Big Sky, Big Buses, and Big Bill Niskanen

I first met Bill Niskanen at a conference in Big Sky, Montana soon after he had left the Reagan administration. At the time I was an environmentalist with free-market leanings rather than (as is the case for many of my Cato colleagues) a free marketeer who cared about the environment. Mainly because of James Watt, environmentalists weren’t too happy with the Reagan administration, and all I knew about Bill was that he had chaired Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. I must have been intimidated: in my memory he was about 6’-4” tall, and I was surprised later to find he was only a little taller than my 5’-7”.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Bill’s 1971 book, Bureaucracy and Representative Government, would prove to be a major influence on my 1988 book, Reforming the Forest Service. Bill was the first to suggest that government agencies work mainly to maximize their own budgets rather than serve some social good, and the budget maximization hypothesis was the only explanation I could find that fit all of the Forest Service’s behaviors I had observed since the early 1970s.

Years later, when I renewed my acquaintance with Bill, I was surprised to learn he had grown up in Bend, Oregon, a few miles from where I live. The last time I saw Bill, he graciously agreed to chair a policy forum on transportation issues, which I knew interested him because his father (also named William) owned Pacific Trailways and had won a major anti-monopoly lawsuit against Greyhound. Coincidentally, earlier this week I attended the annual meeting of the California Bus Association, many of whose members remembered Bill and asked me to say “hello” for them. Sadly, I won’t get a chance.

Bill’s lifelong habit of putting principle before self-interest is an inspiration for everyone at Cato and in the free-market movement in general. I am proud to have known him.