I’m back from the Upper Peninsula and have access to the internet again. Woo-hoo! Unaware of events going on around me I neglected to raise a pint in memory of Raymond Crotty. I don’t take pride in my own Irish ancestry and don’t think much of those who do, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Hurrah for unanimity rule!

The requirement of unanimity (or rather the absence of any final authority that can say “yes”) is held responsible for many of the ills we ascribe to “bureaucracy” in James Q Wilson’s book, which I have just finished. Wilson is interested in the constraints placed upon government agencies and though he recognizes that those constraints exist for a reason would like to reduce them on the margin. As one who would prefer that they [EDIT: by which I am referring to the agencies, not constraints] not exist at all I consider that a second best outcome. I do think they are given too many goals by the political system that the rationalist economist in me would prefer to be dealt with through a sort of lump-sum transfer payment disentangled from the functions of these agencies, but that is unfortunately politically infeasible.

Wilson tries to point out the good work government agencies do and seems to hark back to the turn of the century when forceful executives created and shaped elite agencies like the Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers and FBI though he also recognizes (not often enough) that the imprint folks like J. Edgar Hoover left was not always benign and often hindered their agency’s ability to accomplish some tasks. When a government agency’s performance is looked at favorably, it is usually relative to another government agency (Steve Horwitz stifles his inner libertarian to do likewise for the Coast Guard here) as private organizations are noted at the end to almost universally deliver equivalent outputs with lower costs (the exception between power generation, perhaps due to economies of scale or breaks given by other government officials). The short segment at the end comparing the market to the government really lacked imagination in considering what can be privatized (he unfortunately neglects to distinguish privatization/mutualization from contracting, saying “We could have a small, minimalist government dear to the heart of the strictest libertarian that nevertheless conducted its business entirely through public bureaucracies. Conversely we could have a large, activist government with great powers and vast revenues that hired private firms to exercise those powers and dispense those funds”). I recommend reading this book along with Bruce Benson’s excellent Enterprise of Law, which points out how privately provided legal and security services are not only feasible but have a fairly long and satisfactory track record. Another reason the two books are good to read alongside each other is that Benson rather vigorously pushes the traditional Public Choice analysis of government favored by “economic imperialists”, which Wilson explicitly rejects and provides a decent amount of evidence why we should at least rethink it. Dain provides more here, and notes that Jeffrey Friedman (to which I and Jeff would both add Bryan Caplan) has greatly critiqued the old view of Bureaucratic Imperialism resulting in something I might call New New Institutionalism. An Austrian-Virginian (both schools Friedman happens to reject) history of Public Choice and its mistakes is here.

I’m afraid my own interests are going to give you a warped sense of the focus of the book, which really is about “What government agencies do and why they do it”. It discusses the different kinds of tasks and ways of monitoring performance, the actual employees who implement policy as well as the managers and executives and try to mold their behavior, the environment (Congress and its committees, the White House, interest groups, the press, peers within the profession) that shapes how they operate and more. It explores how different our presidential system is from parliamentary ones and how our “pro-business” government adopts a more adversarial approach toward industry than its Swedish counterpart. All in all a good book I recommend. I’ll leave you with a quote I found amusing

“There is no reason in principle why we could not repeal the laws against homicide and create in their stead a Commission on Life Enhancement and Preservation (CLEP) that would hear complaints about persons who had killed other persons. It would consider evidence about the character of the deceased: Was he lazy or dutiful, decent or disorderly, likable or hateful? On the basis of this evaluation of the lost life and relying on the professional judgment of its staff, the CLEP would decide whether the life lost was worth losing and, if not, whether the person who took it was justified in doing so. By thus decriminalizing homicide, we surely would experience a reduction in the number of events officially labeled murders since the CLEP would undoubtedly conclude that many who had been killed richly deserved their fate”.

Wilson recently (perhaps its still going, I’m out of the internet loop) made a series of posts on Volokh, gathered together here. Now that I’ve finished his book I’m reading Freda Utley’s China Story. On Power is on order and when it arrives for me to start transcribing and/if I take the job in Wisconsin I’ll likely have less extra time to fritter away on the blogosphere. So heads up and sorry in advance.