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The Private Abuse of the Public Interest

Market Myths and Policy Muddles

Despite George W. Bush’s professed opposition to big government, federal spending has increased under his watch more quickly than it did during the Clinton administration, and demands on government have continued to grow. Why? Lawrence Brown and Lawrence Jacobs show that conservative efforts to expand markets and shrink government often have the ironic effect of expanding government’s reach by creating problems that force legislators to enact new rules and regulations. Dismantling the flawed reasoning behind these attempts to cast markets and public power in opposing roles, The Private Abuse of the Public Interest urges citizens and policy makers to recognize that properly functioning markets presuppose the government’s ability to create, sustain, and repair them over time.

The authors support their pragmatic approach with evidence drawn from in-depth analyses of education, transportation, and health care policies. In each policy area, initiatives such as school choice, deregulation of airlines and other carriers, and the promotion of managed care have introduced or enlarged the role of market forces with the aim of eliminating bureaucratic inefficiency. But in each case, the authors show, reality proved to be much more complex than market models predicted. This complexity has resulted in a political cycle—strikingly consistent across policy spheres—that culminates in public interventions to sustain markets while protecting citizens from their undesirable effects. Situating these case studies in the context of more than two hundred years of debate about the role of markets in society, Brown and Jacobs call for a renewed focus on public-private partnerships that recognize and respect each sector’s vital—and fundamentally complementary—role.

168 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2008

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Public Policy


“Social science at its best pokes holes in conventional wisdom, proving through data and logic why what we know—or think we know—is not really true. The Private Abuse of the Public Interest does just that—showing persuasively that conservatives’ moves to expand markets and thus cut government have more often than not actually resulted in more government and more regulation. The authors make a powerful plea for pragmatism that ought to convince all but the most hardened ideologues.”

Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute

“Eloquently argued and written in a straightforward style that will speak to concerned citizens and scholars alike, The Private Abuse of the Public Interest addresses one of the most profound problems in governance today. In the process, it attests to unconventional truths: markets are less adept at providing policy solutions than is commonly accepted; markets and public interventions are not irreconcilable opposites; and even those most ardent about rolling back state power now recognize that government is here to stay.”

Cathie Jo Martin, Boston University

Table of Contents

1 A Return to Realism
2 Markets and Policy: From Pragmatic Realism to Dogmatic Utopianism
3 Cycles of Reform: Formulation and Ratification of Market Utopianism
4 Cycles of Reform: Institutional Reality and the Dystopia of Markets
5 The Democratic Disconnect and the Growth of Government
6 Pragmatic Policy in the Marketplace of Ideas


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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