Government is often justly accused of waste and inefficiency, usually after some particularly outrageous example of extravagance comes to light. Hammers that cost the Department of Defense more than $300 seems to be the story ingrained in people’s memories. When government waste is exposed, there is almost always a corresponding demand that government should be run like a business.
I believe it is a fundamental ignorance of the purpose of government to compare it to a business. Government routinely borrows practices from the business world, and I would be an ingrate not to acknowledge that my profession owes its existence to corporate structure. Business-like is not, however, the same as being a business. My guess is that any business that had to operate under the same constraints as government would be bankrupt in very short order.
Imagine a business that could keep almost no information confidential; where elaborate processes were required before any significant decisions could be made; where the public could attend almost every meeting and say virtually anything; or where employees enjoy a right to their jobs. The simple reason that government is not run like a business is that it is not a business.
Government is how we organize ourselves collectively to do things we cannot do individually. In times past, kings were crowned to oversee collective effort, while today we generally rely on more democratic forms of government. Democracy demands participation, public discussion, and the clash of opposing opinions. These demands are in direct conflict with the idea of making money by capitalizing on competitive advantages. Capitalism and democracy coexist, but they are not the same.
I am not aware of any businesses that arrest people or lend out literature at no cost. It’s hard to keep customers satisfied when you are putting them in jail. Understanding these basic differences between government and business helps explain why we sometimes pay a premium for democracy.
Sometimes narrow interest groups recognize that they can take advantage of government processes to advance their cause or make money. Some businesses owe their success to government contracts that gave them huge advantages and profits. The early railroads are a good example of this of phenomenon. Government (the public) has gotten more sophisticated in its attempts to prevent blatant thievery, but people are ingenious at taking advantage of almost any system if the stakes are high enough.
Government is not a business; and, while we strive to take the best practices from business and apply them to our work, it shouldn’t be. We have much higher standards of transparency and public participation that no business can or should practice. We may pay a higher price for hammers on occasion, but I believe the right to organize and govern ourselves collectively is worth it.