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Public Choice 71: 125-128, 1991.

© 1991 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

Duncan Black: The Founding Father
23 May 1908-14 January 1991

Karl Eller Professor of Economics and Political Science, University of Arizona

The main purpose of this paper is to discuss Duncan Black's work and his
role in founding public choice. Nevertheless, I'd like to start by making
a few personal remarks. Duncan Black was a wonderful person. All who
knew him liked and admired him. His very important work, and as the rest
of this paper will indicate his work was important, came from selecting an
important problem which no one had previously dealt with and concentrating on it. No Nobel Prize winners can actually claim to have had more
effect on a discipline than he had on his newly invented field of study.
Turning to his actual work, he quite literally is the founder of public
choice. The first six articles which can be regarded as public choice were
all written by him. Further, Kenneth Arrow, then a very young member
of the economics profession, was given one of his papers to referee by
E c o n o m e t r i c a and this may well have attracted his attention to the
problems which made him famous. He gives considerable credit to Black
in that book. Anthony Downs was a student of Arrow who wrote his pioneering book as a doctoral dissertation under Arrow. We have here a fairly
clearcut chain of influence.
Black, like other pioneers in science, did have precursors, but they were
all obscure. Indeed, we wouldn't even know about most of them had Black
not himself dug them out and discussed them in The Theory o f C o m m i t tees and Elections.

I don't read French, but I've read a translation of Condorcet's work
which Black was apparently the first person to fully understand. Having
read it, I have doubts as to whether Condorcet really understood what he
was saying. I have extraordinary admiration for Black for having penetrated through the language to the heart of the problem.
Another important predecessor was of course Lewis Carroll and work
in this field had been literally completely lost until Black dug up parts of
it. This had the intriguing result that, when Black was a visiting professor
at the University of Virginia, members of the English Department would
appear to listen to lectures by an economist.
It should be emphasized here that these predecessors are not important


in the history o f thought for the simple reason that nobody knew they existed. They had no influence, they were forgotten. In the case of Condorcet, nobody understood what he was saying, in the case of Lewis Carroll
his papers were mainly lost. Indeed, it seems likely that the ones that Black
was able to dredge up are only a part of the total product. Thus, Black was
a true originator who not only solved important problems but discovered
that the problems existed. He drew nothing from his predecessors in public
choice because effectively, at the time he wrote, there weren't any. It is true
he later found some, but they had no prior influence on him or on anyone
Black as a mathematical economist had undoubtedly read Hotelling's
"Stability in Competition. ''1 At the end of this article there is a remark
that it would apply to politics. Not very long ago, there were several articles pointing out that it did not actually work in the particular economic
situation that Hotelling used. In private conversation with Arrow, he said
that he had known this for a very long time, but as a student of Hotelling
he didn't want to criticize him on the matter.
As an interesting further sideline having to do with public choice, I
remarked that I had not noticed the error, but probably partly because it
did work for politics. His response indicated both that he agreed and that
this particular idea had not previously occurred to him. Downs, of course,
specifically gives credit to Hotelling.
Another possible intellectual predecessor was Schumpeter who had a
good deal of influence on me. But apparently not on most of the other people in public choice. Although his work is not in any sense formal and
would not conceivably have founded public choice, it nevertheless set me
in the what you might call proper frame of mind. Skepticism about motives of government was already in my mind but I didn't realize that this
was more than generalized skepticism. It was Schumpeter who first convinced me that this kind o f thing was intellectually respectable.
It's interesting that this particular train of thought is almost entirely
missing from Black's work. I don't think he had any immense admiration
for politicians, but very little in his work implies that kind of attitude
towards them which is now held by so many public choice scholars. In this
I think he was a rather typical graduate of the English system and, like
Keynes, really thought of the government as a gentlemanly occupation.
To go on to his work in general. H e apparently reinvented on his own
the cyclical majority, although he did not produce any general proof. He
simply convinced himself by running a number of examples that it must
be fairly common.
t Economic Journal

39: 41-57.


His great achievement, however, was the realization that there is one
simple situation in which a cyclical majority was not likely. This was the
single peak preference theorem. This theorem these days is rarely credited
to Black because it has been so built into our minds. It's also very very simple and straightforward and most people seem to think that it's almost part
of nature. The fact is that no one before Black had ever thought of it.
Such simple ideas are generally rather hard to discover, but once discovered they look so simple that people cannot believe that their discovery was
intellectually trying. Watt's realization that a separate condenser in a
steam engine would make it possible to immensely save fuel by permitting
keeping the cylinder heated instead of having to cool it off and then reheat
it for every stroke, as was true with the Newcomen engine, is simple minded today. A great many very intelligent people didn't figure it out,
however, until Watt came along.
The same can be said of Black's single peak preference curve. It could
be said that a priori this looks as if it would only have rather limited application. Indeed, Black himself in both Committees and Elections and his
book with Newing pointed out the theoretical limits on its application.
In practice, it seems to have considerable application. In many many
places, the political parties and political contests seem to array themselves
along a single dimension. If you look at their programs in detail it always
turns out that it's much more complicated than that. But it would appear
that in the minds of the voters they are literally frequently arranged on a
single continuum which, as a result of the organization of the French
chamber of deputies, is usually referred to as a left/right.
This means that the single peak preference structure has considerable
relevance at this simple level. The work essentially of Hinich and various
collaborators has demonstrated that in a much more elaborate and complicated multidimensional manifold o f many issues, the fact that the voters
are not perfectly informed permits the use o f stochastic tools. These
stochastic tools and the two party system lead to a conclusion which is
clearly a generalization of Black's median preference theorem.
I myself, in a paper which became obscure and is now being revived as
a result of mathematical progress, 2 reached a somewhat similar result for
the outcome of legislative process. In other words, the very narrow restric2 "The general irrelevance of the general impossibility theorem," Quarterly Journal of Economics 81 (May 1967): 256-270. Reprinted in Gordon Tullock, Wealth, Poverty, andPolitics, pp. 55-67. Cambridge: Blackwell 1988.


tions which appear to apply to the median preference theorem have to a
considerably extent broadened.
Although his great achievement was the median preference theorem, it,
of course, required in order to be an achievement that he first discover the
problem of the cyclical majority. He did. Thus, in a way he had two
achievements but by the time he began publishing he emphasized the median preference theorem rather than the cycle itself. If he had first written
several articles on the cycle, and then partially solved the problem, he
would no doubt have a greater reputation today.
It's not true, however, that this is by any means all of his work. He did
a large number of other things in connection with the voting model and
of course, as I have mentioned, he engaged in historical research and
dredged up Lewis Carroll, etc. Indeed, by reputation in any event, he
wrote a considerable number of manuscripts which as a perfectionist he
did not want to release but which we may hope are still in existence.
I titled this essay " T h e Founding Father" and there's no doubt that he
indeed was the founding father of public choice. Having done his most important work more than 40 years ago and having been in retirement in recent years, a great many of the younger public choice people do not even
know his name. This is depressing. We all make use of his results but a student entering public choice now regards these things as elementary. Indeed
they are. So is Euclid.
I'd like to close by repeating something I said in my salute to Black in
the Festschrift for him. 3 The Chinese at a dinner will drink a toast to the
host calling him "the father of all o f us." Black indeed was the father of
all of us.

3Towards a Science o f Politics, Gordon Tullock, ed. (Blacksburg, VA: Public Choice

Center, 1981).