Government Is Not a Business

We're seeing some strange things these days, some of which seem to emanate from confusion about the role of government compared to the role of a business. 

Among other things, government is supposed to enact laws to ensure a safe, fair, and free society; collect tax revenues to get things done collectively that we can't do individually; deal with international affairs and diplomacy; and adjudicate national and international disputes and treaties. Governments are political entities..

A business is supposed to take a seed of capital and attempt to grow it into a mighty oak capable of spawning new trees, while providing shelter and shade to its workers and partners.

Businesses are economic entities governed by political entities. There is interaction, but that's the general relationship.

The stunning Brexit vote was based to some extent on arguments that portrayed the government as a business -- for example, the now-famous-worldwide "£350 million per week" argument, as if the UK government were a business flushing capital down the drain recklessly. Not only is the figure inflated, but the value is not included. It may turn out that for the benefits derived, the UK may need to spend far more. But the spending is beside the point. The political importance of the contributions to the EU are clearly far more important than the money, as the aftermath has shown. 

In the US, the student loan scandal -- in which the government earns a profit off student loan interest -- shows this conceptual mistake in all its glory. Running the government as a business has led our politicians to make a decision to exploit its citizens, not through a tax (the government's proper way of raising money) but through the banking system. State lotteries are another business-like way of levying regressive taxes under the guise of business, turning storefronts into de facto tax collectors.

Candidate Trump also reflects this confusion. A businessman with no experience in civil service, very little experience in politics (and most of it apparently not having left a mark), and no military experience is doing well in the run up to the election. His demagoguery aside, he is running as a businessman. This shows that the confusion between government and business has been sufficiently smudged as to be meaningless to a wide swath of voters. 

It's odd particularly because businesses have historically been much more volatile than governments. They take more risks, and often lose. But perhaps they've also been much better at escaping accountability. When the US automakers needed to be bailed out after the banks needed to be bailed out, the US government was the steady hand on the rudder of the economy -- the politicians provided the firebreak that kept the whole house from burning to the ground. Yet, sane, steady political leadership is vulnerable to an insurgency from a businessman candidate of such questionable acumen and judgement that he is regularly regarded as a con man.

Governments are not businesses. Running them as businesses leaves a political gap, and certain important political work undone. Let businesses be businesses, and please, governments, get back to governing.