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Gordon Tullock's contributions to the theory of public choice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Gordon Tullock came to economics and political science through a circuitous route. He had almost no formal training in economics beyond a one-quarter course that he took as a law student at the University of Chicago from Henry C. Simons. He served in the foreign service for a number of years. His first publications in economics date from the mid-1950s, and were on monetary economics (Campbell and Tullock [1954; 1957]; Tullock [1956]). Tullock's formal entry into academia came in 1958 when he arrived at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy (part of the Department of Economics at the University of Virginia) as a postdoctoral fellow. Tullock's biography from this point is fairly well known.(1)

Tullock's contributions to economics and political science span almost forty years. The following discussion is offered as a modest review of Tullock's contributions. The presentation is not meant to be detailed or copious but simply efficient in conveying what is important in Tullock's work.(2)

II. METHODOLOGY AND STYLE

Before turning to Tullock's work, a brief word is in order about his general approach to economic analysis and his writing style. In fact, Tullock has shown far more interest in obtaining useful results than he has in how he happened to go about obtaining them. In this way he has been a methodological anarchist, operating under the general maxim that in science anything goes and results count. His well-known papers generally rely upon simple price-theoretic or spatial constructs and perhaps a little algebra and game theory. Where he has found a need for more formidable tools, he has generally acquired them through coauthors. This "anything goes" approach does not seem to have hampered his work. He has shown a talent for getting at the essence of problems and avoiding clutter in his work. Moreover, he has shown almost no penchant for methodological exegesis in his work, with the major exception of his general insistence that rational economic man models are the best description of behavior in almost any setting. On this point he has been steadfast.

In fact, Buchanan [1987] uses Tullock's emphasis on the homo economicus assumption to describe Tullock as a "natural economist." I think this is an accurate interpretation of Tullock. We have all known people who are naturally good at things, like playing short-stop or the piano, and in this sense it is analogous to say that Tullock has a natural inclination toward economic reasoning and behavior.

Tullock is not a great stylist. His normal routine is to dictate the first draft of his papers and work through them from there. This allows him to make his points, but sometimes not very eloquently or clearly.(3) The real question about scientific writing style is whether it matters or not. There are protagonists on either side of this issue. Empirical research (Laband and Taylor [1992]) suggests that style has no marginal impact on citations. This result can be interpreted in various ways, but perhaps the most appropriate interpretation is that researchers have not yet found the margin on which writing style matters. Tullock, of course, could interpret this differently to say that style does not matter. Only results matter, and this is what he has been about.

Nonetheless, McCloskey lists Tullock along with several other modern economists as a good writer. To wit, "when you read any of these in economics, pay attention: this is as good as it gets" [1987, 9]. This either defends Tullock's writing skills or calls into question the care with which McCloskey drew up his list of economists as writers.

III. THE CALCULUS

The Calculus of Consent [1962] by James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock is a work of astounding creativity. Of all the classic works in the theory of public choice, this book stands out for its range and depth of contribution. It is, moreover, a readable book. Other scholars, for instance Rowley [1987b; 1991] and Mitchell [1989], have treated the contributions of this work sufficiently well that detailed comments will not be made about it here; only the main contributions will be noted.

A central contribution of The Calculus was the invention of a model of constitutional choice. This model was less well defined than that of Rawls [1971], but it has proved far more useful than Rawls's simple minimax criterion for constitutional decision making. The idea of decision making in the face of uncertainty of future position and with a time lag before decisions take effect forms the basis today of a growing body of work on constitutional economics.

One gets the idea that Buchanan and Tullock felt that they were modelling the decision processes of James Madison and the Federalists, which naturally leads to the question of the reality and applicability of the constitutional choice paradigm. There may, for example, be an infinite regress problem, in that constitutional choice would also come to manifest the special interests of ordinary politics, only with the stakes being larger. Empirical work on the voting records of participants in the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution is suggestive in this respect (McGuire and Oshfeldt [1986]).

A second central theme in The Calculus is a full-scale assault on simple majority rule. The authors seem to relish in this attack, with the general purpose being to argue for the application of more qualified voting rules in the tradition of Wicksell [1896]. Empirically, however, majority rule continues to be the rule in most instances of democratic decision making.

