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Government’s role: It’s primarily about the needs of people, not business

Let’s stop talking about government as a needed friend of business or a mirror of business; let’s start talking about government as an instrument of the people.

It is not government’s job to help business.

Mark Stahura

It is not government’s role to be designed around business, or to follow business’ needs, or especially to pretend to run like a business.

Government’s job is to help people.

Government’s role is to be designed around people, to follow people’s needs, and especially to at least pretend to care about people. And most especially the people who need the most care.

I am very lucky to work in a very caring workplace. There’s no yelling, no cutthroat competition; there is discussion and creativity and wickedly smart decision-making (that has turned the company around). There is continuing emphasis on truth telling, understanding, concern, well-being, and balance. We’re reading articles and talking these days about fostering a business culture where people trust each other, care for each other, and become friends. This, the research says, makes for more productive and longer-lasting employees (in both tenure and life). But if, even at my company, a position isn’t truly needed, that position and that person are shown the door. No second thoughts or self-consciousness about it.

Unavoidably selfish

Businesses are intrinsically and unavoidably selfish. There is no Common Good, no Society at Large, no transcendent morality – beyond their own mission and bottom line. There are no nations or cities or neighborhoods. Every business works hard to succeed, with complete and deliberate blindness to arbitrary divisions in the world. It works hard to find every edge it can find in order to succeed. It concerns itself only with its own welfare. Its advantage-seeking is relentless and ruthless. Its generosity is genuine but confined. People within businesses, ultimately, are not people; they are costs.

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What businesses want is every advantage, regardless of implication. If people (as costs) can be found cheaper elsewhere, then it is imperative to claim that advantage. If other burdens – taxes, regulations, market restrictions, laws – can be turned to their advantage, businesses have an obligation to urge those changes, without concern for costs beyond their own. Business cares only about its own flourishing. It is immensely creative at this. It leverages its deep pockets to make government change things to its advantage.

Even nonprofit business has to operate this way. It may serve a societal need (a legal fund, literacy, heating assistance, church outreach, etc.) but it cannot possibly attend to the whole of the community or the world.

Government as counterbalance

Government ought to define itself as the counterbalance to business’ selfishness. It is not the role of government in a just society to be as minimal as it can be. On the contrary, it needs to be as robust as business in every way, to lend muscle to the continuing needs of people – as people – in a world in which business takes no responsibility for people as people. Government needs to address, in the absence of any business concern, the health of the whole – not just people, but the earth as well. No business will ever take this on.

Helping business merely helps business. Everything else around business – health, the environment, culture, open discourse, basic human needs of food and shelter, education, and more – takes a back seat as business consumes resources into itself. This doesn’t mean that government should be anti-business. Business provides the means for us to live, recreate, procreate, and invest in the future. Business creates and innovates to make our lives truly better. That doesn’t mean, however, that business has people’s or the world’s best interests at heart.

Business can take care of itself, given an open and level playing field. Society as a whole has only government to rely on for its stability and health. Every law and policy is a balancing act between competing interests – the interest in speedy transport versus the interest in safety (speed limits); the interest in low-cost production versus the interest in workers’ safety (OSHA regulations); the interest in size efficiencies versus the interest against stifling competition (antitrust laws).

Government should begin this balancing act from a position that considers the people’s direct interests more strongly than businesses’. Let’s stop talking about government as a needed friend of business or a mirror of business; let’s start talking about government as an instrument of the people.

Mark Stahura lives in St. Paul and works both at a Christian nonprofit and at a church.

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