Politics & Policy

Don’t Run a Government Like a Business

Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2017. (Ruben Sprich/Reuters)
The line connecting Donald Trump with Marc Benioff

One enduring thing of value that ought to come out of the Trump administration — ought, but apparently won’t — would be to finally drive a stake into the heart of these deathless twin superstitions: that the skills and talents that enable success in a particular kind of business are infinitely transferable to other profit-seeking and nonprofit enterprises alike, and that the formula for success in governing a democratic republic is to “run the country like a business.”

Our political lexicon does not have a precise term for this theory of benevolent plutarchy.

Call it CEO-cracy.

Ceocracy is mostly a stupid rhetorical tic. No one, including successful businessman-politicians such as former Florida governor Rick Scott (who has a real weakness for that kind of rhetoric) actually tries to run a government as though it were a business — because that’s nuts. Rick Scott didn’t run Florida’s government like he was a CEO — he ran it like he was Rick Perry.

Businesses measure their success in profit. Governments don’t. Businesses offer products and services in exchange for money in voluntary transactions. Governments don’t. Businesses that fail go bankrupt and are disbanded (except for politically sensitive banks, automobile companies, steel producers, farmers . . .) while failed governments keep right on misgoverning in the city and state of New York, in Illinois, in New Jersey, in California, in Connecticut, in the District of Columbia, in Austin, and abroad. Businesses have customers. Governments don’t. Those who profess their desire to “run government like a business” most often mean that they seek to achieve a higher degree of administrative excellence and bureaucratic accountability than Americans are used to seeing from their governments. But that isn’t running government like a business — that’s running government like . . . Swiss government.

American Airlines is a business, too. Does anybody take that dysfunctional organization as a metric of success?

Other people mean other things. Some of them conflate the bottom-line approach to business management with the need for fiscal responsibility in government. Jerry Falwell Jr., the craven political opportunist who somehow has managed to besmirch the name “Jerry Falwell,” said this about Donald Trump: “What earns him my support is his business acumen. Our country was so deep in debt and so mismanaged by career politicians that we needed someone who was not a career politician, but someone who’d been successful in business to run the country like a business.” Deep in debt, indeed: The United States has added nearly $1 trillion in public debt since Falwell spoke those words . . . ten months ago. Trump is running the country like a business — unfortunately, the business he is running it like is one of those debt-ridden casinos he mismanaged.

Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign may have been the apex of American ceocracy so far — keep an eye on Michael Bloomberg, though, along with Howard Schultz and a few others. Marc Benioff, the billionaire founder of Salesforce, has been testing the political waters for a while now, most recently with an Elizabeth Warren–esque indictment of capitalism in the New York Times in which he calls for a “new capitalism,” as though the collective economic behavior of human beings in the free world were something that a guy in an office somewhere could just reorganize after a couple of lunches with top-shelf consultants.

But ceocracy is an ancient American superstition. Donald Trump’s great stroke of political genius was running Ross Perot’s ceocratic 1992 independent campaign inside the Republican party rather than as a third-party alternative. Perot, too, promised to run the affairs of the country “like a business.”

In the Nineties, when the cult of the executive was riding high, both Republicans and Democrats made noises about attempting to recruit Microsoft founder Bill Gates as a presidential candidate. Gates, to his credit, preferred philanthropy with his own money to the excitement of bribing people with their own money and then acting as though he had done them a favor.

The self-professed American “nationalists” of our own daffy political moment echo those of an earlier generation who hoped to move Henry Ford into the White House. Ford was briefly a candidate, and his rhetoric foreshadowed Trump’s with occasionally startling exactness: He called himself “a builder” and boasted that he’d defend the “average man” against the corrupt elites in Washington.

But the country is not a vast assembly line, and neither is its government.

And, as it turns out, the war in Syria is only tangentially about real estate.

“Run the government like a business” means different things to different people. Donald Trump has one idea of it, Marc Benioff has another, and Michael Bloomberg no doubt has another still. American businessmen are not a philosophically homogeneous lot. And the best of them understand the severe limitation of the notion of running the government as though it were a business.

What this is really about is bureaucracy and its troubles.

Americans do not care much for bureaucracy, to the extent that the word bureaucracy itself functions as a pejorative. But an excellent bureaucracy is a wonder to behold. It was a first-rate bureaucracy that put a man on the moon and brought him back safely. Dwight Eisenhower was one of the outstanding bureaucrats of his generation, a man who did a long and dreary apprenticeship as an administrative functionary before being anointed “supreme commander.” Bureaucracy matters in the business world, too: Administrative excellence and not technological innovation is what distinguishes Amazon from its would-be competitors, whereas dealing with your health-insurance company or your mobile-phone provider is in most cases a lot like a trip to the department of motor vehicles.

Americans, with our heroic self-conception, valorize swashbuckling entrepreneurs, and we take that as our presumptive model of leadership. Satya Nadella is deeply admired within Microsoft, but he will never be the object of adoration that Bill Gates once was — and even if the Indian-born Nadella were eligible for the presidency, his is not a name to conjure with. Microsoft was a mature company when Nadella took over in 2014, and the value of the firm has more than trebled on his watch. That is a remarkable achievement, but not one that inspires the kind of hero-worship that accompanies larger-than-life founders and agonists on the model of Steve Jobs.

But if we are, for the sake of the example only, to take business as our template, then there would be much to recommend a Nadella-style presidency in which a going concern and market leader builds on its real strengths and enjoys remarkable growth and prosperity under management so intelligent and capable that nobody would ever even think of writing an epic poem about it.

There are many admirable figures in American business, and some of them no doubt would have much to offer American government, including at sub-presidential levels: Rex Tillerson did not have a very successful run as secretary of state, but he wasn’t obviously unsuited to the job, and his main problem seems to have been his inferior superiors. Republicans criminally underused Carly Fiorina. Bloomberg was a pretty good mayor, and New York City has suffered under less capable leadership. Mark Zuckerberg might make an excellent spy chief.

But the argument that a billionaire’s billions are a self-evident credential for national leadership is modern primitivism at its purest. It is a superstition that we would do well to leave behind.

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