examine Tullock’s specific contributions on the economics of biology (Landa, 2012), the rent-seeking insight (Tollison, 2012), experimental economics (Houser and Stratmann, 2012), law and economics (Goetz, 1987), and constitutional political economy (Congleton, 2015). In our opinion, these papers are incomplete and fail to explore the variability of Tullock’s non-conventional contributions to economics. Tullock’s proclivity of homo economicus and the economist borne captures an aspect of Tullock’s personality in shaping the contours of public choice in its infancy through his journal and his unique ability to integrate economics by exploiting its inter-connection with other social sciences, which had not been seen by others.

1.2 Homo Economicus

8Tullock’s modeling of individual micro choice was guided by the homo economicus model, a term which is often used to describe his behavior. Tullock sought to apply the economic paradigm to areas of human activity and motivation that were not traditionally within the purview of price theory and monetary transactions (Brady and Tollison, 1994). These novel areas brought out the importance of such factors as trust, tradition, and investment in one’s own DNA. His applications included diverse aspects of human activities such crime, sex, and intra-family transfers of wealth. Tullock’s interest in applying price theory was both expansive and comprehensive to include the nonhuman world of insects and then cycling back to human societies by relating these nontraditional, economic insights to human behavior.

  • 2 See, e.g., Hillman and Long (2017) for their discussion of Tullock’s difficulties in publishing his (...)

9Tullock’s insights from applying price theory to the traditionally non-market activities of humans shaped his paradigm of the economic man which he tended to apply much as an economic imperialist. Certainly, part of his unconventional applications of economic analytical tools was obtained by coupling biological instinct and human psychological motivation. However, one might argue that his inspiration came often from his hyperbolic over-emphasis on human selfishness and self-regarding motivation rather than simply on the rational component of the individual maximization calculus. Tullock’s unique approach served him well in teasing out relationships which others missed or simply chose to ignore. His bold pursuit of rent seeking from x–efficiency was an example—many aspects of human behavior and motivation did not sit well with Tullock and spurred his skills to develop explanations consistent with his homo economicus orientation.2 He also did not like the term “welfare economics” because he mistakenly thought it related to management of public sector redistribution programs.

1.3 Base Camp: The Thomas Jefferson Center at the University of Virginia

  • 3 [Eds.: On the history of the Thomas Jefferson Center and Virginia Political Economy, see among othe (...)
  • 4 See, e.g., Breit (1987) and Mueller (1985) for a discussion of the role of the TJC in shaping the a (...)
  • 5 [Eds.: On how the TJC worked see Boettke, Marciano and Stein (2021).]

10Founded in 1957, the Thomas Jefferson Center was part of the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics.3 It became a creative incubator for the Virginia school of political economy as unique intellectual enterprise fostered through collaboration with Buchanan, Tullock, and many economists and political scientists.4 The Thomas Jefferson Center brought Tullock and others—to name a few James Meade, Duncan Black, Frank Knight, and James Schlesinger5—into an amorphous and ever-changing club-like environment where ideas were subject to critical examination, new areas of intellectual inquiry were born and developed, and new ideas disseminated.

  • 6 [Eds.: Buchanan had known about the Italian tradition in public finance when he applied to be a Ful (...)

11Buchanan’s interest in the Italian public finance theorists would play an important role in shaping the contours of the broader Virginia School of Political Economy and the narrower field of Public Choice.6 And Tullock, the creative student of law and political science, soon came to play a very important role in Buchanan’s enterprise. Tullock’s enthusiasm and similar work ethic appealed to Buchanan’s vision of the direction of his Virginia school enterprise. Tullock’s work on the economics of constitutions and majority voting with and without logrolling. i.e. “voting trading,” greatly appealed to Buchanan as the appropriate mate (Tullock, 1959).

  • 7 Having trained in the Italian tradition of public finance by several of its founders and practition (...)
  • 8 Francesco Forte first met Buchanan in 1956 upon his arrival in Italy as Fulbright fellow—the two ec (...)

12Tullock’s concept of “logrolling” as vote trading fit well in Buchanan’s economic paradigm that political activities, exchanges, and debates were carried out in market-like setting which prompted the term “market surrogate.” Buchanan explained that Tullock’s restrictive homo economicus was an integral part of the Virginia school approach. Buchanan’s theoretical grounding was to adopt the choice process which was the central tenant of the Italian science of public finance.7 At that time, Forte had written widely on this topic and had recently been appointed professor in the UVA Economics Department (1962-67).8

13Forte’s teaching of theoretical welfare economics emphasized the methodology of the Italian science of public finance. The central tenet of the Italian tradition in public finance was that the “best” democratic choice procedure would supply the “best” social welfare function. Buchanan and Tullock adopted this grounding in their two-stage public choice process involving the constitutional and post-constitutional stage with each characterized by different decision-making principles.

14As sole author of Appendix 2 on theoretical forerunners of The Calculus of Consent (Buchanan and Tullock 1962), Tullock emphasized the use of this multi-stage approach in public sector decision making. Tullock’s appendix applied a game theoretic approach to public sector choices, developed majority rule theorems within the game approach, and provided a short section on the motivation of politicians. Appendix 2 remains a masterful description of the application of the economic paradigm to the political process. Tullock’s work stimulated further research and opened new frontiers for inquiry. After The Calculus of Consent, Buchanan further developed constitutional political economy as a new application of the economic analysis in the public sector and in the political economy at large.

