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Gordon Tullock. Photo: Joshua Paquin/Wikimedia Commons
Gordon Tullock. Photo: Joshua Paquin/Wikimedia Commons

Gordon Tullock: An economist who understood politics

Tullock viewed politicians as self-interested individuals, rather than as public servants

In the aftermath of the Keynesian revolution that gained traction under the economic miseries of the Great Depression, deep distrust of markets became prevalent in the economics mainstream. It was believed that markets would often fail, and only benevolent governments supposedly could rescue capitalism from itself. Very few in the list of notable economists, however, looked into the problem of government failure.

One among them was Gordon Tullock, the co-founder of the Public Choice School of economics along with James Buchanan, who died last week at the age of 92. Of all his contributions, which ranged from constitutional economics to the theory of rent-seeking to the application of economic thinking to varied disciplines like law, foreign policy etc., it was Tullock’s realistic view of politicians as self-interested individuals that set him distinctly apart from the rest in the profession.

Tullock essentially got economists to tear down the assumption that politicians are benevolent servants of the public. The implications are significant. If bureaucrats performing the role of regulating markets are imperfect themselves, what could we expect of them? As research into regulatory capture has made more than clear in the ensuing years, politicians actively serve specific interest groups seeking privileges. Maximizing public welfare, as welfare economists assumed, did not really capture their imagination.

It was this idea of rent-seeking that Tullock originated way back in 1967. In further studying interest group politics, Tullock showed that groups with concentrated benefits form into much more effective lobbies and thus exert undue influence over political decision-making. This clearly refutes the usual argument that the masses decide much of policy-making. Politicians, in other words, are essentially agents gaining personal wealth through pleasing the most powerful interest groups.

Yet each election day, hosannas are sung about the power of an individual’s vote to change the world. But a clear, rational mind like Tullock’s wouldn’t be tricked by such nonsense. As he quipped once, “It’s more likely that you’ll get killed driving to the polling booth, than it is that your vote will change the outcome of the election." In fact, it is also such insignificance of an individual’s vote in influencing electoral outcomes that explains why democracies often choose bad policies.

These towering contributions came from a man who took only a single formal course ever in economics, and was largely self-taught. Buchanan, Tullock’s friend and colleague, eventually went on to win the economics Nobel Prize in 1986 for his work in Public Choice. Yet, there can be little doubt that Tullock deserved the prize as much for, more than anything, busting the myths of welfare economists.

That said, there is much that one could disagree with in Tullock’s classic The Calculus of Consent, a book that he co-authored with Buchanan. The assumption that a constitutional democracy could reflect a unanimous “consent" of millions of voters with varied special interests is quite a stretch. The constitution most definitely does not represent a voluntary contract between groups with conflicting interests. For often, minority interests are crushed to bring about uniformity in the name of unanimity.

Yet, in times like today when unrealistic hopes are pinned on political brokers serving interest groups, there is definitely a lot to learn from Tullock when it comes to seeing—to use Buchanan’s words—“politics without romance".

Natural Order runs every Monday, with a libertarian take on the world of economics and finance.

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