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Don’t Run Government Like a Business. Please.

The panoply of antipolitical candidates seeking the Republican nomination and gaining varyingly intense but correspondingly fleeting degrees of traction—Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson—are united in their aspiration to run government more like a business.

Trump says government can be “a business with heart.” (“What people don’t know about me, I have a lot of heart.” Oh, no. Oh, please no.) Fiorina emphasizes that she “understands executive decision-making.” Carson promises that “we”—when, by the way, did adoption of the royal “we” become mandatory for aspirants to any office?—“are going to change the government into something that looks more like a well-run business than a behemoth of inefficiency.”

It sounds seductive. But on reflection, leave the behemoth; take the inefficiency. Government is not a business. It neither can nor should be operated like one.

Presidents do need executive aptitude to lead a branch of government, and business experience might therefore commend itself to voters. But Presidents also need the capacities to share power, defer to other decision-makers and choose prudentially between occasional daring of the type business rewards and, more often, the caution warranted by the infinite complexity of the social institutions politicians lead.

Political and business judgment are consequently not the same thing. That is most clearly the case because political and business enterprises do not share the same goals. Businesses are, and ought to be, focused solely on value for the shareholders who own them. Their goals are simple to identify, if complicated to achieve. The ends of politics—whether the human ennoblement of Aristotelian thought or the mere protection of libertarianism—are far more complex.

Corporate leaders can be autocratic—even those who lead by consensus share authority by choice—precisely because their associations are voluntary: Customers opt to do business with them; employees choose jobs in their workplaces. The power of political leaders must be dispersed because it is, by its nature, coercive. A President Trump cannot flippantly fire a recalcitrant member of Congress, even one who does not get with such elements of his program as the one The Donald declared recently to NBC’s Chuck Todd: “Chuck, we have to have a country.”

Moreover, the aspiration to run government like a business partakes of efficiency as the central object of politics. This nominally conservative objective actually fuels progressive goals.

It is of a piece with the aimless, valueless “get things done” mentality that opposes gridlock without regard to whether traffic is straining in a worthy direction. The result is perhaps the most profound, consistent and nonpartisan bias in the media: the one that favors news and therefore action. Its political equivalent, Gene Healy reminds us, is the priceless syllogism from the BBC program Yes, Minister: “Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

Efficiency is not the goal of the constitutional regime. Laws under the Constitution, like runs in baseball, are supposed to be possible but difficult, and like baseball, much of the beauty of the regime lies in the inhibition rather than the achievement of action. The system’s goal is for legitimately public business to be transacted in a deliberate, republican manner whose gradual pace assures its sobriety and protects liberty.

No management consultant worth his Wharton MBA would tolerate the redundant processes and dispersed authority that goal requires. But it is necessary, just as the logrolling an executive would dismiss as sordid and inefficient—after all, why buy someone off to do the right thing when you can order him to do it instead?—is, in a political community, a source of consensus and stability. Government acting efficiently and rationally on a corporate model is also government operating uninhibitedly.

Certainly government can learn from business, and unquestionably business leaders have a great deal to contribute to politics. An executive might well make an excellent president, perhaps even without serving an interval in political life first. But it would be because he or she displayed political judgment, prudence and respect for constitutional norms—in other words, because he or she grasped the unique virtues that political life demands.

Reader Discussion

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on August 20, 2015 at 09:00:08 am

Greg:

another insightful piece! Absotively correct, BTW:

Running government like a business results in having local planning boards decide to *mandate* increased density in zoning in order to boost the tax base; or to seize assets from unsuspecting citizens caught in a web of governmental regulations in order that the police departments / DA's office(s) may acquire new equipment; or charge a citizen a "fee" for a small wooden deck off his house that is larger than the cost of the materials and labor.

No, I will take the inefficiencies and a profit free (but also waste-resistant) operating philosophy anyday.

