There is no doubt that Americans are frustrated with a government that seems mired in a deepening cycle of dysfunction. Large and small issues become bogged down in petty politics, trivia and procedure. Legislative activity often moves at the speed of someone rollerblading through a swamp.
It is natural to assume that this inability of government to function effectively is the result of a political disease that has infected government and impaired its ability to act. There is also the belief that we are suffering from some type of new government phenomenon caused by the 24-hour, politically tilted cable news, special interest groups, blogs galore and dump truck loads of political contributions, all attempting to influence the actions of government. In response to these frustrations people begin to believe that the answer can be found by turning to a government outsider; preferably a successful business person. The belief (hope) is that a leader not previously entangled in government and one who has been successful running a successful business is the type of person who can eliminate the dysfunction in government. But a dysfunctional government may not be all that evil.
Government is Working the Way it Was Intended to Work
What we are witnessing is exactly the way our government was intended to function and, for the most part, has since the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788. Much to their credit and our benefit, the framers of the constitution specifically and intentionally created a government designed to be “dysfunctional.” That is to say, a government that is prevented from operating like a well-oiled business that churns out legislation with the ease of a goose with diarrhea. Those who drafted our constitution rightly feared a government that was efficient and effective, because they knew from experience that this opened the door to tyranny and loss of freedom.
As a result, with few exceptions, every major decision or issue faced by our government in the past 225 years has been resolved in a dysfunctional manner, often taking years or even decades to resolve; all because our system required that all sides of an issue should be heard. That’s the inherent beauty of our constitution: Decisions are made only after careful and thoughtful deliberation—not by imperial edict. It may not be pretty, and it can be messy, but it works as intended to protect our freedoms.
What Happens When Legislative Scrutiny is Diminished?
Most of the poor (and dangerous) decisions that have been made by our government came at a time when one party had overwhelming control of government, giving them the efficiency of legislative clout to implement their plans with almost unfettered impunity. One classic example of this was the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, when the Federalists under John Adams were in virtual control of the government. Among other things, these laws made it illegal to even criticize the government. That may seem laughable to think such acts could be passed today; and they can’t—so long as the government remains dysfunctional and deliberative. Deliberation gives time for passions to cool, options to be considered and for reason to prevail. As American statesman and Senator Henry Clay once said, “Time is always reason’s greatest ally.” (There is a difference between deliberation and obstruction, but that is for another discussion.)
Desperate for a Solution
The current frustration and impatience with a dysfunctional government has intensified the belief that by electing a government outsider and successful business person as president, we will be able to solve the problems of government. It is an alluring and tempting argument.
In the 230 years of American history, hundreds of successful business entrepreneurs have built immensely successful corporate empires that became the drivers of the greatest economic growth in the history of the world. But despite their power and prominence in American society; none of them were ever elected president. America has elected 44 men to be President. There have been lawyers (far too many), soldiers, farmers, teachers, career politicians and even one actor, but not one was a successful corporate capitalist. And it is not as if there is a shortage of potential business candidates who would seem to fit the bill to be president.
The list of great American capitalists is too long to list here, but we all know of many: Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, John J. Astor, E.H. Harriman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Hearst, Andrew Mellon, Warren Buffet, Sam Walton, and Bill Gates. Without a doubt, all of these individuals – and scores more like them – were exceptional leaders, possessing unique vision and perspective. And yet, in over two centuries – during economic times even more tumultuous than now – the country never once looked to any of them for presidential leadership.
Government is not a Business
There are those who sincerely believe that the problems with dysfunctional government would be solved if government was run as a business by a business person. But the reality is that government is not intended to be a business. The objectives of government are distinctly different from the goals of business. The purpose of government is to be passionate about the welfare of all its people; the objective of business is to be passionate about the welfare of its shareholders. The leadership mentality needed to make government function properly is the antithesis of the leadership temperament needed to run a business.
The power and structure in government is (at least it’s supposed to be) bottom-up where needs and actions of the many filter up through a series of checks and balances, shared power, and divergent interests. Conversely, the power and structure in business is top-down: direction, decisions and actions are dictated, not debated. A CEO in business has the focused, specific power granted by the few (board of directors) to set priorities, make decisions, implement plans and direct the actions of all others; all with the single objective of profit for shareholders.
The favored attributes of a CEO are laser focus on specific actions to increase profits, efficient input-output analysis, decisive decision making and an impatience to get things done that translates into a sense of urgency. The favored attributes of a government leader are a focus on the broad ideology of the purpose of government, the patience to hear the views of many, the ability to cajole diverse centers of power to coalesce to take action and the skill to build broad coalitions that are willing to work together for the benefit of the many, not the few.
Sometimes dysfunction in government can be a good thing. It forces those in power to be open to deliberation, explain and justify actions. In government this type “dysfunction” reduces the possibility of taking rash actions in an atmosphere of passion or political expediency. As frustrated as we are with a dysfunctional government, we might want to consider if the best response is to elect a business person with a proclivity for bombast and a willingness to propose rash actions in an atmosphere of heated passion and political expediency.