A third basic contribution of The Calculus is the analysis of logrolling or vote trading. Some of this work dates to Tullock's 1959 paper in the Journal of Political Economy. Nonetheless, the implications of this earlier work are fully explored, and the crucial differences between private and political exchange are exposited in The Calculus. One is given a clear explanation of the costs and benefits of vote trading under various conditions, and this discussion remains the fountainhead for a vast subsequent literature on logrolling.

A fourth basic contribution of The Calculus is to pose the alternatives correctly. At the high point of what was then a critique of Pigovian economics, Buchanan and Tullock showed plainly that the choice is not between perfect government and imperfect markets, but rather between imperfect government and imperfect markets, with the general point being to search for the least costly set of institutional arrangements. The value of the lessons taught by this formulation cannot be overestimated.

The remainder of the book consists of a variety of highly original contributions and discussions which have not yet been fully explored. In this respect there are discussions of such topics as the executive veto, bicameral legislatures, and interest groups.

The Calculus of Consent is a classic that continues to be read and cited widely. The unique combination of these two intellects produced a work of lasting significance.

IV. BUREAUCRACY

Tullock published The Politics of Bureaucracy in 1965. This book was quite different from the earlier themes about bureaucracy developed by writers such as Mises [1944]. Mises thought the problem with bureaucracy was that it carried out detailed regulations and thus was embroiled in red tape. Tullock took the view that bureaucrats were attempting to get ahead and frequently did so by violating regulations. This book, however, is perhaps not Tullock's most important contribution in this area.

As Niskanen [1971] states in the preface to his book on bureaucracy, it was primarily Tullock who stimulated him to develop his all-or-none demand curve analysis of the economics of bureaucracy.(4) Niskanen's book is a classic in the literature of public choice, and his credit line to Tullock tells us a great deal about what type of person Niskanen is. Indeed, he undoubtedly gave Tullock too much credit, for his articulation of the all-or-none theory is extremely original and useful. Niskanen put the theory of bureaucracy into price-theoretic terms that his fellow economists and political scientists could readily use. This was an extremely important contribution which was a forerunner of the current generation of agent-principal theories of legislative oversight (Weingast and Moran [1983]). The agent-principal models have different implications from Niskanen's theory, but are nonetheless direct descendants of his work. The fingerprints of Tullock are here.

V. RENT SEEKING

The concept of rent seeking was invented by Tullock [1967b] and, as Tollison [1982] shows, is now widely known and understood. Transfers become social costs if scarce resources are spent to capture them; this theory applies to any transfer in which governmental or private coercion is involved.(5)

This simple insight is unique to Tullock and, I think, quite important. Searches of earlier literature reveal only the vaguest resemblances of the idea, and its implications for the welfare analysis of monopoly and the like are yet to be fully worked out or appreciated.(6) In a way the rent-seeking idea rescued microeconomic analysis from the empirically trivial magnitudes of welfare loss generated by Harberger [1954] and related literature. Rent seeking gave policy relevance back to microeconomics (at least so it seems).

The literature on rent seeking is still emerging, so that there are few definitive conclusions to be reported. The social costs of transfers matter, but there is no consensus about how much they matter. Some writers argue that there is a lot (or potentially a lot) of wasteful transfer seeking (Magee, Brock, and Young [1989]; Laband and Sophocleus [1992]), and others argue that there is little or none (Dougan and Snyder [1993]). One thing is certain, however; conventional theories of the welfare costs of government policies which ignore rent seeking are useless. If government sponsors a monopoly right and transfer seekers spend resources or effort to obtain it, the welfare cost of this situation is not simply the Harberger costs. It is more than that, and how much more depends upon how the rent dissipation process is modelled: are all rents dissipated, more than all rents, or less than all rents?(7) It is clearly convenient to try to slip these issues, but then one is left with a virtually useless analysis of welfare costs. Such is the importance of the lesson Tullock has taught us. Tullock costs should now weigh more heavily on our minds than Harberger costs.

I am inclined to the view that not very many rents are dissipated in practice, but this is not based upon any firm analytical result. It is based more upon a feeling that there should be sufficient incentives for political agents to translate social costs into transfers. Nonetheless, this leaves open the issue of how rent-assignment institutions are chosen and evolve over time. There must be a reason, in other words, why lawyers do so well in a rent-seeking society.

