One of the more popular clichés in politics—especially among conservatives—is promising to run government as a business. The logic goes something like this: since government is so unwieldy and inefficient, only someone with a business background can get it back to working order.
Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina have each made the case that business experience gives them a unique advantage over their competitors in reforming government. President George W. Bush, the nation’s first president with a MBA, famously gave himself the CEO-like moniker “the decider.”
Hardly anyone would dispute the idea that business experience is useful in government—especially given the bloated bureaucracy we have today. Imagine the popularity of a president who would appoint successful CEOs to clean up massive agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or Environmental Protection Agency.
But taken too far, the government-as-business analogy miseducates Americans on how their government is supposed to work. However much efficiency should be prized in certain areas, the government is ultimately not a business and cannot be run as one.
The Founders’ View of Government
In Federalist 9, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Constitution benefits from “a great improvement” in the “science of politics” since the early republics of Greece and Italy. These improvements include the separation of powers, legislative checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and other “auxiliary precautions.”
Far from promoting inefficiency and “gridlock,” as liberals like to claim, these important pieces of constitutional architecture have a two-fold purpose: to prevent tyranny and to promote good government.
The possibility of tyranny is ever-present because of man’s nature. As Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 6, man is “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” This is why James Madison stated in Federalist 47 that the “accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
In addition to preventing tyranny, the Founders were also concerned with promoting what Hamilton called in Federalist 71 “the fundamental principles of good government.” Good government features deliberation in the legislature, energy and unity in the executive, and a judiciary that decides cases and controversies that come before them.
Good government also requires that the execution, or administration, of the law must be efficient. Therefore the Constitution carefully cabins efficiency solely to the executive branch, whose officers are accountable to the people through the forms established by the Constitution.
The dual purpose of government—preventing tyranny and promoting good government—becomes apparent when considering the president’s veto power. The executive’s check on the legislature stops ill-considered laws from passing. The veto allows more time for argument and debate in Congress so better laws will result.
In the Founders’ view, constitutional barriers were necessary to reconcile stability and energy in government with the liberties of citizens—not for efficiency.
The Progressive View of Government
In contrast, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives sought to overturn the constitutional framework the Founders put in place. While they thought it was reasonable for the Founders to be concerned with staving off tyranny from a central government in their time, that world was dead and gone. The government now needed nearly unlimited power to keep up with the ever-evolving demands of a modern industrial society.
As Wilson once wrote, “Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand.” For example, limits needed to be put on what private citizens could do with their property through increased zoning regulations. A watchful eye needed to be kept on financial titans to make sure they weren’t putting private gain ahead of the national interest.
Since Progressives favored government action as a rule, efficiency needed to replace inefficiency as the mechanism by which the government would operate. Toward this end, they consciously looked to apply the business model to government. In a lengthy essay on public administration, Wilson argued that public officials should strive to make the government “less unbusinesslike.”
James Landis, a New Deal liberal, clarified Wilson’s remark by giving concrete examples in his book, “The Administrative Process.” He described Congress’ granting the Interstate Commerce Commission more control over railroads as “powers conferred upon the executive committee of a board of directors.” Like a board of directors, the commission holds authority to write policies “directed toward broad and imaginative ends, conceived in terms of management rather than of police.”
The Progressives’ obsession with making government more business-like extended to city governments. Since they thought city governments had become too complex for the average politician to manage, professional, non-partisan city administrators needed to take the reins. Elected offices would diminish as power became centralized in fewer hands.
At all levels of government, Progressives reduced government by consent for administration by so-called neutral experts, with a view for increasing efficiency. The central focus of government shifted to how policies are administered rather than if those policies are compatible with either state or U.S. constitutions as written.
To extend the business metaphor further, Progressives tended to view Americans more as employees of the state rather than free individuals capable of self-government.
Business Rhetoric and Modern Liberalism
In contrast with their intellectual forbearers, modern liberals don’t typically have anything good to say about business. But the government-as-business model is implicit in the very way they talk about the role of government.
One cannot go long—especially in the nation’s capital—without hearing assertions that the chief purpose of government is to “get things done.” President Obama has declared that Congress’s refusal to pass every part of his agenda is beyond the bounds of ordinary politics. But there is no Congress-shall-not-stop-passing-laws clause in Article I.
Running government wholly like a business fuels progressive ends because it rejects the necessary work of compromise, give-and-take, and logrolling in favor of action simply. It rejects politics itself in favor of micromanaging virtually every aspect of our lives without our consent.
Moreover, the Left’s obsession with having the national government manage the nation rejects federalism. The Founders left most political questions to be decided on the state level rather than on the national level, where it is much more difficult to forge a consensus.
Instead of putting too much focus on the latest business management philosophy, conservatives would do well to go back to the basics of government of, by, and for the people.