A Philosopher's Blog

Making Government Like a Business: Skills & Methods

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2017
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President Trump assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner to head up the effort to make the federal government more like a business. Trump has already been a leader in this effort by engaging in the same sort of nepotism that occurs in business. While it is certainly tempting to dismiss this appointment as more nepotism, it is worth considering whether government should be more like a business.

The idea that government should be more like a business is certainly appealing to those who education, experience and values relate to business. It is natural for people to see the world through the lens of their experiences and education. It is also natural to want to apply the methods that one is most familiar with to as many areas as possible. For example, my education is in philosophy and I have extensive experience in critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning. As such, I tend to see the world through the philosophical lens and I want to apply critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning whenever I can. Likewise, those who are educated and experienced in business see the world through the business lens and wish to broadly apply their business skills and methods.

A reasonable case can be made as to why this business focused approach has some merit. One way to argue for this is to point out that many skills that are developed in the context of business can be applied to government. For example, negotiating and deal making skills can be applied to politics—although there are certainly differences between the specifics of each area. As another example, business leadership and management skills can also be applied in government, although there are clearly relevant differences between the two areas. It would thus be a mistake to claim that government is nothing like a business. That said, those enamored of business often make mistakes in their zeal to “businessform” government (that is, transform it into business).

One basic mistake is to think that just because there are positive qualities of business that are also positive qualities of government, making government more like a business will bring about those positive qualities. Obviously enough, making one thing more like another only results in positive qualities if they are made alike in those positive ways. Merely making them alike in other ways does not do this. To use an analogy, dressing like a runner makes one like a runner, but this does not confer the health benefits of running.

There is also the fact that although things that have similar positive qualities are thus similar, it does not follow that they are thus otherwise alike in relevant ways. For example, efficiency is a positive quality of business and government, but merely making government like business need not make it more efficient. There are, after all, business that are very inefficient.

Also, the fact that efficiency can be a positive quality of both business and government does not entail they are thus alike in other ways or that the way business is made more efficient is the way to make government more efficient. To illustrate, a business might be very efficient at exploiting customers and workers while enriching the stockholders, but that is presumably not the sort of efficiency one would aim for in government.

Avoiding this mistake involves resisting the mythology and fetishizing of “businessifictaion” and giving due consideration to which skills, methods and approaches transfer well from business to government and which do not.

A second basic mistake is similar to that made by Ion in Plato’s dialogue Ion. The rhapsode Ion believes, at the start of the dialogue, that poets have knowledge and mastery about almost everything. His reasoning is that because poets write about, for example military matters, they have an expertise in military matters. As such, poets should be able to teach people about these matters and serve as leaders in all these areas.

Socrates, as would be expected, shows that the poets (as poets) do not have such knowledge. The gist of his argument is that each area is mastered by mastering the subject of that area and all these areas “belong” to others and not to the poets. For example, knowledge of waging war belongs to soldiers. The poets touch but lightly on these other areas and understand only the appearances and not the depth. Socrates does note that a person can have multiple domains of mastery, so a medical doctor could, for example, also be skilled at mathematics or art history.

The error in the case of business is to think that because there are many types of business and almost everything has some connection to business, then an alleged mastery of business confers mastery over all these things. However, business skills are rather distinct from the skills that are specific to the various types of businesses. To illustrate, while a manager might believe that their managing skills are universal, managing a software company does not confer software skills nor does managing a hospital confer medical skills. One might pick up skills and knowledge, but this would not be as a businessperson. After all, while a business person might be a runner, that does not make running a business. The fact that there are businesses associated with running, such as Nike, does not entail that skill in business thus confers skill in running. As such, for someone to think that business skills thus confer mastery over government would be a mistake. They might believe that they have such mastery because government interacts with business and some businesses do things like what government does, but they would be as mistaken as someone who thinks that because they manage a Nike outlet they are thus an athlete.

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  1. khaosweb said, on March 29, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    Hello! I love your blog. I’m newly interested in philosophy, particularly political philosophy, and I have been an avid reader of American news since 2002 (I’m Canadian). I particularly like your style of applying philosophy to the issues of the day, without getting too technical. I’m trying to get through Rawls’ A Theory of Justice right now, so I find your clear, straightforward style so much easier to grasp. I’m also a former journalist, so I have been conditioned to appreciate clarity and a minimum of tangents.

