Running the government like a business?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

I’ve been a writer and teacher of writing for a long time. One thing you learn (or at the very least, SHOULD learn) is that every metaphor has its limits.

The whole idea of a metaphor is to clarify a complex situation by comparing the new or complicated situation to something more familiar.

As you make arguments in your life, you discover which (or which category) of metaphors works – and what doesn’t.

“Running the government like a business” is metaphor that, to me at least, runs out of power and relevance almost immediately.

For a quick review, business is essentially our term for an organization that provides a good or service at a profit, and as it does this, provides employment and, most of the time, provides community services and stability.

Business, as a concept, as a reality and as a metaphor, is not that complicated.

From the inside, business is even more simple. A business (at least in a relatively free and fair marketplace) either makes money, and survives, or loses money and does not survive.

Markets grow, shift and disappear. Businesses flex (or don’t) accordingly.

Any level of government, from neighborhood, to regional to federal, is, to put it mildly, a completely different animal (how’s that for a metaphor?).

Government, again from the most local to the most global, is primarily about ensuring stability and safety, justice and defense.

“Profiting” from governance is abstract if not absurd.

It would be easy to make the argument that every nation – in every era – struggles with debt.

And it would be even easier to argue that taxes, the primary source of income for every government, again from local to national, has been a continuing source of contention from citizens of virtually every country.

“Fair” taxation has been a precarious pursuit for millennia. Adequate funding for sustainable use and maintenance of civic infrastructure has been the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow that cities and governments have been chasing for centuries.

Debt has been the spur for colonialism, wars and international (and local) disputes for virtually all of human history.

Debt, or the promise of release from debt, has inspired, or justified, slavery, environmental devastation and moral lapses of all kinds.

Debt has led to the collapse of every empire from the ancient Egyptians to the Soviet Union – and many more in the past and probable future.

A government, again from local to national, facilitates business. Taxes need to be fair; markets and infrastructure need to be stable and education and opportunity need to be available on merit – not family connection or inside connections.

Governments are very different from businesses.

Businesses can look at short term profit. Governments, by definition, look at the big picture, far beyond state borders and quarterly reports.

One of the many immediate failures of this metaphor is the claim that government agencies should “pay for themselves.”

I hear this premise applied to schools, mass transit, highways, police and fire departments, national parks and the military.

Approximately thirty seconds of thought should be ample time to dismantle the all-too-obvious flaws in this argument.

But we still hear the argument made.

Our current federal administration, for example, is rumored to have plans in the works to eliminate our national postal service.

The postal service (of any nation) has a very simple purpose; to deliver posted materials effectively and promptly.

The U.S. postal service is America’s largest employer of military veterans and provides regular delivery of health care and other essential services.

Our postal service goes places private delivery services would not or could not.

To deliver a document across the entire continent for well under a dollar is a bargain for those of us who use the service. A private delivery provider would charge five, even ten times that amount. Some customers might pay that much, but many, most likely those who need the service the most, probably would not be able to.

To expect schools, for another example, to “pay for themselves” is an exercise in absurdity.

How about first responders or the military? I would hate to think how those organizations would “earn” their money.

As with any business, a government “run like a business” needs to clarify its “business plan” – what good or service will it provide? In other words, what is its product? Who are its customers?

Who will buy it and at what price?

We currently have many for-profit prisons around the country and locally. To say that they have been controversial would be an understatement. To assert that they make money would also be debatable. To claim that they provide a service that a government program could not provide cheaper and better is dubious at best.

Incarceration for profit is a tiny step away from slavery and debtor’s prisons. Many say that it is not even that far. Many “for-profit” incarceration institutions “farm-out” their residents for everything from manufacturing to fire fighting.

These “contracted” situations are rarely if ever productive for the community or the worker. Any “profit” goes to the holding company.

If any politician promotes the metaphor that a policy or agency – from taxes to health care will “pay for themselves” they are operating under the assumptions of a misleading metaphor.

These assumptions, especially when they are the foundation of decision or policy making, lead even further afield from successful management.

Public policy, in areas as diverse as mass transit or public schools and parks, is not, and probably never will be, a profit-making endeavor.

They are public investments for the greater good.

If a politician campaigns on the promise of “running the government like a business,” I highly recommend looking at that candidate’s business philosophy, sustained profit margin and reputation in the business and banking communities.

It should never need to be said, but in the unlikely event that any candidate might have a history of fraudulent lawsuits or association with criminal activities or organizations, their business model might not be desirable in the area of public service.

Businesses should be run like a business. Not families, not neighborhoods or churches, and certainly not governments.