15Tullock carried the enterprise into new territories with the effect of articulating the political and social relationships by extension and adaptation to the rational utilitarian paradigm which became the central focus of The Calculus of Consent. Tullock promoted rationalist concepts in his own research and through his editorship of Papers of Non-Market Decision Making (1965-67). One can say that as an editor of journal, Tullock was able to manage and coordinate the direction of the public choice research program and at the same time nurture contributors to explore applications to nontraditional topics. In 1968, the name of the journal was changed to Public Choice—now in its 53rd year.

16To explain—from its beginning, Tullock served as de facto editor-in-chief and single-handedly controlled content, promoted methodology, and encouraged new areas of inquiry beyond market exchange to the uncharted political world of “market surrogates.” Tullock established a “continuum” between the traditional domain of economics and the “terra incognita” of rational utilitarian behavior in anarchy, autocracy, war, disaster, crime and punishment, sex, family behavior, and other areas outside the domain of traditional approaches to economics.

2. Rent Seeking, Bureaucracy, Anarchy, Autocracy, Revolution, Revolt, War and Military Tactics

2.1 Majority Voting and the Rent Seeking Insight

  • 9 See Tullock’s papers that connect the voting paradox, the expressive voting and the cognitive disso (...)

17Tullock’s unconventional orientation, acceptance, and promotion of non-traditional applications opened new stream of research of “non-economic nature” through the lens of utility maximization of voters. Indeed, if the individuals vote in the political elections, even if they know that their vote is irrelevant for the results, this implies that they must have other rational “utilitarian” motivations. Clearly, the elector’s individual utility in Tullock’s approach allowed for the much broader concept of expressive voting as opposed to individual economic utility measurable in money alone.9

18Tullock was nonconventional not only for the breadth of his perspectives, but also his willingness to go against mainstream conclusions reached in standard economic areas. Tullock’s rent seeking insight remains among his major contributions to economics. Although initially rejected by seven mainstream journals of the day, his 1967 paper “The Welfare Costs of Monopolies, Tariffs and Thefts” challenged the paradigm of “efficient” rent seeking because of the competition among rent seekers (Brady, 2005). Tullock observed that rents may derive from favorable allocations in pursuit of productive activities—or from mere transfers. Tullock provides two examples of “allocative rents.” Rents created by regulation result from special privileges bestowed through government regulation of public utilities. Government fiat establishes monopolistic competition by regulated fees, charters to operate, service monopolies, and restrictions on competition from other entities. Tullock’s approach focuses on rents derived through transfers, but of a different sort from those undertaken by government programs. Rather than the traditional concept of government transfers to households, firms, or non-profit entities, Tullock focuses on “nonconventional” transfers obtained through criminal activities such as theft.

19His approach extends the concept by showing that rent seeking is not only applicable to opportunities created through legal economic relations, but is also applicable to the illegal activities whenever there is a dominant position. Tullock’s extended paradigm inverts the optic by focusing on the allocative rents created as “marketing costs,” i.e., information costs and selling cost of the firms supplying their goods and services in the imperfect-competition market. Indeed, the marketing costs include those of the firms demanding the public supply of market privileges, which consists of information costs about the supplier and the cost incurred to obtain privileges, which may not necessarily be through legal means.

2.2 Tullock’s Early Work Contribution Considered Seminal

20Tullock’s exploration of human relations of homo economicus in nonmarket contexts is found in his 1965 book The Politics of Bureaucracy (Tullock, 1965). While his hierarchical analysis of the economics of bureaucracy is now considered part of the body of public economics, this was not the case when Tullock started his book. Bureaucracy was considered beyond the purview of economists.

21Tullock’s insight was that regardless of their level in the hierarchy, bureaucrats pursue their economic self-interest through opportunistic behavior such as slowing or delaying the process. Tullock’s hierarchical bureaucracy yields individual benefits opposite to those of Max Weber, in which lower level bureaucrats obtain personal advantages because they obey to the rigid rules prescribed, disregarding whether this behavior may be inefficient (Forte and Di Pierro, 1980).

22Tullock’s model is based on his view that a source of inefficiency arises from the advantage obtained by lower-level bureaucrats adapting their behavior to the opportunistic behavior of top-level bureaucrats. The upper-tier can manipulate the application of the rules in their own self-interest and for personal benefits. In addition to inefficiency, Tullock’s model shows an over expansion of public spending through budget maximization which results because it is possible to accommodate both the interests of the upper level and of the lower tiers of the bureaucratic apparatus.

  • 10 Both Brady and Tullock worked for the Department of State and had first-hand observations of the gr (...)

23From his personal experience as a diplomat at the United States Department of State10, Tullock observed that the hierarchical organization of bureaucracy was characterized by information disparities among the inferior and superior ranks of workers. Bureaucrats at lower levels are disadvantaged by transmitting their information to higher levels. As a result, their autonomy is jeopardized as the upper tier bureaucrats either must make their decisions with imperfect information or lose power by delegating functions to the lower levels with consequent loss of control. Of course, Tullock’s applications yielded the remedy for top tier bureaucrats to create new bureaus to control the lower levels. Tullock’s insight was that information disparities would lead to continuous growth in the bureaucracy.

