The next time someone tells you we need to run government "more like a business", ask them "Are you SURE you really mean that?" Because odds are they really haven't given any thought to what that means.
Not thinking is at the core of so many of our problems today. Any time you can get someone to start thinking, that's one more person who might become part of the solution. At the least, you can help stamp out the zombie brain worms that are destroying our civilization.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Let's do some unpacking.
The logic behind the idea that government would be better if it were run more like a business is based on assumptions that don't get hauled out into the light very often. Let's see if I can drag a few of them out. (Feel free to add more in comments.)
• 1 Governments by their nature are inherently wasteful; businesses are models of efficiency.
This is the key rationale for most people - "My taxes would be lower." Government and waste have become practically synonymous - thanks in part to a determined propaganda campaign from the right to really push that linkage over the years. It fits right in with that mantra about doing more with less.
• 2 The principles underlying business as a model are universally applicable.
• 3 The principles underlying business are sufficient to deal with all the problems of the world.
Points 2 and 3 go together - two sides of the same coin. Call them the hubris principles, usually espoused by people who've piled up tons of money. It's worked for them, so they see no reason to look any farther. It's the idea that the whole world can be reduced to terms that fit on a balance sheet - and anything that doesn't fit isn't worth bothering about.
• 4 Business models based on the concepts of free markets and capitalism will always find the optimum solution for any given problem if allowed free reign.
Call this the escape clause. Any time business fails to live up to principles 1, 2, or 3, it's attributed to something interfering with the free operation of the markets, usually blamed on government interference, acts of god, etc. etc. When taken to extremes, 2, 3, and 4 are used to argue that government is unnecessary. If we'd just allow markets to operate unhindered, all of our problems would take care of themselves. Number 4 is a pretty much a tautology, which goes right along with Digby's observation about conservatism. When free markets DON"T work, it must be they weren't really free, or so the true believers would have it. The idea that there are some problems markets can't solve is just not in their worldview.
I'm sure there are more, but these 4 assumptions seem to be at the heart of the argument over government versus business. So, let's unpack a little further and examine what those principles of business are.
The Fundamental Principles of Business.
Rule One: Maximize Profits - and there is no Rule Two.
And that's it. There is no inherent morality in money. No concern for higher principles, posterity, the public good, or responsibility. Nothing about freedom or democracy. Those are all things that have to be imposed from without, from a larger framework of values and perceptions. Any claims to the contrary are just a sales pitch.
Running a business is less wasteful than government largely because running a business is far, far simpler - and even then, many businesses fail every year. Government doesn't have that luxury (Somebody has to keep the lights on!) and it doesn't have that simplicity of focus. Government all too often is like a juggling act with live hand grenades, trying to reconcile contradictory objectives. Things like:
• individual liberty versus law and order.
• preserving institutions while allowing for evolutionary and even radical change.
• reconciling the rule of law with justice.
• promoting individual responsibility while also promoting social responsibility.
• balancing opportunity versus outcome, equality versus inequality, in a fair manner.
• focusing on the short term AND the long term.
• responding to the needs of ALL the people, even the ones who voted for something different.
And so on.
Compare this with the pursuit of Rule One where the basic consideration is simple: What can we get away with?
This doesn't mean a successful business can't be run along ethical lines, that it can't be a net benefit to society in all regards - but there is nothing inherent about the way business operates that will guarantee such a state of affairs. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the vast amounts of evidence to the contrary. History is full of businesses that were extremely successful - until they got caught. I dare say anyone who thinks for more than 30 seconds can come up with a name or two - and if they think harder, they can come up with a business that screwed them over in some way. Take this example of a couple who worked hard, developed an extraordinary product, and did really well for a time - then got taken by a company that recognizes nothing beyond Rule One.
The dirty little not so secret agenda behind the idea that business is somehow superior to government is to make people forget that one BIG reason we have government is to keep business on the straight and narrow, to limit "what they can get away with". And that's a huge problem for the kind of people who consider Rule One their only concern. They'd much prefer government was a wholly-owned subsidiary, and there's some compelling evidence they're there.
The Answer Is A Question
So the next time you hear someone say "The government should be run more like a business," don't expect to get their attention by reciting the points above. Odds are they'd just ignore you. Instead, try to get them to take the next step. Ask them "What kind of business did they have in mind?" Then run some choices past them.
Walmart? America Online? Blockbuster Video? Enron? McDonalds? Apple? Microsoft? U.S. Air? Applebys? The local cable TV company? Tiffanys? General Motors? Howard Johnsons? Sears? Bank America? Visa? Mastercard? BP? The National Football League? A local deli? 7-11?
Odds are those names will provoke some emotional responses, probably contradictory ones. The point is to get them to sort through those responses and realize their simple idea isn't really that simple. Maybe, just maybe, you can get them to start thinking past the talking points about what they really want from government, and how it should work better on its own merits, not according to some talking point myth about business.
And the next time they hear some conservative blowhard talking about the superiority of business to government as the solution to all problems, just maybe they'll think a little harder about what that guy is really saying - and they won't swallow it down whole.
Hey - you never know.
Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 2:33 PM PT: UPDATE: Just for extras, Sara Robinson has a look at how Business is becoming like a Government - a Soviet Style planned economy type government. Just one more way the unthinking regard for business is a trap.