Book Review: The Best-Laid Plans

Fans of The Road to Serfdom will recognize the dangers of government planning. Unfortunately, government planning has become even more prevalent in the US since Hayek’s warning. Randal O’Toole’s book The Best Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future offers a 21st century look at the failure of government planning in the United States.

The Best Laid Plans, though organized into seven parts, really has three themes: case studies of failures in government planning, explaining why planning fails, and alternatives to planning.

The first theme features numerous examples—many of which are outrageous—of government failure in forest planning, smart growth and housing planning, and transportation planning. O’Toole using his hometown of Portland for numerous case studies, as the city, in an attempt to not be like Los Angeles, instead became just like LA. The length of this section, and number of examples, grows a bit tedious—though his chapters on The Rail Transit Hoax and Transportation Myths are very informative.

The final section, on recommendations, is the weakest part of the book—perhaps because it takes 300-pages to get to, but more like because it could be some up, “Don’t Do Planning.”

The real strength of the book was the section on why government planning fails. Though The Best Laid Plans was published in 2007, reading it in context of the recent mortgage crisis and financial bailout offers as much insight as the application to land use and transportation planning.

Government is run by people who are just as human—which means just as self-interested—as the people who run private business. Legislators primarily aim to get reelected. Bureaucrats mainly want to increase their budgets and power. As soon as government begins to exercise power over people or resources, special interest groups rise up to influence that power. Though everyone in and around government is careful to use terms like “the common good” and “the public interest, ” even those with the best intentions are biased by their experiences and incentives.

That passage basically sums up why government fails, and why government can’t be the solution to every problem, and why the Turnpike Commission should be eliminated. O’Toole’s explanation of “how special interests get handouts” proved to be particularly prescient:

Interest Groups have developed a number of techniques to be most persuasive: 1) Generate a Crisis … 2) Build a coalition … 3) Develop warm-and-fuzzy terms … 4) Be as bipartisan as possible.

Sound familiar?

Best Laid Plans is a lengthy read, but one that adds to the evidence—and explanation why—of the failure of government planning, regulation, and management of the economy. At a time when more government planning, regulation, and management of the economy seem to be en vogue, it is a worthwhile read.