Government Should Not be Run Like a Business

Government Should Not be Run Like a Business March 14, 2019

Something I’ve heard most of my life is a sentiment along the lines of, “Government should be run like a business, with balanced budgets, a savings or reserve, and efficiently/cost effectively.”  The idea is that a “bottom-line” mentality should prevail.  We look around at, say, Microsoft, or Starbucks, and we say, “See how successful they have been—we should run our governments like that!”

I’ve even heard church people say the “business” side of a church’s ministry should be run like a business.  When it is pointed out that even the “business” side is not really about “business” or money, or profits, or cost effectiveness, such ideas are often lost on those who have been discipled more by Forbes than the Bible or Christian tradition and teaching.

None of this is to say that governments or churches shouldn’t be wise and thoughtful in how they handle money or their other more mundane and practical affairs, economic or otherwise.  We are caretakers and stewards only, God being the true owner of everything as creator, but caretakers and stewards none the less.

What I do mean to say is we are making a category mistake when we say governments (or churches) should be run like businesses.  While these all may be organizations, not all organizations are the same, exist for the same reasons, or have the same purpose or goals.

A business exists for the purposes of providing a product or service to people for a price they are willing to pay, wherein the business is able to profit, thus providing a living to the owner, employment to workers, and other benefits to the wider community.  While there are philosophical and theological aspects to what “business” means and how it should be understood, both now and historically, it is tied intrinsically to the basic need of providing for one’s self and family.

Governments, however, do not exist for those reasons or have those same purposes.  Obviously, there are many forms of government.  There are also many philosophical and theological conceptions of government.  I am speaking out of a Christian tradition and understanding.  Fundamentally, governments exist to make judgments, and therein resides their authority.  Oliver O’Donovan puts it thus:

“The authority of secular government resides in the practice of judgment…for the proposition that the authority of government resides essentially in the act of judgment, we must turn to the New Testament, where St. Paul described the function of civil authority as to reward the just and punish the evil (Rom. 13:4).” (Pgs. 1-3)

And O’Donovan isn’t using the term “secular” in its commonly understood sense, but in its truest sense, which is in terms of salvation history or time.  He is speaking then to all governmental forms that exist in the time between the ascension of Christ and the summation of all things.  Of course there is more to what government does, but in this understanding its intrinsic nature is the authority to judge.  And making judgments entails much—there is a myriad and complex web of interlocking relationships, duties, and functions bound up in that very succinct description of government and its purpose.

The point is that judging between good and evil is not something businesses do on behalf of the citizens, the people, of which they themselves are a part.  Making judgments entails philosophical and theological considerations.  It entails having a deep understanding of jurisprudence historically, socially, politically, and in many other aspects.  It must consider how judgments affect all of its citizens, regardless of any economic aspects, or other prejudices.

At a national level, those judgments have to do with protecting citizens, preventing or waging war, and other lethal or life and death matters.  It means making judgments as to the social flourishing of its citizens and neighborly relations with the rest of the world.  None of these types of decisions can be based on some “bottom line” or reduced to economic considerations alone—or anything purely practical.

Confusing the two also leads to America’s perpetual tendency to want business people (mostly men) to become political leaders.  Or, the tendency of business leaders to think their prowess in one area will translate to the other.  The idea seems to be that if a person has built a successful business, and become wealthy, he must then be a good leader.  I think this logic rather faulty, but the greater problem is that it again confuses these two areas of endeavor and the type of leader best suited to each.

Further, we could add, the next best argument against this type of thinking or leader is the current occupant of the White House.  Or course, in this case, one can’t even make the argument he was a successful business man.  He is much closer to a con-man than a businessman and his supposed wealth (of which we know very little) was mostly gifted and the rest built upon BS and personal promotion.  Still, he was able to present the persona of such and it was enough for low-information or lazy voters.

Business leaders tend, not all, but some, to be practical, bottom-line, types of people.  Matters of state, or government, however, are often too complex for practical, bottom-line solutions.  It is why the wisest states or cultures have selected statesmen (statespersons) and not politicians or business people to lead their governments.  A statesperson is more a wise philosopher, a reflective soul, a person for all seasons as they say, than a person only checking bottom lines.

James Freeman Clarke noted this difference between a statesperson and a politician:

“The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

The same difference may apply to business leaders as well.  Such a difference is certainly evident here.  While business leaders try to see trends and plan for the future, they often do this only from the limited perspective of protecting their source of income and profits.  A statesperson has to see trends and plan for the future from a much wider perspective and one that takes into consideration a myriad of factors.  They must also do this from a completely unselfish perspective, wherein they may actually be the loser, where any “profit” goes to others rather than themselves.  There are indeed, to be sure, business leaders who might have the same skills and the wide-ranging knowledge and sensibilities of a statesperson, but my point is that more often than not, these two areas of endeavor attract, and require, different types of leaders and persons.

Governments should not be run like businesses and we should look for leaders who are statespersons, not career politicians or business leaders.  We currently have the government we deserve.  Let’s begin approaching these questions and areas in such a way that demonstrates we deserve better.

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  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    In addition to the reasons you listed above, there’s an even more fundamental reason the government can’t be run like a business: when a business needs more money, they can’t print that money (at least, not without running afoul counterfeiting laws). A government can (it’s not always wise to, but that’s a separate argument). Also, a large debt and deficit aren’t immediate problems, especially when the government is like the United States and it’s money is used as the reserve currency across the globe.

    Businesses need to get investment capital and are held accountable to shareholders, and have a duty to turn a profit for the share holders (in fact, most businesses turn to the government for capital). Governments do not, and that’s why governments can invest in businesses and industries that would always turn a loss — see also, flood insurance. While you can get flood insurance through any insurance company, it’s backed by the federal government, because no insurance company in their right mind is going to offer that given how frequent and common floods are. At least, not without a ridiculous premium attached. And that’s just scrapping the surface of why this analogy doesn’t work.

    People who say the government should be run like a business need to get smacked with a heavy economics textbook for being idiots and pontificating on a subject they know nothing about.

  • RowdyHoo

    Wow…this is a BIG topic for a single essay. Maybe consider a series of articles that first talk about the definition of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), the structure of government (Federal, state, local, and their interaction via federalism), and finally the purpose of government (maintainance of a monetary system, protection (individual and national), and maintaining the public goods (those items that are not suited for provision through free markets)). Then a discussion of how government should be run could be directed more specifically to which part of the government being discussed. Though it is obvious that local government should not be operated the same way as states, or the federal government, or, that the EPA should not be run the same way that the local emergency services division, these clearer facts many times get lost in an overall discussion under the term “government.”

  • Darrell

    Great suggestion. I just don’t have the time.

  • RowdyHoo

    I hear ya!