Like most people, I’ve changed my thinking on a number of things over the course of my life, and one of them is the idea that government ought to function as a business. I once believed that if government could only function with the efficiency of corporations, it would be phenomenal, and make much more sense. I hear or read this proposition raised from time to time, mostly by people who are discouraged by the wastefulness of governments, and I share their frustrations though I now differ with their conclusions. Many things have helped shape my opinion, but over the course of time, nothing has done more to change my thinking on this than seeing government in action, up close and in person. My first experience with that was as a soldier, of course, and along the way to where I am now, I’ve held a temporary position in federal government employ and what I learned there, and since, has made me decide I had been wrong. It’s not that government can’t be made more efficient, or more careful with our money, but that government is not a business, and if it were to operate like one, we would all shortly regret it.
Imagine a government that can flow into new endeavors by shifting its focus by direction from the top. Businesses do this very thing all the time, and frequently to the inestimable benefit of employees and investors. Even if an institution of government could behave this way, would you want it to do so? Various statists will argue that such a government would be a grand institution, and return much value to its investors, also known as “tax-payers.” The problem with this is that no company gets to decide the size of investors’ stakes in the business. No company is empowered in law to dictate greater investments, but at least a company has paying customers. Government has a few who pay various fees of little consequence, but it cannot rightly be said that government has customers, since theirs is a captive market.
Companies try to obtain greater and greater shares of the market, in order to increase their investors’ profits, but governments with such an imperative would soon overrun every boundary we had previously imposed upon its growth. In fact, our government is already squeezing out private enterprise, and the fact is that with a captive market, government can squeeze out as much as it is institutionally and politically able. The last dozen years give witness to the fact that the proportion of the total economy the government dominates is increasingly oppressive. Government already has a legal monopoly on coercion, and it lends that monopoly power to various enterprises on a continuous basis. Some of these enterprises are government-owned, or formed, and a few more are simply companies that have figured out how to get their fingers in the government’s pie, but in any event, what results is not the sort of government most Americans would want. It’s plain to see that a nation like Cuba has a governmental monopoly on everything, and Michael Moore’s panting endorsements of Cuban health-care notwithstanding, I think it’s fairly clear this is not a model we should follow.
Of course, there are those who argue that rather than at this very fundamental level, we could simply use common business practices to make government more efficient. I wonder what efficiencies people seek in government? Do you want them to become more efficient at tracking you? Do you want it to become more effective at regulating you? Do you want it to be more aggressive in taxing you? I think not. It is true to say, and I am certain that you will agree, that we can do things to make government accomplish more with less, and to likewise spend less altogether, but what that means is the ability to strictly limit the stake of the so-called “investors.” Therein lies the problem: All too often, those who bring business management experience to government see a vast ocean of potential revenue, and notice that unlike in the businesses to which they’re accustomed, the only limitation on their expenditure is their periodic requirement to stand for re-election.
Let us be circumspect in suggesting that we want government to function like business. They have entirely different imperatives in a society such as ours. Government exists for the purposes of defending the nation, minting the money, policing the criminals, and preventing commercial and civil conflict from becoming violent ones by the administration of an objectively moral law. There is damned little else government should do, and can do effectively, and yet it is in this manner that we are told we must extend government’s power to encompass functions over which it has no just claim. You might tell me some vaunted majority wants this or that, but does this legitimize the claim? Can an orderly vote by wolves legitimize their consumption of the sheep, if they happen to be the more numerous?
This illustrates the most fundamental reason government must not function like a business: Business is a voluntary endeavor, and it is business that must seek the agreement of others, and must find those who will purchase its products and services by choice. Of all our founders, the one who might well have understood this more thoroughly than any was George Washington, and while it is in dispute as to whether he said this, it is nevertheless true, and whomever its actual source, it is a worthy idea:
“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Imbuing such an entity with the purpose of business is as great a danger as I can imagine. For those who argue that government should function like business, I wish you’d reconsider as have I. I realize most think of this premise in terms of the tendency of government to be so wasteful, and the desire for greater efficiency, but we do not ever gain these efficiencies, and government grows only more powerful. The government we now have all too often mimics the aspects of business that when empowered with monopoly and coercive power to implement its will, becomes a grave threat to its stakeholders. Imitations of business practices do not make of government a business, and we must bear in mind its actual constitutional role, and limit it to those duties with great fervor.