We’ve all heard it a million times: “why can’t government be run like a business”? I generally want to scream “because government isn’t a business….” but I generally settle for “Don’t you mean we need to run government in a businesslike fashion? You really don’t mean we should run government like a business…”
This notion that government is just like business, only less efficient, is often cited by people as the reason they support candidates for public office who, like Donald Trump or Carly Fiorina, have no government experience (and frequently, only the dimmest idea of what government is and does).
In a recent post–rant, really–Mark Sumner insisted that the recurrent theme that “government should be run more like a business,” is both dangerous and completely counter to the whole idea of democracy.
Government and business are not the same thing. In fact, there are good reasons why, in a democracy at least, any effort to run the government like a business should be seen as a hostile act.
After making the (obvious) point that the business of business is profit, and the business of government is the common good, he goes on:
Well, those who still want to run government like a business would surely be thrilled at the idea of giving the president a pay raise of 16 percent a year—the average increase for Fortune 500 CEOs last year. In fact, CEO pay has risen 937 percent since the business-friendly 1980s, while presidential pay hasn’t even kept up with inflation. Come to think of it, when you compare average CEO pay to company revenues, it looks like President Obama should have pocketed about $124 billion last year. I think everyone can get behind that aspect of “running it like a business.” Right?
But then, the president would deserve that money, because unlike an actual president, as government CEO he’d have enormous freedom to ignore what anyone else said and run the nation as he wanted. Sell the Grand Canyon! Swap North Dakota for North Sudan! Fire the Congress! Yes, Mr. President.
I suppose that people could mean “run the government like a business” in terms of keeping the books tidily balanced. Only, of course, they don’t. Check out Amazon. Or Twitter. Or… well, just about any of them. Check out all those investment banks that invented more theoretical money than the GDP of the entire world, and then lost it.
I particularly liked his conclusion:
If you want a government that takes as much of your money as it can, delivers as little as possible, gives what it takes to a handful of the powerful, and is intrinsically unstable … Sure. Run it like a business.
And actually, there have been governments run this way. Plenty of them. There’s even a word for it. Starts with an ‘F.’ Just Google Mussolini, Benito. You can take it from there. Though, speaking of Mr. M, a lot of this “run it like a business” stuff seems to grow out of a longing for having one tough-talking leader at the helm. Maybe you should add Mugabe, Robert and Franco, Francisco and Dada, Idi Amin to that search. Like I say, this kind of government isn’t exactly a new idea.
On the other hand, if you’d rather have a government that’s interested in providing the best service to the greatest number of people, in rewarding everyone fairly, in protecting the weak from the powerful, then you have another choice. You need to run it like a government. That’s the only way you can, hmmm, what’s that phrase?
“Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
That stuff. There’s no profit in that stuff. That’s why it’s nobody’s business … but should be everybody’s government.