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Perceptive and Concise
on June 8, 2006
Bureaucracy is the clearest and most concise version of the calculation critique of socialism. This books is vastly easier to read that the original 1920 article on socialist calculation. It is far shorter and more focused than Human Action. It is also much shorter than Socialism, an Economic and Sociological Analysis. Mises managed to achieve brevity without sacrificing much important content. Bureaucracy is probably his best written book.
There are many subtleties to this book, but the main points are straightforward. Mises contrasts profit management with bureaucratic management. To Mises Bureaucratic management is necessary as far as a few basic public services are concerned. However, the adoption of socialism would mean the extension of bureaucratic management to all areas of the economy. The problem with this is that bureaucracies are inflexible. Changing economic conditions require the adaptation of production. Entrepreneurs implement changes in production because they seek profit. Mises explains why bureaucrats would act irresponsibly- they are not checked by profit and loss accounting. Since public services lack a cash value as generated by markets the costs of increasing public services are unknown. Bureacratic managers would thus over expand their operations without realizing it. Such bureaucratic excesses must be limited by restrictive rules. Hence bureaucracies lack the flexibility of entrepreneurial capitalism.
Mises also considers psychological and political issues, but these points are not as well developed as his economic arguments. One could see this as a weakness, but those who want a more complete version of the von Mises critique of socialism can read his 1922 book- Socialism.
Bureaucracy is the shortest and surest path to understanding the merits of free markets and the dangers of socialism. I can think of no other book that contains so many important insights in so few pages. The closest contenders for this honor would be Menger's Principles, Buchanan's Cost and Choice, and Hayek's Road to Serfdom. Fortunately one can find accessibility and genius in some books, and Bureaucracy excels in both of these attributes.