The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Tullock, Gordon

Gordon Tullock is an economist and a sociologist. Although he explicitly rejects the notion of being a libertarian, his work has a special relevance for 20th-century libertarianism. His studies on bureaucracies, rent seeking, economic theory of anarchy, and constitutional governance have questioned the “disastrous orthodoxies” of the day regarding the nature, role, and functioning of the state and have challenged what he called the terrible superstition that the government should operate the economy. At the same time, he advanced the frontiers of political economy by creating the intellectual tools that are today used to bolster libertarian arguments and a libertarian agenda. Tullock and his 1962 coauthor, James M. Buchanan, are credited with founding the Public Choice school in economics, a discipline that analyzes the political behavior of voters, special interests, bureaucrats, and legislators on the assumption that each actor is pursuing not so much the public interest but his own. In systematically applying the rational choice approach of economics to the analysis of political phenomena, they contrast Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which associates self-interest in the private marketplace with the wealth of a nation, with the “visible boot” of government, a process specific to political markets that more often than not results in economic ruin.

Gordon Tullock was born in Rockford, Illinois, of Scottish ancestry; his mother was Pennsylvania Dutch. Tullock received a JD from the University of Chicago in 1947, and, after practicing as an attorney and working in the U.S. Department of State, Tullock taught at several universities, including the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, the University of Arizona, and George Mason University. He was the founder of the Public Choice Society, served as its president, and was honored as a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association. Among his formative intellectual influences were Henry Simons at the University of Chicago, and Karl Popper, whom he assisted in writing the postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery, an experience that marked his approach to scientific inquiry. Tullock also has acknowledged the strong influence of Ludwig von Mises. He noted that, as a young scholar, he read Human Action three times and that his first book, The Politics of Bureaucracy, used Mises’s methods extensively.

From the first reviews of his work, it was noted that he “writes in the ideological tradition of Hayek and Mises, contrasting the market with politics as a co-ordinating mechanism to the denigration of the latter.” He had a decisive contribution in destroying the idea that we can expect government to be a benevolent mechanism that can be used to remedy market failures. Most of the major themes in his work are an extension and continuation of this line of argument: State intervention, like the market, he maintained, should respond to the preferences of individual persons. If the market does not provide perfect responses, neither does the state. Some individuals are usually hurt regardless of whether public intervention occurs; compensation may be theoretically possible, but in actuality it will rarely be undertaken. Politicians act on behalf of ill-informed voters or special interest lobbies, neither of whom can be expected to press for economically rational solutions. These conditions generate “rent seeking”—a search for gains not through productive activity, but through manipulation of the legal, regulatory, and political environment. Information and bargaining costs are of much greater importance than are generally considered when considering the desirability of public intervention. His conclusions pointed toward the desirability of the division of government into small jurisdictions and “a sizeable reduction in the total amount of activities attempted by the governmental apparatus,” while at the same time inspired him to explore the possibility of developing an economic theory of anarchy.

Despite having what some critics labeled a “visceral preference for the market,” by viewing government as a mechanism for responding to individual preferences, he placed it on a par with the market. That is why his work could ultimately be seen as a search for means of comparing private market exchanges with public (governmental) decisions in an effort to identify the mechanisms for getting meaningful indications from individuals of their preference on specific issues involving state intervention.


Further Readings

Buchanan, James M., and Gordon Tullock. The Calculus of Consent, Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965.

Tullock, Gordon. Explorations in the Theory of Anarchy. Blacksburg, VA: Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1972.

———. The Politics of Bureaucracy. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1965.

———. Private Wants, Public Means; An Economic Analysis of the Desirable Scope of Government. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

———. Toward a Mathematics of Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Originally published .