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

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.

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 07/26/2017 - 01:58 pm.

    Of the people, by the people, for the people

    As a former govn employee: what a good article! What a good reminder!

    Tho of course this means the altruistic are constantly pitted against the subversive and greedy:(
    But so long as there remains a healthy balance between the two, that can still work.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 07/27/2017 - 07:52 am.

    That all sounds good but if you own a business that installs

    Garage doors and have 10 employees all depending on you to keep their families fed, you are not that concerned with altruistic ideals, you are concerned with getting work. Everybody doesn’t live in the bubble of non profits, as a matter of fact, most don’t.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 07/27/2017 - 02:43 pm.

      On the other hand

      Not everyone lives in the bubble of business ownership . . . Far far far from it.

      What is it that makes you and other business-friendly people think the views of those who DO live in that bubble should count more than the views of those who don’t?

      If you read Mr. Stahura’s (excellent) piece a little more closely you’ll see he’s saying the person who owns the garage door installation company shouldn’t be EXPECTED to be “concerned with altruistic ideals” because that isn’t their job and that expecting businesses or businesses owners to do that is, in effect, a fool’s errand because they can’t and never will.

      AND, if you read it a little more closely, you’ll see he’s saying there’s nothing wrong with that . . . You’ll see that he’s actually AGREEING with you . . . You’ll see he’s saying no one should expect the person who starts that garage door company to feel or BE responsible for seeing to it those “altruistic ideals” are pursued . . . You’ll see he’s saying that person should only be concerned with doing the best possible job of seeing to it those garage doors work perfectly and get installed at the lowest possible price and, when it comes to business, that’s all they CAN be concerned with.

      But just because that’s the business reality (economics 101 says, “A business’s only reason for existence is to generate a profit” — or it won’t survive) that doesn’t mean the array of needs that business will NEVER address or pay attention to will simply go away, vanish, cease to exist because businesses generate those profits . . . They never have and never will go away, no matter how successful businesses are and no matter how hard business people pretend they will.

      So the question is, if business isn’t going to address those needs who’s going to?

      Who’s going to help the people who can’t come close to making ends meet because they’re married and have three kids and the garage door company they’re depending on “can’t afford” to pay them more than minimum wage or, better yet, signs up all their installers as “independent contractors”?

      Who’s going to deal with the people sawing holes in that new garage door to break into the owner’s home in the middle of the night and steal what they can to support the opioid habit they picked up when their doctor prescribed a 90-day supply of Oxycodone (manufactured by a highly successful American business) because they hurt their back installing garage doors?

      Who’s going to house, confine and treat the criminally insane the way the people in southern Minnesota do? The people who need $60 of $70 million to upgrade their facilities so the people whose job it is to DEAL with those people can do it without getting attacked but can’t get that money to upgrade because business needs “tax relief”?

      Who’s going to clean up the St. Louis River and the eastern edge of Lake Superior after businesses pollute them to the point where the fish are too poisoned to eat and no one can swim there?

      Have the businesses that make, sell and profit from opioids stepped up to say, “Hey . . . We realize our product is responsible for half of last year’s 33,000 opioid overdose deaths so we’d like to contribute a couple billion dollars to help solve the problem”?

      Have Minntac and Cliffs stepped up and said, “Hey . . . We realize our tailings ponds leak so we’re going to invest a few hundred million to make sure that stops happening”?

      Or are all the businesses that contribute to those problems more likely to say something like,

      “Forget that . . . We’re not in the altruistic idealism business . . . That’s what the government and non-profits are for . . . And by the way, we want big government to get off our backs so we can do what we do best. Get rid of these job-crushing environmental regulations and stop killing us with all these TAXES! And speaking of those non-profits, IF the government would increase the size of the tax deductions we MIGHT think about contributing to them.”

      • Submitted by joe smith on 07/27/2017 - 04:08 pm.

        True, but most either work for a

        small business, large business or for someone else. That “someone else” is responsible for making sure they have employment. The Government needs to get out of the way and let businesses work without burdensome regulations. As has been said before, Government is not the answer, it is the problem. When you are employed by that same garage door business, you need the owner hustling to get work, he can be ultruistic on his own time.

        • Submitted by Bill Willy on 07/27/2017 - 11:10 pm.

          Yeah . . .

          Government is the problem just like

          Coke is the real thing . . .

          This Bud’s for you . . .

          Lower taxes for wealthy people creates economic growth, millions of great paying jobs and prosperity for all . . .

          The American health care system is the greatest health care system in the world . . .

          Sadam Husein and the Iraqi’s were involved in 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction that could have resulted in mushroom clouds popping up all over the county at any moment and

          Donald Trump is, right this very minute, working hard to make America great again.

          And, in keeping with the idea of,

          “Government of the people, by the people, for the people,”

          everybody knows WE are the problem.

          But that’s okay because, thanks to America’s Business Heroes (big, small and in between), a lot of us have jobs and that makes everything else okay, no matter WHAT it is.

  3. Submitted by Hamp Smith on 07/27/2017 - 11:41 am.

    Well Said

    I think this essay does a nice job of defining the current imbalance in society. As the preamble to the U.S. constitution clearly states, the purpose of our government is to “promote the general welfare” and provide “justice” and “tranquility”. There is nothing there about ensuring profits and no mention at all about free markets. As anyone who has read Ron Chernow’s fine biography of Alexander Hamilton knows, the debate over the role of government goes back to the origins of our republic. Some degree of stability, in the form of regulation, taxation and defense has always been assumed, but how much and how far? No one in the 18th century, even the prescient Alexander Hamilton, fully anticipated the overarching power of corporations to influence government and manipulate public opinion. The only institution capable of counterbalancing this power is government. Without an effective federal government, answerable to voters not corporate donors, our constitution does not function.

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