    I think there needs to be a distinction between legislators and administrators. Legislators, as the common argument goes, are not the “doers.” They direct that roads, health care systems, etc, be built as policies. But it is left to administrators to implement the policy. I work for a municipality. The councillors do not direct how the road is to be built; the administrators (with engineering qualifications and knowledge of design standards and regulations, etc) do. They are tasked with building the road according to law, and it is presumed by the legislators, the public, and the administrators themselves that they are to complete the task efficiently (that is, with a minimum of waste). The common wisdom is that due to corruption, or lazy bureaucrats and unions, etc. that government is wasteful. My experience is that is not, but we all complain with phrases like “why is that what the government is doing?,” or “Why are they wasting money on that thing that is not one of my priorities?” which of course ignores concepts like multi-tasking and the common good.

    So being a councillor does not mean one is an road-builder, or taxation expert, etc. But I would say they are not expected to be – that is why governments have experts on staff. The skills that legislators require, I would argue, are more abstract – the ability to listen, to reason, to weight costs and benefits, to persuade, and to deliberate. As much as I hate Trump, Kushner, and their incompetence, I have to admit these qualities are compatible with businesspeople and business leaders. And that if by “run government more like a business” they mean “increase efficiency,” than as a general statement, this is not objectionable. The problem arises where due to (justified) public scrutiny and (justified) calls for transparency, government is more likely than business to “cover its ass” before making or implementing policies. This helps explain why governments study and poll at the cost of time and money, instead of just taking immediate action, which some people wanting government run more like a business want. Without due care and deliberation, governments are open to charges of hasty, uninformed decision-making.

    I agree with the common reply that government is not a business because it provides services, not goods as understood as products like cars or TVs. Some of those goods are what I understand philosophers to term public goods – like national defence or clean air. There are going to be free-riders. This problem is a lot harder to eliminate (or impossible) to eliminate than products like TV signals or cars. And this is OK.
    If government were to run like a business, in which expenses need at the very least to be recouped, this seems to rule out the provision of common goods. Swimming pools are a good example. No municipal swimming pool in Canada does better than 50-60% cost recovery. Pools are just too expensive to run. To recoup the full cost, pools would have to charge users at least twice as much as they commonly do. A private pool would of course be free to do this. A public pool? No, because questions of exclusivity would arise – a pool that is too expensive to use excludes those of lesser means. Our accepted conception of government (at least in Canada) is that services are as accessible as possible to all. That’s why our health care system, while far from perfect, at least in theory, cares for all regardless of employment status or wealth. Childless adults pay for public school; people who don’t drive finance highways. Most Western democracies have accepted that charging for services in order to account for their true cost (or to generate a profit) in not “fair.” We’ve already answered the question of whether we want government run as a business, and it’s no.

    Finally, one of my pet peeves is the argument that a government is incompetent/illegitmate/stupid/worthy of treason charges because of debt (see Alberta premier Rachel Notley or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau). I agree unsustainable interest payments are a problem, but I disagree that debt is in itself a public evil. People want services and infrastructure now, not 60 years down the road. That’s why we have mortgages. We don’t want to save and buy a house when we are 60 or 70; we want it now, and so we finance it through debt. Why should people expect that government would act differently? Are we willing to forego a new hospital or highway until the government has saved enough for it? What if that means I’ll be dead before it is built? What if another, more pressing priority comes up in the meantime? Having said that, savings through reserve funds is a prudent idea. We know we will have to replace or repair our cars; governments know they have to repair and replace our infrastructure.

    The role of government is not to feed quarters into the status quo machine. It is to provide for the common good. Just maintaining the staus quo, actually, could even be seen as regression.

    Thanks for reading. As you can see, I’m still working on my ability to craft arguments. Sarcastic op-eds are my forte; making arguments clear and without fallacies is a different challenge.

  2. TJB said, on March 29, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Principle of charity

    In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.[1] In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies or falsehoods to the others’ statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available. According to Simon Blackburn[2] “it constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject’s sayings.”


    • WTP said, on March 30, 2017 at 9:47 pm

      Again TJ, it’s Groundhog Day.

      • TJB said, on April 2, 2017 at 10:02 am

        I won’t argue. It has been Groundhog Day for a while now.

        I wonder what Magus is up to?

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