11/03/2011 06:39 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2012

Ethnocentrism and the Business of Politics

Our current political discourse is filled with references to business. Among the GOP presidential hopefuls there are candidates who are particularly fond of saying that their successful experience in business qualifies them to run the federal government. Both Herman Cain and Mitt Romney claim that their profound experience in the corporate world would enable them--as opposed to someone without such business experience--to solve the seemingly intractable problems of the contemporary American society. Romney ran Bain Capital, a Boston based private equity firm that bought up struggling companies, sold off their unprofitable assets and dismissed "superfluous" workers. Cain rose through the ranks of Burger King, eventually becoming the CEO of Godfather's Pizza, which he "turned around." These management experiences in the corporate world, we are told, make these men eminently qualified to become President of United States.

We need to run our government like a business.

We need tighten our fiscal belts as if we were a business.

Following the model of business, we need to assert our independence from government, which means lower taxes--especially corporate taxes--and more limited government regulation.

Our society will improve if grow business--not government.

If a small business has to pay off its debts, why should government be any different?

Herman Cain proudly asserts that he's never held public office. He's a businessman who remains untainted by politics.

"Corporations," Mitt Romney famously remarked, "are people."

These business bytes rest on the assumption that you can extend the model of business to other domains of social life--education, social services, and government. That assumption suggests that business practices work--and work well--in non-business settings.

Consider a domain that I know well: the university. Can you run a university like a business? Many university administrators think so. They impose corporate models to university governance and teaching. This set of practices places a premium upon performance, which is measured less by the quality of instruction than by the quantity of students taught. The more students we "process," as if students are products, the more money flows into departmental budgets. In this business model of education our product--teaching--is repeatedly assessed using quantitative measures that overlook the "magic" that sometimes transpires in the classroom. Teaching is not a product and students are more than numbers on an administrative spreadsheet. In short, the university is not a business and never should be. Extending the business model to education may balance a few budgets, but it transforms the university into an institution that services educational consumers, which, in turn dulls the creativity of our students.

Can you run a government like a business? Again, many people think so, including GOP presidential hopefuls like Herman Cain and Mitt Romney. Can you treat the various groups of people that constitute a society like products on a production line--products that generate profits? Does the model of competition in the arena of commerce work well for the problems that governments must confront? A brief survey of American history during the last 40 years provides a partial answer. Among our recent presidents, only George W Bush, who graduated with an MBA from Harvard Business School, had significant business experience. His desire for wholesale economic deregulation, framed through his education and his experience in business, coupled with his indefensible war in Iraq, financed with money borrowed from foreign investors, brought our nation to the brink of economic collapse. Indeed, our greatest presidents, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR were not businessmen. They were first and foremost men of ideas and scholars of American history.

Why, then, are men like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain so bent on extending business models to solve our complex social and economic problems? Anthropologists would say that they are engaging in a kind of ethnocentric thinking. In ethnocentrism, you take the ideas and practices that you have used in your life and extend them to people, institutions and societies that are different. If you have power and are ethnocentric you might say to other people: My way is better than your way, which means that you have to do things my way. If you believe that America should impose its style of democracy in Iraq, for example, you are engaging in ethnocentric thinking. Given the waste and folly of that misadventure, it is clear that ethnocentric thinking hasn't work very well in the exercise of foreign relations.

It is equally ethnocentric to think that business models, which are focused upon producing products and services that generate maximum profit, can be effective in dealing with our complex set of domestic problems. If recent history is a good measure, it appears that ethnocentric thinking hasn't solved our wide range of social, economic and political problems. Instead, ethnocentric thinking has generated misunderstanding, mistrust, political gridlock, enmity, hostility and war--forces that threaten to unravel an already frayed social fabric. Given their penchant for ethnocentric thinking, that's what we can look forward to in Herman Cain's or Mitt Romney's America.

Society does not work like a business,

Corporations are not people.