Lots of Trump supporters, when they’re not saying racist things, sucker-punching black people, accidentally running themselves over with riding lawn mowers, or dying of complications related to defective diabetes shoes, say that they want Trump to be president because “he’s a business man,” or that they want Trump to run the government “like a business.”
This is an incredibly stupid idea for a number of reasons, but first of all: Donald Trump has never even run for office before. He’s never been a public servant at any level; he’s spent his entire career glorifying his own name and misallocating his father’s fortune. But now the Republican Party thinks he’s got the skills and experience to take over the top job in government? Why is it that President of the United States is the one job where people think it’s a good thing to have never worked in that career field before?
This attitude shows how much contempt Republicans have for the very idea of government: they seem to think that you don’t have to know anything about government to run the government; hell, ANYONE can just walk in off the street and do it! This is because Republicans, in their heart of hearts, apparently don’t want America to have a government at all—or schools or taxes or health care or roads. The Republicans have been running for the past 36 years on a platform of anti-government rhetoric and worshipful veneration of the private sector; they act like this 21st Century high-tech Information Age nation should revert back to a feudal system of land barons and serfs, traveling via private toll roads, and paying tribute to whichever local church or warlord controls the biggest arsenal of AR-15 assault rifles.
When you don’t believe that government serves any useful purpose, it’s easy to believe that any cretinous yokel with a chip on his shoulder can swoop in and run the show. (This is why John Boehner looked so visibly disinterested all the time—he spent his career trying to rise to the top of an organization that he didn’t believe should exist.)
But this idea of “government = business” is wrong on a number of levels. Government cannot—and should not—be run like a business. Here is why:
Government and business have different missions and serve different purposes. Businesses exist to make a profit, to serve their customers, and to pursue a particular vision for a certain market. Government has a broader purpose: to uphold the general welfare and provide stability and security; to serve the common good; to help improve the education and well being of the people, and otherwise do all that verbose stuff that is written in the U.S. Constitution.
The mission of government is more complex than the mission of a business. In fact, the government’s mission is itself a constant source of contention, with different political parties and factions within the government having different ideas and agendas about what government is for, what it should do, and what are the limits of government power. Running a business can be incredibly complex and stressful, too, of course – but the complexities of a business are more narrowly focused than the complexities of government. Even the biggest, most complex businesses are simpler than the U.S. government. Business is like playing checkers; politics is like playing 3D Chinese checkers—but with the Supreme Court stepping in and changing the rules halfway through the game.
The problems that elected officials have to deal with are more intractable and complex than anything that any CEO has to face. Yes, businesses have big problems: they constantly have to innovate and adapt to competition and guard against threats to their business; they have to make well-informed bets about which products or services will be successful in the future; they have to make tough decisions that affect lots of people’s livelihoods. But none of that is as tough as deciding whether to pardon someone from prison, or whether to send people off to war.
Government has to do lots of things that cannot be measured by simple profit-and-loss sheets. The questions of government are more profound, and the answers are more elusive. Instead of asking, “How are we going to move more product this quarter,” or “Should we issue a bigger dividend to our stockholders?” presidents and policymakers have to ask questions like “How can we balance the interests of our allies who have conflicting goals for our foreign policy?” or “How can we apportion funding for medical research in a world of limitless need and scarce resources?” or “Should we intervene in another country’s civil war if it means preventing genocide?” or “What is the nature of ‘justice’ and how can we prepare people who are incarcerated to be able to re-enter society?”
CEOs have to deal with technically complex questions; presidents and governors and other elected leaders have to deal with morally impossible questions. If CEOs make the wrong decision, their company loses lots of money and lots of people lose their jobs. If a president makes the wrong decision, lots of people die.
