Monday, December 19, 2016

Drag Racing the Prius: Government, Business, and the Dangers of Bad Metaphors

I think I'll take my Prius drag racing.

It makes perfect sense, right? After all, a Prius is just like those cars you see tearing down the track at drag races. It has four wheels, each with an inflated rubber tire. It has an engine powered by oil-based fuel. It's got a seat for a driver, with a steering wheel. It's got a transmission system, and a bunch of electrical support stuff. I mean, they're practically the same thing.

Of course, this is crazy. A Prius, despite some superficial similarities, is not a drag racer. Attempting to run mine on a drag strip is likely to fail, and cause a fair amount of damage in the process. A drag racer is built for speed. A Prius (unless you heavily modify it!) is built for gas mileage.

Along similar lines, why do so many people insist on arguing that "government should be run like a business"?

This is a popular metaphor, resurrected recently as a rationale for supporting Donald Trump for President. If the government should be run like a business, who better to run it than a successful businessman who is busy stocking his cabinet with other successful businessmen?

(I will leave aside the question of whether Trump is actually successful or not. For my purposes, whether he's a good businessman or a bad one is irrelevant.)

Businesses and governments do share some things superficially in common. What most people are thinking of when they use this comparison is that both have budgets. Businesses have revenues and expenses, and so do governments. Government at the national level tends to run a fairly serious deficit, which is seen in many conservative quarters as a bad thing. Businesses, or so it is claimed, can't run structural deficits for long or they go out of business. Hence, the argument that governments should be run like businesses.

(It should be noted that lots of other things have budgets, too - churches, households, stray pet shelters, homeowners associations. No one ever says we should run government like a church.)

There are a few other points of similarity - businesses and governments both have rules and authority structures, both are to some degree hierarchical, and both are made up of people who fill particular roles within the larger organization. These are minor matters, a little like saying that a Prius and a drag racer both have spark plugs.

The fact that "business" and "government" both belong to the broader category called "human organization" tells you very little about how to run the latter. The differences between them are far more important than the similarities. And like the comparison between Prius and drag racer, what is most important is the purpose for which each was built.

A business is an organization designed to produce some product or service for the wider world, usually (though not always) at a profit. A business creates what it creates. It is primarily concerned with two groups of people: the owners (who control the business, and in whose interest it presumably operates) and the customers. A business can define its own customer base, to a substantial degree, and doesn't need to concern itself with anybody else in society. Businesses don't even have to be all that concerned about their employees, except as these are necessary to produce the product or service.

Governments look nothing like this. They are not meant to operate at a profit, and those that do are generally regarded as corrupt and illegitimate. Governments do not produce individual goods or services, but provide public goods to a broad group of people known as citizens. Except at the margins, governments have very little ability to define who they serve, and governments that decide to serve only one segment of the population usually find themselves losing legitimacy. Legitimate governments can't pick their "customer base".

We can perhaps lay this confusion at the feet of Calvin Coolidge, who famously said, "the chief business of the American people is business." By this he meant that most individual Americans are chiefly concerned with making a living for themselves. In this, he was at least partially right.

But the chief purpose of the government is not to be a business, but to provide a safe, secure, and fair environment in which everybody can pursue their own individual business. If businesses are like sports teams competing, government is like the referee enforcing the rules of the game.

Ultimately, the purpose of a business is to advance the interests of its owners, usually a small group of people. The purpose of a government is to advance the interests of everybody. A business is partial to itself. A good government is impartial towards all.

In this sense, being a successful businessman makes one little more qualified to run a government than being a successful gymnast, or race car driver, or neurosurgeon. These are all completely different human endeavors requiring different skill sets. They may overlap in some ways (success everywhere requires determined effort and the ability to learn and adapt, for example), but the goals and purposes of each are radically different.

So let's stop talking about how government should be run like a business. I don't want my government run like a business (Verizon customer service, anyone?) I want it run like a government, with the interests of all of its people in mind.

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