Messaging to Win: Put “Running Government Like a Business” Out of Business
By Dan Proft
At the top of the list of fortune-cookie phrases that should be eliminated from the Republican Party’s messaging is, “Running government like a business.”
1. Government is not a business and never will be. It is not possible to run government like a profit-maximizing business. (See James Buchanan’s work on public choice theory that earned him a Nobel in Economics for a detailed account)
2. More importantly, people neither see themselves as numbers on a balance sheet nor do they want a government they perceive to be treating them as such. They see government as a non-profit provider of public goods not a business per se.
3. Illinois at present is a good example of “running government like a business” in a sense. Business is good for the proprietors of big government—the Royals in Springfield. Politicians who are viewed as “running government like a business” (often like a family business in Illinois) are not generally seen in positive light, are they? That phrase is just as often used to describe politicians who enrich themselves at the public’s expense as it is to describe those proposing to operate government more efficiently. This should be instructive as to why the phrase has limited currency (in addition to its overuse).
4. To the extent the trite phrase of “running government like a business” is a proxy for applying business principles in service to others, that description needs to be made explicit and the specific principles to be applied must be articulated along with an explanation of how the application will occur and what particular benefits non-politicians can expect from their precise application.
Candidates who trot out this surface-skimming cliché do more than fail to provide value. They stunt their ability and correspondingly their party’s ability to move into their camp those centrist voters who do not want their money squandered but who do want the government to effectively deliver public goods.
It is necessary to have a debate about just what is included in the phrase “public goods” as well as how those agreed-upon public goods should be provided. But where there is agreement on the provision of a public good—e.g. police protection, state services for individuals with developmental disabilities who need state services through no fault of their own, etc.—the extent to which the GOP offers messages that are human-being centered rather than green-eyeshades intensive is the extent to which the GOP can build a lasting center-right governing coalition.
In Illinois, if the GOP wants out of the super-minority, put the phrase “running government like a business” out of business and focus on delineating how free-market policy prescriptions best advance our shared values of caring about our fellow man and caring for our fellow man.