Robert Tollison and Operationalizing Public Choice

by | Mar 26, 2017

Robert Tollison and Operationalizing Public Choice

by | Mar 26, 2017

1 Introduction

Anyone who knew Robert Tollison also knew his love of sports. He was a great sports fan as well as a great sports analyst. For many years, he continued to play pickup basketball with graduate students. When I was a graduate student, I played basketball regularly with Bob, and when I came back a decade later as I was deciding to move back to George Mason University, I went and played ball with Bob over at the field house. I hadn’t played full court basketball in 10 years, but that day I did—it wasn’t pretty for me as I struggled to keep up. But our team stayed on the court through the lunch hour, and Bob still had his touch from range. Anyone who played basketball with Bob can tell you about his shooting prowess, but I want to point out something else about Bob on the court that I think reflects the way he did economics as well.

Bob passed and picked away creating space for others to make their moves, and after he set a pick, he looked to get a pick for himself to get free for a shot. If you cut to the basket, he would hit you with the pass. He played the game correctly by always having his head up and looking for an opportunity for the team to score. The way he played basketball was simply a metaphor for the way he engaged in economic scholarship.

Tollison operationalized public choice theory in the modern economics literature. He always had his head up, and he surveyed the field of economics and political economy the way a point guard sees the court. He used the great theoretical talents of Buchanan, Tullock and others by translating their insights into testable propositions, which he then examined with the tools of basic economic reasoning and statistical analysis. He passed off these insights to his students freely, and set them up beautifully so it was easy for them to “score” publications. And, when the time was right, he would take his own shot and hit the big game winner. He did this so often and so effortlessly that it is sometimes forgotten the number of game winners he actually hit in his career.

In this short tribute I want to highlight what I consider to be three of Bob’s biggest game winners. In Sect. 2, I will talk about Bob’s contributions to the analysis of the rent-seeking society. Section 3 will discuss Bob’s contributions to the political economy of reforming the rent-seeking society. Section 4 will move to Bob’s contribution to the study of sports as the “school of rules.” Section 5 will conclude by stressing Bob’s role in translating wisdoms and insights into scientific propositions and how, in his role as a mentor and editor, his contributions were fundamental for the development of public choice analysis in the economics profession.

2 The rent-seeking society

Tollison’s research is defined by the persistent and consistent application of the economic approach to human behavior to all walks of life. He did so by clearly stating the testable propositions that follow from basic economic reasoning, and then submitting these propositions to empirical examination. Tollison’s work was grounded in economic theory, but his contributions primarily were located in the empirical examination of the implications of the theory so detailed. As Bob often told us—“They won’t let us be theorists”—while waving a copy of the latest issue of the Journal of Political Economy.

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