The Difference Between Business and Government

In California, two women who have risen to the top ranks of the business world have positioned themselves for entry into the top ranks of government as well, as California's governor and one of its two United States Senators. Another has positioned herself to become a United States Senator from Connecticut.

All three -- Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California and Linda McMahon in Connecticut -- still face large hurdles in November's general elections, but they are serious candidates with reasonable prospects. And all three have based their campaigns on a common attribute. No, not the fact that they are women -- after all, Connecticut has a woman governor and both of California's current U.S. Senators are women. What Fiorina, Whitman, and McMahon all tout as the credential that proves their superior qualification for high office is the fact that all three are highly successful in ... business.

I have no serious problem with any of the three: in California, in particular, the women, Fiorina and Whitman, face Democratic candidates (Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown) whose loss would do no great harm to the nation. I do have a problem, however, with the continued promotion of business success as a qualifier for public office. Success in the market is not an automatic disqualifier for public service, but it is a far different undertaking with different purposes and different values. And to suggest that government needs people experienced in business reminds me of the old feminist saw that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. In fact, business and government -- while there may be skills involved that are translatable and useful as one moves from one sphere to another -- are in some ways polar opposite undertakings.

The business of business is business and the goal of business is to earn a profit in the provision of goods and services. The business of government is service -- well managed, one hopes, and not wasteful, but never at a profit. There is no such thing as government money. Governments have no money; they have only what they take from their citizens, either in taxes or by inflation. And if government accrues profit it can only have done so by taxing too much or eroding the value of the citizens' income and savings -- in either case doing harm, not good, to the people who have created it for the advantages such a common effort is presumed to bestow.

Businesses seek maximum efficiency; governments seek sufficient efficiency. We might well save a considerable amount of money by delegating our national security to mercenary armies drawn from other countries (as opposed to keeping a high-cost standing army and paying U.S. wages to private combat zone contractors), thus erasing the need to maintain a perpetual and costly military infrastructure. We could assign the processing of Social Security checks and welfare payments to low-wage workers in Madras or Oaxaca. State governments could close welfare offices and require that all transactions with government be conducted electronically, with no recourse to potentially sympathetic human beings. These are choices governments make reluctantly and businesses make routinely.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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