Trump remains convinced government can be run like a business. Here's why it doesn't work.


In March, President Donald Trump tapped his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to use "ideas from the business world" to cut through red tape in Washington and solve "government stagnation."

"The government should be run like a great American company," Kushner said. "Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens."

This idea — that we should run the government like a business — is old as boots; it's been circulating in the bloodstream of American political discourse in some form or another for at least a century, pitched by both Republicans and Democrats and fantasized about by a significant percentage of the electorate, according to a 2014 study. 

But nearly 100 days into his presidency, Trump is butting up against the realities that make running the government like one of his businesses impossible.

"It's massive," Trump said in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday. "And every agency is, like, bigger than any company. So you know, I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility. And the human responsibility. You know, the human life that's involved in some of the decisions."

Where does the government-as-business idea come from?

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Heather Cox Richardson — a professor of history at Boston College and author of To Make Men Free, a history of the Republican party — traces the romanticization of business to the late 19th century.

President Abraham Lincoln, Richardson said in an interview, had articulated a vision for the Republican party that promoted economic development. But by the 1880s, the idea of promoting economic development had mutated into the idea of protecting business.

By the time Warren G. Harding was elected in a landslide in 1920 — on a promise of a return to "normalcy" following the Progressive Era — and Republicans captured both houses of congress, they had been a minority party for so long, they struggled to govern — "just like now," Richardson noted.

"So they essentially walk away from governance and turn government over to business," Richardson said. 

The business-friendly governments of Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge brought about economic prosperity — for those at the top, according to Richardson. And by the time Herbert Hoover took office in 1929, the year the stock market would crash and bring about the Great Depression, Republicans believed that if business was strong, people would have enough money and not need government welfare programs — a romantic notion of big business and something of a negative view of government.

"The issue with that, of course, and the reason I get so unhappy nowadays, is that we know what happened when they did that," Richardson said. "What turning government over to business does and what getting rid of regulation does is it opens the door for extraordinary corruption and makes sure that the government does not in fact work for the good of everybody but works only for the good of the very wealthy."

"We're right back to where we were," Richardson added.

Why can't the government be run like a business?

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Trump — the first person to be elected president without any previous government or military experience — sold himself to voters as a successful businessman who would transform the federal government.

But using business as a model for governmental reform is to confuse the differing roles of the government and the private sector, according to John T. Harvey, a professor of economics at Texas Christian University. 

"The distinguishing feature between the two is profits," Harvey said in an interview. "The government shouldn't be making a profit. Their guidelines should be a social benefit."

The idea, Harvey said, stems from a romantic idea that business is more efficient and responsive to its customers than the government is to its constituents. 

But this is a "myth," according to Harvey. 

In a 2012 Forbes column, Harvey wrote that asking a government to run like a business was "tantamount to asking that the government turn a profit."

"The problem, in a nutshell, is that not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable," Harvey wrote. 

By his own admission, Trump appears to be struggling to put people over profits — something the president told the AP Monday requires a "heart" he said he was "better off without" in the business world.

"In business, you don't necessarily need heart, whereas here, almost everything affects people," Trump said. "Here, everything, pretty much everything you do in government, involves heart, whereas, in business, most things don't involve heart. In fact, in business, you're actually better off without it."

What does Trump's "ahead of schedule, under budget" mentality mean for governing?

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In announcing his so-called "SWAT team" on government bureaucracy in March, Trump promised to "apply my 'ahead of schedule, under budget' mentality to the government."

Many politicians have made similar promises, Harvey noted, in an attempt to say to voters, "I'm not a politician."

But Trump truly is not a politician, Richardson said, and his business-like approach appears to be both a political philosophy and a source of his growing pains in the first 100 days of his administration.

Jon D. Michaels, a professor of law at the UCLA school of law, wrote in the Harvard Law Review in 2015 that calls to run government like a business are a reaction to the perceived inefficiency of the administrative state — which White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has promised to "deconstruct."

That might result in a more streamlined government, Michaels wrote, but "weakens civil society, further collapses administrative separation of powers, and brings into question the legitimacy of a less constrained, less democratically inclusive administrative state."

According to Richards, "the administrative state has gotten weaker and weaker" since the Reagan administration, but that Trump has taken attacks against it "to [their] ideological extreme."

The answer, Michaels suggested, was to reclaim "government as government."

Democrats have failed to "celebrate" government, Michaels said in an email interview, and have conceded the point.

"We fail to stake out the fundamental differences between government and business," Michaels said, "and thus are too quick to draw direct analogies and comparisons between the two."