Public Choice's Homeric Hero: Gordon Tullock (1922-2014)

By Munger, Michael | Independent Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Public Choice's Homeric Hero: Gordon Tullock (1922-2014)


Munger, Michael, Independent Review


If you knew Gordon Tullock well, you liked him immensely. To be sure, there were those who found Tullock difficult, and difficult he sometimes was. You have to understand: Gordon, like some Homeric hero in the Iliad, devoted his life to contest.

The contests he chose were not physical. Gordon was slight and blinked myopically at the world. But the contest of ideas and contestation over ideas delighted him so much that just having lunch with him could be exhausting. No subject, no premise, and no conclusion was safe. Sometime it was hard to tell if he was serious or just trolling you as a joke. I'm not sure he himself always knew. He learned by arguing. He liked to be right-and one of his most annoying traits was that he usually was right- but he liked even more to be wrong. Because if he was shown to be wrong, he had learned something. And Gordon learned obsessively, about everything. His childlike enthusiasm for learning so charmed those of us who glimpsed it that it was easy to laugh at the jibes and insults that for Gordon were signs of affection.

Let me offer two anecdotes as illustrations of what life around Gordon was like. The first centers on a classroom experience, the second on a Public Choice Society meeting.

Many students would say that Gordon simply did not prepare for class and that he just started an argument to hide that fact. That's not only wrong, but grossly wrong, a misunderstanding of Gordon's whole approach. I would say that Gordon had prepared for class his whole life, for forty years, by the time he started teaching at Virginia in 1962. When he came into class, he wasn't just prepared; he was armed for contest. Either he would teach by persuading students to share his views, or he would learn by finding out that one or more of his views was wrong.

I got a few chances to see him in action. After observing one class, when I was visiting at George Mason in the 1980s, I heard a student talking excitedly to a group of faculty in the hallway. "Dr. Tullock is mean to all the other students, but he's always nice to me. He doesn't correct me or ask me questions." I stared at the others, and they all shook their heads: "No! You're doomed! If he's nice to you, he thinks you aren't worth fighting with. You have to go back and challenge him!" Within two weeks, the student reported back that Gordon was now insulting and berating her on a regular basis. Disaster averted.

The second incident was in San Antonio in 2008 at the Public Choice Society meeting. It was, I believe, the last time I saw Gordon in person, though I later sent him some letters. He wasn't getting around very well, and his once strong voice had lost both its volume and its depth.

He walked up to me and stared at me partly sideways through his large glasses. "I don't think you make sense."

OK, here we go. "Why, Gordon? Why don't I make sense this time?"

"Because you have long hair." (It's true. I did.) "So you must be a leftist. But you are carrying an umbrella." (True again.) "So you must be a conservative. So I can't figure you out."

A crowd had gathered by this time, so I was trying to escape. "Yeah, well, Gordon, maybe I'm just complicated!"

Gordon turned to leave but said loudly in a final, pitying voice, the way you might talk to a wayward child: "No, no, no: I've read your work. You are incoherent." Then he walked away, shaking his head with exaggerated pity. We, as the British say, fell about.

A Life of Learning, Not of Degrees

Gordon claimed he was "the world's only independent scholar." That wasn't true; there were and are many independent scholars. But Gordon may well have been the world's most independent scholar. Charles Rowley put it this way in his introduction to The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock: "Gordon Tullock is an economist by nature rather than by training. He attended a one-semester course in economics for law students given by Henry Simons at the University of Chicago, but is otherwise selftaught. …

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