I received the very sad news Monday morning that Robert Tollison had passed away. The news brought on a flood of memories. I think students often have relationships with teachers in a way similar to siblings -- especially graduate students. The relationship are all different, though similar. Yet those difference can be striking.
I was not one of Bob's direct dissertation students, but I was his student and I learned so much from him. But it is 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 latter 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" remains the best introduction in my opinion to this literature and its importance, and his paper with Richard Wagner, "Romance, Realism and the Politics of Economic Reform" is one of the top 5 papers in my opinion for anyone hoping to do sensible work on economic reform. And, his book with Robert Ekelund on Mercantilism as a Rent-Seeking Society had a profound influence on me and the way I approached my applied studies of the Soviet economic system. This influence is most directly seen in my papers with Gary Anderson -- "Perestroika and Public Choice", and especially "Soviet Venality" but can be seen throughout my books on the subject, The Political Economy of Soviet Socialism, Why Perestroika Failed, and Calculation & Coordination. My public choice influences run through Buchanan, Tullock and Tollison, and my hybrid Austrian/Virginia influence comes from DiLorenzo, Holcombe and most importantly Wagner. And, of course, Buchanan is the looming figure in all of that. And, Bob it must not be forgotten was a student and close friend of James Buchanan.
I wrote my first co-authored paper 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. In the process of writing this paper, Bob directed me to Michael Munger and told me to learn everything I could from him, and I have been listening and learning from Munger ever since. And Bob told me about framing an argument for this purpose and addressing costs and benefits, and thinking about economic analysis of public policy from both a means/ends public interest perspective, and also a public choice interest group perspective.
Since this is a blog associated with Austrian ideas, I'd like to stress Bob's importance to Austrian economics and in particular the sort of environment for Austrian economists here at GMU. Bob isn't always immediately thought of when the connection between Austrian economics and the Virginia School of Political Economy is brought up. Bob in his research interests was more empirical than conceptual and in intellectual temperament more scientific than philosophical. But Bob was a deep and serious thinker -- see his review of Gerald O'Driscoll's Economics as a Coordination Problem in Public Choice 33 (3) 1978. Well before Bob moved to GMU and direct the Center for Study of Public Choice in the department that also housed the Center for the Study of Market Processes, he was deeply knowledgable of the contributions of Mises, Hayek and Kirzner, the relationship of their work to that of Buchanan and Tullock's, and the new generation of Austrian economists such as Mario Rizzo and Gerald O'Driscoll. He also had an appreciation for some of the historical work of Murray Rothbard.
A story from Bob's own graduate career is critical to my story. There was a professor back at UVA -- he never named him -- that would meet with the students after their first year and sort of predict their career path. As Bob told me the story, after his first year that professor told Bob that he might not make it. Bob took that as motivation and worked his butt off. And though Bob didn't tell me this part of the story, Ken Elzinga did, by the time Bob graduated from UVA he had out-published all the junior faculty combined. I have never sought to verify that, but its a great story, and if the past is a prologue, it makes perfect sense for two reasons -- Bob's first job out of UVA was at Cornell, and his subsequent amazing publication record. But the story doesn't end there, Bob actually introduced this practice of meeting with graduate students and giving them this practical advice. The students ahead of me included Brian Goff and Trey Fleisher, and while they came in as fellows at the Center for the Study of Market Processes, they ended up their GMU careers at the Center for Study of Public Choice and subsequently built great careers in publishing and teaching as scholars in the public choice tradition deeply influenced by Bob Tollison. The reason is Bob would meet with us, hold up a copy of the JPE and say in his wonderful southern accent "They won't let us be theorists." And then he would recommend that we invest in the tools of the trade, build a career and then perhaps down the road return to some of these ideas that fascinate us. Well that was the message others heard. But Deb Walker and I heard a different message. Bob told us, on separate occasions as Deb was year ahead of me, after his "They won't let us be theorists" line, well, but "Pete, you are hopelessly an 'Austrialian' economist, so you better just be the best one of those you can be." It actually wasn't an insult, it was an encouragement.
Not everyone understood this that way at the time. But perhaps another story will serve to contextualize Bob's attitude and what he did to create legitimate scientific space for Austrian economics at GMU and in the profession more generally. In 1985, the Center for the Study of Public Choice initiated an annual lecture in Virginia Political Economy -- Dennis Mueller gave the first lecture. At that lecture (or it could have been the following year's lecture by Bill Breit, but I think it was Mueller's), during the Q&A -- David Laband, who was a 1981 graduate of VPI, and was then at UMBC, launched into a gratuitous attack on Austrian economics for being unscientific and in need of being weeded out of the profession. Tollison who was the organizer and chair of the session, stood up and in his classic way said simply, "David, that is not right. At George Mason University we expose our students to two legitimate scientific traditions in economics -- Austrian Economics and Neoclassical Economics -- and we have two Centers pursuing progressive research programs in economics -- the Center for Study of Public Choice and the Center for the Study of Market Processes."
Bob Tollison, the champion of operationalizing public choice in an empirical research program, just said publicly and loudly that it was not only ok to be a "hopelessly 'Australian' economist" but that it was scientifically legitimate and pursuing it was a progressive research program in economics and political economy. To this then 20-something aspiring economist, that meant the world. He could have agreed with Laband, he could have even just remained silent, and that atmosphere at GMU would have been different from then on. But Tollison understood something that others didn't -- like Wagner -- he experienced the break down at UVA and the break down at VPI -- and he understood that the first was ideological, but that the second was methodological. And it didn't matter that in both environments, the work being attack was objectively THE BEST WORK being done on that campus at that time and earned that campus INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION in scholarship and science. Seriously, just consider for a minute that University of Virginia chased off 2 Nobel Prize winners and a Distinguished Fellow of the AEA, then VPI chased off a Nobel Prize winner and a Distinguished Fellow of the AEA once again, as well as in both instances significant economic thinkers that did not quite receive those same accolades but pretty close and had (have) their own stellar record of accomplishment in the field of economics and political economics. At the close of the VPI era, Buchanan warned of the "Dishwater of the Orthodoxy", Leband and crowd were swimming in the dishwater and continuing to fill the economics profession with the "dull, drab and dead", while Tollison was standing up for "Daring to be different", for unclugging that drain, and washing away the dishwater. And, he encourage others to be proud of being different, even if he had fun with you for thinking that way -- but it was a joke he was in on! Too many folks failed to appreciate this about Bob. As a scientist, Bob above all else cared about productivity and the consistent and persistent application of the economic way of thinking to all subjects. He was a natural economist in the same way as Tullock, and he was a brilliant political economists in the tradition of Buchanan. He created intellectual space at GMU and beyond for folks to do "good work" and to strive to publish interesting work.
So as I think about my time with Bob as a student I choose to remember that smile, the wonderful southern drawl, his wit, his brilliance and his encouragement. And, in my post student days, I can say everytime I saw him, or talked to him, it was a great joy to see him, to have the opportunity to talk economics, to talk sports, and to joke about the absurdities of the world. Yes, "they won't let us be theorists" in the JPE like say they did when Buchanan started his career with "A Pure Theory of Government Expenditure", but that didn't necessarily mean we shouldn't engage in theoretical exercises that help us frame and guide our empirical examinations -- in fact another fantastic paper of Bob's is with Bill Shughart entitled "A creative theorist in his workshop: James Buchanan as a Positive Economist."
Such a tragic loss to community of public choice scholars, and my condolences to his family, friends, and those former students that he so closely cultivated and developed, and then worked with as colleagues. I will miss him dearly.