Limits of entrepreneurial endeavor

In the most recent issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Johan van de Gronden, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands, says that markets are not capable of solving all the world’s problems:

As change agents, we’d do well to seek inspiration beyond the language of business and entrepreneurship…. Suggesting that sufficient entrepreneurial tools and practices will solve most of society’s ailments is a category mistake. It comes with the tacit assumption that society is better off when social entrepreneurs replace the many functions of government. This is the classic fallacy of development aid. When NGOs start delivering the services that many poor governments can’t deliver, they involuntarily aggravate the problem rather than build a solution. Governments spiral into a starvation cycle. If citizens cannot hold government accountable for basic services, for the proper spending of the collective revenue for the public good, then on what grounds would they favor one government over the other in the polls? And what reasons would citizens have to pursue a government career?

It seems to me that some of these characteristics are not alien to, say, the state of California. The world’s eight largest economy and home to some of the planet’s wealthiest individuals is barely capable of running a balanced state budget, while providing a minimum of basic and affordable services to its citizens, from health care to public schooling. There is tragic irony in this, as some of the world’s most generous foundations, finest NGOs, and best universities are part of the same societal fabric. And I think there is a correlation. When we place so much emphasis on the values of entrepreneurship to the extent that we start defining the poor quality of basic services as market failures, we may begin to think that the conception of a business plan in the mother of all solutions.

— Johan van de Gronden, “It takes three to tango: a European perspective on American civil society,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, spring, 2011, p. 23.

The peculiar American proclivity for insisting that markets provide solutions for all problems does interesting things to liberal religious congregations. This proclivity forces those of us in congregations to adopt entrepreneurial approaches in order to remain in existence, because we have to compete in the market with extraordinarily well-funded and well-supported alternatives, such as large market-driven conservative mega-churches that preach the gospel of prosperity, the entertainment industry, therapists, yoga studios, etc. In the same vein, this American proclivity also affects the expectations of those of us in congregations, such that we demand the constant innovation of products and services that is characteristic of American markets.

Those of us in liberal religious congregations have to carry an essentially impossible balancing act. We have to utilize the best resources of entrepreneurial endeavor, not just to thrive, but to survive; and as the years go by, we have to rely more and more on entrepreneurial endeavor. At the same time, we would be betraying our ethical and theological ideals if we go too far down the market-driven path of the prosperity gospel (“Come to church, build a purpose-driven life, and you will find financial success!”), or if we began to believe that the markets are more important than our historic ethical and theological ideals. This is a big part of the basic challenge facing liberal religion today.

One thought on “Limits of entrepreneurial endeavor”

  1. Theodore Roosevelt used to talk about “natural monopolies,” that is, services which were too important to be overpriced for every household (as monopolies would do), but at the same time, too important to be supplied on a case-by-case basis from entrepreneurs who would not, as competitors, either support or have access to standardization.

    We need to return to that concept. They were regulated by public service boards, and held accountable in part through transparent records. The stocks by which they were funded formed the backbone of “little old ladies’ portfolios,” that is, slow, steady growth, if any. These provided many a secure retirement for widows and orphans.

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