Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Master Doubter

Spring 1999

Gordon Tullock
Kluwer, 1997, 2nd ed., ix + 222 pgs.
Gordon Tullock
Edward Elgar, 1998, ix + 193 pgs.

Gordon Tullock is a difficult author to review. His books are filled with an almost unlimited profusion of ideas. It is enough that Walter Block has defended the undefendable: I cannot endeavor to summarize the unsummarizable. Instead, I shall pick out a few points that readers not specializing in public choice are likely to find valuable.

Almost all political philosophers, and most economists, favor income redistribution to the poor. But do any good arguments justify this? Is it that we wish to eliminate or alleviate poverty? But in that case, why do we give aid to the poor in our own country rather than to much more poverty stricken inhabitants of the third world?

"My point is simply that there is a contradiction in saying that a program is intended to eliminate poverty when it gives only very small amounts of money to the Third World. If we wish, we can ignore the poor in the Third World, but if we do ignore them, we should not talk about our deep desire to take serious efforts to help the poorest of the poor" (Economics, p. vii).

It would not be an adequate response to Professor Tullock to say that just what we want is to help the poor in our own society, rather than worldwide. Precisely the question under discussion is whether there are good arguments for our current policies or redistribution.

Perhaps resort will be made to the relative deprivation hypothesis. The poor in our own country are unhappy with their status, because they can readily see others in better circumstances. Not so the poor in Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

Professor Tullock is not buying it. "In other words, the poor mother in the Sahel watching her child starve to death is not really made terribly unhappy about it because it is a very common event there and she does not feel discriminated against...I have invented an unkind, if accurate aphorism for this: 'if everybody in the village has a toothache, it does not really hurt'" (Economics, p. 83).

The strategy that underlies these arguments strikes me as a major contribution to moral philosophy. The general scheme of Tullock's argument is: "If you really favored A, as you say you do, then you would do B. But you don't do B: therefore, you don't really favor A."

In a further example of this technique, our author overturns another familiar argument for income redistribution to the poor. Owing to the declining marginal utility of money, isn't a dollar to a poor man worth much more than the same dollar to a rich man? If so, will not redistribution to the poor increase total utility? (Of course, Austrians will reject the argument on grounds that interpersonal comparisons of utility are not allowed. But somehow in questions of redistribution economists often turn a blind eye to this elementary point.)

Tullock ingeniously responds by an application of the argument scheme already discussed. Those who wish to maximize total utility should favor an increase in population since new people, at least up to very large numbers, add to total utility. When the leading proponent of the redistribution argument, A.P. Lerner, confronted Tullock's point, he replied "that he had proposed maximizing utility as a goal when discussing income redistribution. He did not think it was a suitable goal for population policy. This would seem to indicate that he does not really value maximizing total utility very much" (Economics, p. 7).

Further, what if some people are much more efficient generators of utility than others? Would not someone who wished to maximize total utility have to favor redistribution to such people? "From observation of human behavior it is apparent that some people get a great kick out of things and others do not" (Economics, p. 7). But Professor Tullock finds that supporters of Lerner-style redistribution almost never endorse redistribution to the happy. Thus, he once more concludes that the redistributionists really do not support maximizing total utility.

At one point, I venture to suggest, our author's approach misfires. John Rawls famously supports inequality only to the extent it benefits the least well-off class in society. But, Professor Tullock asks, shouldn't Rawls support on his own principles even greater equality than he in fact does? The really worst off are the dying and those with terrible illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. Should not the difference principle be applied to benefit them? In that case, we would require immense transfers of income to raise the utility of those unfortunates. But Rawls does not support this sort of redistribution. Does he then genuinely support the difference principle?

By now, you no doubt recognize Tullock's usual argument scheme in action. This time, though, it does not work. Rawls explicitly confines his theory to those who mutually contribute to increasing the social product. Self-interested choosers behind the veil of ignorance would have no reason to take Tullock's class of badly off people into account. Fortunately, there are abundant other arguments sufficient to overthrow Rawls's egalitarian concoctions.

Readers influenced by Murray Rothbard will, I am sure, note that the two economists have very different casts of mind. Rothbard had a theory of the rights people actually have. Tullock advances no ethical principles of his own: instead, he probes the principles held by others and endeavors to find inconsistencies in them. Though Rothbard's approach reaches further, Tullock's Socratic inquiries are a very useful supplement.

I fear that Professor Tullock applies his argument scheme to Rothbardians as well as egalitarians. If you accept a Lockean theory of property acquisition, might it not turn out that you are now a trespasser? Perhaps the area on which you now stand was once unjustly taken from an Indian tribe that had acquired it in proper Lockean fashion. For the reasons stated in my review of The Ethics of Liberty in the present issue, I am inclined to think that Rothbardians have successfully responded to Tullock here.

Professor Tullock is no more inclined to accept the pieties of democracy than he is those of egalitarianism. Most people profess belief in majority-rule democracy as the best method of making governmental decisions; but (Tullock's familiar question) do we really believe this? Do we favor abolition of jury verdicts by unanimous vote, the presidential veto, a Senate in which the states are represented equally without regard to population and similar non-majoritarian institutions? If we are not prepared to jettison these institutions, then we are not the majority rule democrats we claim to be.

Tullock's style of argument is unsettling. I shall in conclusion suggest a very speculative replay to the argument he advances. He says: "If you support A, then you should support B. But you do not. Therefore it is questionable whether you support A." Can an escape be found by saying this?: "I acknowledge that if I support A, I ought to support B. If in fact I do not, this is an interesting psychological peculiarity about me; but it does not suffice to show that I don't in fact support A. Neither does it show that it is irrational for me to continue to support A. Perhaps it is irrational of me instead not to endorse B."

Revenons sur la terre. Tullock is a thinker from whom all classical liberals can learn a great deal. With Nietzchean force, he summons us away from hypocrisy.


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