Gordon Tullock, RIP

By Kindred Winecoff

He was not my favorite economist, but there is no question that he had a strong mind that was consistently capable of locating puzzles which had escaped the attention of others. My favorite, perhaps, is his observation that given how much is at stake it is very surprising that there is so little money in politics. Spending even $1 billion on a presidential campaign is very little, when compared to the amount of influence over a $15 trillion economy that a president has. (The most up-to-date explanation for this is that spending on politics is mostly a consumption good, not rent-seeking.) On another occasion Tullock argued that if we really wanted to improve automobile safety we should replace all airbags with an 8 inch ice pick that would ram into drivers’ chests if they crashed. I know I’d drive more slowly and carefully under such conditions.

The fact that he died on Election Day is appropriate, or perhaps ironic. Tullock was an outspoken opponent of voting for instrumental reasons — voting incurs costs while the probability of impacting the outcome is minuscule, so the act of voting generates negative utility in expectation — and he extended the logic to revolutions. He had many interesting ideas, although whether they amount to a consistent philosophy or politics is debatable.

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