AS WE approach this year's election, one of the primary issues is the relationship of government and business, and whether a business model is superior to the form of government set out in our Constitution.
Clearly, the Founding Fathers would have been skeptical, if not surprised, at the meshing of the concepts of the public and private sectors. Although many of our founders, such as Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock, ran businesses, and many such as Washington and Jefferson engaged in plantation-based commerce, there is little doubt that they perceived government as separate from business. Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence reflected a philosophy of natural law in which rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness flowed from the "Creator." None of those rights is inherent to businesses, which derive their rights from manmade statutes and corporate charters granted by the states.
When James Madison and the other members of the Constitutional Convention presented their document based on political compromise, it contained a preamble setting out the purposes of our national government. Unlike those principles for governance, no business in America is tasked with providing national defense or ensuring domestic tranquility, and none sees itself as establishing justice, promoting the general welfare or securing the blessings of liberty to both current and future generations.
Simply put, while the business of business is profit, the business of government is the people it serves and the rights they enjoy. These rights are not commodities that can be bought, sold or bartered. They are beyond monetary value and have been both obtained and preserved by heroes and ordinary citizens willing to serve their country.
In process, government and business also markedly differ. No economic form is proscribed or mandated in the Constitution. Businesses are guided by the owners or directors, mostly in secret without input or dissent from those who are affected by their decisions, while our democracy is subject to often conflicting needs and demands, with decisions made by open majority vote. There are no separations of powers and certainly no judicial review.
Over the years, not all businesses have been viewed with favor by either the populace or politicians. The most reviled enterprise in Colonial times was the British East India Tea Co. In the 19th century, President Andrew Jackson waged war on the Second Bank of the United States, and profiteers were loathed for their perfidious greed during the Civil War. By the beginning of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt saw the need for busting up large business trusts to ensure America's advancement.
To this day, public policy and private interests are often at odds. It might be profitable for the private sector to do business with Iran or to sell weapons or other products to totalitarian regimes, but our government may consider an economic boycott or arms embargo of paramount national importance.
This is not to suggest that government should not employ sound business practices in certain aspects of its function. Much was made of the failure of the Bush administration to obtain discounts from manufacturers for drugs purchased under the expansion of Medicare. On the other hand, governmental administrative costs for Medicare and Social Security are far below those of most private businesses that deliver health care or retirement benefits.
Last but not least, in the upcoming presidential election, we will be asked to decide whether a business background is a better qualifier for presidential leadership. No such requirement appears in the Constitution. However, history teaches us that success in business does not always correlate with success in governing. Both Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, the nation's first president with a master's degree in business administration, had considerable track records of private-sector success, and Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, also boasted CEO credentials. Yet both Hoover and Bush presided over huge financial collapses of a systemic nature. Conversely, Harry Truman was a failed small businessman, who now is generally regarded as a president who ably dealt with some of the most monumental questions ever to face our nation's chief executive.
As we celebrate the 225th anniversary of our Constitution today, and as we all go about our private and family matters, let us not forget that our Pledge of Allegiance is still to our republic and its ideals of "liberty and justice for all."
In the upcoming presidential election, we will be asked to decide whether a business background is a better qualifier for
presidential leadership. No such
requirement appears in the Constitution.
David I. Fallk is a Scranton trial attorney and president of The Committee for Justice for All, Kingston.