Matt Yglesias and Steve Greene both hit on an important theme today: the rather perverse notion that government should be run like a business. As Steve notes, school administrators who follow this logic end up seeking to remove special needs kids from schools because they're too costly to educate. Matt takes the argument to its logical conclusion: people over the age of 70 are unproductive and harmful to the bottom line, and should therefore be terminated and harvested for their organs.
There's nothing wrong with the idea that governments should be run more efficiently or with better customer service, and if that's what people mean, they should say that. But to say that governments should be run like businesses is to reveal ignorance about what either governments or businesses -- or both -- are. Businesses exist to turn a profit. They provide goods and services to others only insofar as it is profitable to do so, and they will set prices in a way that ends up prohibiting a significant sector of the population from obtaining those goods and services. And that, of course, is fine, because they're businesses. Governments, conversely, provide public goods and services -- things that we have determined are people's right to possess. This is inherently an unprofitable enterprise. Apple would not last long if it had to provide every American with an iPad.
I'm also always surprised to hear people tout the efficiency of the private sector. There's a great deal of inefficiency in the private sector, of course. How many CEOs end up hiring dim, unqualified brothers-in-law or grandkids who are taking time off college? And that's just not considered a big deal as long as it doesn't noticeably hurt the bottom line. If a member of Congress does that, it becomes a major scandal.
This isn't to say that government is a paragon of efficiency and thrift, either, but there's a whole subfield in journalism and several citizen activist groups devoted to rooting out waste in the public sector. There's not much interest in rooting out waste in the private sector unless a business is seen as misusing public money (e.g.: Halliburton). And again, that's fine -- they're private entities that are free to do what they want with their money. But let's not just assume they're waste-free and that our governments would improve by emulating them.