William A. Niskanen 1933–2011

by Benjamin Zycher

I am very saddened by the death of Bill Niskanen, the former acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Reagan administrationand chairman emeritus of the Cato Institute. His passing is a tremendous loss for the cause of liberty, for the pursuit of rigor and honesty in economic and policy analysis, and for those many of us blessed to have known him as a true friend.

The late Herbert Stein, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and a genuinely wise man — in the true rather than the Beltway sense — once described Bill Niskanen as “a member of that rare species, the objective insider.”

I knew Bill for almost forty years, as his student at the public policy school at Berkeley, as his colleague at the Council of Economic Advisers, and as a dear friend. Bill introduced me to the newly emerging field of public-choice economics. Bill sharpened my still-meager skills in economic analysis. Bill improved my econometric modeling. I cannot count the number of errors from which Bill, exhibiting the patience of Job, diverted me. Bill above all was a friend, a real friend, always willing to help, always willing to listen, always willing to be honest when called for, in a manner simultaneously uncompromising and kind.

And yet: Those nine simple words from Herb Stein capture Bill far better than I have ever been able to do. Absolute honesty, absolute integrity, absolute devotion to principle, immune to the petty pressures of others: Bill was a mensch. Even more than his prodigious contributions to economic and public-policy analysis, those attributes will remain synonymous with his name. Kathy and Lea and Pamela and Jaime: May you be comforted with the knowledge that his name, and yours, will evoke tremendous respect for many lifetimes to come.

 May Bill rest in peace.

 — Benjamin Zycher is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.