24Tullock’s challenge to the public interest theory of individual motivation within hierarchical bureaucracy was heavily criticized by the political science establishment. Negative reviews of his bureaucracy book were published in the Administrative Science Quarterly and the Journal of Politics. However, Tullock’s rational choice model of bureaucracy provided the foundations of Niskanen’s work in bureaucracy theory (Niskanen, 1968; and 1971). Both Niskanen and Tullock were colleagues having worked together at the Center for Naval Analysis in the early 1960s.

2.3 Anarchy and Autocracy

25Tullock extended his insights from economic paradigms to seemingly unrelated issues such as anarchy and autocracy. Later by analogy these insights were applied to his work on biology in his paper “The edge of the jungle” (Tullock, 1972). Similarly, his application of economic paradigms in anarchy and autocracy concerned the relationship of humans in a non-government settings which he analogized to non-human behavior in hierarchical structures resulting among strong and weak animals. Tullock’s example was big and small lions.

26Upon reflection, one might expect that in a hierarchy based solely on the physical size, the larger stronger lions would survive at the expense of the smaller and weaker lions. For example, if food is relatively scarce the larger lion species are capable of taking all of the food and depriving the smaller more agile lions of their share. However, in Tullock’s model, it is credible that the smaller lions could menace the larger more powerful lions. In a game among unequals, the smaller animals are almost certain to lose; however, they could inflict damage to the larger animal. Therefore, the instinct of the larger lions is to leave room for the smaller ones—thus having the appearance of rationality and the effect of trading food for peace.

27Although humans may have similar motivation, they are capable of more efficient results due to their analytical powers. In a rational choice model, humans can signal their behavior more efficiently than animals and can see the value of mutually beneficial exchange and agreements. This is true even if the stronger parties are capable of violating the exchange agreement. They would choose against breach because in a game of chicken, the weak could inflict losses to them sufficient to encourage accommodation. This amounted to a bold use of game theory, even in the absence of former agreement. But, as complex trading evolves with multiple partners and deals arranged for future periods, this system is unstable for several reasons. Excess resources would be spent to limit the gains from opportunistic behavior obtained from violating agreements, as is seen in the prisoner dilemma.

28Therefore, the result of what might appear to be the optimal breach of contracts and less formal agreements is characterized by Tullock as the “social dilemma.” This condition is relevant in the calculus of both strong and weak parties with regard to whether to remain in the situation of uncertainty concerning trading pacts or to accept that the strong will submit to the weak through enforcement of the rules. The state obtains its hierarchic power structure through an autocracy in which the larger share of the gain accrues to the small minority that exerts the power. However, the gains from this arrangement are large enough to improve the condition of the majority too.

  • 11 See Tullock (1974) for a discussion of this point.

29As a weak solution, anarchy has limited prospects for success in the informal economy and smaller prospects in other informal social relations and in small, insulated communities. However, autocracies, which include hereditary monarchies, dictatorships, and variants of these models, may lack durability.11 The weakness of hereditary monarchies occurs due to the heir’s reliance on earlier monarchs who may lack a sufficiently strong personality to take power if events do not follow their plans. On the other hand, dictators generally lack strong character, adequate organizational and effective political skills. Their powers are limited by the problem of succession and by the risk of revolts or revolutions.

30Tullock argues that autocrats do not obtain power by seeking the power to fulfil a specific promise or program. On the contrary, they promise a specific program or course of action to obtain the power in the first instance. Having obtained power their programs are adapted to different circumstances, e.g., “quelling dissonance” by neutralizing opposition. Regardless of the economic system, in order to maintain their power, autocrats must pursue policies, which increase the welfare of a majority of voters subject to an important constraint. For the autocrat to maintain power, it is necessary that the largest and most powerful share of political support is in the hands of those who control the bureaucracy and business. Tullock argues that the autocrat’s government need not be less efficient than that of a democracy. This would be true even if the autocracy results in increasing the concentration of power in the hand of the autocrat.

31Another example of Tullock’s unconventional contributions to public economics, which may be considered seminal, is his resolution to the principal agent problem in his autocracy model. An additional point emerging from Tullock’s utilitarian analysis of autocracy is also important to note. One may infer from Tullock’s analysis that an autocratic government may not be worse than what would occur in a democracy because of the personalized property rights of the autocrats. In an autocracy such as a hereditary monarchy, the autocrat would view public goods as his/her “own” private goods. This implies that his/her calculus of the costs and benefits of public expenditure programs would be more carefully considered (due to the implications for the autocrat’s private wealth) than in a system in which citizens-electors-taxpayers do not formally own or control the public goods in the hands of their bureaucrats. Tullock’s logic implies the principal agent problem is resolved more efficiently in an autocracy because the autocrat views his/her country’s public goods as his/her own private wealth. Based on this logic, one can argue that the autocrat would have a direct interest in the welfare of a large majority of subjects in their capacity as autocrat’s wealth creators, and hence leads to an optimal amount of public goods provision.

