Government isn't a business 

We hear it all the time: Why can't government be run more like a business? Just as we often have to tighten our belts, can't government do the same, easing the burden on citizens?  

There is an inherent appeal of this simple logic, one that typically goes unquestioned: What if government was run more like a business? Would this be desirable? Would we be better off?
Government differs from business in fundamental ways. Government does not market a product: "government." Instead, government creates the framework in which markets and society function.

The government of Oklahoma is responsible for providing for public education, ensuring public safety, maintaining our roads and bridges and enhancing the quality of life through support for the arts and upkeep of public recreational venues. State government produces what are known as public goods " things many of us want and benefit from, but which we are unable to provide for ourselves.

Certainly, we want government to do these things well and efficiently, with little waste, and in response to priorities expressed by citizens. But this is very different from wanting government to run on the lowest cost possible. To take this position is to misunderstand the purpose " and value " of government.

Yes, government spending tends to expand over time, but so do its functions and so do societal needs. For example, Oklahoma had a poverty rate of 14.7 percent in 1999. A decade later, this had risen to 16.2 percent. Unless we believe there is no such thing as society " that we are simply a collection of individuals coexisting in a shared geographic space " this has implications for what government must spend.  

In June 2004, Oklahoma had 472,000 people enrolled in Medicaid, which is largely paid for by the federal government but partly paid for by the state. By June 2009, the figure had grown to 563,000. In another example of growing societal need, the 1998 legislation to provide school districts with funding for 4-year-olds to attend school experienced a steady increase in enrollment over the next eight years, with studies finding significant subsequent gains in student language and math development.

It would be easy to multiply these examples of how the tasks of government expand over time, not because of waste, bureaucracy and overreach, but because the nurturing of citizenship and society demand action.

The lesson here is that money spent by government is not just a "cost." Much of it represents investment in improving the quality of lives of citizens, in creating a safe, prosperous society in which individuals and entrepreneurs can exercise their talents and pursue their potential. This is the business of government.

With property, sales, income and other taxes taken into account, Oklahomans bear a tax burden that is well below the national average. Moreover, this burden has been consistent as a share of income for the past two decades. Government has provided more with essentially the same level of resources.

Good government, then, is not the antithesis of freedom. It is the precondition for freedom. Without good government " an entirely different proposition from minimal government " individuals, the private sector and society cannot thrive.

A minimum-cost government would hardly enhance economic dynamism; on the contrary, it would impoverish us all.

Smith is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.

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