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gabe
on August 20, 2015 at 10:13:44 am

Somewhere in the past it was decided that the proper role and function of the state was to solve the social/economic problems of the nation. That the government was supposed to "run" the economy,solve the poverty problem,solve the healthcare problem,solve the education problem,solve the housing problem and solve a myriad of other problems that should,instead,be solved by the citizens themselves. Once a voting majority voted away their self responsibility they,at that same instant,voted away their self reliance and thus their liberty. This is why the founders of the Republic noted that liberty can only be sustained by a moral people. In the end,businesses solve problems especially the problems of the scarcity of resources. On the other hand,beyond a limited function as outlined in the original Constitution, governments solve no problems at all but perpetuate problems in order to exist. Its all about power and the continuation of the bureaucracies,and the bureaucrats,that lord over us.

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libertarian jerry
on August 20, 2015 at 11:33:43 am

Well said and timely. And any argument bolstered by a reference to Yes, Minister can't be wrong.

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nobody.really
on August 20, 2015 at 13:40:32 pm

Businesses are run for a "purpose.' They have objectives.

For some 70 years the trend has been that government has "purposes" (plus "interests" some of which are "compelling") it has objectives.

If government is purposive then it bears analogies to business. There is a wide swath of the electorate who know no other, or can not conceive of any other, orientation of government. How else can they be addressed?

The concept of objectives and purpose being the sole province of individuals and government having specific functions in connection with those individual purpose has become foreign or unknown to many (most?); as well as unpalatable for many for the obligations and burdens individuals otherwise have to undertake.

To bring the older concept back into common cognizance, those who would "lead" must start from what is and move toward what ought to be - likely winding up with what can be.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 20, 2015 at 16:04:15 pm

The ends of politics—whether the human ennoblement of Aristotelian thought or the mere protection of libertarianism—are far more complex.

If government is purposive then it bears analogies to business. There is a wide swath of the electorate who know no other, or can not conceive of any other, orientation of government. How else can they be addressed?

Here I see the tension between ambition and ethics: To what extent should I follow rules designed to avoid harm vs. strategies designed to do good?

I sense the ideal libertarian executive would be profoundly ethical and reactionary. That is, she would take seriously the idea of simply executing the laws as prescribed by Congress. Her ambitions, such as they are, would be focused on executing the laws efficiently, not on pursuing her own substantive agenda.

In contrast, I think of business as being rather ends-oriented – even at the expense of concerns about ethics and means. Maybe not such a good model for the executive branch.

I’d kind of amusing to imagine how a minimalist candidate would campaign:

- “Vote for me – and I’ll do a little as I can manage!”
- “The Buck Stops Elsewhere!”
- “Time for Greatness? Not My Department.”
- “Not Making Rules -- Just Following Them.”
- “Lead, Follow, or Get the Hell Out of the Way: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”

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nobody.really
on August 20, 2015 at 18:09:34 pm

'@ N B

Consider the difference in the relationships with public that shapes the selection of means by those directing the purposes (ends) of businesses from those same relationships of those selecting the means for attaining purposes of government (especially of the regulatory state), as delegated to those same regulators.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 20, 2015 at 19:32:58 pm

nobody:

Richard does have a rather valid and potent point, re: the differences in relationships with the public between business and guvmnt.

With the former, relationships are voluntary and may be severed quite readily (OK, let's not dismiss the power of advertising on the psyche of the knuckleheads out there); however with the latter, relationships are backed up by, or predicated upon, force (this is one thing Ole' Hobbesie got right). A not insubstantial difference, wouldn't you say. And so, if I decide that I don't want O-care or Medicare for that matter, with a business, they would just blow me off; with the Federales, they may just blow me away or lock me away?
Hmm! wonder how easy it is to get out of a cell phone contract compared to O-care?

And your libertarian executive, He would not necessarily follow congress, except insofar as a) the will of congress was consonant with his own views or b) She thought the public would agree or not put up much of a fuss. After all, consider some of the "looney" libertarian positions - "no borders, everyone has a human liberty to come to our shores; government should not do (just about) anything.

