Why Government Is Not A Business

There’s more than enough information on the Internet right now about the havoc being inflicted on the United States by President Donald Trump and his associates. However, there are two perspectives on this craziness that I want to bring to your attention.

Some commenters have said they are not surprised at Trump’s behaviour in his new job because he’s “acting like a businessman”. In other words, he’s doing what the new CEO of any new business would do: setting up new procedures, changing things that need changing, and bringing in staff that he feels comfortable working with. Leaving aside the fact that Trump is a much less successful businessman than he pretends to be, this situation is a very sad commentary on what we consider acceptable behaviour in the world of business. The reasoning that his behaviour is “like a businessman” is also insulting to the business owners and operators who try to be fair and ethical in their operations, and who try to be respectful in their interactions.

The most productive way for a new leader to proceed, as described by management experts who were asked to evaluate Trump’s performance , is to take a look at how the organization operates, ensure that you are receiving reliable information, listen to diverse viewpoints, and only then decide what action to take. It’s not that new perspectives and new ideas shouldn’t be implemented, as any organization likely has areas or functions that could be improved. But for those changes to be accepted, and for them to have the desired effects, they have to be reasonable and they have to make sense.  Neither of those considerations seem to be getting much attention in the Trump administration.

Additionally, Trump has no previous experience whatsoever as an elected official at any level of government. So becoming familiar with the complex system he is now part of should be an important priority. There may be good reasons why things are the way they are. As an outsider, assuming that everything is wrong and then moving too quickly to change it – especially without being perceived to have listened to more than one perspective – is an extremely risky strategy.

But the conflicts around Trump’s behaviour also point to another, more fundamental issue: the important differences between how governments operate and how businesses operate. There is an assumption among some policy-makers and politicians that governments, and the public sector, are inherently inefficient because they have no competition. Thus, the argument goes, there is no incentive for government to operate cost-effectively or productively, because there is no threat of being replaced or of failure. This means that the principles of business operations should be applied to government’s  operations, to counteract this inherent inefficiency.

(credit: flickr)

(credit: flickr)

(credit: wikimedia)

(credit: wikimedia





The opposite position is that the profit-generating model is not appropriate for governments, whose main purpose should be to provide and fund services for taxpayers– because the private sector is not interested in ventures that do not produce a profit, and its models of operation prioritize profit generation over all other outcomes. Thus,  governments should be responsible for providing services – such as education, environmental protection, or disaster relief – that cannot or should not be assessed on the basic of their profitability. The experience with P3s (public-private partnerships) in many regions shows the downfalls of applying a profit-based model to publicly-funded services.

The week after Trump took office, six long-serving officers in the US State Department were fired without notice. One of them, Todd Countryman, had 35 years of experience in government, and had some important things to say at his retirement ceremony about why governments should not be operated as businesses. You can read the full text of his remarks here, but this is the part that I found particularly meaningful.

If we wall ourselves off from the world, we will extinguish Liberty’s projection, as surely as if, as the Gospel says, we hid our lamp under a bushel basket. If we do not respect other nations and their citizens, we cannot demand respect for our citizens. If our public statements become indistinguishable from disinformation and propaganda, we will lose our credibility. If we choose to play our cards that way, we will lose that game to the masters in Moscow. If our interaction with other countries is only a business transaction, rather than a partnership with Allies and friends, we will lose that game too. China practically invented transactional diplomacy, and if we choose to play their game, Beijing will run the table.

Business made America great, as it always has been, and business leaders are among our most important partners. But let’s be clear, despite the similarities. A dog is not a cat. Baseball is not football. And diplomacy is not a business. Human rights are not a business. And democracy is, most assuredly, not a business.

Each of us came to this work with our identities – more or less – fully formed, and have preserved our values – with greater or lesser success – against the professional deformation caused by any bureaucracy. Just for myself, I came here with my identity framed: as a Christian, as an Eagle Scout, as a taxpayer. These didn’t require me to go into the State Department, but they define my obligations as a citizen: to spend tax dollars wisely; to look out for the best interests of the US and its people; to share the best of America with the world; and to be not only optimistic, but also – to use a word so suddenly fallen from favor – altruistic. I line up with Steven Pinker. In his book, “The Better Angels of our Nature,” he describes the ‘escalator of reason’: “…an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs.”

That is HOW we do it.

“…an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs.”

That’s the very definition of the work I’ve been privileged to do, that I will pursue now in different clothes, and that I leave to you.

There are many potential outcomes that could result from the Trump presidency. Although at the moment this is a relatively small concern, compared to the profound impact that Trump’s actions are causing for some people, I hope that one outcome might be an end to the fetishization of “business”, and to the assumption that doing things like a “business” is the only way to run an organization.


  1. The aspect I find most worrying is how so many Americans were beguiled into voting for him. Mere sanity should have prevented this outcome. I am inclined to think that it was by default. That is, Hilary Clinton was not attractive enough to some Democrats for them the vote at all. The alternative, that Trump won by merit in the eyes of American voters, is unthinkable.

    Thankfully he would not have won but for the collegiate system. Even so, it would have been too close for comfort.

    I believe I am right in thinking that such protest against a newly elected US president is unprecedented. Perhaps it will cause some contemplation among his electors.

  2. You are absolutely right. Healthcare, diplomacy, labor practices etc etc cannot be run as profit yielding departments of some business outfit. No branch of the government should be judged or run balance sheet in hand. This is scary and mystifying and defies imagination or predictions.

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