The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
FEATURED ARTICLE

Protectionism

Jagdish Bhagwati

The fact that trade protection hurts the economy of the country that imposes it is one of the oldest but still most startling insights economics has to offer. The idea dates back to the origin of economic science itself. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, which gave birth to economics, already contained the argument for free trade: by specializing in production instead of producing everything, each nation would profit from free trade. In international economics, it is the direct counterpart to the proposition that people within a national economy will all be better off if they specialize at what they do best instead of trying to be self-sufficient....

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FEATURED ARTICLE

International Trade Agreements

Douglas A. Irwin

Ever since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the vast majority of economists have accepted the proposition that free trade among nations improves overall economic welfare. Free trade, usually defined as the absence of tariffs, quotas, or other governmental impediments to international trade, allows each country to specialize in the goods it can produce cheaply and efficiently relative to other countries. Such specialization enables all countries to achieve higher real incomes....

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ALSO OF INTEREST

Corporate Taxation

Rob Norton

Pollution Controls

Robert W. Crandall

Health Insurance

John C. Goodman

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FEATURED BIOGRAPHY

Gordon Tullock

(1922-2014)

Gordon Tullock, along with his colleague James M. Buchanan, was a founder of the School of Public Choice. Among his contributions to public choice were his study of bureaucracy, his early insights on rent seeking, his study of political revolutions, his analysis of dictatorships, and his analysis of incentives and outcomes in foreign policy. Tullock also contributed to the study of optimal organization of research, was a strong critic of common law, and did work on evolutionary biology. He was arguably one of the ten or so most influential economists of the last half of the twentieth century. Many economists believe that Tullock deserved to share Buchanan's 1986 Nobel Prize or even deserved a Nobel Prize on his own.

One of Tullock's early contributions to public choice was The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, co-authored with Buchanan in 1962. In that path-breaking book, the authors assume that people seek their own interests in the political system and then consider the results of various rules and political structures. One can think of their book as a political economist's version of Montesquieu.

One of the most masterful sections of The Calculus of Consent is the chapter in which the authors, using a model formulated by Tullock, consider what good decision rules would be for agreeing to have someone in government make a decision for the collective. An individual realizes that if only one person's consent is required, and he is not that person, he could have huge costs imposed on him. Requiring more people's consent in order for government to take action reduces the probability that that individual will be hurt. But as the number of people required to agree rises, the decision costs rise. In the extreme, if unanimity is required, people can game the system and hold out for a disproportionate share of benefits before they give their consent. The authors show that the individual's preferred rule would be one by which the costs imposed on him plus the decision costs are at a minimum. That preferred rule would vary from person to person. But, they note, it would be highly improbable that the optimal decision rule would be one that requires a simple majority. They write, "On balance, 51 percent of the voting population would not seem to be much preferable to 49 percent." They suggest further that the optimal rule would depend on the issues at stake. Because, they note, legislative action may "produce severe capital losses or lucrative capital gains" for various groups, the rational person, not knowing his own future position, might well want strong restraints on the exercise of legislative power....

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