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gabe
on August 20, 2015 at 20:52:56 pm

I think you avoid some of the strongest ways that government is like a business, and I would have liked to have at least seen some acknowledgement of that (or even better reasons why you don’t agree). For instance You could describe the government where the president is like the CEO, the congress is like the board of directors, and the people are like the shareholders. A president cannot fire a congressman, just like a CEO cant fire a member of the board of directors. Corporate leaders can be autocratic, but only about their employees. Similarly the federal government can be somewhat autocratic about its employees. A president can decide to terminate the employment of a head of a department for instance at almost any time. But all government employees voluntarily decided to join the government just like corporate employees. As to the power that government can assert over others that corporations cant (such as the power to use force to bring people before the court), those powers must be used within the legal bounds. You don’t think CEO’s of corporations also have to act within their legal powers and not cause harm? Many CEO’s could try to do illegal things and hide it, but that would be no different then the President doing the same thing by trying to abuse the power he has been given and hide the abuses.

You don’t think that the CEO of a business has to know how to delegate power to sub-decision makers of a business (or respect the decisionmakers of the board of directors)? The goals of the executive branch are usually straightforward, find those people who violated the law and bring them before the courts.

I don’t think the “get things done” attitude is helpful in writing laws which care should be taken to carefully consider all the possibilities and if we should have the new law at all. But as president, that is much more exactly what we want in a president. The executive branch is meant to be the branch of “get things done” of doing stuff quickly and immediately and not waiting around to deliberate. Within the scope of the executive authority that is a perfectly good response (in fact the whole purpose of having a president is to do that rather then just a congress who runs everything). The executive’s job is (or should be) efficiency, in other words executing the laws of the country in the most efficient manner possible. Let the courts handle the check and double check and cross check needed of due process. Let congress deliberate endlessly on what the ideal law should be. The executive’s job is not a “gradual” manner, it is meant to be fast and immediate and instant. If an attack is heading to kill us, the president must act NOW, not wait for a declaration of war. If we have time for congress to get involved (ie, its an offensive war not a defense war of an immediate attack), then congress can spend their time deliberating, that is not the role of the president. The president only acts when he must act and when that occurs he must do so as quickly as possible. There is no logrolling for the president, his role is to execute not to create the law.

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Devin Watkins
on August 21, 2015 at 13:20:40 pm

'@ D W

"There is no logrolling for the president, his role is to execute not to create the law."

Perhaps that is in the land of "ought," but certainly is not in the land of "is."

Even in the most scrupulous performances of executive functions, it is regularly necessary for a non-policy setting executive to describe and define for the policy setters deficiencies in the provisions made and actions required; and, more commonly to call for what is required - to attain the objectives set.

To get such points into the policy process, there are manipulations like "log-rolling."

Whilst in the national political circus the roles of the performers and "trainers" have been conflated, juggled and exchanged, the conduct of presidential offices since 1901 (with some reflections back to Jackson) demonstrates the negative of that quotation.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 21, 2015 at 17:09:20 pm

While it is true that Presidents can and do call for legislation, frankly the congress can (and sometimes does) ignore them (especially if they are a different party). The president's only official role in the process is a veto up or down. And yes, presidents do use administrative law to pass a kind of law, although again, there is no "log rolling" on this part as there are no set of congressmen to convince the executive does it on its own. So while the legislative branch does have to deal with log rolling, and the president offers recommendations to the legislative branch, being able to "log roll" seems FAR down on the list of things that we really need a president for.

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Devin Watkins
on January 08, 2016 at 13:07:54 pm

The author presented a great opportunity to build support for the analogy of running the country more like a baseball team, or even better, a league. While seemingly simple on the surface it can be enormously complex and requires careful consideration to keep the "ball" moving. Plus, not everyone wins all the time but rather, at a minimum, participates in the ultimate goal to succeed.

As for the business analogy breaking down, yeah, interesting that the whole concept of increasing government efficiency (a la corporate austerity) actually would be a progressive tack because it requires increasing government power.

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Craig Clifford
on April 02, 2017 at 12:13:39 pm

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Government is Not A Business – Citizens are Not Customers – Illuminate

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.