Thinking was Gordon Tullock's main interest in life. He let his thinking roam widely and creatively over his many fields of interest; moreover, Tullock is widely recognized for the robust and creative quality of this thought. He left a valuable legacy. All the same, I think the value of that legacy is underappreciated. Too much of Tullock is perceived as residing within the shadow of James Buchanan's constitutional thinking, with Tullock supplying the homo economicus to complement Buchanan's broader constitutional concerns. To the contrary, I would describe Tullock and Buchanan as resembling divergent parabolas who point analytically in opposing directions, despite their common point of origin in the high value they place on individual liberty. Both were social theorists, with their divergent research programs constituting a yin and yang of liberal political economy. Tullock, however, unlike Buchanan, never created an overview of his research program, leaving him to be perceived in significant measure as simply supplying the homo economicus needed to complement Buchanan's constitutional political economy. If Buchanan's oeuvre is regarded as an intellectual cathedral, I would aver that Tullock's oeuvre is generally regarded as a flying buttress in Buchanan's cathedral. But I believe that Tullock's oeuvre likewise constitutes a cathedral.
Even though Tullock came to publish increasingly without Buchanan after 1970 or so, the bulk of his work seemed to entail trituration of the homo economicus theme after the fashion of George Stigler and Gary S. Becker (1977). Without doubt, Tullock theorized in terms of people seeking to make the best of the situations they faced. His incessant use of homo economicus, however, failed to capture what he was truly about. Tullock was an empirically oriented theorist after the fashion of Frank Knight, as exemplified by Ross Emmett's (2006) contrast between Knight and Stigler-Becker. Examination of Tullock's oeuvre shows that he was not a theorist of rational choice. To the contrary, he was a social theorist whose work focused on the eternal human predicament that social life entails. Sure, all societies are inhabited by people who try to do the best they can as they understand their situations. This recognition, however, does not make a person a rational-choice theorist. Tullock's thinking recognized that societies are rife with emergent phenomena that arise through interaction. His work centered on human interactions within society, not on rational choice per se. Tullock was more than the "natural economist" that Buchanan (1987) described him as being. Tullock was a social theorist who never articulated his social theory, even though that theory is present throughout his oeuvre. Furthermore, his social theory diverges in significant ways from Buchanan's.
In a paper I wrote for a festschrift in Tullock's honor (Rowley 1987), I noted that Tullock's publications relate to matters treated by departments of political science, public administration, biology, philosophy, sociology, history, and military science. His publications also contribute to matters of interest to faculties in schools of law and criminology, as well as to faculties associated with interdisciplinary programs in international relations and Asiatic studies. All of this is in addition to his contributions to fields more narrowly economic. Someone writing a survey of Tullock's works would surely think he w as surveying the work of the faculty of a small university. (Wagner 1987a, 33-34, emphasis added)
The high value of Tullock's large body of work is attested to by his being named a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association in 1997, in addition to being honored by other professional associations. It is also attested to by the large volume of citations to many pieces of his body of work. Tullock's original paper on rent seeking (Tullock 1967) has been cited more than four thousand times, and his follow-up paper on efficient rent seeking (Tullock 1980) has been cited more than three thousand times. One can, moreover, find many people who assert that Tullock should have been awarded a Nobel Prize for his scholarship. For instance, after noting that James Buchanan and Ronald Coase, both of whom were with Tullock on the faculty of the University of Virginia in the early 1960s, had been awarded Nobel prizes, Art Carden and Phillip Magness note that "there is widespread agreement that another colleague, Gordon Tullock, should have won one" (2017, 63). Tullock is certainly well recognized for his scholarship. This I don't deny, not for an instant. What I assert, though, and seek to render plausible here is that Tullock's cosmic significance within the social sciences is underappreciated all the same. Why I might think this way when most people don't is what I seek to explain here.
