Gordon Tullock has passed away at age 92

by on November 4, 2014 at 10:19 pm in Economics, Education, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

It is hard to know what to say — Gordon was a colleague of ours for many years and we all were very fond of him.  He was one of the most creative thinkers of his time.  His contributions include not just the seminal chapters of Calculus of Consent, but a wide range of ideas ranging from law and economics to monetary theory to the economics of insect societies.  Many of Gordon’s best ideas remain somewhat unmined, such as his analyses of jury trials, or his question why there is so little money in politics, relative to what is at stake.  Almost everything Gordon wrote was worth reading and he was also a wonderful critic of the work of others.  He knew a remarkable amount about history, including Chinese history, and was one of the quickest people I ever have met.  Just about everyone has his or her favorite Gordon Tullock story.  Gordon, by the way, took only one class in economics in his life, from Henry Simons, he was otherwise entirely self-taught.

1 Alistair November 4, 2014 at 10:26 pm

That is sad news. Gordon Tullock taught me more about political systems in an afternoon than a 3-year degree did.

I regret that the median voter has just become a little more unaware.

2 Rahul November 5, 2014 at 3:48 am

Is there an accessible way to sample Tullock’s work & insights? Any good books by him or by others about his work that are accessible to a non-expert?

3 Isaac November 4, 2014 at 10:49 pm

I was never a student of his but I remember him sitting in on one of the seminars I was in. He had several very pithy observations that really brought some clarity to the discussion.

My favorite story has to be the Tullock Airbag. This was told to me by one of my professors (was it Russ Roberts? maybe Iannacone…) His contention was that if you wanted to improve safety on the road, you should replace all airbags with an 8” ice pick aimed right at your heart. In case of a collision it would explode into your chest, killing you instantly. It was a dramatic thought experiment about incentives. Never was sure how serious he was about it…

4 Greg November 5, 2014 at 11:32 am

I believe the idea of risk hemostasis is generally credited to Peltzman, and is often called the “Peltzman effect.” I have heard the knives-on-steering wheel anecdote attributed to Peltzman and Stigler, but never Tullock. But maybe I heard wrong. At any rate, my condolences to Professor Tullock’s family.

5 Brad DeLong November 4, 2014 at 10:53 pm


6 Jack November 4, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Very classy

7 Andy K November 4, 2014 at 11:43 pm

Wow. Just because the body’s still warm doesn’t make it ok, Brad.

8 Rahul November 5, 2014 at 3:46 am

Easy guys. Very likely this is some troll.

9 Careless November 5, 2014 at 7:24 am

Pretty sure someone has a history of doing this in DeLong’s name here.

10 Ray Lopez November 5, 2014 at 8:22 am

@Careless–I’m not so sure…when I once tried to impersonate Paul Krugman, TC deleted my post. He can tell from your IP address (mine is overseas) whether or not you are in the same geographic location as the person you pretend to be… so if he catches you trolling, he will moderate you.

11 josh November 5, 2014 at 9:39 am

Probably fake, though possibly drunk.

12 PG November 9, 2014 at 7:14 pm

An “overrated” from someone who repeatedly cites Tullock in his course materials? (For online proof of this, see eg http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/11/econ-1-fall-2010-draft-problem-set-8.html) From someone noted by others as following Tullock’s theories? (Eg http://www.policyofliberty.net/AndeanAltiplano.html) From someone who posted in mourning about Tullock’s co-author Buchanan? (http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2013/01/mourning-the-death-of-james-buchanan.html)

And perhaps most damningly, from someone who was noted on this very blog as praising Tullock, calling him a genius who deserved to have received the Nobel along with Buchanan? (http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2005/01/our_colleague_g.html)

Try harder when picking whom to pretend to be, troll. Like, 10 seconds of Googling harder.

13 Todd Kreider November 4, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Yeah, Brad is just classy guy (eyeroll)

Unfortunately, he just can’t shut his mouth. Brad seems bitter because he thinks he is an economics genius that no one listens to.

14 Ray Lopez November 5, 2014 at 1:58 am

I read DeLong on occasion, and notice he has become more humble over the years, or claims to. Before he was more dogmatic. As for G. Tullock, he was a lawyer, always a good thing, spoke Chinese, a rare quality for an American Caucasian in his time, and he lived to a ripe old age of 92, one year less than J. Buchanan. Something in that Public Choice water!

15 CMOT November 5, 2014 at 12:42 am

“He knew a remarkable amount about history, including Chinese history, and was one of the quickest people I ever have met. ”

That’s the closest you get to an actual memorium? What do you really think?

Be honest and be brave.

16 EA1 November 5, 2014 at 12:43 am

Inspiring figure. May his soul rest in peace. Why did he not win the Nobel Prize?

17 Barkley Rosser November 5, 2014 at 1:54 am

Obviously he deserved the Nobel Prize with Buchanan, but did not get it. Rumor has it that for some reason the committee was not even considering him for that one and instead was debating whether to have Musgrave share it with Buchanan, eventually deciding on on that as well, with Musgrave also dead.

I did not agree with Gordon about everything, but I always found him very knowledgeable and stimulating. A lot of people did not understand him or how he interacted with people. He came from an era and had an attitude that people are supposed to show their appreciation of each other by insulting each other, with the one with the best insult winning. Most people were simply insulted by him when he insulted them and did not realize that he was actually complimenting you if he was insulting you, and that you were supposed to insult him back. Those he really looked down on, he simply ignored.

I would also note that he landed on Omaha Beach in July 1944, if a couple of days after the initial bloody landing. His knowledge of China and its history also came from serving in the China and other parts of East Asia for the US State Department at the time that Mao took over China.

18 EA1 November 5, 2014 at 2:05 am

Thank you for the good history lesson!

