By Michael LaBossiere
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.