2.4 Revolution and Revolt

32Tullock applies a simple model of conflict games to examine revolutions and revolts against autocratic governments. Regardless of the motivation, the objective of both revolution and revolt is to appropriate scarce resources. However, there is a basic difference between revolutions and revolts in terms of the resulting public and private goods. A revolution by the masses is a public good due to cost of excluding non-participants from the benefits and costs of the new government. On the other hand, a revolt by a group is basically a private good due to their objective of government takeover and appropriation of property rights in the public sector (Tullock, 1974).

33Revolutions are generally unsuccessful due to the difficulty for participants to privatize the benefits of the revolution. This is analogous to elections in a democracy because the gains or losses that the single participants could collect from their action or inaction is approximately zero. This applies in the same way as the large numbers’ theorem applies to elections. The utilitarian motivation for participation in revolutions is twofold: either the fear of being identified as a culprit or excluded from benefits.

34Revolts and revolutions differ due to the private good aspect. For example, participation in a coup d’État would produce gains for a restricted number of identified individuals who reap an important benefit or incur a great loss. Revolutions, on the other hand, are less likely to impose costs on autocrats in power than what would occur due to revolts by some of their collaborators. Open movements of the masses are more easily observed and controlled than the concealed maneuvers of collaborators that organize a coup d’État.

35For those who do not participate in the revolution, their best choice would be to support the government because revolutions are rarely successful. The choice is more difficult for those who do not participate in the coup d’État because it is a private good likely to be appropriated by the higher-ranking members of the autocracy. Nevertheless, it is generally dangerous to remain neutral as a free rider because neither type of winner would approve of non-participants.

36Tullock uses simple conflict game theory to explain both internecine wars and those between nations. Tullock argues that in political combat, conflict games may be more attractive to participants than cooperative games due to the potential for appropriation of scarce resources. Tullock noted that while political science is beginning to study the benefits of cooperation, the move toward studying conflicts is also important. Tullock argues that although conflict consumes resources and is socially inefficient, it may be individually rational for one or both parties to become engaged. Tullock noted that society would always be better off collectively if such negative sum games could be avoided, but recognized that individuals may gain by forcing such a game on others.

37Tullock distinguishes between the public good aspect of civil wars (internecine) and wars between nations. For internecine war, individuals may be reluctant to participate because they do not have a property right in the resulting public good. For wars between nations, the decision about the public good aspects of the result is up to the governments. To examine this case, Tullock chooses not to apply the conflict game, but to develop a reaction curve analysis at the margin to assess the escalation of war through increased deployment of military forces. In this case, the social dilemma faced by opposing players is to use the escalation game to accept the conditions imposed by the other player or to engage in war.

38In war, the public good depends on military tactics. If organized in large units, soldiers may have an incentive to “shirk,” because active participation in battles increases the risk of being a casualty. They also know that killing one or more of the enemy combatants does not materially affect the result of the engagement because their odds of becoming a battlefield casualty depend on the success or failure of the large group. Organizing in small units may encourage cooperative behavior because results depend more on their personal contribution to effort, shirking is more readily observable, and there is greater knowledge of the other soldiers.

39Tullock’s seminal contribution to understanding the economics of autocracies, revolution, revolt, war and military activity fostered the development of a literature of the political economy in these fields. While the current political science literature on these topics is more advanced than Tullock’s pioneering work in the 1970s, few will argue the importance of Tullock’s role in its development.

3. Bioeconomics of Nonhuman, Primitive Human Societies, and Laws of Selection and Survival

3.1 Tullock’s Unconventional Work in Bio-Economics

40Tullock’s nonconventional economic research explored economic relationships featuring exchange opportunities that characterize the non-market settings in which some type of collective action takes place. His interest in ants and insect behavior began in the 1950s and lay dormant (more or less) until the early 1970s (Tullock, 1971a). Tullock had few hobbies aside from reading, taking long walks to observe nature and bird watching. During these walks, he observed the maximizing behavior of a bird (called the “Coal Tit”) as it sought to meet its needs for food and shelter. He observed maximizing behavior of the Coal Tit as comparing the supplies of resources available to it in various ecosystems with the cost of getting the necessities to its nest. Tullock analogized this optimizing behavior to a housewife’s efforts to shop where cheapest. Tullock surmised that this optimizing behavior resulted from the natural law of selection and led to the survival of the Coal Tit.

41Tullock observed that similar constraints, which encourage optimizing behavior, guide natural selection in the evolution of successful plant and animal species. This became the foundation of his argument that these factors and the optimizing behavior it encouraged guide human behavior and are amenable to economic analysis. This led Tullock to conclude that human behavior such as altruism led to the survival of primitive habits, which enabled the evolution of the human behavior. Examples include charity to foreigners and sacrifices made to defend one’s country (Tullock, 2002). While such habits may be residuals of the past and some become obsolete with the development of human society, they contribute to the success of species whether plants, animals, or humans.

42But, nature is governed by a hierarchical rule of survival of the strongest which may not satisfy the tests of Pareto optimality with the less successful becoming extinct. Tullock examined the bio economics of non-human species by applying the concepts of positive and negative externalities. He concluded that externalities may prevent non-human biological evolution from converging to optimal paths (Tullock, 1971d).

