Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why Government Can't Run a Business

John Steele Gordon explains why government can't run a business:

In 1913, for instance, thinking it was being overcharged by the steel companies for armor plate for warships, the federal government decided to build its own plant. It estimated that a plant with a 10,000-ton annual capacity could produce armor plate for only 70% of what the steel companies charged.

When the plant was finally finished, however -- three years after World War I had ended -- it was millions over budget and able to produce armor plate only at twice what the steel companies charged. It produced one batch and then shut down, never to reopen.

Or take Medicare. Other than the source of its premiums, Medicare is no different, economically, than a regular health-insurance company. But unlike, say, UnitedHealthcare, it is a bureaucracy-beclotted nightmare, riven with waste and fraud. Last year the Government Accountability Office estimated that no less than one-third of all Medicare disbursements for durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and hospital beds, were improper or fraudulent. Medicare was so lax in its oversight that it was approving orthopedic shoes for amputees.

These examples are not aberrations; they are typical of how governments run enterprises. There are a number of reasons why this is inherently so. Among them are:

1) Governments are run by politicians, not businessmen. Politicians can only make political decisions, not economic ones. They are, after all, first and foremost in the re-election business. Because of the need to be re-elected, politicians are always likely to have a short-term bias. What looks good right now is more important to politicians than long-term consequences even when those consequences can be easily foreseen. The gathering disaster of Social Security has been obvious for years, but politics has prevented needed reforms...
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There are MANY other examples, public schools, the FDA, NIH, SEC, and politically-controlled police departments are only a few other disasters. Their success relies not on performance but on the willingness of news agencies not to report those disasters.

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