Professor Kanter's Dangerous Conclusion

In the final issue of The Harbus 2001 Edition, Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter graciously submitted an article that originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Business 2.0, entitled, “The End of the End of Big Government.”

In her piece, Prof. Kanter argues forcibly that the U.S. terrorism crisis revealed “our erstwhile mania for cost cutting, privatization, and outsourcing,” and she lists several examples of this mania that may well have contributed to the current crisis, among them our “government on the cheap” and its resulting inability “to absorb and process information” such as foreign intelligence due to downsizing.

She also assails the U.S. government’s failure to provide enough “American aid [abroad] to win hearts and minds,” and later stabs with the line, “Yet our products were everywhere and were used against us” by terrorists, specifically naming cell phones, the Internet, and of course, commercial aircraft.

With these arguments, we do not (would dare not) disagree. There is a concern, however, with the implication of Prof. Kanter’s closing line: “[I]t is clear that when the twin towers fell on September 11, the era of downsized government was over.”

How exactly clear that conclusion is in Washington and throughout the United States, however, remains in doubt. We want to be careful not to confuse clarity of logic with the clarity of an argument in the public mind, especially in political debate.

It could be a dangerous mistake to assume that the end of downsized government is a foregone conclusion. That assumption could be dangerous because the stakes are high; it could be a mistake because recent events have shown that Washington is still full of lawmakers who will fight attempts at “right-sizing” government when doing so implies growth, even in the aftermath of September 11, even in the face of clear and forceful logic such as Prof. Kanter’s.

As readers may recall, there were extensive negotiations in Congress about the Aviation Security Bill, with mostly Republican lawmakers fighting against measures to nationalize airport security. Even the final compromise version, signed by President Bush, allows airports to decide in only three years whether or not to keep federalized security screeners or to return to privatized contracts, and perhaps the conditions about which Prof. Kanter warns.

But then again, one might read Prof. Kanter’s article as a call to the private sector to act more responsibly in an era of downsized government, and to resist a cost-cutting-at-any-cost mentality. September 11 may well have shown us what those costs can be. As these debates continue, we should watch closely. To the extent that government and its vital roles are reduced or are insufficient, the private sector must rise up and fill the need for leadership in the social sector wherever it may occur. And to prepare for that challenge, there is no better place to be than here with Prof. Kanter and her colleagues at Harvard Business School.