43Using the example of equilibrium between pasture grass for grazing and the number of cows, Tullock showed that a spontaneous biological order would not necessarily lead to a Paretian frontier, which optimizes both the amount of grass and the quantity of cows. The resulting equilibrium might lead to a lower equilibrium point for both. The greater fertility of the cow species may prevail and affect the survival of the less fertile species. Excessive cattle populations result in overgrazing, thus limiting the supply of grass for other species. This in turn affects the number of surviving cows and implies less than optimal rates for both the amount of grass and the number of cows. Thus, overlooking the positive externalities leads to a less than optimal path.

3.2 Tullock Ignored the Externality Implications of His Bio-Economic Analysis

44Tullock’s bio-economic insights violated two basic tenets of the Virginia School of Political Economy. The first was the view that externalities were market imperfections that do not justify the economic distortions cause by an extensive public intervention through Pigouvian taxes. The second was that Tullock’s insights violated the related principle of the intrinsic optimality of spontaneous order. This led to a question: if in nature, the lack of consideration of externalities does not lead to an optimum, why was the same not true for the human order? Stated differently, if the law of natural selection does not necessarily lead to the emergence of an optimal solution for all the players—and not even for the best fitted—why would one expect the spontaneous economic order to provide Pareto optimal solutions.

45To an extent, the answers do not fully exist in Tullock’s application of the economic paradigm to human behavior. On the one hand, Tullock’s rent seeking insight and his theory of bureaucracy show the unintended consequences that public interventions may produce in correcting externalities. Tullock emphasizes these limits in his 1977 paper “The cost of reducing social costs,” which appeared in a book on the management of the commons, one of the most obvious example of externalities (Tullock, 1977).

46On the other hand, Tullock succeeds in showing that spontaneous order in human society leads to the development of institutions such as property rights, which resolve many of the externalities that are apparent in the natural biological order. If the pastureland is owned by a farmer that raises the cattle, his rational behavior should optimize the amount of grass to accommodate the number of cows. The primary purpose of Tullock’s bio economic research was to demonstrate that the economic laws leading to optimization are relevant in human as well as nonhuman societies.

47Tullock sought to demonstrate the relevance of suboptimal equilibria, which may result in situations in a hierarchical society. He uses an example of hawks and doves provided by John Maynard Smith in which the hawk population exploits the doves (Smith, 1982). The story describes how the doves collect food, but do not fly away with the arrival of new doves because they do not steal their food. However, when the hawks arrive, the doves fly away as the incoming birds get their food. This causes the number of hawks to increase and the number of doves to decline. The hawks must now fight for the food left by the now reduced population of doves. As a consequence, an equilibrium is reached with a sub-optimal number of both of hawk and doves.

48Humans may adopt institutions, organizations, and policies that promote optimization, which does not result “naturally.” However, these institutions to optimization by imposing such limits are implemented by bureaucracies that are themselves hierarchical and subject to opportunistic behavior. Tullock provided an example of the difficulty of addressing the external diseconomies caused to the humans by the mosquitos (Tullock, 1969). He argued that geographical contiguity would limit the effectiveness of individual actions undertaken to suppress the mosquitoes because they would simply move.

49Viewed in this way, the natural order of nonhumans may be superior to the organized order of the humans. The explanation may be that the species which are able to develop cooperative behavior such as reciprocal altruism are capable of survival and growth.

50As a non-conventional creative economist, Tullock did not present the pessimistic view regarding the inability for sub-optimization. Particularly in the later period, he developed a tripartite dichotomy which enabled resolution between:

  • genetic heritage as biochemically preserved in nonhuman order and intelligent manipulation of it by humans;

  • nonhuman selfish species and human cooperative species; and

  • nonhuman species are more selfish because they are not able to trade as opposed to human species that are more cooperative because they can trade (Tullock, 1993).

51Genetic heritage may have a long life. Genes, on the other hand, may be manipulated by human intervention in order to improve the natural selection of specific desirable characteristics. Both human and nonhuman species may be individualistically selfish such as rats or cooperative as cows. The first type of species (selfish rats), is composed of smaller individuals which are more aggressive and creative. The second species (cooperative cows) consist of larger individuals who are less aggressive and more systematic. The first type is more successful in less populated areas with less competition for food and resources. While the second type has better survival prospects in densely populated areas. Both species exist also in human societies, with a trend from rats to cows (selfish versus cooperative). As economic development takes place, cooperation becomes necessary for growth. However, through trade, the market supplies the cooperation and mechanism for coordination. The ethics of altruism becomes a residual as the natural order is replaced by trade both in economics and in politics. This was Tullock’s argument in his 2002 paper “on the evolution of human behavior.” Buchanan’s description of Tullock as “economist borne” implies that, in Tullock’s view of the individual calculus, selfishness may dominate over “rational choice.”

4. The influence of Karl R. Popper on Tullock’s The Organization of Inquiry (1966)

52As discussed earlier, Tullock had colleagues in many branches of economics and the sciences. One of Tullock’s associates was Karl R. Popper (1902-94), although after an initial period of working together, they related from a distance through the mail system and the occasional visit. They did not jointly author books or papers. Nevertheless, Tullock’s work was greatly affected by this association.

53Popper’s influence on Tullock is most clear in The Organization of Inquiry. Tullock began writing this book in the late 1950s, but did not complete it until 1966. Tullock sought to develop an explanation of scientific advancement in the absence of central authority. Tullock’s enterprise was to explore the incentive structure of appropriable individual gains and costs which in turn affects the calculus of the individual scientist in the organization of scientific inquiry. Popper, on the other hand, was one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers of science. Popper rejected the classical inductivist views on the scientific method in favor of empirical falsification, a view also shared by Tullock.

