Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

In Memoriam, Gordon Tullock

This evening brings word of the passing of the brilliant and witty economist Gordon Tullock. Though his contributions were many and spanned over half a century, the best known and perhaps most consequential came in the form of a 1967 article in the then-obscure Western Economic Journal which first posited and formalized the theory that became known as rent seeking.

His original application of this principle was as a tool to explain the political economy of protective tariffs. Along with its “close cousin” in Mancur Olson’s work on interest groups, I consider it one of the two main influences upon my own work in this area.

Tullock was legendary for his biting wit, and though we only overlapped briefly at GMU, I had the privilege of crossing paths with him on a few of occasions. I first met him around 2004 as a star-struck first year grad student, standing in silence until he broke in with something to the effect of “well, aren’t you going to say something?” I also attended a couple events where he lectured over the next few years, and most of all intensely studied and absorbed his work. But the one that stands out in my mind happened sometime around 2007 or 2008. I was working on a paper on the constitutional political economy of Alexander Hamilton’s tariff arguments, using a Tullockian framework (the published version is here). At the advice of my dissertation adviser, I approached Tullock – then in his late 80s but still very sharp – and asked if he would be willing to read it. He kindly obliged, though knowing his reputation for offering harsh, penetrating, and yet hilarious commentary, a part of me was expecting it to be torn to shreds.

Instead he returned with some helpful suggestions and the following quip: “You have shown me something about Hamilton that I did not previously know. Unfortunately it confirms what I did know.” Rest in peace, Gordon Tullock.


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