Reflections of a Political Economist

Selected Articles on Government Policies and Political Processes


Available formats

About the Book

Reflections of a Political Economist collects some of the most incisive and important policy analysis and public choice articles by William A. Niskanen from the last fifteen years. His interests have ranged widely during this time, covering many different areas of public policy, always with an eye toward rigorous economic thinking, fiscal conservatism, and finding shrewd, practical solutions to important problems.

In Part I readers will find a discussion of a wide array of policy topics, including taxation, health and retirement funding, terrorism and military preparedness, and corporate governance. These selections bring to the discussion both hard data and theoretical sophistication, making the case for modest, sensible regulations, limited government, and free enterprise. Niskanen rarely lets easy assumptions go unchallenged; one hallmark of his work is to quantify the costs and benefits of a policy and then compare these to the conventional wisdom—which often turns up lacking.

In Part II Niskanen turns to public choice, wherein he discusses economic models of various government types, voting, bureaucracy, and constitutional structure. He also reviews several of his recent research interests, including taxation and spending under autocratic, democratic, and optimal governments; European constitutionalism; and various models of bureaucracy and voting. Readers interested in public choice will find more than just summaries of settled questions, however, as Niskanen also discusses several potential research topics in a field that continues to grow.

Part III includes a selection of Niskanen’s book reviews, in which he considers the works of other notable economists, including Paul Krugman, Mancur Olson, James M. Buchanan, and Alan Greenspan. Part IV offers three more personal reflections, each to some degree removed from economics, but all reflecting Niskanen’s thoughtful, understated approach to important issues, wherever he finds them.

About the Author

William A. Niskanen, who passed away in 2011, was chairman emeritus and a distinguished senior economist at the Cato Institute. Between 1985 and 2008, Niskanen was the chairman of the Cato Institute, following service as a member and acting chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. He wrote on many public policy issues including corporate governance, defense, federal budget policy, regulation, Social Security, taxes, and trade. Niskanen’s 1971 book Bureaucracy and Representative Government is considered a classic.

What Others Have Said

“Bill Niskanen is a leading public choice scholar and libertarian policy analyst. He is also a man of deep principle, unwilling to change his carefully reasoned positions in response to self-interest or to fads of the day. In this book all of these characteristics are visible. The book is an iconoclastic but consistent and principled view of most of the important policy issues of the day, including analysis of defense, scientific research, health policy, and many other topics. Almost no one will agree with all of the positions in the book. But anyone with an interest in policy will profit from it, to strengthen arguments for positions they accept and to force rethinking in areas of disagreement.”
—Paul Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics, Emory University

“This wide-ranging book offers readers the rare combination of solid economic reasoning and insightful policy analysis. Whether Niskanen’s subject is narrowly economic—taxes, inflation, job creation—or broader policy issues such as war, health care, or the organization of government, he writes with clarity, insight, and persuasiveness. A long-time advocate of free markets and limited government, Niskanen’s carefully reasoned analysis will reinforce those ideas in people who already lean that way, and is powerful enough to change the minds of those who don’t.”
—Randall Holcombe, DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics, Florida State University

“This is a moveable feast of short essays, commentary, and best of all, personal reflection written in the classic Niskanen way: tightly reasoned, clearly stated, and always gentle. The range of topics is extraordinary. The analysis, which rests on classical liberal bedrock, is both timely and timeless.”
—Bruce Yandle, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Economics, Clemson University


Number of Pages: 
Publication Date: 
August 5, 2008