19 FC November 5, 2014 at 3:22 am

That reminded me of an article by Rowley and Houser, previously linked on MR, (1) which relates that Tullock claimed to have slept through his crossing of the Rhine at Remagen. (2) RIP.

(1) http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1975204
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludendorff_Bridge

20 somebody's husband November 5, 2014 at 11:22 am

i thought he had been a member of the second ranger battalion that climbed point du hoc on D-day.

21 tedm November 5, 2014 at 3:29 am

Sad news, indeed. He taught me in law school. Brilliant. Prepared. Creative.

22 Graham Brownlow November 5, 2014 at 6:45 am

Sad news. He made so many contributions, but his 1967 paper on rent-seeking alone qualifies him as a very important economist (and I’d venture a very great one too). I met Gordon Tullock only once, at the Institute of Economics Affairs, back in the mid 1990s. I knew of his forthright reputation, and I was working as fairly junior economist within Whitehall at the time, so with some trepidation, after his lecture, I asked him to autograph my copy of his classic IEA pamphlet (The Vote Motive). He was happy to oblige and gave me some of his working papers. I had a nice chat with him. To this day I still refer back to that copy of the Vote Motive when I teach classes on Public Choice.

23 James November 5, 2014 at 8:49 am

I recommend his book “Open Secrets of American Foreign Poilicy”. It’s eye-opening and contrarian…and a very light read.


24 N P November 5, 2014 at 11:47 am

Thank you for the recommendation.

And RIP Mr. Tullock, thank you for your contributions to the world.

25 John November 5, 2014 at 9:06 am

Sorry to hear. My simpathies to any family and his close friends. Hope it was a quite, easy passing.

26 Enrique November 5, 2014 at 9:06 am

Gordon, along with Ronald Coase, was my favorite economic thinker. his prose style was clear and elegant … His works are a pleasure to read … We will miss him

27 Dog November 5, 2014 at 9:16 pm

I rank Buchanan clearly over both of them combined. But I’m an econ noob (& fascinating dude nonetheless).

28 spires November 5, 2014 at 10:17 am

In 2007 Gordon Tullock gave a brief economic history talk at my university in Canada. The crowd was small and I was (conspicuously) the only undergraduate student to attend. After speaking, he fended off a gaggle of faculty members and deliberately walked across the room to speak with me about the study of economics and my career plans. It was a remarkable gesture, and I think it says a lot about his character.

29 Baphomet November 5, 2014 at 10:30 am

Gordon Tullock was a great, albeit sometimes very sloppy, social philosopher, and it is a shame that he never got the Nobel Prize. What is truly alarming, however, is that there is absolutely nobody around with his kind of breadth of interest, fearless attitude, and scathing wit (well, not “wit” exactly, but certainly scathing) anymore.

30 Joseph Ward November 5, 2014 at 11:27 am

RIP. He had great contributions that will live on.

31 Ron Jeremias November 5, 2014 at 12:21 pm

In the spring of 1971 I was in my last semester of college at Virginia Tech, majoring in Political Science, and decided to register for an honors Principles of Economics class. Gordon Tullock was the instructor. There were only seven students in the class. One day after class I mentioned to him that I had scored in the 99th percentile on the math portion of the GRE and he immediately offered me a scholarship to study economics as a grad student. A few weeks later I turned him down, telling him that I was joining the army, but after I got out of the army I went back to Tech to study economics and took a number of classes from Gordon. He was always a joy to be around. He teased and insulted all of us but we enjoyed it. I had an enjoyable career as an economist and am greatly indebted to him for getting me started.

32 Donald Pretari November 5, 2014 at 12:39 pm

A very impressive body of work, and another very impressive student of Henry Simons. I keep forgetting to mention him when I list his students, even though he did The Simons Syllabus. I also need to thank James, as I’d never seen that book, and so picked it up, along with a few other titles I’d never come across. That’s just how life works.

33 Donald Pretari November 6, 2014 at 10:24 am

Inexcusably, I keep forgetting Rose Friedman as well.

34 John November 5, 2014 at 1:51 pm

went to a lecture once where gordon was in the audience and asked the first question. he waited for a response and then invited the rest of the room “to go home because he had asked the only question that mattered.” he had an amazing combination of wit and intelligence…great sense of humor. RIP.

35 John Chant November 5, 2014 at 3:13 pm

I once had the pleasure of hosting Gordon. I had read Gordon’s article about the habits of birds and assumed he was an avid birder. How wrong I was. When I called his attention to interesting birds native to the Pacific Northwest. Gordon never even peeked at them. Finally, with some exasperation, I asked him why he showed no interest. He then told me that once while visiting family he picked up a niece’s biology text, read the book’s convoluted explanation of bird habits, and, if I remember correctly, provided an economic interpretation of bird territories much simpler than the one offered in the book.
He had an immense store of knowledge, was original, refreshing, and could find economics everywhere. He was an ultimate economist.

36 Donald Pretari November 5, 2014 at 5:50 pm

“…his question why there is so little money in politics, relative to what is at stake.”

Of course, part of this has to do with the resources your opponent has.

37 Sooyoun Hwang November 5, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Is there anything sadder than this? He was my true teacher and will continue to be. I give my deepest condolence to Mary and Bob.

38 economist November 6, 2014 at 12:37 pm

This is sad. He worked during the worst modern period for an economist like him. Prior to the early sixties (roughly the beginning of Samuelson’s revolution), and in this century, his non-mathematical approach would have reached a much more receptive audience. But he still had a huge impact.

39 Tom November 7, 2014 at 4:52 pm

I only knew Tullock through his works, but found them compelling enough to eventually invest in his Selected Works (10 vols, Liberty Fund). Indeed, at this point in life I’d say public choice is one of the most insightful areas of all of economics.

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