11/09/2012 04:21 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Market Values and Civic Virtue

More than a dozen years ago, I met a man who wanted to run for the House of Representatives. He was a military veteran, had an impeccable academic background, was active in his community, was well-liked and articulate, and he had a passion for public service. When he met with his district party officials to explore a possible candidacy, their very first question was: "Can you raise at least $2 million?" Since he could not, that was that. Things have only gotten worse since as we have just concluded, by some estimates, a $6 billion election cycle.

The importance and influence of money in politics is just one aspect, however, of a broader problem. Market values, exemplified by the use of money as a key measure and medium of political efficacy, have gained increasing impact on how campaigns are run and on how those who are elected govern. In campaigning, it's not just the cost that demonstrates this. Candidates market themselves as products. They sell themselves using the full range of marketing tools, from market segmentation to focus groups (and far more sophisticated consumer analysis techniques) to advertising. They sell images not concrete ideas. The goal seems to be to find the right mixture of stories and their associated emotions to "close the sale," no matter how inconsistent or even unethical the claims. Indeed, the traditional business warning, caveat emptor, seems to apply, with nothing but occasional media fact checking to protect the unschooled consumer-voter.

In governing, elected officials treat citizens as customers and speak as if tax dollars are payments for goods and services received rather than an obligation of citizenship. They encourage us to ask whether we, personally, are getting our money's worth from government. They tout business models and business thinking, not to mention private sector business credentials, as if running government is the same thing as running a corporation. They apply cost-benefit analysis and return-on-investment thinking to whether to fund a program or approve a regulation. They focus on cost-cutting and efficiency as hallmarks of a well-run government program. They consider, in almost every case, whether letting the private sector do a job would be more economical than giving the task to government. The predominant question of many major policy debates (e.g. banking regulation, taxes, investments, health care) is whether it will be good for business.

In individual situations, of course, business implications and techniques are appropriate among the considerations for a well-run government. But there are market values embedded in these implications and techniques. These values are often accepted without question, yet they can subordinate or drive out other values that ought to have an equal if not greater priority. Efficiency is one goal of government, but it is not the only or even the most important one. Cost containment is one principle in running a program, but neither is it the only or even the most important one. What's good for the corporate bottom line is just one consideration as well. If you doubt all of this, consider how you would feel if the FAA said that it would be more efficient to increase the workload of air traffic controllers by 25 percent rather than give them sufficient downtime. Consider your reaction if told that emergency assistance was denied to you because FEMA's budget had been spent for the year. Or consider whether allowing banks to make incredibly risky investments without the capital to back them up was really such a good idea, though it created a short-term economic boom.

Neither is the public just a collection of customers to be served. It is a nation of citizens whose civic connections need to be nurtured and whose self-interest sometimes needs to be contained. The bottom line of business is making money. The bottom line of government is ensuring justice and enhancing civil society. Government is not just about making sure Americans get what they want but is also about encouraging them to consider and foster the common good.

In addition to market values, government needs to foster civic values, such as liberty, responsibility, justice, community, equality, compassion, and shared sacrifice. At one level, we know this. When we argue about tax rates we are arguing about fairness and sacrifice. When we fight about how much to spend on social programs, we are fighting about how to balance compassion and self-responsibility. When we debate whether and at what level to support housing assistance, food aid, education, and infrastructure, we are debating about community, equality, and liberty and how to support these values. But fostering civic virtue is often sublimated in our public conversation.

We could do ourselves, and our country, a service if we brought civic values more to the forefront in our discussions about what candidates to elect and how we want them to govern. Market values will not go away -- nor should they. But they are not the only important values in our collective life.