What kind of insanity have we fallen so easily into? When did we become so abstracted from what we know about ourselves that we started to swallow whole such counter-intuitive nonsense? Corporations with social “responsibility”, and public services that make a “profit”? How about vegetarian lions and wooden clothing? Or perhaps we should put sails on cars and wheels on boats?
Corporations that have awareness of the society that holds them, and public services that are accountable for their efficiency are both wonderful things; but let’s not let confusion permeate the proper roles for these different entities in our human sociosystem. Commercial enterprises competing in the market for the right to use limited resources, and public services striving to deliver the highest quality services on limited budgets, are both valid and vital components of a sustainable society and economy. It is important that both attend to their primary roles with due diligence, in order for them to contribute their unique qualities to the greater good.
The reason why the word “socialist” is such an ill fitting description of the modern sustainability movement is because it does not convey the fundamental adherence to the “natural order” of things that is at the heart of new political thinking. We are looking out on the world, and inside ourselves, to determine the natural flows that we can harness to fashion sustainable structures for societies and economies. Objective retrospection of the last 2000 years, and especially the last century, has to lead to a recognition of the natural human capacity for competitive enterprise and the benefits that commercial innovation can deliver. Competitive commercial enterprises are a great thing, we can and must acknowledge that. Bludgeoning those enterprises with responsibility for things that are not their natural role, is a rude fig leaf for lacking the moral courage to take responsibility for what is ours to own.
When we paint commercial enterprise with responsibility for our crumbling social fabric, for the desolation of natural resources or for the poverty of the many, we are absolving ourselves of our own responsibility for those undesirable facets of our modern world. The facts of life are that commercial enterprises are clients of our societies, and it is we, the public citizens of those societies, that must take personal responsibility for describing the environment within which commerce is transacted. We must expect that businesses are driven by their profits, and create a framework within which they can operate in that manner without destroying our social fabric, our natural world or our political supremacy.
Similarly with public services, funded by tax payers to deliver efficient services to the citizenry – these are not (typically) operating in environments where competition is desirable, possible or necessary. The profit motive is a reward system that induces risk taking in a competition to reach the most effective result, a competition that is necessary destructive of the less successful alternatives, and in so being it is inefficient. To the extent that the efficiency and quality of public services benefit from innovation and development, these can be achieved most naturally by opening up their management and direction to wider input from the public, non-profits and academia. Rewarding excellence in the performance of public services, by allowing incentive pay for those that work in their delivery, should not be confused with the services themselves having to adhere to a profit motive – they are separate and independent processes (as corporate experience has proved).
Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to your neighbour what is ours. This is the natural order of things: don’t expect businesses not to be profit driven, and don’t force altruistic services to be profit driven. When we accept what we know is the natural order, we are left holding our own responsibility for defining the intended outcomes, and the frameworks within which we wish those natural forces to operate. And when we assume our responsibility we will find it much easier to have clarity and to be effective in reaching the goals we intend. What happens in the world happens with your permission, unless you are actively doing something to change it; when we all own that fact, we can come into the power that has always been ours.