Preamble: I was on a forum for an online game which has just had some substantial upcoming changes announced. Someone who disapproved said that the changes were just to make it easier for the developers to maintain and adjust things regularly in the future, which is harder under the current system, and protested: “But isn’t that your job?”
And I thought: no, it isn’t their job. They’re a private company. Their job is whatever they say it is. We’re their customers, not their employers. Employers get to decide that employees’ jobs are, and if both employers and employees choose well, customers keep them afloat. These are three completely distinct roles.
And suddenly I found myself thinking about government, and the thought occurred to me: when someone says they want to ‘run government like a business’ – well, I’m an economist, and there are all sorts of fiscal and financial reasons why that’s a suboptimal move, but it’s also an interesting psychological stance. US government has its famed ‘by the people, of the people, for the people’ credo; Canadian government is more or less expected to be the same thing but we lack a lot of that founding mythology that our southern neighbours specialise in. (Canadians in court have been known to try to plead the Fifth Amendment. Le sigh.) The point is, government is supposed to be something we do for ourselves and with each other.
Businesses aren’t like that – businesses have employers, employees, and customers. If a government is run like a business, who fits into those roles? Presumably civilians are the customers, receiving government support and keeping or not keeping the current government afloat; civil servants are the employees doing the work on the ground; elected officials are the employers? But a customer doesn’t get to choose employers. Shareholders do, in publicly-traded companies, but shareholders are a much smaller set than customers.
A customer takes what they can get, does what they can with it, and goes to a different store next time if they’re completely dissatisfied, but the idea of trying to bring down the regional manager rarely comes up. A shareholder, on the other hand, is powerful. It’s part of our zeitgeist now, that executives care so much about pleasing shareholders that they’ll do ridiculous things with serious long-term consequences (firing vast swathes of their workers) for the momentary boost of shareholder approval. Every share is equally valued, but some individuals have more shares than others.
Writing all of this out, I think most elected officials would be terrified if government were actually more run like a business, because in that model, you can’t afford to have the approval of only half your shareholders. That’s the sort of thing that leads to total ruinous collapse of the business*. What we have right now is each party (both in Canada and the US) treating their ideological base as shareholders and every other base as customers – as long as they serve the immediate desires of those few, everyone else can just chew on it**. It’s even more exacerbated in Canada, of course, since we have minority governments (governments led by the party that got the most votes, but still received less than half of the total votes – we had a series of those).
So to recap the convoluted metaphor: our gover’biz has employers (elected officials), employees (civil servants), major and minor shareholders (the party base that shares their ideology) and customers (the rest of the population). I distinguish between major and minor shareholders in order to distinguish between voters who clearly benefit from the successes of a party (e.g., corporations getting tax cuts from neoliberals) and those who may think they benefit but are actually still kind of marginalised and downtrodden (e.g., religious folks who support the most superficially religious party even though it is economically devastating even to themselves).
I’m not sure where this ends up. In reality, it’s a lot easier to switch stores than it is to switch governments or move countries. In reality, it’s possible to be a shareholder in more than one company – even in competing companies. What I do know is that every time I’ve heard someone say they want to run a government like a business, I’ve been 100% sure that they wanted everyone listening to think of themselves as customers, because when customers aren’t shareholders, that just leaves even more shares for those who already have them.
*Mind you, depending on your country and your economic situation, you might feel that we’re heading into ever-greater depths of total ruinous collapse, so maybe the metaphor works better than I thought.
**Obama may be the exception here, as he seems to frequently ignore his shareholders in his attempts to draw in customers to become shareholders. The problem being that his customers hate him and everything he will ever do. He still needs to be elected next time, but mostly because every other option is absolutely devastatingly awful, not because he personally is just that awesome. (Campaign slogan: “Not as much of a disappointment as I could have been.”)