  • 12 [Eds: for a different and more nuanced discussion of Tullock and Popper, see Levy and Peart (2017).

54Fundamental to Tullock’s enterprise in The Organization of Inquiry is the idea that it is the organization of inquiry within the scientific community that is key to the success of science: “it is not anything special about the individual scientist, or his work, which distinguishes him, but the special human environment in which he operates” (1966, 51). Popper’s influence is on testing and Tullock took from his nearly fifty-year association with Popper (1955-94) the view of the importance of falsification. In developing his philosophy of science, Popper concluded that the strength of a scientific theory lies in its both being susceptible to falsification, and not actually in being falsified by criticism made of it. He considered that if a theory cannot, in principle, be falsified by criticism, it is not a scientific theory. As a journal editor and hence an arbiter of economic science, Tullock sought a common thread among the structures of scientific inquiry regardless of its subject matter.12 He found this is the foundational role of falsification.

4.1 How Tullock Met Karl Popper

  • 13 See Brady (2000) for a detailed discussion of Tullock’s career prior to meeting Buchanan in the lat (...)

55Tullock held a number of short term positions which exposed him to types of thinking not likely to be obtained by academicians. Immediately prior to working for Popper, Tullock had a research position at the Princeton Panel, a public opinion surveying organization which was the precursor to the Gallup Organization. Tullock went on to assist Popper in writing the English translation and postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery.13 In the late 1930s, Popper had left Vienna for the University of New Zealand at Christ Church and had come to the London School of Economics in 1946 as the result of Hayek’s influence. Both Popper and Hayek were born in Austria and were students of Ludwig von Mises, although Popper, of course, was not an economist but a philosopher of science. Tullock considered himself a disciple of Mises and was grateful for the opportunity to work directly for Popper and viewed this association as creating a lineage to being a member of an exclusive club.

  • 14 Ibid.

56Tullock’s first encounter with Popper’s work was during a visit to Hong Kong after World War II when someone mentioned The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945, completed in 1943) and Tullock bought a copy. He remembers being much impressed with Popper’s writing and, quite atypically, read it several times. Some ten years later at a foundation-sponsored meeting on sociology, although not a sociologist, Tullock was invited to attend a 10-day conference at Emory University (June-July 1956). Therefore, the Tullock–Popper connection is much earlier than Tullock’s association with the economists (aside from Colin Campbell, a University of Chicago PhD and Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College) and visiting scholars at the Thomas Jefferson Center. Both Popper and Michael Polyani later lectured at the TJC during Tullock’s fellowship at the University of Virginia. It is highly likely that given their earlier working relationship, Tullock may have been responsible for Buchanan’s invitation to Popper. It is unlikely that Tullock would miss the opportunity to introduce Popper to colleagues at the University of Virginia. However, Tullock does not recollect attending Polyani’s lecture at the TJC and the authors of this paper could find no mention of it in Tullock’s archives at the Hoover Institution.14

4.2 The Emory Conference Proved Pivotal in Tullock’s Career Path

57The Emory conference provided the academic setting for Tullock to formally introduce himself to Popper. Tullock took the opportunity to talk with the author about his impressions of Popper’s Open Society. Popper informed Tullock that he would be spending time at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences at Stanford University. An undated letter apparently 1957 in Tullock’s Stanford archives indicates his intention to take up Popper’s offer. Tullock indicated that he would submit a proposal to the Volker Foundation for funding. After leaving the US Department of State in 1956, Tullock drove cross-country in his sports car (MG) with the idea of writing a book on bureaucracy after completing his work for Popper. There at Stanford, Tullock helped Popper on what was projected to be a postscript to the English translation of The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Tullock modestly described his role as limited to ensuring that Popper’s English was properly idiomatic. In the process, Tullock learned a great deal about Popper’s philosophy of science and came to like him very much. The feeling was apparently mutual as Popper later referred to Tullock as one of his disciples. And, as one might expect, this greatly pleased Tullock. Popper’s influence was considerable on Tullock’s views of how to conduct research. As an aside, Tullock noted that Popper also contributed to his knowledge of Greek philosophy and physics although neither subject had much to do with what Tullock ever did. Tullock remembers Popper as a stimulating person to be with, although he found him very impatient.

  • 15 Tullock developed a Kantian model in two papers, including Tullock (1959). See Peart and Levy (2017 (...)
  • 16 See Houser and Stratmann (2012) for a discussion of Tullock’s insights in experimental economics.

