During these economically difficult times, many Americans may find themselves thinking that what the country needs is a good business executive in the White House. Obviously, both positions require the ability to make decisions (and often without enough information), delegate, organize effectively, and direct large bureaucracies. But there are problems inherent in the idea.
The first and most obvious problem is conflict of interest. We clearly do not want the President promoting policies and legislation that favor his business over others. Nor do we want him assigning fattened federal contracts to his business, which is one of the most serious criticisms levelled at Dick Cheney. And we certainly do not want him sending the IRS, OSHA, the EPA, the EEOC, or other federal agencies to harass his competitors.
Second is the sizeable pay cut. Most chief executive officers of large corporations would be very much dismayed if all they made was $200,000 a year. Most of them earn many many times that. But that is all the money we pay the President, who has to deal with pressures as great or greater than those faced by business executives.
But the problem that most people fail to recognize is that the government is fundamentally different from business. Business grows when things go well; government grows when things go poorly. Government interferes with people getting and doing what they want; businesses only exist to help people get and do what they want. Most businesses only have to deal with people who want to deal with them (as suppliers, customers, or employees); the government has to deal with everybody.
But the most basic and fundamental difference is that the government alone has political power. And while I don't care for Chairman Mao Zedong, he was not philosophizing or speaking in the abstract when he said "All political power comes out of the barrel of a gun." He was stating a bald and basic fact.
Businesses do not use guns to get customers or compete for them. If they did, they would be the Mafia (and as thoroughly deserving of prosecution). Any organization with political power -- the power to legally aim the barrel of a gun at people -- should not be run like a business. Any such organization should be limited to stopping coercive behavior, and requiring that criminals make restitution to their victims.
Besides, most businessmen, especially the very good ones -- those with small and innovative businesses -- primarily want the government to stop interfering in their business. You will not find competitive businessmen in new and largely unregulated industries crying for government aid, subsidy, protection, or regulation. No, those cries come from less able businessmen, in more stagnant industries, with larger businesses, who are afraid of competition. Make no mistake, the primary agitators for government regulation of the economy were large businesses.
And the best thing we can do for everybody in business actually is to leave them be. If you give a businessman a subsidy, you make him into the reciever of stolen goods. After all, the difference between taxes and robbery is that one involves people threatening you if you don't give them your money, and the other is illegal. If you make a regulation that stifles a businessman's competition, you make him lazy and also into a goon, using the government as his proxy -- as surely as any capo uses his soldiers. And if you give him a favorable regulation, that exempts him from some responsibility or shields him from his own bad decisions, you make him irresponsible and unaccountable for his actions, which isn't good for anyone, particularly his employees. You have only to look at the Enron mess to see that.
The very best thing we could hope for from putting a top business executive into the White House would be for him to remember that government only slows down and entangles business when it acts, except when it allows businesses to do things that would be illegal if the business did them itself -- and then to have him do his best to keep the government out of business' way.