While helping to frame the United States Constitution, James Madison wrote “if men were all angels, no government would be necessary.” In his opinion, good government depended upon the concept that individual self-interest shouldn’t undermine the public good.
The incoming Trump Administration will place an unprecedented number of billionaires and successful business people in leadership roles — many of whom will have an ongoing personal financial interest in the country’s economic and foreign policies. Where to draw the line between the personal interests of those serving in government and the common good is on the mind of many.
Insights gained by growing a business help create concrete understanding of the many impediments and opportunities that shape success. For instance, a company navigates many federal, state and local regulations all while management motivates and develops employees, sells to customers and shares a clear and inspiring vision.
For complex industries, business leaders have a deep understanding of their inner workings. For a thorough explanation of how a complex financial derivative works, or how machine learning can replace a customer support employee, ask the leader of the related business. The insights gained from business success and mastering the complexity of key industries certainly makes a successful person an attractive candidate for managing a federal agency or creating new policies for the economy.
Moreover, wealthy Americans are seen by many as less likely to use a government position to seek personal advantage. They are seen as incorruptible because they can serve the public interest free from the need to gather resources to provide for their family.
So insight, experience and perceived incorruptibility could justifiably lead us to conclude that having more business leaders in government is a good thing. Indeed, many who voted for Donald Trump were drawn specifically to his business success.
The big issue, however, is not qualification, it is the degree to which business people in key leadership roles will be willing to disavow the potential financial self-interest in their government decisions.
If James Madison were alive today, he would likely still ask whether our business leaders are “angelic” enough to serve the public interest.
For close to 250 years, our nation has been governed with Madison’s words in mind. Americans agree that without rules of conduct and disclosure, there’s a risk a political appointee’s or politician’s self-interest takes precedence public interest. Here in the nation’s capital, we are familiar with Federal Acquisition Rules disclosing and avoiding personal gain in contractual transactions, but there are many other examples. Both our economy and government are based on the premise that self-interest must be disclosed and avoided when individuals are asked to exercise their judgement for the good of others.
Unfortunately, Congress and the incoming administration are clearly signaling that principles of disclosure, or the avoidance of personal profit, are of less concern than previously agreed. We are going to have to trust our leaders to find their better nature. However, in an environment where most Americans do not trust our political institutions, having faith might be the toughest challenge we face.
I believe that there is a large opportunity for thoughtful government and new approaches represented by the inclusion of business insight. But, we should expect that those from the business community who choose to serve also understand the enormous responsibility that each will carry — the responsibility to put the public interest ahead of their own.
Will an administration led by business people be the solution for our nation? Only if they are all angels.
Column originally posted in WashingtonPost.com.