Business as usual: The Republican myth
It seems to be a given, at least among Republicans, that a track record in business is a necessary background for someone aspiring to be president. Even Democrats seem to accept, albeit somewhat grudgingly, that the person occupying the Oval Office ideally should have some real business experience. In the current presidential race, Mitt Romney’s single greatest asset is his history as a high-powered businessman, something his handlers never seem to tire of pointing out.
While the Democrats take occasional exception with the narrative that the Republicans keep pushing – they point to Romney’s predatory business practices, or bring up executive blunders like his admonishment to let Detroit go bankrupt – what is missed in the overall analysis is the more subtle fact that the initial presumption is fundamentally flawed. Business expertise is not only virtually irrelevant to the job of president; it may well be an impediment. Romney, the pundits and media hacks keep reminding us, ran Bain Capital, a successful asset management firm; Romney’s campaign spokespeople and political flacks never let us forget how much money he earned for himself and for his company during his business career. What the flacks and hacks keep missing, though, is that government and business have different aims and purposes; in some cases those aims and purposes are opposite and mutually exclusive. At the core of these differences is the observation that I have repeatedly made regarding the two parties; the Republicans, the party of business have, as their priority, property rights. On the other hand, the Democrats tend to focus on human rights.
The purpose of a corporation is to make and maximise profits. Full stop. The purpose of government on the other hand is to enhance the lives of the governed through cooperation. An expert at realising a profit for a corporation is not ipso facto an expert at enhancing the lives of the people; in fact all one has to do is look at the Republican platform to see that Romney sees the improvement of people’s lives as something to be cut as an impediment to profits.
Romney and his radical Republican base see the ideal president as the one who cuts the greatest number of programmes, eliminates the most taxes, and oversees the reduction of government to as close to non-existent as is compatible with them keeping their place at the public trough. This, of course, is a pure business approach. A modern big business executive would streamline a business, eliminate frills like employee’s daycare, health benefits, and pension guarantees, and give enormous bonuses to the CEO, CFO, and their upper echelon colleagues. What is being missed, of course, is that government has an entirely different purpose and therefore an entirely different function.
Government was first established to do for groups of individuals that which the individuals could not effectively do for themselves. People got together and did, in concert, those things which were beyond the grasp of individuals; things like build infrastructure for the benefit of all, defend the group’s interests from outsiders, educate the young, etc. These things absolutely did not have a profit motive; in fact, attempting to make a profit from these group endeavours would compromise the effort. The profit associated with these endeavours is the practical benefit that accrues to the public and the body politic.
So while the Republicans insist on seeing government as the enemy and as a beast that needs to be wrestled to the ground and exterminated, the very purpose of government – cooperative achievement of the means to improve the lives of the people – is forgotten. It is indeed odd that career politicians see their lifelong employer as an enemy that needs to be destroyed. Even more ironic is that these enemies of government are fond of repeating the mantra that government doesn’t create jobs – presumably excepting theirs; and they do seem to forget The New Deal, as well as the enormous and sustained growth that resulted from Eisenhower’s infrastructure focus in the post WWII era…all direct results of government created jobs.
A prudent businessman seeks to streamline, to reduce the payroll. A prudent government seeks to maximise, not to minimise employment…diametrically opposite aims. Bringing a businessman’s cost-cutting, downsizing, and outsourcing strategies to government is a recipe for utter economic disaster; and that is the recipe proposed by Mitt Romney, the politician whose personal model was the corporate parasite Larry the Liquidator in Other People’s Money. Romney made hundreds of millions of dollars for himself by throwing people out of work; he made billions for his corporation by gobbling up and liquidating other corporations; despite the rhetoric, these are not skills useful in a chief executive of a nation.
There is something disconcerting about the notion of putting someone who deeply distrusts — even loathes and despises if he is to be believed — an institution in charge of that very institution. Romney’s stated mission is to reduce government and increase the influence of private enterprise in the lives of people. The Republicans insist that the use of government resources has the effect of making people dependent upon government and is antithetical to the principles of self-reliance they claim the country was founded upon. But a closer look at that concept will show that the frequently repeated suggestion that government services diminish personal responsibility is exactly the opposite of the reality.
When a government invests in public works, maintains a postal service, creates national parks, establishes a health-care system – all things that Republicans believe ought to be handled by private enterprise – it is an example of highly refined, even sublimely evolved self-reliance. To allow these services to be privatised would require people (and corporations, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, are not people) to rely on the humanity of corporations to maintain their quality, availability, and affordability. Much better that the people should do it for themselves, through a mechanism of cooperation, i.e. representative government. When a public service is instituted, it is an example of the people doing something for themselves in the recognition that cooperative effort results in an effective deployment of resources for the benefit of all, rather than for the profit of the few.
Probably the most ruggedly individualistic, self-reliant president the United States has ever had, Theodore Roosevelt, initially a Republican, then the head of his Bull Moose independent party, realised that private enterprise was not the appropriate vehicle for some important endeavours and that only cooperative efforts coordinated through government could achieve the desired ends. He was responsible for the establishment of national parks, national monuments, and the ongoing legacy of the National Parks Service; a public enterprise that today’s Republicans see as an unnecessary frill…a service that could be better provided by private enterprise. One shudders to think of what Devil’s Tower, Wyoming or Yellowstone National Park would look like if privatised (hotdogs steamed in Old Faithful, anyone?).
It is time for those who are swayed by the rhetoric of individualism parroted by Romney, Ryan, and their Tea Party masters actually to consider what a United States without government would be like. Would the nation actually be better if all those institutions that define civilisation were dismantled in anticipation of entrepreneurs popping up to fill the gaps? Without even discussing the benefits of President Barack Obama being re-elected, one can perceive the profound dangers of a half thought-out system like that proposed by the Republicans. It doesn’t take deep analysis to see that the stated policies of the challengers simply cannot be sustained in a country that wishes to be considered civilised. For those who would vote for a party that has vowed to destroy everything the US has achieved, one can only say, “Be careful of what you wish for.”