Running Government Like a Business... Then and Now

32 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2015

See all articles by Jon D. Michaels

Jon D. Michaels

University of California, Los Angeles - School of Law

Date Written: February 5, 2015


In Against the Profit Motive, Nicholas Parrillo takes us back to a time when the now-vast administrative state was just beginning to find its footing. The administrative state did so, Parrillo tells us, in large part by terminating what in essence was America’s last sustained romance with business-like government — a romance that united government service with the pursuit of profits.

Against the Profit Motive is a work of history, but this history has immense contemporary relevance. Of late, the specialness and legitimacy of the administrative state is increasingly challenged, discredited, and undermined amid calls to, once again, run government like a business. In light of contemporary American government’s widespread reliance on private, for-profit contractors to carry out public responsibilities, its reorientation of the public workforce to more fully respond to market pressures and incentives, and its effective ownership of automotive, insurance, and even venture capital firms, we have seemingly come full circle. In this rush to re-embrace business-like government, we’re either forgetting or affirmatively repudiating the principles and practices that legitimized American public administration as a distinct normative and legal enterprise.

This Essay explains what happened after Parrillo’s account leaves off, why today’s government officials are seemingly stumbling over each other to privatize, marketize, corporatize, or commercialize countless state responsibilities, and why any analogy between business and government (then or now) is conceptually incoherent and normatively and constitutionally unsound.

This Essay concludes by contending that government’s force and, ultimately, its favor stems from its insistence on being separate, removed, and perhaps above private actors and commercial activity. This separation gives government officials their legal and moral legitimacy to compel rather than simply to advertise or entice, and to do so without engendering the type of mistrust that, as Parrillo notes, profits and other market metrics invite.

Keywords: administrative law, privatization, civil service, bureaucracy, for-profit government, legal history

JEL Classification: l33, d73, h11, j45, k23, l32

Suggested Citation

Michaels, Jon D., Running Government Like a Business... Then and Now (February 5, 2015). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 128, No. 4, p. 1152, 2015, Available at SSRN:

Jon D. Michaels (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

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