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America, Inc?

Friday, July 13, 2012

We’ve seen a lot of folks entering politics from the private sector over the past few years. Maybe that has always been the case, but more and more of those candidates trumpet their private-sector experience as a way to “fix government” each election cycle. But is business management experience really a qualifier for high government office? It shouldn’t be.


Sure, successful businesspeople have demonstrated a knack for leadership and driving profits, maybe even turning around a sinking ship. Isn’t that what America needs—somebody to save our sinking ship? A CEO sounds perfect.


And think about this analogy: aren’t citizens just a government’s stockholders? We buy in every year (taxes) and expect dividends in the form of government services and a tax rebate. Right?


Simplistically, this all sounds logical. But government is so much more than a business, especially good government. I don’t think that analogy or any alternate form holds much water at all. We aren’t just citizen-stockholders. We have civic duty that goes beyond investing and (maybe if you own a lot of shares) casting a vote. We have a duty to vote, to write to our Congressional representatives, to serve on a jury, and be active citizens in every way.  


So if citizens are more than stockholders, is government more than a business? If a business’ goal is to turn a profit…is that government’s goal, as well? If so, then government is really failing [insert uneasy chuckle here.] But, fortunately, our Constitution doesn’t say anything about government turning a profit every year. Our government is by the people, for the people. It shouldn’t ignore money and deficits, but there are other—maybe more compelling—goals than profit. Liberty, anybody? I don’t think we want a society with “Liberty and Justice when we can afford it.” The government has to be able to balance competing interests to be successful.


If profit, as in the traditional business model, is the overriding interest, then there isn’t much balance. And as nice as it might sound for government to make money instead of losing it for a year, shouldn’t any extra money be reinvested in infrastructure or jobs or used to pay down debts?


Maybe government should be managed more like a nonprofit. If there’s one thing that the business-turned-politics spectacle illustrates, it’s that Americans are dissatisfied with the way our country is run. But that doesn’t mean the only alternative, or even a viable alternative, is the corporate model.


The vision is too narrow there, too focused to work within government’s all-encompassing framework. Even if you favor “small government,” I think you have to admit that the business model still falls short. Government has to work for everybody. When a business fails, its assets are liquidated and the investors lick their wounds and move on. But I shudder to think about a government failing. The two might be related, but managing a government is far different than running a business. The stakes are higher. The game is all-encompassing.


So while high-profile Republicans like Meg Whitman, Mitt Romney, and Rick Scott (Governor, R-FL) run on their business experience, they ought to focus on their governing experience. Whitman might not have any (sorry, Meg!) but Romney does. And he ought to use it to his benefit, as it will be what he must fall back on in the Oval Office. And if Scott is any lesson to the world of would-be-political-businessmen, it takes a lot more than business sense to run a government.


Government isn’t a business. So don’t treat it like one.