In his rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s talk to the American people about the U.S. debt ceiling debate, Speaker of the House John Boehner revealed an interesting perspective on the nature of government. First coming to the House as a small business owner, Boehner said he was shocked that the U.S government didn’t operate like “other businesses.” Noting that “other” businesses do not spend outside their means, neither, he said, should Washington.
I did a bit of a double take at that innocuous remark, so very Republican that it was almost a throwaway line. And maybe that’s the problem—and the difference in approach to government between the two major parties. Government is not a business. Government has responsibilities to its citizens that go beyond what businesses have to their customers. Businesses have to provide a product or service at a competitive price and quality. Their bottom lines are governed by production and distribution costs, research (if applicable), etc., which have to balance with the revenue coming into the company through sales (in general). When revenues decrease, businesses cut back on production, making adjustments until revenues come return. Government cannot do that, perhaps especially during a recession, where people are needier, there are more jobless and people hurting.
Government, especially as its evolved since the New Deal of the 1930s, has always included a social component, providing a safety net for its citizens, and taking care of the nation’s infrastructure and other things that the citizens cannot provide for themselves. That structure also includes ensuring the environment isn’t polluted, the food isn’t tainted (by accident or malicious intent), that workers are safe in their jobs, that medicines we use are safe and effective, and other collective needs. Goverment sometimes also provides the impetus for innovation and the partnership to advance our society in science and medicine. Businesses don’t have to deal with hurricanes, blizzards, droughts and wildfires going uncontrolled. Businesses don’t have to provide for the nation’s defense.
For all these things—these “collective goods”—we all pay taxes (well, most of us do). We all benefit from the things that we buy with our taxes, even if not directly.
Speaker Boehner’s logic is faulty if he was shocked that the U.S. government doesn’t operate like a business. Government is not a business. It is there to provide for the common good—for the collective good. But Speaker Boehner’s belief speaks to the heart of the matter—the fundamental difference between how Republicans (many of them, anyway) and Democrats (and I would guess a fair number of independents) view government. It is a fundamental philosphical difference in the purpose of goverment, and it is at the core of what President Obama said this evening has become political warfare in Washington. It is a philosophical difference that grows more and more polarized—and polarizing—every year. It has become so intense that our government, as President Obama noted this evening in his speech to the American public, has become dysfunctional. Whether that difference is reconcilable remains to be seen.