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In my estimation, U.S. society is comprised of four sectors:
1) Citizens (i.e. the public, leading private, individual lives)
2) Government (supposedly “of the people, by the people, for the people“)
4) Nonprofit (a.k.a. Voluntary Sector, Community Sector, or Third Sector)
Each of these sectors serves specific functions in American society. They support the other sectors and sometimes keep them in check. Citizens form the basis of the government, business, and nonprofit sectors, and as such, are the horses leading the cart, even though it may not feel like it at this point in our history.
In fact, it appears that a state of imbalance has arisen between these sectors. Citizens complain that The Government is too powerful and needs to be cut down to size, as if the government is something other than us. Government expects nonprofits to take on more and more social service activities because citizens and businesses shouldn’t have to pay taxes for these services. Meanwhile, nonprofits are continually asked to justify their existence and become more like businesses. Oh, and nonprofits ought to pay taxes, too, because everyone else has to. The business sector is expected to provide jobs for citizens, even though their ultimate goal is to produce a profit and if they can make a profit without employees, why would they hire anyone? The business sector has also made considerable inroads when it comes to government operations such that the country is edging ever closer to Corporatocracy.
If the government is taken over by business interests, it stands to reason that government will be run like a business. As a person who works in the nonprofit sector, I’m continually hearing that nonprofits need operate more like businesses. Further, citizens are exhorted to support the business sector by buying, buying, buying so that the world will be a better place because the economy will grow.
Why has business become the gold standard? Why is every other sector not only supposed to whole-heartedly support the business sector, but become just like it? What might we lose as a society if everything is run just like a business?
The business sector, in providing goods and services to the other sectors, expects to make a profit — to make more money than it expended in producing those goods and services. Profit is its motivation, its raison d’etre. A good business is one that runs at peak efficiency in production, thus maximizing profits for the owner and any shareholders.
The nonprofit and government sectors don’t have profit as a motive. Actually, the fact that the nonprofit sector is called the nonprofit sector should make this head-slappingly obvious. The motives for nonprofits vary according to each organization’s mission statement, but the overall goal of nonprofits is to provide services that improve the lives of people without the government having to pay for these services. Nonprofit organizations are given tax breaks because it is cheaper for the government to extend tax breaks than to pony up the tax dollars that would be needed to operate all the nonprofits in the nation. Not only do nonprofits get tax breaks, so do citizens and businesses that donate to nonprofits.
The U.S. Government’s motivation is stated in the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In fulfilling its stated goals, the government provides services that make the lives of citizens, businesses, and nonprofits easier by pooling public resources. We’d be hard pressed as individuals to pay for police protection, fire departments, public education, roads, and sanitation. If government didn’t provide for the safety and security of most citizens, all of us, even businesses, would have a much harder time achieving our goals. The public actually subsidizes the business sector’s profits by paying to educate the labor force, providing roads for the transport of goods, and by tasking law enforcement with protecting private property from looters, among other things.
Do we really want the nonprofit and government sectors to ditch these motives in favor of profit? Or might they be serving functions to society that are just as important as what the business sector provides? Businesses are allowed to keep trade secrets. In contrast, the government and nonprofits are supposed to be transparent in their operations due to their public service roles. Do we want the government and nonprofits, in achieving the business ideal, to keep secrets from us?
I wonder if the prodding to become more like the business sector has to do with efficiency. While I can’t speak to the efficiency of government because I haven’t worked in that sector, I can speak to the efficiency of nonprofits. Most nonprofits do their work with very little money and very little staff, yet somehow manage to keep providing the services they have promised in their mission statements year after year. If that isn’t a testament to efficiency, I don’t know what is. And they aren’t using a profit motive to push them into doing so. They’re working with altruism in mind.
I use the word ‘altruism’ for a reason. In a recent Facebook discussion sparked by the Minnesota Historical Society regarding its Local History Blog post about “Relevant Warehouses,” readers were asked, “Beyond altruistic reasons, what kinds of hardnosed reasons are there to stockpile and warehouse historical information?” My comment back to this was, “Why would we dismiss the altruistic reasons?” The response was, “Altruism too often gets dismissed, and frequently is the primary reason or at least the ‘low hanging fruit’ reason.”
Why does altruism get dismissed if it can urge people to care for each other in an efficient manner? At what point did we decide as a society that monetary profit takes precedence over altruism? Maybe I’m being a sentimental idealist, but that just seems wrong to me. I’d rather have the monetary profit dismissed as ‘low hanging fruit,’ because, in the long run, when we’re all staring at Death’s door, we don’t say, “Gee, I wish I’d had more money.”
What do you think? Have the four sectors of U.S. society become imbalanced? Do you believe that all sectors should operate like the business sector, or does the business sector have something to learn from the other sectors?