A second point about Tullock's rent-seeking insight is that some care must be used in its application. Is a lock on a door, for example, a net social cost? My approach to this question would be to say "yes" if the analyst can point to a Pareto-superior reallocation of resources in which expenditures on locks could be reduced. Otherwise, the answer is "no." This approach, of course, puts an additional burden on welfare economics. It is not enough to say simply that the welfare costs of, for example, crime are some amount of dollars. The issue becomes whether there is any better and achievable configuration of resources that will result in a lower social cost of crime.(8) What, that is, is the alternative? Clearly, the general answer that one will find under this approach is that net social costs are normally quite low, while naive analysis would suggest that such costs are quite high.

Much remains to be done to develop Tullock's rent-seeking insight. What is the appropriate way to model the competitive process for rent capture? How does rent seeking affect the distribution of income? How much rent is dissipated? How are rent assignment institutions selected? How do lawyers, lobbyists, and interest groups affect economic growth? And there are many other questions. However, Tullock's theory of rent seeking opened the door to all such issues, the importance of which should be obvious to any practicing economist.

VI. A DIGRESSION

If I could be allowed a brief digression here, it is perhaps interesting from the standpoint of the history of our science to recount the editorial history of Tullock's 1967 paper on rent seeking. I draw upon Brady and Tollison [1991; 1994], both of which contain materials from Tullock's archives.

This paper was rejected by the American Economic Review, Economica, and the Southern Economic Journal before it was accepted for publication in 1967. A sample of editorial opinion is interesting. In the rejection letter from the American Economic Review, John Gurley, the Managing Editor, stated:

You will no doubt note that the referee neglects your point regarding the amount of real resources devoted to establishing, promoting, destroying, etc., monopolies. However, I have noted it and, while I think it is certainly valid, it does not appear significant enough (as a theoretical contribution) to overthrow the referee's recommendation (16 August 1966).

Monday morning quarterbacking does not pay high wages, but this is an example of editorial oversight (or the lack of it).

The paper was also rejected by the Southern Economic Journal. In his 6 February 1967 letter, Robert Gallman, Managing Editor, stated that "Tullock's main point that the small triangle does not adequately measure welfare loss in the absence of perfect competition is well understood." He also argued that Tullock inadvertently misrepresented the spirit of Harberger's [1954] paper in stating that "[w]hile Harberger called the small triangle the welfare loss, he also took account of the rectangle but called it, I think, misallocated resources." This is confusion.

I do not mean to belabor the point, but other examples of this sort of thing exist in Tullock's archives. For example, consider the rejection of "The Cost of Transfers" [Tullock 1971c] by the American Economic Review, in which the referee's report (contained in a letter from George Borts, Managing Editor, 18 February 1971) stated:

This paper simply does not have anything useful to offer. Its principle point is that the possibility of income or wealth transfers has the unfortunate consequence that people invest resources either to obtain or to prevent them. These resources are wasted.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

Indeed, Tullock was ahead of his time. It would be several more years before Krueger [1974] and Posner [1975] published their early papers on rent seeking, and at that time Krueger (who coined the name of the new field) was unaware of Tullock's paper. This is, of course, not a knock on these journals or editors. It is an example of a Type II error, and the question is really how often are fundamental results greeted in this way? This story, however, has a happy ending. Tullock's paper finally encountered the sound judgement of Dr. Alice Vandermuelen, Managing Editor of the Western Economic Journal, which was the precursor to Economic Inquiry. She accepted the paper for publication in 1967. Perhaps the moral of the story is this - it pays to read more than the two or three top journals in a field.

VII. CYCLING

Over the years one of Tullock's favorite targets has been the Arrow Theorem [1951]. Tullock's interest here has been strictly empirical, that is, to show that the empirical relevance of cycling is remote (Tullock [1967a]; Campbell and Tullock [1970]). Suffice it to say here that this work is the intellectual forerunner of modern theories of legislative behavior in which outcomes are stable, predictable, and controlled by powerful actors. The issue of why so much stability exists has thus been translated into theories of structural equilibrium in legislative processes (Shepsle [1978]; Shepsle and Weingast [1981]). And while I am not sure that Tullock would fully agree with all aspects of these subsequent developments, his early work on cycling forms the empirical basis for such work.

