I was saddened to learn last night that economist William A. Niskanen has died. A former academic, Bill served as acting director of the President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers and later Chairman of the Board of the Cato Institute. His 1971 book, Bureaucracy and Representative Government, is a public choice classic, though hardly his only significant work. I first met Bill while working as an intern at the Cato Institute in the summer of 1990 — it’s impossible to forget the odor of pipe smoke that pervaded his office in the old Waterston House — though I did not really get to know him until much later — and even then I never knew him that well.
In the mid-1990s I was thumbing through some back issues of Policy Review — I cannot recall why — and I came across a short piece of his commenting on conventional political perspectives. One passage from the piece stuck with me: The problem with conservatives is they cannot distinguish a vice from a crime, and the problem with liberals is they cannot distinguish a virtue from a requirement. Bill’s articulation was pithier, to be sure, but this is the essential formulation. Bill understood that one could be a libertarian without being a libertine, and that one could be compassionate without seeking to make compassion compulsory. If only more saw the wisdom in these twin perspectives.