Government Is Not a Business

I find myself reminding myself that government is not a business lately. Some of that is due to Voldemort’s ascension to the head of government; people seem to think his alleged success means he’ll be successful at running the government. But we heard talk of running the government like a business long before he threw his wand into the ring. I think I remember hearing it during the (now only) Clinton Administration twenty years ago.

I was always amused when after people screamed about running government like a business they got upset when they found government managers paying their employees well and having lavish meetings to reward their best employees. Hey, that’s what some kinds of business do: they motivate their best people with rewards, not just praise, and sometimes they pay more to hire better people than merely competent. But, I digress.

Government exists to do the things that individuals and businesses can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t. They do things for a common good, which is very different from why a business operates. National defense is an example. All of us collectively have an interest in keeping our country safe from foreign aggression, and sometimes keeping our country safe means making alliances in which we trade the promise of other countries’ support of us in a time of need for our promise of support of them in their times of need. It turns out, we can find businesses that will provide soldiers and weapons, but they don’t offer their services to individuals or small communities; they offer their services to countries.

Fire protection is another service managed by governments. In the early days of America, fire protection was sometimes provided by insurance companies for their clients — but that caused problems as fires spread from one company’s client to another company’s client’s property. Communities recognized that fire departments were community assets and that fire protection was a community’s shared responsibility.

Law enforcement and criminal justice is another area that is — or should be — a public interest service, not a commercial enterprise. We want those enforcing the law and those prosecuting offenders to be beholden to all of us, not just those who pay for the services. While some legal matters are civil matters handled by private parties in lawsuits between each other, other matters are offenses against the state, against the collective good. Murder isn’t a crime because of the loss felt by relatives or friends of the victim; it’s also an offense against the peace shared by all of us, against our security and safety.

There are other things government does for the benefit of all of us when the will of the people is not to trust private enterprise with some goal or task.

The National Park Service and, to a lesser extent, the US Forest Service, are examples of government doing things for a collective common good instead of letting private enterprises manage those things for some combination of our common interest and their own private benefit. We the people own Yellowstone and Yosemite instead of the Disney Corporation or the Hilton Hotels chain because our collective interest is in conflict with some of their interests. Yes, they may be well equipped to collect park entrance fees and run campgrounds, but they have concerns about economic returns that we don’t want to subject natural treasures to. The Forest Service has a somewhat different mandate, focussing a little more on allowing the use of resources of managed private benefit while arbitrating among competing interests for the maximum benefit of all. So, they permit logging, for example, but in ways that will ensure the continued health of the forests, or so the expectation says.

The Environmental Protection Agency, that scapegoat for all that ails businesses, is an example of an agency that pursues goals that have intangible benefits, benefits few private enterprises would recognize, let alone make priorities. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, is another such agency, protecting workers against economic pressures that might motivate private enterprises (and governments) to act against workers’ interests. Both the EPA and OSHA were founded after public outcries arose about abuses that were too scandalous to ignore. Worker safety wasn’t a priority for business owners during the Industrial Revolution until the collective public outcry led to OSHA’s foundation and various laws about worker safety and workers’ rights. Similarly, the EPA and other government agencies with mandates to fight pollution arose because business had no economic case to care about soil pollution, air pollution, water pollution, and other forms of pollution.

This is why I don’t give much of a care about business whining about the high cost of fighting global warming, or “climate change” if you want to call it that. We know that businesses have various economic incentives to ignore long term effects in pursuit of quarterly earnings or protecting the the existence of their market. To the private individual, long term thinking asks, “Will there be a healthy planet for my grandchildren’s grandchildren?” but the long term thinking of an oil or coal executive might ask, “Will there be a market for our products in fifty or one hundred years?” You might hope there will be other uses for oil or coal that damage the environment next, or other uses for the technologies they currently use for those fields, but for those businessmen, maximizing their economic return over the time periods they care about means preserving their markets as they are, pollution be damned.

I hear interviews on the radio with voters who want this candidate or that to downsize “government.” I have yet to hear someone say, “Let’s start with not filling in the potholes on my street.” Everyone always wants to start with the government functions they don’t use. Do we really need OSHA to make sure fishing in the northern Pacific fishing fleets is safe? Do we even need OSHA to tell me how to keep my workers safe? We don’t, until someone cuts corners and cuts more corners and suddenly our worker mortality rate is climbing. Mine safety? Well, sure, profit margins are getting thin for coal because natural gas is getting even cheaper and even more widely available, but, yes, those miners’ lives matter, even if they’ve become numb to the danger.

OSHA barely monitors, let alone regulates or enforces, safety in health care. Are nurses routinely asked to risk their bodies in how they do their jobs, moving heavy loads or working with dangerous diseases? OSHA has a mandate to do that, as they do with any job in which people get injured or killed, but according to a news story a I heard a couple of yeas ago, they have no funding or staffing to fulfill that mandate.

Can the National Park Service and the US Forest Service keep all of their capital investments and improvements in good working order, or is maintenance and upkeep slipping due to budget pressures? Why would we build visitor centers and campgrounds if twenty-five years later we can’t maintain them? (Please don’t talk about capital investment compared to expenses; look at the big picture and tell me if the result is right, not how we got that result.)

I would love to see some agency or perhaps some NGO think tank look at every branch of the Federal executive branch, at every Department, at every agency, at every bureau, and compute how much it would cost to do all of their jobs correctly. Would some park say, “We need 425 Rangers but we only have 230”? Never mind if we could find enough qualified people to do that work; just tell me how much you would need if you had access to the resources you need. Add all that up, and then tell me what the Federal budget should be. Then tell me how much more income we need than we have.

Every government agency and program exists becauseĀ at some point in time, there was a compelling case to create that agency or program. Despite Tea Party intuitions, very few agencies or programs exist just because no one thought to kill them when their role disappeared. Politicians love to take credit when they can find a program that has outlived its usefulness and retire it. Government unions aren’t so powerful that there are 312 buggy whip inspectors now because we once needed 312 buggy whip inspectors.

People’s interests naturally conflict. I want the best tools at my work to do my job; my manager wants the lowest costs, unless we can demonstrate that the higher costs are justified by higher incomes as a result. I want the shortest route from Madison to Chicago, but there are small towns between here and there that don’t want an Interstate highway through their downtown and other cities in the region that want the highway to come close enough to them to be useful for them, too. Government exists to mediate among those competing interests. The rich and powerful might be just as happy without that mediation; they could just buy or bully their way to what they want, if they’re so inclined. But those limits on their ability to do that are meant for all of us, because all of us have times here or there when we can’t protect our own interests on our own.

Businesses are meant to be great in competitive situations; competition is supposed to keep those businesses honest in their dealings with customers and to encourage improvement.

Governments are meant to work in non-competitive situations, where there is a common good, regardless of whether their are tangible incentives to meet that common good. They’re also meant, as I just said, to provide balance among competing interests, to provide equal protections for all so that might and justice go to all of us, not just the most powerful or the richest.

Government is not a business. It’s not meant to be. The sooner we remember that — or admit that — the sooner we should return to a functioning, equitable government that serves us all.


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