Democracy is messy and fractious and frequently frustrating, but it’s the best system that human beings have so far devised to peacefully share power and make decisions about who gets what, when and how. Businesses are not democracies. Business leaders are appointed, not elected; they rule by fiat and force of personality, and are ultimately accountable only to the Board of Directors. CEOs can just decide to fire thousands of people, or decide that a certain product or service or company division isn’t profitable enough or promising enough to continue. Business leaders can just decide that they want to stop dealing with people or companies that are too demanding and annoying; businesses can just stop doing things that are too hard or too inconvenient.
Governments don’t have that luxury. America’s system of government is built for gridlock and bitter disagreements and unsatisfying compromises; the founders were wary of untrammeled majority rule and wanted to avoid handing over the government to the passions of the mob. America’s democratic system, compared to other democracies, has relatively strong protection for the rights of the minority party, to keep any party from gaining power and then steamrolling everyone else.
But one drawback of this systemic bias for protecting the rights of the minority party is that it can be hard for the U.S. government to be efficient, to get rid of unpopular programs or to stop spending money on small-but-powerful constituencies. Presidents and governors and legislative leaders have to deal with lots of nagging issues and pestering people who all have their own specific competing agendas for what they want government to do for them—whether it’s favorable treatment in the tax code, removal of onerous regulations, or public works spending to stimulate the local economy. None of these concerns can be easily dismissed or waved away—in a democracy, everyone has the right to organize into interest groups and air their grievances, and the government has to at least make a show of hearing them all.
Also, the government does a lot of activities that are never going to be profitable (or SHOULD never be run for profit). There’s not a lot of profit to be made in providing health insurance for poor, sick, 90-year-old dementia patients; that’s why we have Medicare—not a lot of private sector insurance companies are scrambling to get into the market for insuring the health of the age 65+ crowd. This is why the idea of for-profit prisons is so disgraceful. Prisons are supposed to be a public good—contributing to public safety by removing dangerous offenders from society, while making a positive intervention in the lives of convicts and preparing them to re-enter society as productive citizens (I know, I know…try not to laugh). Human beings should not be “monetized” as a source of corporate profits. There should never be a profit motive that creates a financial incentive to take away people’s freedom—even though this country was built on slavery, we should at least try to be better than that now.
When politicians try to “run government like a business” by privatizing everything and outsourcing government jobs to private contractors (like hiring private sector mercenaries for Iraq and Afghanistan instead of soldiers), or handing over public assets to private sector interests for a pittance, it tends to lead to bad results—because the private sector often lacks the government’s same standards of transparency and accountability. Instead of acting in the public interest, a private company’s biggest incentive is to act in the interest of profit. And private profit does not always serve the common good.
Businesses represent the interests of their customers, employees, shareholders and communities, but government’s constituencies are broader and more complex. Ideally, the government provides services not because there’s money to be made, but because “we the people,” in our imperfect, complicated democratic process, have decided that it’s the right thing to do. Over time, we’ve gradually, collectively decided that we want to have public schools, and universities, and health care for old people, and Social Security income for senior citizens, and transportation infrastructure, and workplace safety regulations, and environmental protection rules enforcement, and a big defense budget, and lots of other government expenditures and activities where we the people, through our representatives in Congress, have decided to spend money and express our will.
Despite its messiness and waste and occasional corruption and constant disappointments, democratic government is meant to represent the collective will of the people, operating by consent of the governed, built on a foundation of broad consensus and coalition-building to ensure that as many people as possible feel like they have a stake in the system. Government is not a private club; it’s a public space.
None of this is a good fit for a swashbuckling entrepreneurial turnaround artist, no matter how charismatic they might be. The systemic challenges of a complex bipartisan democracy cannot easily be wished away with mindless braggadocio and aggressive deal making. There are lots of good reasons why democracy in America moves so slowly and inefficiently—it’s because we have a lot of people on board the train, and no one wants to get jostled off and left behind.
Business isn’t better or worse than government, it’s just different. But people who say that government should be run more like a business are showing how little they understand about government. Because we should all be glad that government isn’t a business—a lot of the inefficiencies and frustrations of democracy are there for our own good.