Tuesday, June 22 – Social entrepreneurs or social engineers?

DSC01877 On Tuesday morning I was still feeling a little tired from last nights’ dinner with I. William Zartman and Joyce Neu (who by the way were pretty awesome), so I was really grateful for the innumerous real-life examples of preventive diplomacy with which Terry Hopmann spiced up his presentation. Norbert Kunz followed after lunch, and although I had my usual time of lull, he got me thinking quite a bit on a topic I’ve always felt a bit skeptical about.

Norbert is a leading social entrepreneur, with a record of transforming the entire German vocational training system, establishing a bank for micro-credit loans, and successfully supporting members of marginalized groups to start their own businesses. I went to his talk with only a faint idea about social entrepreneurship, and I am really glad that he explained the concept in greater detail. Although my skepticism still holds on, I came to appreciate the potential impact of social entrepreneurship a lot more.

My concern is that social entrepreneurship is, by definition, a form of social engineering. As Norbert himself pointed out, one of the defining aspects of social entrepreneurship is its goal to solve social problems. The purpose of a social business is not just to make the highest possible profit, but to galvanize the largest possible change. That might sound like a desirable outcome, but given my background, red alarm goes off in my head whenever I hear “social” and “change” in one sentence. We had some forty years of a ‘social experiment’ in the Czech Republic and the key lesson we learned is “never again”.

Norbert explained that consumers and public sector are only interested in results: you want your computer to work and be cheap, you don’t care where and how it was manufactured. The city council wants a street built, and doesn’t care who builds it and how much the workers are paid. And I don’t see a problem with it: let the businesses decide on whom to employ and how much to pay them; after all we have enough laws already that set boundaries of what’s acceptable. We want our societies to be efficient, and competition is the best known mechanism so far to achieve this.

DSC01841 On the other hand, it is beyond doubt that such system is exclusive and bound to produce losers. Being a loser is only cool as long as there is still a chance to win next time or other place, but that’s sometimes not the case. Migrants with few employment opportunities, or disabled people with limited work output (both groups that Norbert worked with) stand zero chance of getting a job in businesses driven by efficiency and productivity. Then it’s the government’s role to create opportunities for their inclusion. Or is it?

I am just as sensitive to social experiments as I am to ever rising taxes and sprawling bureaucracy. And we all believe that “state” is the antonym of “efficiency”. Yet whenever we find ourselves unable to solve a problem, we just leave it to the government. That doesn’t make much sense at all. So maybe I should be glad to see that someone else is willing to do the job. I am still a little afraid that I might one day read news about a thousand people losing their jobs after their TV manufacturing company went bankrupt, having lost to competition by a social entrepreneurial project employing two thousand inmates from a local prison on manufacturing TVs. But hey, I’d get to buy a cheaper TV, so I guess I win, no?

Jaroslav Petrik, Czech Republic