Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

The Attempted Sliming of Gordon Tullock

A few days ago I received a strange and unexpected notification in the form of a tweet. Calvin TerBeek, a political science PhD student at the University of Chicago, claimed that he had evidence showing:

“In 1967, Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan’s frequent public choice co-author, wrote a book review for National Review praising an effort at scientific racism. “

TerBeek posted an excerpt of one of his own working papers in which he repeated the charge at greater length. While I have never met him and had no idea who he was until this moment, he then called me out by name (along with GMU law professor David Bernstein) to suggest that his newly revealed claim would cause significant embarrassment to our work on the history of Buchanan, Tullock, and public choice theory – presumably because both David and I had been at the forefront of the debunking of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

Accusing someone of racism is an extremely serious ethical charge. Its conveyed stigma serves as an important and necessary social mechanism to discourage and combat racial discrimination. But such charges are also prone to abuse.

Many activists on the far left are keenly aware that they can socially discredit disliked ideas by branding their expositors as “racists,” including on flimsy or even false evidence. Accordingly, a cottage industry of academics and journalists has emerged in recent years who seem to revel in the tagging of free-market economists with the Scarlet R for Racism. Participants in this exercise scour the internet in search of any and every charge of this type that they can find, credulously repeating and trumpeting it as “evidence” of their own prior supposition that free-market thinkers have an unaddressed race problem that they alone are suited to render judgement upon.

And so it was with TerBeek’s claim about Gordon Tullock. The cottage industry descended on his thread and, without even the slightest scrutiny as it “confirmed” what they already believed about Tullock, began broadcasting it to the world. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer chimed in with sanctimonious hectoring:

“People can grouse all they want about Nancy McLean but the simple fact is that historians of conservatism & libertarianism have to come to terms with this stuff. And so far, they haven’t.”

So did a recurring cast of characters who almost always appear on such threads. Journalist John Ganz and University of Florida political scientist Steven M. Klein – two of the cottage industry’s regulars – jumped in to share TerBeek’s “evidence.” So did Marshall Steinbaum, a University of Utah economist who is equally famous for penning screeds that denounce public choice theory as racist and for mounting vigorous defenses of progressive era eugenicists (or supporters of “collective action to control the birth rate,” as he euphemizes it). MSU historian John Jackson, one of MacLean’s most strident defenders in the academy, arrived to offer his “expertise” on diagnosing Tullock’s alleged dalliance with racial heredity theory. And the Urban Institute’s Dan Kuehn made certain to announce his interest in TerBeek’s newly revealed “socio-political context” as it is “important” to the story of where public choice theory came from.

Within a few hours of TerBeek’s initial message, the entire cottage industry was mobilized and ready to attach the Scarlet R to Tullock.

Always Check Your Sources

There was one small snag though. None of these individuals bothered to check TerBeek’s claims against Tullock’s original essay, a 1967 review of Nathaniel Weyl’s book The Creative Elite in America. While far from the worst examples of the “scientific racism” genre, Weyl’s book basically argues that certain ethnic and cultural groups achieve greater rates of “success” due to allegedly “superior” genetic stock. Thus Weyl attempts to explain such observed phenomena as the strong presence of Jewish scientists in the highest levels of scientific achievement (e.g. Nobel prize winning discoveries) by claiming that it’s a product of favorable hereditary traits.

Curious as to whether or why Tullock might have endorsed such a work, I went straight to the source. It took a couple days and the help of friends to track it down as his essay is not online. But it was worth the effort.

As is far too often the case with similar claims emerging from the “free market economists are racist!” cottage industry, the original document simply did not support the charges. In fact, the opposite was true. Tullock had actually attacked Weyl’s book in a deeply critical review that also specifically singled out its author’s erroneous and race-tinged attributions of creative accomplishment to “superior” genetic traits.

The entire claim was based on an egregious misreading that curiously omitted the bulk of Tullock’s review, including a lengthy concluding passage where he trashed the book’s shoddy scientific claims about heredity. In addition to the statement quoted above, here is how TerBeek represented Tullock’s position in his paper:

Indeed, the last of this trio [of books by Weyl] was reviewed for NR by Gordon Tullock, the conservative University of Virginia public choice economist. Tullock wrote that while the book will draw “shrill and biased attacks…from the establishment,” he did not “have any great objection to [Weyl’s] ultimate conclusions, that certain groups (Jews, Scots and Chinese) are indeed superior.” Moreover, Tullock did not “object to [Weyl’s] investigating the possibility that certain ethnic groups are genetically superior to others. In fact, I think more such research should be done.”

It is easy to see how a reader might walk away from that passage with the impression that Tullock heaped glowing praise on the book, and furthermore agreed with its thesis.

