Monday, February 14, 2011

A Political Correspondence

To the idiot who insisted that my city should be run “as a profitable business,” greetings:

I have long maintained that if I ever heard anyone say something that stupid again I would go spare, and I suppose you are just today’s lucky winner. I don’t know you well enough to make this personal, but I have to say that in light of the intellectual bankruptcy of your position, this could be arranged if you so desire.

Now. Repeat after me, slowly, please:

“A city is a political community, not a business. They are founded upon different principles. They exist to serve different ends. They are not interchangeable. They are not transferable. And the methods used to run the latter are destructively inappropriate when applied to the former.”

For “city” you may insert “county,” “state,” “country,” or any other self-governing community in which actual people live, and repeat the previous paragraph for each substitution.

I’ll wait.

You see, a business is an economic unit. It is designed to turn a profit by providing goods or services at rates slightly higher than it costs to provide them, and this profit is meant to accrue to the leaders of that business. The people served by that business – its customers – are instruments to that end, and no more. Now, a smart business takes good care of its customers, just as a smart craftsman takes good care of his tools, and for precisely the same reason: they are what you have to make use of in order to achieve the desired goal, and the better they are treated the more likely it is that this goal is to be reached. But never let it be forgotten that customers are simply a means to an end, not the end itself.

My apologies for explaining this at such a simplistic level, sir. I merely infer from your comment that you are stupid and require basic instruction. And thus we proceed to the next step.

A city is not an economic unit. It is a political unit. These are not the same things.

No. Really. They are not.

A political unit is expressly not designed to turn a profit. It is, instead, designed to serve the needs of the people it governs, by providing them with services they cannot individually provide for themselves, such as social order, infrastructure, police and fire protection, social services, and the like. The people served by a political unit are not customers. They are citizens. Thus, they are not tools or means to an end but are, instead, the end themselves.

This has a certain number of implications, all of them contrary to your position.

Among them are these:

1. That the profit motive is not a valid way of conducting political affairs.

Cash is not an appropriate measure of cost/benefit analysis when discussing politics. Politics is about lives, not goods or services or money being exchanged for such things, and accordingly one measures costs and benefits in terms of social well being rather than mere cash. A successful government measures its outcomes in terms of the good of the individuals and groups that it serves. This is a tricky thing, one that requires no little balancing – not all citizens can be served at all times in precisely the way they would like to be. But a government that ends up with excess money but poorly served citizens is a failure. To put it another way,

2. That in a political situation the point is to accrue benefits toward the citizens rather than toward the government. This is the reverse of the point in business, where the point is to accrue profits toward the business rather than the customers.

A business is accounted a success if it produces wealth for its leaders and owners, wealth that – in a well-run business – can and likely should be distributed down to its workers to ensure their continued productivity. Whether its customers are poor or in bad condition is not the province of a business to concern itself with, so long as it is meeting its market and producing wealth for itself.

A government that enriches its favorites and lets the rest of its citizens fall into poverty and decay, that does not provide protections and services for all, is a failure. It is a kleptocracy, one that provides benefits only to a few while everyone else declines. That this has become common in this country over the last three decades does not justify it.

Please note that it is, in fact, the province of a government to concern itself with the welfare of its citizens. That is its market, and its only wealth.

3. That a business can cut its losses and bail out whenever its economic conditions demand that it do so, but a government cannot.

As noted above, businesses deal in cash, but politics is about lives. On a strictly cash-in, cash-out basis it is often cost-effective to let people die. This is why health insurance is such a tricky thing when entrusted to the magic of the free market, and why it tends not to be a very effective long-term political strategy either.

4. That a political unit, at least as it is constructed in the United States and most other Western nations, depends for its legitimacy on the consent of the governed, whereas no such consent is demanded in a business.

This is a very different management style. Business leaders have authority to issue commands and are not constrained by the demands of others. While it is smart of them to listen to others, there is no structural requirement that they do so. Political leaders, however, must bow to the source of their sovereignty, a source that issues enough conflicting demands that compromise and negotiation are the primary skills required of such leaders, not command and control.

Business underlings may ask, “How high?” when commanded to jump, but political rivals tend not to, nor should they. The skills required to run a business, in other words, do not translate very well into the political realm.

This really should not be as much of a surprise as it apparently is. There is no particular reason to assume that the skills necessary to be an athletic superstar translate very well onto the theatrical stage. They are separate endeavors. The same is true here.

Please keep that in mind.

Hoping that this has cleared things up, or at the very least you will stop being so loud about your intellectual shortcomings, I remain,

Yr. Humble Svt.


Eric said...

Hear! Hear!

Well said, David. Very well said.

David said...

Thank you, Eric!

Beatrice Desper said...