VIII. DEMAND-REVEALING PROCESSES

Tullock's work on devising procedures for obtaining "true" estimates of individual demand functions for pure public goods is a subject that I have not followed very closely (Tideman and Tullock [1976]). This is obviously an important area of research, and our hats should go off to anyone who has solved this classic problem in economic theory. Tullock's work here, based on an earlier paper by Clarke [1971], suggests a system of rewarding accurate responses and penalizing inaccurate responses with respect to contributions for the provision of a pure public good. As in lots of cases of scientific advance, Tideman and Tullock [1976] and Groves and Ledyard [1977] appeared at about the same time and, as I simply have not kept up with developments, I cannot report on the status of Tullock's contribution at this time. Tullock's work here though, as well as that of the other participating scholars, can be seen as an important contribution to economic theory.

I might also come back for a moment to Tullock's methodology. On the one hand, Tullock is a positivist; on the other, he has shown a strong utilitarian streak in his work. He has advocated that economists can do well by doing good (Tullock [1984]). His work on demand-revealing methods is representative of such utilitarian leanings.

IX. INCOME REDISTRIBUTION

In his 1971 paper on "The Charity of the Uncharitable," Tullock mounted his well-known criticism of income redistribution policies. His point was simple - if we really cared about the "poor," we would send vast sums of resources to the poorest of the world and not to the local "poor" in the United States. This simple point explodes the mythology that income redistribution is actually about helping "poor" people. Tullock has maintained this interest in income redistribution over time, publishing Economics of Income Redistribution in 1983.

Backing up again to Tullock's 1958 paper on logrolling, it is useful to stress that Tullock's positive vision of politics is almost purely redistributional. This is the sum and substance of his approach to politics. Later papers arguing the same thing in Chicago terms thus never made much of a dint on Tullock. He appreciated their contributions and empiricism, but thought that the basic point had already been made.

X. LAW AND ECONOMICS

Tullock's work in this area has been carefully analyzed by Goetz [1987]. Goetz's conclusion was that Tullock missed the boat in this intellectual revolution because of the non-lawyerly way that he approached the subject. Tullock was working on this issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but Becker [1968] and Posner [1972] have more or less commanded the play of subsequent literature, while Tullock's numerous papers and his book on The Logic of the Law [1971d] have had little impact on these developments. Tullock also published Trials on Trial [1980a] which dealt with the efficient provision of legal services.

I have no good reason to disagree with Goetz's assessment.(9) I would, however, make a couple of additional points about Tullock's work in this area. First, Tullock's utilitarian streak shows through most clearly in his work on law and economics. He is interested in the efficient provision of legal services. These topics were not as paramount in the early days of law and economics as were endless discussions of the Coase Theorem. Tullock's work may yet have its day in the sun, as attention now seems to be focusing on the efficiency of legal processes, a topic which permeates Tullock's work in law and economics. Second, Tullock's writing and research (e.g., 1969a, 1971b) served to popularize and to distinguish the law and economics approach from alternative approaches to the crime issue. For example, Tullock had graduate students calculate the rate of return to burglary in an effort to advance the self-interest theory of crime and punishment.

XI. SHORTER NOTICES

Tullock's work is too large to review in detail at this time. Some of the high points have been noted above, and I will simply mention some of Tullock's other contributions that are each important in their own right. Again, the point is not to be copious, but only to suggest the breadth and importance of Tullock's research.

Books

The Organization of Inquiry [1966]. This is a study of how research institutions are organized with a critique of the monopsonistic purchase of research output by government agencies.

The Social Dilemma [1974]. This is one of Tullock's most insightful and lesser known works. It is a study of the economics of noncooperation, including topics such as the exploitative state, balance of power politics, and the theory of revolution.

The Vote Motive [1976]. This monograph is a clear exposition of the public choice theory of voting behavior. As such, it exemplifies the delight that Tullock takes in explaining why he does not vote.

The New World of Economics (with Richard B. McKenzie) [1978]. This book is a lively application of economics to a variety of "non-economic" activities.

Autocracy [1987]. This book formalizes Tullock's long-standing observation that public choice has no theory of the most prevalent form of government, namely, autocracy.

Articles

"Entry Barriers in Politics" [1965b]. This paper contains a version of the famous competition-for-the-field theorem that Demsetz [1968] independently presented in the context of regulated public utilities.

"Federalism: Problems of Scale" [1969]. This paper presents an early version of the decentralization theorem according to which local governments are better able to respond to citizen preferences for public goods under certain stylized conditions.

