Robert Tollison (1942-2016)

Robert D. Tollison: In Memoriam

Originally published in Southern Economic Journal

On the morning of October 24th, the economics profession, and the Southern Economic Association, lost one of its giants.1 Bob Tollison was an economists’ economist—as his teacher James Buchanan would have put it, he was a “natural economist.” As Tollison argued in his SEA Presidential Address, economists must apply the economic way of thinking to everything and everywhere, including in the effort to understand our own behavior (Tollison 1982). As Bob once told me, “Pete, if we economists don't believe in homo-economicus, who will?”

Despite Bob's unflinching endorsement of the persistent and consistent application of the economic way of thinking, he was, as many of us know, an amazingly generous intellect as well as a productive scholar. The tally of his publications at the time of his death include: 12 books, 294 journal articles, and 116 individual chapters in books. He had 93 separate coauthors and he was the director of 50 dissertations.

I was not one of Bob's direct dissertation students during my time at George Mason University (1984–1988), but I was his student and I learned so much from him. It is probably important to stress that I learned not just in classrooms and in seminars, but also on the basketball court (he had an amazingly accurate 3-point shot), in casual conversations (about economics, sports, the profession), in phone calls and then emails later on (about articles, about ideas that needed developing and reworking), and in a shared admiration for the work of James Buchanan. And, it would be very remiss of me to not mention all I learned in reading him. Bob's “Rent-Seeking: A Survey” (1982) remains the best introduction in my opinion to this literature and its importance, and his article with Richard Wagner (1991), “Romance, Realism and Economic Reform,” is one of the top five articles, in my opinion, for anyone hoping to do sensible work on economic reform. And, his book with Robert Ekelund (1982) on Mercantilism as a Rent-Seeking Society had a profound influence on many of my generation, including my own applied studies of the Soviet economic system (see, e.g., Boettke 1990, 1993, 2001).

Despite not being Bob's direct dissertation student, I had the tremendous opportunity to write my first co-authored article with Bob and that also was an amazing learning experience. It was a policy study for the Citizens for a Sound Economy and it dealt with trade restrictions in the automobile industry (Tollison and Boettke 1986). In the process of writing this article, Bob taught me about framing an argument for this purpose and addressing the costs and benefits of any proposed policy initiative, and thinking about economic analysis of public policy from both a public interest perspective, as well as an interest group perspective.

Bob taught and he encouraged, and he demanded accountability in terms of scholarly productivity from all that worked with him. He may have always pushed the logic of the rational choice model and stressed that it is the pursuit of self-interest that drives human action and interaction, but he was also deeply committed to scholarship and the business of ideas. He would repeatedly say to all of us “we are all part of the equilibrium.” This remark was to counter the council of despair that many students felt after absorbing the powerful insights of public choice theory about our ability as economists to change the world armed with the basic teachings of our discipline. Yes, interest groups can be formidable and we must never forget the role that powerful vested interests play in public policy deliberations, but we also must remember that we economists are part of a larger social order in which ideas and interests play off one another. We can, and must, continue to be engaged in the ongoing conversation. Bob might not have put it this way, but his plea should remind those of us schooled in the political economy of Frank Knight (1960), James Buchanan (1959), and Vincent Ostrom (1997) that self-governing democratic orders require citizens (including economists) capable of continually reconstituting that order. We are, indeed, all part of the equilibrium. So while our efforts at any point in time may seem minuscule to the point of undetectable, our cumulative efforts determine that equilibrium and we can also at pivotal times exert an influence on those deliberations from which the equilibrium emerges and change the world.

Bob's teaching career included posts at Cornell, Texas A&M, VPI, GMU, Mississippi, and Clemson, and he also worked at the Council of Economic Advisors and the Federal Trade Commission. In addition to Bob's fundamental contributions to the development of public choice theory, he made significant contributions in the literatures in public finance, industrial organization, law and economics, history of economic thought, and economic history.

A towering intellect, a generous soul, a teacher, mentor, and friend to so many of us, Bob will be greatly missed.