Thursday, January 27, 2005

The joy of Tullock 

I like Brad DeLong's professional work, but it seems difficult sometimes to find nice things to link to on his blog since we're kind of on different sides of the political spectrum. Tyler Cowen points out that DeLong said something nice about Gordon Tullock.
He is a genius, a madman, and always fascinating. It seemed to me at the time a great pity (and it seems to me now a great pity) that James Buchanan's "Public Choice" Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science was awarded to Buchanan alone, and not to James Buchanan + Gordon Tullock + Mancur Olson.

Flashback: when I was still in graduate school I went to the 1983 American Economics Association meetings in NYC to look for my first teaching post. My advisor, Tom Willett, was there as well and we'd agreed to go to dinner at a nearby diner late that night. In the lobby of the hotel Tom says we'll be joined by one more person. It was Tullock. I had interviewed with seven schools that day and was pretty tired, but the energy that came from that evening was infectious. When you're a new PhD you are always asked about your dissertation and you have a stock answer; Gordon got me off that answer within 45 seconds and into areas of the research I hadn't even explored yet. I remember as we walked back to the hotel Tullock turned to me and said "You're from New England. What do you know about volunteer fire departments?" "One of my best friends in high school is in one in Connecticut." That became a ten-minute discussion about voluntary provision of public goods (i.e., what explains volunteer fire departments? Who joins? How do they work?) "I'm collecting these stories," he concluded. It was a look inside the mind of a genius. It was one of those moments where you realize you are exactly where you want to be doing exactly what you want to do.

I've run into him at conferences since, even though as a monetary/macro policy researcher you'd think I have nothing in common with him. He worked in China during the Communist uprising and has a fascination for the stories of inflation at the time, and he continues to think about that issue. As you can tell from his festschrift, these stories abound.

Cowen notes that the Liberty Fund is releasing more of Tullock's writings as part of a ten-volume set. Those are going on my bookshelf soon. I will see if I can get us a radio interview with Gordon some day. DeLong's right: he's a genius and fascinating, and just a little mad.