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The fundamental flaw of neoliberalism

I tweeted about this Fast Co. piece briefly when I first read it a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to insert it into the record more formally in the wake of the mishegas at the University of Virginia.

The article mostly discusses how success often requires shifting among a variety of strategies, and how even suboptimal ones can generate progress. But when it turns its attention to the political process, it (inadvertently) gets at the heart of why the “run government like a business” trope is utterly empty.

Businesses deploy strategies towards a single, end, which everyone involved understands and agrees upon: turning profit. A variety of secondary goals may exist along the way, depending on the nature of the business—streamlining operations, opening new markets, increasing market share, building brand equity, etc.—but all of these are merely different means of achieving the same end. A business succeeds when it makes a profit and fails when it doesn’t.

When your goal is clear, you can focus on strategy and tactics. But public institutions, like governments and colleges, aren’t so cut-and-dry. Public policy doesn’t have one goal. It has dozens of possible goals, many of which directly compete with one another. Agreeing on ends, not just means, is a function of the public sphere, and one which cannot be addressed through strategy alone. Philosophy and value systems enter into it too. The debate over universal health care isn’t about differing theories of which method will achieve the goal most successfully; it’s a debate over whether universal health care is a worthwhile goal.

Naturally, this complicates the notion of focusing on “empirical results.” Unlike strategy discussions, political disputes aren’t about which road to take or which map to follow to reach a set destination. They’re about what that destination should be.

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