I start my exposition with Tullock's introduction into academic economics as a sidekick of James Buchanan, a position that entailed both benefits and costs. One benefit was the instant recognition that Tullock gained from being catapulted into Buchanan's scholarly orbit. One cost was the difficulty Tullock had in escaping that orbit, which he never fully accomplished, perhaps testifying to the enduring quality of first impressions. Lost from the common view of Tullock is his social theory and its divergence from Buchanan's. That theory was left mostly implicit in Tullock's many writings, thereby clouding some deep differences between Tullock and Buchanan in their scholarly orientation.
I should perhaps explain that I write this essay based on deep experience with Tullock and Buchanan going back to September 1963, when I entered the University of Virginia as a graduate student, and continuing until their deaths, Buchanan's on January 9, 2013, and Tullock's on November 3, 2014. I am the only person alive who was a student of both Tullock and Buchanan at the University of Virginia and who served with them as a faculty member at both Virginia Tech and George Mason, in addition to coauthoring with them. A great deal of what I offer about Tullock's social theory, moreover, although always connected with his written work, has been amplified by numerous conversations I had with him over those years. I should also note that I have written essays about Buchanan (Wagner 1987b, 2013, 2014, 2017), about Tullock (Wagner 1987a, 2008, 2015a), and about them jointly (Wagner 1988, 2004, 2012, 2015b). Although this essay is based on the written record, it is invariably colored by a variety of long-standing experiences that speak to both similarities and differences between the two great scholars. (1)
Buchanan and Tullock: Invariant Twins?
A decade stood between Tullock's graduating from the University of Chicago in 1947 with a degree in law and his entering academic life at the University of Virginia in 1958 on a one-year fellowship. (2) During that fellowship year, Buchanan and Tullock laid the groundwork for The Calculus of Consent. The actual drafting of the manuscript took place during the 1959-60 academic year while Tullock was a member of the International Studies Department at the University of South Carolina, where he served until 1962, when he returned to the University of Virginia as an associate professor.
In 1962, when The Calculus of Consent was published, Buchanan was a solidly established economic theorist, with more than a decade of publications in many major economics journals. Indeed, Buchanan 1960a represents what Buchanan described as "a progress report, a balance sheet struck after a decade's academic accounting period" (1960a, 4). It's not that this volume represented the totality of his activity over that decade, for it didn't, but it did contain several themes that, with one exception, had already been published in highly regarded economics journals and had captured good scholarly notice. That exception (Buchanan 1960b), moreover, came to attract good scholarly attention in the coming years for making readers of English aware of a rich Italian literature on public finance that had been accessible only to readers of Italian. Furthermore, in 1958 Buchanan's book Public Principles of Public Debt was published. This book stood in sharp contrast to the Keynesian ideas about public debt that had captured the academy over the preceding two decades and reflected the non-Keynesian character of much Italian thinking on public debt. Most significantly, Public Principles was reviewed in many of the major economics journals, and those reviews were written by many of this period's most prominent theorists on public finance and macroeconomics. Although most of those reviews challenged Buchanan's non-Keynesian orientation toward public debt, they were also clearly respectful of Buchanan, indicating the high regard in which he was held by his peers.
In contrast, Tullock was little known within academic economics apart from his connection with Buchanan. Tullock had tried two career paths after receiving his law degree in 1947. First, he tried legal practice, joining a law firm in Chicago. He tried two cases, winning one and losing one, and determined that the practice of law was not for him. He then joined the Department of State, where he stayed for nine years, focusing on Asian affairs. His sojourn with the State Department included two years of studying Chinese at Yale and a third year at Cornell as well as serving in China when the Communists took control. Nine years after joining State, Tullock realized that making a mark in diplomacy would not be his path in life. After a brief hiatus during which he took odd jobs, he received his one-year fellowship to work with Buchanan in Charlottesville.
It would not be wholly accurate to describe Tullock as being a novice in the ways of scholarship when he moved to Charlottesville, but it would be close. Next to Buchanan, Tullock was a pigmy standing beside a giant. He did pursue...