Sunday, October 31, 2010

Government Is Not A Business

Can we please, pretty please, retire that tired old canard that “government needs to be run like a business”? I absolutely despise that little piece of conventional wisdom which politicians repeat each election. It’s bullshit.

Government cannot run like a business because it’s a completely different entity.

As the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik writes today:
It would be obvious to any business person who had spent a day in public administration that government and business are antithetical. That's not a flaw in the system. Government exists to take on precisely those tasks the private sector can't or won't do.

These include caring for the penniless; maintaining common amenities such as parks, schools, and universities; and creating infrastructure with broad value but unspecific beneficiaries, such as freeways and the Internet (which in coming days undoubtedly will be used by many readers to inform me by e-mail that they don't see how government serves any purpose).

Most of these functions can't be made to "pay" in the sense that a business strategy does. But they can be neglected or privatized only at great cost to society.

Thank you! Jeeebus, nothing annoys me more than hearing how government needs to be run like a business. No, it doesn’t! It can’t! I remember working for a Big Government Agency tasked with operating a National Recreation Area and being told we had to apply for-profit business practices to what we did. I’m sorry, but just how is that supposed to work? How do you make money break even off of maintaining hiking and mountain biking trails, campgrounds, and wildlife habitat? Especially when you have small businesses in the local town complaining about unfair competition from said Big Government Agency? If we operated like a business, then what would be left for the real businesses to do? It was laughable idea. We ended up having to explain that no amount of T-shirt and baseball cap sales and hunting permits would ever make us turn a profit break even. [Note: I hit send too soon on this one, but of course all government is not-for-profit -- another reason why it can't operate as a business. We weren't tasked with making a profit but they did want us to try to break even and they gave us a few years to do it which was just stupid.]

Government and business are separate entities. We need both to function as a democracy. Trying to turn one into the other is what has led to disasters like Soviet-style Communism and Mussolini-style fascism.

Another problem, which I've discussed elsewhere, is that we do not -- can not -- put a monetary value on things that are quite literally priceless. Things like watershed, clean air, clean water or the soil erosion protection which forests provide. As I wrote last spring:

But it’s bigger than that. We also don’t factor in the value of what we’ve lost when we destroy those mountains and streams. We don’t consider that a forest isn’t just a piece of land or something pretty to look at or even the economic value of its timber. It’s a living system and it performs a function. Forests and streams provide water storage, flood management, even reduce the severity of floods. Trees take the Co2 and pollutants out of the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen, earth’s natural breathing mechanism provided to us, free of charge.

And here’s the thing: we haven’t invented a substitute for these natural living systems! When they’re gone, we’re all screwed. We have no air-scrubbers, no one has created the photosynthesis machine. The reason we can’t put a value on this is because it is truly priceless. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

I was writing about the environment but there are a whole bunch of non-easily quantifiable things. The education of your work force. The health of the population. The knowledge and experience of our senior citizens. Anyone who wants to be governor and tells you they plan to operate the state like a business is obviously not factoring in a whole bunch of things for which we cannot attach a dollar value because they are literally priceless.

And it's hard for me to take these business sector politicians seriously. So many of them have little respect for what government does anyway -- many of them don't even vote. As Hiltzik wrote:

Engagement in democracy starts with participation in the ballot box. That's the real significance of Whitman's and Fiorina's well-documented failures to vote over the years. This isn't a "mistake," as Whitman likes to call it. A mistake is getting the address of the polling place wrong, once. Not bothering to vote year after year? That's contempt for the very concept of democracy.

I couldn't agree more. Electing to office someone who not only holds the very concept of democracy in contempt but also misunderstands the function and role of government is the worst sort of mistake.