A comparison to Tullock’s full text reveals that TerBeek’s ellipses are doing some extremely heavy lifting to sustain his depiction. Here’s what Tullock actually wrote in the same passage with the omitted portions underlined. Note also that there are a number of textual discrepancies between the two, where TerBeek altered Tullock’s wording as he purported to quote from the document:

Since my review will also contain some serious criticism, I should like to start by saying that I do not object to his investigating the possibility that certain ethnic groups are genetically superior to others. In fact, I think that more such research should be done. The nature versus nurture controversy has been going on in theoretical terms for a long time now. It should be possible to end the argument by empirical investigation. Nor do I have any great objection to his ultimate conclusions, that certain groups (Jews, Scots and Chinese) are indeed superior. It happens to be my opinion that no significant genetic differences between ethnic groups exist, but I am aware of the fact that this is only an opinion. The evidence on the point is not now so strong that anyone can be sure. My objections to Weyl’s research, then, are not just an expression of bias on my part.

TerBeek’s omissions are substantial, even going so far as to obscure Tullock’s clear signalling that his review will be very negative. He also conveniently leaves out Tullock’s expressed skepticism of Weyl’s thesis about the alleged genetic superiority in selected ethnic and racial groups.

Tullock was a social scientist though, and rather than dismissing Weyl’s arguments outright with a wave of the hands he wished for a more thorough – and scientific – debunking. And the remainder of the review, which TerBeek also omits, served up a harsh scientific criticism of Weyl’s entire argument.

After summarizing Weyl’s thesis for the reader and pointing out that it rests on a claim of favorable genetic trait mutations that are specific to racial and ethnic groups, Tullock turns his sights on Weyl’s noticeably weak evidence:

“This, however, brings us to a more fundamental weakness in Weyl’s book, his rather old-fashioned approach to statistics. At one point he says that his “data can be subjected to statistical tests of significance” but he does not give any such test. Reading between the lines, I think he regarded any correlation as significant if it involved five or more observations. This is clearly a gravely inadequate test. If he did use it, he must have many correlations which he considers significant which are the result of mere chance. Given the way he presents his data it is impossible to tell which these are. Further, he shows no sign of even knowing about the more sophisticated techniques available for obtaining information from the sort of data he has collected.”

In a few short sentences Tullock shows that the entire empirical foundation for Weyl’s genetic argument is actually the product of sloppy and deficient statistical analysis, indistinguishable from chance correlations. To any competent social scientist, this critique is thoroughly damning. And yet it is entirely omitted from TerBeek’s summary of the review.

It is not the only omission though, and in making a statistical case against Weyl, Tullock built up his own counterargument that set its sights directly on the genetic argument underlying most works in the “scientific racism” genre. As Tullock writes clearly, “My final objection concerns [Weyl’s] basic conclusion, that the differences between ethnic groups are genetic” – or precisely the thing that TerBeek’s severely truncated depictions present him as supporting. Tullock then offers an alternative explanation, namely that observed traits of “success” that appear in specific ethnic and cultural groups are most likely the product of environmental effects. As he explains:

“Weyl discusses the issue seriously only once, and then devotes only a page to it. Here he points out that the superior academic performance of Jews could only be explained either by greater inherent intelligence or by better motivation. He then suggests an experiment to find out which explanation is correct. For the rest of the book, however, he simply assumes that the differences are genetic differences, not the results of environmental differences. Actually, although he does not discuss the point, some of his data point toward environmental rather than genetic causes. There are several cases where ethnic groups changed their relative positions over rather short periods of time. It would be easier to explain these shifts as the result of changing habits of child-rearing than as mass mutations.”

Tullock concludes on an extremely critical note, tempered only by his observation that the genre in which Weyl wrote was itself full of similarly terrible books if not worse. “I do not think this is a good book,” he explained, “but if I were asked to name a better one in the field, I would be unable to do so.” He could not recommend the The Creative Elite in America to the general reader, and only did so to specialists with the hope that they might offer a scientifically founded corrective to the numerous problems he had detailed in Weyl’s argument.

Unlike the cottage industry, which carelessly seized on the original claim for reasons that can only be described as a self-serving ideological attack on Tullock, I have no other familiarity with TerBeek’s work and cannot speak to his motives. He seems to be singling out National Review for broaching a taboo subject, even though the same book by Weyl was also reviewed (often on terms that mirrored Tullock’s criticisms) in several mainstream academic journals. Whether his misreading and misrepresentation of Tullock’s position comes from error, bias, or something worse is only known to him, although he has not reacted very professionally in response to the revelations about how his depiction strays far from the review’s actual text.

As for the others who hastily seized upon and gleefully touted the purported sympathy for “scientific racism” by Tullock, they’ve all gone suspiciously silent. This episode is unlikely to deter their next migration en masse to another sloppy and unsubstantiated charge of racism that they can then enlist as a political bludgeon until it too is scrutinized and found wanting.

That is, sadly, the current state of “scholarship” on the subject – a roving and ideologically motivated band of slime artists who care neither about the quality of the evidence they carelessly repeat, nor whether it stands up to subsequent scrutiny. The study of history, at least in this area, has gone post-truth.

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