Policy Analysis and Public Choice: Selected Papers

Article excerpt

Policy Analysis and Public Choice: Selected Papers

by William A. Niskanen

Edward Elgar 1998 448 pages $95.00

Reviewed by Bruce Yandle

This volume has much to recommend it. First off, William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, presents an organized collection of 34 papers that span his interesting and productive 40-year career as a professional economist. Never so technical as to restrict access to readers of policy analysis, the papers cover issues as diverse as school choice, drug policy, Reaganomics, trade policy, voting rules, and the prospects for a liberal economic order. In short, the papers represent a delightful smorgasbord of policy analysis by one who is at once a respected scholar and a friend of liberty.

But the range and quality of the papers is just one gainful reason for reading the book. The second reason, and perhaps the more interesting one, is that the collection reveals the author's preferences regarding the work of his long and impressive career. In that regard, Niskanen shows that he is as much concerned about rules of just conduct and constitutional constraints that assure a liberal order as he is about good economic analysis and the powerful insights offered by Public Choice. The papers demonstrate thoughtful appreciation of both the normative and positive aspects of public policy.

To Public Choice scholars, the name Niskanen brings an immediate association with his seminal work on bureaucratic tendencies to increase budgets and bargain with politicians in all-or-nothing deals to expand activities beyond efficient margins. To industry economists, the name generates memories of Ford Motor Company's chief economist who resigned after attempting to counter the firm's protectionist stance. To defense and government economists, Niskanen is known for his work at the Pentagon and as acting chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. And to those who know none of this, the collection demonstrates the power of careful analysis to offer useful and sometimes unexpected insights.

Niskanen's 1994 paper on crime and police offers an example of the power of his thinking. After his analysis of the data, one begins to doubt the generally held idea that crime rates rose; for one thing, crime reporting has improved considerably. Moreover, what can be done to counter any possible crime increase? The author's conclusion: not much. To a large degree criminal activity represents tolerance for crime, the demise of rules of just conduct. …