Mark Twain, Meet Gordon Tullock

Sarah Skwire’s lead essay adeptly critiques Gordon Tullock’s interpretation of pre-Enlightenment thinking, arguing that he viewed these thinkers as not having enough skepticism about the motivations of those in public office. He, along with Selden and Brady, asserted that “Until the time of Hume and his friend, Adam Smith, the prevailing view of human nature and government was that the moral or public interest approach was dominant.”[1] Unlike Skwire, I am willing to give Professor Tullock the benefit of the doubt and submit that the “prevailing view” being referenced was that within political economy disciplines, as opposed to works by all pre-Enlightenment thinkers. Yes, in the Wealth of Nations, Smith was critical of the cozy relationship between merchants and government under Mercantilism. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith did contrast a benevolent leader with a “man of system” who is “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government.”[2] The man of system, however, is not described as explicitly pursuing his self-interest. Rather, he is just so very convinced that his plan is the right one. Therefore Tullock was correct in pointing out that Enlightenment scholars recognized that most people pursue their self-interest, but they did not apply this assumption to those in power to the extent that public choice theory does.

Tullock, et al were correct, then, in their claim that the development of public choice theory freed us from the “bifurcated view of human behavior”[3] where individuals are assumed act in their own self-interest as consumers and producers, but assumed to serve the public interest once they take political or government office. This is the main point that they seem to have been trying to make in Government Failure. Tullock et al were, however, guilty of ignoring the pre-public choice contributions of the humanities to this topic, specifically by overlooking the possible linkages between literature and public choice economics. For that, they are in good company.

As Cecil Bohanon and I have argued elsewhere,[4] despite the vast chasm between the economics and literature disciplines, there exist gains from trade between the two. Tyler Cowen has explained[5] that novels are similar to economic models in that the stories usually trace through shocks to the system of the characters. Therefore we and our students can learn a lot about the economy and economic theories by reading works of literature, and vice versa.

In particular there are plenty of examples of what Skwire calls “public choice sensibility” in literature that predates the development of public choice theory. To get us started, Skwire provides us with an introduction to Shakespearean coverage of public choice sensibility. I’d like to extend this train of thought by offering up Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s book A Gilded Age, A Tale of Today.[6]

As I have earlier explained,[7] A Gilded Age illustrated public choice theory in action through its three storylines. First, the novel traced the attempts of the impoverished Hawkins family to get the government to buy their undeveloped land in Tennessee to build a university. Daughter Laura Hawkins went to Washington, DC to work with Senator Dilworthy to lobby for his university appropriations bill. He taught her to “never push a private interest if it is not justified and ennobled by some larger public good” (p. 259). Public choice scholars have long maintained that much legislation promotes private interests, but in order to be enacted, it must be shrouded in a public-interest rationale.

The public choice modeling of politicians as brokers in political markets was also introduced in the Hawkins storyline. Laura got Representative Trollop to switch from opposing to promoting the bill by intimating that she had some dirt on him, and then she explained that in return for his support he will be allowed to name a friend or relative to a position at the new university.

The second story line involved two young men, Philip Sterling and Henry Brierly, who were keen on seeking their fortunes. They worked with Colonel Sellers to lobby the Congress for a public works project in Missouri that would bring steamship traffic to their town. With an appropriation passed, the work began; however, once all of the lobbyists were paid and bribes completed, there was no money left for the actual project. Complete rent extraction achieved!

Finally there was a subplot that exposed corruption in political markets and the rational ignorance of the voter. Senator Dilworthy attempted to bribe State Legislator Noble into supporting Dilworthy’s re-appointment. When he was caught, Dilworthy was able to spin the story so that it appeared that Mr. Noble misunderstood the transaction as a bribe, and Noble was called on the carpet for attempting to tarnish a U. S. Senator’s reputation. Elsewhere in the novel, it was explained that every session of Congress begins with these kinds of investigations, but no one ever gets ousted because “the proceedings drag on so long that the country is sick and tired of it” (p. 377). Voters rationally turn their attention to more pressing matters in their lives.

As these examples from A Gilded Age illustrate, “public choice sensibilities” were alive and well in post–Civil War America. The romantic view of government was long gone well before the development of public choice theory. Sarah Skwire convinces us that these sensibilities go back even further, to pre-Enlightenment theatre.


[1] Tullock, Gordon, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady. Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice. Cato Institute, Washington DC, 2002. 3-4.

[2] Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1982 (1759), p. 234.

[3] Tullock, Gordon, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady. Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice. Cato Institute, Washington DC, 2002. 3-4.

[4] Bohanon, Cecil and Michelle Albert Vachris, (2012). Economics and Literature: the Gains from Trade. In Hoyt, Gail and KimMarie McGoldrick (Eds.), The International Handbook on Teaching and Learning Economics. Aldershot: Edward Elgar Press. pp. 223-233.

[5] Cowen, Tyler. (2008), ‘Is a novel a model?’, in S. J. Peart and D. Levy (eds), The Street Porter and the Philosopher: Conversations on Analytical Egalitarianism, Ann Arbor, MI, US: The University of Michigan Press, pp. 319-337.

[6] Twain, Mark and Charles Dudley Warner (2006).  The Gilded Age, A Tale of Today.  With introduction by Ron Powers.  New York: The Modern Library.

[7] Vachris, Michelle Albert (2014) “Crony Capitalism in The Gilded Age by Twain and Warner and its Relevance for Today” in Mixon Jr, Franklin G. and Richard J. Cebula (Eds.) New Developments in Economic Education  Edward Elgar Publishing.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sarah Skwire looks at the implicit economics of Shakespeare’s plays, in which self-interested politicians vie with one other for advantage. These plays, particularly the histories, reflect a keen awareness of the uses of politics for personal advantage, and of the incentives that work on state agents just like they work on the rest of us. Skwire argues that Shakespeare falsifies the notion that the economic way of thinking was an 18th-century construction, and that premodern people did not think about costs and benefits in the same ways that we now do.

Response Essays

  • Ross Emmett agrees with Sarah Skwire that literature can be informative about public choice, and that pre- and early modern authors often showed more understanding of the problems of political economy than later critics might suppose. He proposes some origins for Gordon Tullock’s curious assertion that premodern authors had a romantic view of politics. These include a change in historical ideas about political economy that was first described by Frank Knight, as well as a litany of 19th- and early 20th-century English-language authors including Arnold Toynbee, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom did much to romanticize our ideas about politics.

  • Maria Pia Paganelli examines the theme of rent seeking in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Why was it, Smith asked, that businessmen were the most likely to ask for government favors, and why had they demanded – and received – an expensive and dangerous empire? The reason was simple self-interest, he concluded, combined with the unequal distribution of costs and benefits these measures entailed. Although hints of public choice can be found earlier, it’s with good reason that Smith is seen as an important figure.

  • Michelle Vachris argues that Gordon Tullock did make a good point when he characterized premodern political economists’ thinking as romantic. The paradigm of the bad legislator in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example, was not a self-interested or venal official, but rather the “man of system” who wished to achieve a particular plan of society. Literature, though, may have been more sophisticated; Vachris looks to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner for several examples of public choice-like thinking in the nineteenth century.