In a recent argument about Obamacare, an acquaintance of mine expressed the opinion that healthcare decisions should be made by a "disinterested bureaucrat."
I wish I had discovered Beyond Politics: the Roots of Government Failure before I had that conversation. Now that I've read it, I understand that there's no such thing as a disinterested bureaucrat. In this public choice primer, author Randy Simmons, the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics at Utah State University, explains that bureaucrats - along with politicians, lobbyists, and even college professors - possess the same interest in security, status, and material rewards that we all do. It follows that if we want to understand the effects of some government program, we need to subject the people who will implement it to the same rigorous economic analysis that we apply to the private sector.
And apply it he does. After covering the basics of public choice in the early chapters, Simmons presents a series of "Case Studies in the Anatomy of Government Failure." They cover topics as diverse as consumer protection, public schools, environmentalism, and business cycles. The case studies reveal how bureaucrats, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot possibly have the knowledge needed to make good decisions about complex issues; they certainly don't have as much knowledge as the millions of buyers and sellers that interact in the marketplace under the guidance of the price mechanism. Furthermore, Simmons debunks the argument, common in our political discourse, that "the market has failed; we need government to fix it." He shows that, not only does government consistently make things worse, but that most of the time the market wasn't broken in the first place.
Beyond Politics is written to satisfy readers regardless of their level of expertise. Many of the concepts are illustrated with graphs that will appeal to a reader well grounded in economics; the beginning student can skip these and still glean the main points from the text, which is always clear and readable. And while I usually skip over biographical notes unless I'm planning further research, the ones in Beyond Politics are worth reading: Simmons uses them as an opportunity to elaborate on the contributions that other authors have made to the field.
The book ends with one of the best affirmations of the practical benefits of freedom that I've read in a long time, and an appeal to leave our most intractable economic problems to the free market: such problems really are "beyond politics."