58Popper coined the term “critical rationalism” to describe his philosophy, while Tullock’s views were shaped by seeking ways to apply economic analysis to understand institutions and the motivations of the individuals who inhabit them. Popper rejected the empiricist view (following from Kant) that basic statements are infallible, rather that they are descriptions in relation to a theoretical framework.15 Popper’s approach to science was called “critical rationalism” which rejects classical empiricism, and the classical observationalist-inductivist account of science that had grown out of it. Popper argued strongly against the latter, holding that scientific theories are abstract in nature, and can be tested only indirectly, by reference to their implications. He also held that scientific theory, and human knowledge generally, is irreducibly conjectural or hypothetical, and is generated by the creative imagination to solve problems that have arisen in specific historical-cultural settings. Consequently, Tullock became an advocate of statistical testing by others although he never did the testing himself. While at his first academic appointment at the University of South Carolina, Tullock expressed his desire to build a reputation as a quantitative economist. While at Arizona and later in his career at George Mason University, Tullock developed an interest in experimental economics.16 While he did little empirical testing himself, many of his other works have provided insights that others might test. Tullock’s two works, The Organization of Inquiry (1966) and The Logic of the Law (1971b) advanced hypotheses which Tullock hoped would be tested by others.

5. Nonconventional Character of Tullock’s Economic Man and the Constitutional Economics of Law

59Tullock’s utilitarian approach to “economic man” is not the same as the psychology of rational choice which developed in the economics literature. Tullock adopts the broader interdisciplinary approach between economics and psychology which draws upon the sophisticated concept of cognitive dissonance introduced by Festinger (1957). This concept argues that people hold many “cognitions” defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and their observations of the world. Such cognitions form the basis of individual choices in our daily choices. When an individual considers what he/she has chosen, they may realize they made a wrong choice, because he/she adopted the wrong cognition.

  • 17 Akerloff and Dickens (1982) provide three key elements of theory of cognitive dissonance: (1) indiv (...)

60The resulting discrepancy evokes a state of tension known as “cognitive dissonance.” The unpleasantness of dissonance motivates individuals to reduce or seek to eliminate it in order to “quell” (resolve) the feeling of imbalance/dissonance between cognitions. This may be done either by changing the beliefs to make them in accord with the preferred action or changing their behavior to be in accord with the preferred cognition. A third and fourth possibility is to collect new information which reconciles the choice or to alter the choice in a different way to reduce the pain of conforming it to the right belief.17

  • 18 [Eds.: the authors refer to Buchanan (1975) here, but we are uncertain as to whether this is the co (...)

61Tullock applies the principle of cognitive dissonance to explain the (apparent) paradox of supporting “public sector” charity through government by those who are basically uncharitable in their private choices. If individual behavior was consistently altruistic, charitable organizations should provide aid to the poor by private actions, as donations to the non-profit organizations to render unnecessary the aid to the poor in the Governments budgets. However, this is not what really happens. People, who do not contribute privately to charity often vote for governmental aid to the poor. This takes place both in the local and in the central government budgets. Tullock argued that an individual’s personal dissonance is “quelled” by voting for government to aid to the poor. Several years later, Buchanan (1975) took a somewhat different approach in his paper on the Samaritan’s dilemma which argued that the reason aid to the poor is mostly done by the government budgets and not by private mechanisms is that some of the costs are shifted by the minority which would not contribute to private charities.18

62As noted above, the cognitive dissonance component of public choice articulated by Tullock may explain some causes of the rapid growth of public spending and of opportunistic behavior of bureaucracies and the rent seeking insight. Tullock’s concept of the economic man differs from the standard economic man because of limited rationality due to such factors as cognitive dissonance

63Tullock was an unconventional economist in his examination of the political economy of civil and criminal law. The interdisciplinary nexus of law and economics cannot be properly defined from the stream of research in economics from continental Europe from which law schools study the economic effects of the legal institutions. Two of the most important schools of economics of the middle part of the Twentieth Century were the Freiburg school of Ordo, led by Walter Eucken, and the Pavia School of Public finance, led by Benvenuto Griziotti. Both of these schools focused on law and economics. From 1956-68 the Department of Economics at the University of Virginia was alternatively directed by Buchanan, and then by Warren Nutter.

64For Tullock the lawyer, cultivating a perspective in law and economics was natural. Buchanan and Nutter had studied at Chicago, but were economists rather than lawyers. Tullock’s ambition was to analyze the basic principles of the legal system using a constitutional economic framework, which had begun before coming to Virginia. This framework is based on the same individual utility maximization that he and Buchanan adopted for The Calculus as the basic rules governing the public sector choices made in democratic institutions.

65At that time in the US, and particularly in the Chicago school, there was a consensus that the common law system is superior to the statutory legal system. Common law emerges in practical situations as the creation and accumulation of the decisions of judges one might conclude, which are made based on the specific facts of the case through the principle of stare decisis. Interestingly, it may surprise the reader that an economist in search of the laws of the market economy might also find analogues in the laws of nature. Under the principle of natural selection of sound legal principles through application, one might reach the conclusion that the common law borne by interpretation in the courts is inferior to the written statutory law, as interpreted by the career judges in the European statutory law systems.

66Tullock argued that stare decisis allows greater discretion by judges in finding and interpreting rent seeking by the pressure groups than in the codified law system. Again, the basic principle was that the negative sum games may prevail on the cooperative games, in day-to-day life. However, a similar objection may be raised against statutory law, which are actually done by committees of experts and the relevant bureaucracy, and submitted to legislative bodies for concurrence or revision. In a two layered public choice system the solution in both cases could consist in specifying the basic constitutional principles that serve as guidelines for the ordinary laws. However, at the constitutional level also arises the question of the degree of interpretation in the two systems of the case law with the stare decisis and the written laws. Whether Tullock succeeded in this task is a matter of a debate, which is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it should be noted that Tullock’s use of the public choice framework to compare systems of common law with statutory law remains a path breaking contribution to the relative merits of the two systems.