"The Coal Tit as a Careful Shopper" [1971a]. This paper is an example of Tullock's interest in sociobiology. It shows that this bird has a negatively sloped demand curve for food, i.e, it eats the nearest bug.

"Polluter's Profits and Political Response: Direct Controls versus Taxes" (with James M. Buchanan) [1975]. This is the first paper to point out the interest group basis for certain environmental regulatory programs.

"The Social Rate of Discount and the Optimal Rate of Investment: Comment" [1964]. This comment argues that rationales for low social discount rates amount to an argument that present taxpayers should subsidize future ones (who were going to be the beneficiaries of economic growth in any event).

I could go on, but there are just too many publications to cover. These are some of the ones that I thought ought to be highlighted.

XII. KNOCKS ON TULLOCK

Every great scientist has critical things said about them. Tullock is no exception. I have already covered one knock on Tullock in the discussion above of his writing style. I pointed out how difficult it is to evaluate the claim that Tullock is not a good writer or that writing style actually matters in the production of scientific information.

Another knock on Tullock is that his work shows great variability with respect to quality. In other words, Tullock has some very great books and papers (see above), but he also has some bad ones. My point here is not to evaluate the validity of this claim but to question what it means.

All scholars will have a natural variance in the quality (as measured by citations, for example) of their output. But when it comes to the history of ideas, how will such variance be interpreted? A good guess is that it will be routinely ignored. The positive outliers will be incorporated into the knowledge base and the others discarded. Only the best and most useful results will survive. This is a testable theory, of course, based upon the idea of an efficient market for the transmission of scientific results. It says that variance of performance does not matter. If positive information costs are introduced, it is possible that authors with a high variance will be less carefully studied and hence will have positive outliers that are not sufficiently well studied for their implications. Nonetheless, this point does not appear to apply to Tullock. All of the above discussed works (and some not discussed) have been cited and used extensively in the literature.

So I think that the history of economic thought on Tullock will read like this paper, which focuses on Tullock's major works. And, indeed, who is to know when they write up an idea how far it might "go?" Each scholar has a highly individualized production function about which we know little.

XIII. SUMMATION

If there were a Mount Rushmore of Public Choice, Gordon Tullock would be a leading candidate to be chiselled on the mountain's face. There he would join the other intellectual giants in the field - Arrow, Black, Buchanan, Downs, Olsen, Riker, and Stigler. Nonetheless, Tullock did not come to public choice on a straight line, and he will probably not go into its history on a straight line either. But it is an easy prediction that time will be good to Tullock's contributions to public choice and that Tullock's place in intellectual history is lofty and secure.

1. See Brady and Tollison [1991] for more biographical details on Tullock.

2. A more detailed analysis of Tullock's contributions appears in Rowley [1987a]. Also see the special issue of Public Choice [September 1991], which is devoted to Tullock's twenty-five year tenure as editor of this journal.

3. See Buchanan's discussion [1965] of reworking the manuscript of The Politics of Bureaucracy. The comments in the text should not be taken as being critical of dictation per se. Adam Smith and Henry James used this method, to cite only two examples.

4. See Tullock [1967c].

5. Some would dispute that rent seeking could take place in a private context. Yet there are many such examples, including transfer seeking within families. See Buchanan [1983].

6. Thomas Borcherding reminds me that writers such as Adam Smith widely hinted at such behavior as costly lobbying. This is quite true, as Borcherding [1981] outlines in his study of the British Columbia Egg Marketing Board. Nonetheless, earlier writers, in my view, were never able to connect this argument with Tullock's basic point that transfers were converted to social costs.

7. It should be noted that Tullock [1980b] has been at the forefront of the literature which extended the simple exact dissipation model of rent seeking.

8. This discussion echoes an earlier discussion by Buchanan [1959]. Also see Tollison and Wagner [1991] on the futility of economic reform.

9. See, however, the discussion in McChesney [1993].

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ROBERT D. TOLLISON is Duncan Black Professor of Economics, George Mason University. This paper is drawn from my remarks to a dinner gathering at the Western Economic Association Meetings in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, on June 28, 1993. I am grateful to the editors of the Economic Inquiry for comments on the written version. The usual caveat applies.
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Author:Tollison, Robert D.
Publication:Economic Inquiry
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Words:5484
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