Rod Miller: Should Government Really Operate More Like A Business?

Columnist Rod Miller writes, "How many times have you heard someone say in frustration, government should operate more like a business. That’s like saying that if a saw isn’t cutting the way you want, use a hammer."

Rod Miller

March 08, 20244 min read

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How many times have you heard someone say in frustration, “Government should operate more like a business.” 

That’s like saying that if a saw isn’t cutting the way you want, use a hammer. Not all tools work the same way.

Both government and business are tools invented by humans to make life easier for us on an unforgiving planet. They keep us from killing each other to get something to eat or a place to live.

The business tool helps us trade in the marketplace. It makes sense of the competition for finite goods and services, and it sets up rules for exchange like “willing buyer/willing seller”, “fair market price” and “arms-length transaction” that hold true whether on Wall Street or a garage sale in your driveway. 

Government is the tool we use to organize our lives in society. It allows us to do collectively the things we can’t get done as individuals. Government is the reason that you aren’t responsible for paving the street in front of your house by yourself. It's why you don’t need to drill a well in your own backyard for a drink of water.

Left to operate as they were intended, these tools are efficient (for the most part), predictable (usually) and recognizable in the spheres of human life assigned to them. Without them, things would get chaotic, grim and dangerous pronto.

Business was established to promote competition, and government was established to promote cooperation. They are safe when kept separated, but when we mix them together, the result blows up in our faces.

For instance, those who advocate for government to behave like business perhaps operate under the illusion that business is always benign. They have sugarplum visions of a friendly mom & pop corner store where kids are patted on the head and get a free piece of candy. Illusions like that are very risky.

Folks who think like that forget that competition in business leaves corpses strewn across the landscape. Those who favor competition over cooperation neglect that competition is often messy and deadly.

Does anyone really want our government to function like corporate raiders in the go-go Reagan economy of the 1980s? 

Back then, American titans of industry like T. Boone Pickens, Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken harnessed greed to destroy businesses. The bought corporations using money from junk bonds then proceeded to dismantle those entities and sell off the parts. 

They made vast fortunes for themselves and shareholders, but left the gutted hulls of their target corporations in their wake.

Sure, the marketplace rewarded their cutthroat tactics and the only downside was a few unlucky players went to prison for various infractions of securities laws. But money was made hand over fist, and Gordon Gecko got to proclaim in the movie Wall Street that, “Greed is good!”

Ask yourselves, friends and neighbors, is that the model that you want to use for your government? If not, then look askance at any politician who tells you that government should operate more like business. 

When you see politicians attempt to starve our public institutions in order for those institutions to be broken up and the parts auctioned off to the highest bidder for private gain, remember Boone Pickens.

Be just as wary of any government that wants to enrich itself by behaving as a capitalist, that wants to own the means of private production in the U.S., because that government is just as dangerous.

In the final analysis, our best course is to keep government and business distinctly separate in our civic lives, just like we do for church and state. Pick the right tool for the job.

Rod Miller can be reached at:

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Rod Miller

Political Columnist