When Did Government Become a Business?

When did government become a business? I keep hearing government called a business, and business terms like “efficiency” creeps into the lexicon here among progressive Washington folk. Sorry, government is not a business any more than the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, or a public high school. Yes, they have some things in common, but so what? Governments do not even meet the most basic definition of a business. From Wikipedia:

A business is a legally recognized organization designed to provide goods and/or services to consumers. Businesses are predominant in capitalist economies, most being privately owned and formed to earn profit that will increase the wealth of its owners and grow the business itself. The owners and operators of a business have as one of their main objectives the receipt or generation of a financial return in exchange for work and acceptance of risk…The etymology of “business” relates to the state of being busy either as an individual or society as a whole, doing commercially viable and profitable work.

Besides the fact that governments generally don’t have customers and aren’t designed to compete within a market sector and usually don’t generate a profit, there’s a bigger problem with applying terms like “efficiency” to government. Governments are purposely designed to be inefficient! Do you really think that the whole checks-and-balances idea was done in the interest of efficiency? That the way the Senate operates is done in the interest of efficiency?

One of the smartest things I heard after I moved to Washington, DC was from a senior person at the Library of Congress. She asked the room, “How many of you think Congress is designed to pass laws?” Everybody raised their hand. She said, “Wrong. Congress is designed to not pass bad laws.”

Congress is inefficient for a reason, and to some degree all parts of government are. For all the complaining about gigantic, evil corporations not caring about their customers or the public at large, and in the middle of a recession in which greedy businesspeople nearly destroyed a global financial system, I can’t imagine why anyone would be eager to associate the word “business” with government. The government has enough issues, thanks.

Posted via email from Mark’s Cheeky Posterous

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This post was written by:

Mark Drapeau - who has written 225 posts on Dr. Mark D. Drapeau.

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7 Comments For This Post

  1. Ari Herzog Says:

    Fair points, Mark, but I’ll argue government — at least state and local government — should strive to emulate corporations from the perspective of operations and management. Take human resources, for instance; when communities lack cohesive HR departments but rely on piecemeal approaches using employees in different departments for personnel decisions, that’s something business 101 wouldn’t allow.

  2. Mark Drapeau Says:

    Yes Ari, but so what? That’s like saying that some parts of the fire department should be run like the U.S. Army. Maybe true, but that doesn’t mean you’d say “the fire department should be more like the Army” – that’s a leap too far.

  3. Ari Herzog Says:

    Fire Department? Army?

    You wrote about government and business, as did I. Not individual departments.

  4. Mark Drapeau Says:

    You wrote about operations and management, human resources. Those are departments. I was writing about the notion of people calling the government a “business” which it’s not.

  5. Ari Herzog Says:

    Government should be run like a business to improve the efficiency you alluded above. Government should not be a business.

  6. Erik Jonker Says:

    I totally agree with Mark, also in Europe it’s an often overlooked point. This does not mean that government should not try to operate as efficient and effectively as possible. But that’s not the same as “running like a business” , that Ari mentioned. Even that is not the case in my view, simply because government operations have additional perspectives/values which are not necessarily present in a corporate context.

  7. Mark Drapeau Says:

    Thanks for the comments Erik, nice to get a European perspective on this.

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