What we are seeing play out in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump is a cautionary tale. Not just of a single man and his political ambitions, but of the toxicity of self-interested business practice and the ways in which it corrupts not just corporate America but American government as well.
There is a question deeply rooted in the heart of the Trump presidency that remains unanswered by the American people: Do we want government — whether federal, state or local — to be run like a business? It’s not just about whether we’re OK with a president who leverages public power for personal gain. It’s about whether we want a government that, like much of the shareholder-centered structure of our corporate market, systematically benefits few at the expense of many. Do we now believe that we are best governed by self-interest alone? Or do we still hope that we can govern together toward a shared vision of the good life — e plurbis unum — out of many, one?
The idea that government should be run like a business is relatively new — gaining steam in the 1990s — and has culminated in the decision of the American people to elect a corporate CEO to run its executive branch. It is one thing to adopt specific business practices that improve government accountability and efficiency. It is quite another to cause the wholesale adoption of the norms of business, shifting the very purpose of government away from broad public interest and toward self-interested motives.
Even if President Trump were the vision of civility and a temperate man, the symbolic value alone of this corporate presidency suggests a failure to recognize the major tensions that exist — and should exist — between our glorious free market and our stunningly elegant democratic republic. Economic market failure principles should prevent serious consideration of the idea that government and business should be convergent institutions. Markets can only operate efficiently under specific circumstances, and when those circumstances do not exist, they can cause seriously harmful and even perverse outcomes for people. Further, it is clear that certain types of goods cannot (cannot!) be fairly or efficiently distributed through market mechanisms.
Economic market failure principles should prevent serious consideration of the idea that government and business should be convergent institutions.
Do not mistake this observation as an anti-market sentiment. Quite to the contrary; efficient markets are one of the best possible distribution mechanisms for a vast majority of the goods we trade, and can be one of the most powerful drivers of human joy, health and well-being. Recent trends in the business world, such as the business roundtable statement on the purpose of a corporation, provide hope for the future of the free market as a continued force for good in the world.
But markets largely run on self-interested exchange, and are not yet accountable for the shared values we hold dear. Even in Milton Friedman’s famous essay on how “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” he makes room for the observation that government is by necessity separate from business, an upholder of the shared norms and values of an ethical society.
So stop telling government to run like a business. Look at where that has gotten us: The practice of “good business” in the White House has resulted in corrupt government. We don’t need government to run like a business. We don’t need get ahead strategies, off-the-books perquisites and “let’s make a deal” compromises. We need government to run the way it should: doing the long, slow, difficult work of building a nation that provides equal opportunity for all. Until business can adjust its own moral compass toward the greater good, government norms should remain distinctly and uniquely oriented to the due north of broad public benefit.
Eva Witesman is an associate professor at the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University.