6. Concluding Remarks

67Tullock became an icon of the unconventional by applying price theory to the traditionally non-market motivation of humans. He gained much insight from observing both human and non-human behavior which he sought to apply wherever it seemed to fit—often in ways which differed from the standard applications of his day. In so doing, he reshaped the paradigm of the economic man. Therefore, it is not surprising that he may be described as having traveled a lonely road. Again, that his inspiration came from selfishness is not antagonistic to the coupling of biological instincts and psychological motivation.

68We can say that Tullock’s lack of uneasiness in “pouring at first his oil alone” led to many fruitful areas of research for those who followed him. Certainly, although a somewhat shy man, Tullock never backed away from an argument and often ran against the current stream, articulating paradoxes and giving his colleagues points of focus to critique which wasn’t always easy because his arguments were coherent and appeared to hold together. Tullock always took criticism in a good-natured way—most would say he enjoyed it, encouraged it, and often provoked it. Tullock’s influence on Public Choice was substantial, long lasting, and durable. Tullock will be missed.

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1 Hunter et al. (1897, 88).Evelyn.—Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. II. [Eds. Note that the last part of the sentence “Some, who are husbands of their oil, pour at first the Oil alone” is from John Evelyn's (1699) Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets.]

2 See, e.g., Hillman and Long (2017) for their discussion of Tullock’s difficulties in publishing his 1967 rent seeking paper “the welfare costs of tariffs, monopoly, and theft” was rejected while Leibenstein’s concept of X-efficiency was accepted for publication. On this point also see Formby, Keeler, and Thistle (1988); and Brady and Tollison (1994).

3 [Eds.: On the history of the Thomas Jefferson Center and Virginia Political Economy, see among others Boettke and Marciano (2015), Fleury and Marciano (2018), Levy and Peart (2020).]

4 See, e.g., Breit (1987) and Mueller (1985) for a discussion of the role of the TJC in shaping the academic environment from which the Virginia School of Political Economy emerged.

5 [Eds.: On how the TJC worked see Boettke, Marciano and Stein (2021).]

6 [Eds.: Buchanan had known about the Italian tradition in public finance when he applied to be a Fulbright Scholar. He spent the 1955-1956 academic year in Italy studying the work of Italians such as de Viti de Marco and Mazzola. There is no doubt they had a profound influence on his thinking (see Medema, 2005; Eusepi, 2020; Wagner, 2018).]

7 Having trained in the Italian tradition of public finance by several of its founders and practitioners, Forte served as liaison for Buchanan to the Italian tradition (Forte, 2013).

8 Francesco Forte first met Buchanan in 1956 upon his arrival in Italy as Fulbright fellow—the two economists became lifelong friends. Forte returned the visit, spending time at the Thomas Jefferson center, leading to new and fruitful intersections between Italian public finance and the emerging field of Public Choice. He played a major role in fostering Buchanan’s research in Italian public finance through doctrinal guidance and introductions to the scholars at Pavia and throughout Italy.

9 See Tullock’s papers that connect the voting paradox, the expressive voting and the cognitive dissonance principle that, according to Tullock, led the uncharitable to vote for redistribution in favour of the poor.

10 Both Brady and Tullock worked for the Department of State and had first-hand observations of the growth of bureaucracy and the incentive to maximize budgets. Forte, a member of the Italian Socialist Party, had a number of high level appointments including minister of finance (1982-83) under Amintore Fanfani.

11 See Tullock (1974) for a discussion of this point.

12 [Eds: for a different and more nuanced discussion of Tullock and Popper, see Levy and Peart (2017).]

13 See Brady (2000) for a detailed discussion of Tullock’s career prior to meeting Buchanan in the late 1950s.

14 Ibid.

15 Tullock developed a Kantian model in two papers, including Tullock (1959). See Peart and Levy (2017).

16 See Houser and Stratmann (2012) for a discussion of Tullock’s insights in experimental economics.

17 Akerloff and Dickens (1982) provide three key elements of theory of cognitive dissonance: (1) individuals not only have preferences over world situations, but also over their beliefs about them; (2) persons exercise some control on their beliefs, both by making choices on them and manipulating them by selecting information likely to confirm their ‘desired belief’; (3) beliefs one has chosen tend to persist over time. People tend to resolve cognitive dissonance by choosing the easiest way for them: that is, to adopt an illusory reconciliation. Akerloff and Dickens apply cognitive dissonance to irrational behaviour in the private sector consisting by deceiving themselves with illusory optimistic beliefs, as cases of market failure that require public intervention. Tullock applies cognitive dissonance to illustrate the wrong reasons for government actions. Tullock used cognitive dissonance to explain why people vote for public charity when they don’t donate privately.

18 [Eds.: the authors refer to Buchanan (1975) here, but we are uncertain as to whether this is the correct paper given the context.]

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Francesco Forte

Former Senator of the Italian Republic. Professor Emeritus, La Sapienza University of Rome

Gordon L. Brady

Former Senior Economist, Joint Economic Committee, US Senate. Currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Free Enterprise, Florida Southern College, Lakeland, FL,

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