I was for a time the Shadow Secretary for Trade and Industry in the British Shadow Cabinet and, in that capacity, I frequently met business leaders. I was often surprised at how little they knew about the world beyond their businesses.

Some were so lacking in confidence on this score that they made some young friends of mine very rich by paying them large sums of money to be introduced to supposedly important people who would have been happy to meet them anyway.

All this is of course in marked contrast to today's conventional wisdom that businessmen (and it usually is men) are the only people who are competent to decide almost anything.

It is assumed not only that they know about business but that their business skills are essential for the resolution of otherwise difficult issues in every sphere of activity. It is not that they are assumed to know everything - far from it. It is just that they are believed to know all - little though it is - that is necessary.

I was reminded of this by last week's report that ambassadorial posts are to be advertised with a view to opening them up to a kind of competitive process.

It is apparently no longer enough to graduate with a good degree and to be accepted against strong competition into the diplomatic service, to have gained years of experience and to have developed special knowledge and skills in foreign languages and international politics, and to have spent a good part of one's life serving one's country in sometimes difficult and even dangerous posts overseas.

These qualities are not what we are now looking for. Anyone, it seems, can be a diplomat. Careful analysis, subtle judgment, accurate reporting, the ability to gain the confidence of people of different cultures and politics, are all beside the point. What is needed instead, apparently, is the ability to focus on the bottom line, to secure a proper return on capital, to cut costs and generally to bring the sharp lash of business realism to bear.

I am a former diplomat myself and it may be thought that I am reading too much into this. But I can think of better ways of maintaining professional standards and morale if we want an effective diplomatic service.

The Americans have for many years of course treated an ambassadorial post as a quid pro quo for financial contributions to political campaigns - and much good it has done them.

But it is not just the diplomatic service that is in the firing line. It is only the latest bastion to fall to the cult of the omniscient businessman.

From public service broadcasting to running prisons, from providing health care to protecting the environment, there is virtually no aspect of our national life that would not benefit, it seems, from being run as though it were a business. We scarcely have a public service any longer, so numerous are the highly paid consultants who now compete for the work.

Everything must be justified on purely business grounds. We are no longer citizens, but (if we're lucky) shareholders - no longer people, but units of production.

Workers in any case do not count. The business people we are invited to lionise do not include those who merely work for a living, since it is making money, not earning a living, that is held up as the pinnacle of achievement.

Who cares whether there is any understanding of the complexities of conducting foreign relations, or of providing justice to the victims of the Pike River disaster.

Or of the value of a national broadcaster in underpinning and helping to shape our own national identity? Who bothers with social, cultural and environmental goals, when everything revolves around the short-term return on financial investment? The only people who need to be satisfied are the accountants - the only measure that matters is the bottom line. Nothing else is of value.

We see the syndrome at its most virulent in the constant assertion that our economy must be run as though the country is a business. It follows that businessmen alone are equipped to make the important decisions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In hard times, a business will survive by cutting costs, laying off workers, suspending investment plans, delaying paying bills - the whole gamut of self-preservation measures.

These are all sensible measures for a single business to take in its own interests. An economy that responds in this way, however, will drive itself into recession.

Yet, so entrenched is the conviction that businessmen know best, that we continue to listen to individual business leaders who solemnly assure us that, in a recession, retrenchment is what the economy as a whole must pursue.

No one can doubt that enterprising and successful business people are critical to our national future. Let us ensure that they are encouraged and helped to concentrate on what they are good at (and that they get better at it).

But let us also recognise that there are many other facets of a healthy and happy society that do not lend themselves easily to the nostrums provided by the business manuals.

* Bryan Gould is a former vice-chancellor of Waikato University.