If it is to be believed, as Donald Trump evidently does, that government is just another business, then Rex Tillerson is a plausible nominee for secretary of state. Hasn’t he been running one of the most powerful and profitable businesses in this corner of the universe?
But government is not a business.
The duty of a business is to produce profits for its owners. Period. How it’s done rarely matters so long as there are profits. Whether a business treats its customers and employees with consideration or stiffs them, as Trump so often did to his, is “right” or “wrong” only in the light of the profit margin or loss. A CEO who doesn’t put profits first won’t last, and he or she is most unlikely to find a soft landing on a business school faculty.
The competitive situation of a business requires keeping certain secrets from the public. In a proper democracy, however, there are no secrets to be kept from the public, other than those that directly implicate national security. The personal assets of a wealthy Cabinet nominee are no such exception. And certainly those of a president are not. We deserve to know, we need to know, what conflicts of interest may exist. Florida Governor Reubin Askew maintained that full financial disclosure was the only way to earn the trust of the people, and the voters agreed with him overwhelmingly.
A business can fail. It can declare bankruptcy, freeing its owners to foist off the losses on other people and start over, as Trump has done four times. A local government can do that too, but a national government, one with the power and the duty to maintain the economy, cannot do that without catastrophic consequences. It cannot even suggest renegotiating its debts, as Trump casually speculated during the campaign, without risking the collapse of its currency and runaway inflation.
The fundamental duties of a government are so obviously different that they shouldn’t need explanation, but there seem to be more than a few folks who don’t grasp them.
One of the differences is that a government’s stockholders and its customers are one and the same, and its duty to them is to protect and serve them as efficiently as possible. There is no place for profit in that equation. Pay-as-you-go projects, like toll roads and park fees, should take in only enough revenue for operation, maintenance and improvement.
I’m speaking of a democracy, of course. The other kind of government, the kind run by Vladimir Putin, gauges its success by the extent of its power over its own people and others. Its loyalty is to the tyrant, not the citizens.
And that inescapably calls into question the loyalty of multinational corporations, like Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil, which occasionally find it necessary to do business with such despots. When a man who would be our secretary of state can’t acknowledge the simple fact that Putin’s conduct in Syria is that of a war criminal, he is tacitly confessing the moral cost of doing business with Putin. Tillerson’s professional accommodation to the realpolitik of the international energy market is an inherent conflict of interest with the duty of a secretary of state to put our country first and always.
We have Senator Marco Rubio to thank for making that point in his deft interrogation of Tillerson at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing. As someone who hasn’t exactly been one of his fans, I have to say that would have been anyone’s finest hour. It certainly was Rubio’s.
That brings us to the second profound difference between a democratic government and a business. Most people expect their government to embody, represent, assert and advance their national character and ideals. We don’t really expect that of a business. This is why the British still support and revere their monarchy long after it was reduced to a splendid but powerless symbol. This is why until now, Americans have believed that character is what defines the suitability of a candidate for president. When we think of George Washington, what comes to mind? His towering reputation for patriotism and personal integrity.
We revere our country. We don’t revere corporations, not even the ones we work for. We don’t sing, “My company, ‘tis of thee.” We sing of purple mountain majesties, not towering smokestacks. We pledge our allegiance to our flag, not to the Chamber of Commerce.
Americans have been accused, sometimes fairly, of preaching too much to people elsewhere about the superiority of our form of government. Most of the time, though, we do it for the best of reasons: our belief that democracy is the only suitable environment for personal liberty and economic opportunity and a sincere wish to see others enjoy what we do. We are proud of what we have. It speaks well of us that we want to share it. Our hearts fill with pride and admiration for those who gave their lives for our country and for those who still risk theirs.
That does not mean trying to be the “world’s policeman” in places where our influence is unwanted or likely to be ineffective. It does mean taking care, in consort with allies, to keep our part of the world safe from a hostile power’s quest for unhealthy dominance in trade and military affairs. World War II was in large part a consequence of the self-centered isolationism that led to the Senate rejecting the League of Nations and to our indifference as tyrants rose “over there.”
We expect — reasonably so — that those we elect or who are appointed to serve us will embody the ideals that make us proud to be Americans. That’s what so confounding about Trump’s impending presidency. What’s done is done, but as it considers the qualifications of his Cabinet nominees, the Senate can still redeem our national character. Rejecting Tillerson’s nomination would be a good start.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.