Can innovation and social responsibility replace the profit motive?

Yes of course. Throughout human history innovation and social responsibility — which I would define more broadly as creativity and prosociality — have existed and thrived without the profit motive. In fact the profit motive interferes mightily with both more often than not.

On the one hand the profit motive channels innovation and creativity into a very narrow focus of only what increases profit, abandoning anything that doesn’t promise return on investment. For example, we often see real innovation crowded out by “cheaper and more efficient” forms of production and service delivery, because those types of innovation guarantee greater profitability. Most of the big leaps forward in more creative and life changing innovation, in fact, have arisen through academic and government research, by inventors fiddling in their workshop for fun, artists creating masterpieces for their loved ones, philosophers struggling to answer complex moral questions, or mathematicians solving challenging equations — all because that particular mountain was simply there to climb, not because they would make a buck off of it. The results were then put into production by for-profit companies who reap all the rewards from someone else’s creativity. The profit motive doesn’t have much at all to do with the innovation, just its mass production. This is the case with everything from cell phone technology to medical advances to major changes in the structure of society.

The profit motive has also long demonstrated it can often be at odds with social responsibility and prosociality. There have been countless instances where the profit motive has created oppressive or life threatening conditions and consequences for workers and consumers — and the history of capitalism has mainly been about civil society correcting those abuses (child labor laws, worker safety laws, consumer protections, environmental protections, strengthening democracy against cronyism and plutocracy, etc.). And the oppressive and exploitative conditions created by the profit motive have often threatened the stability, liberty, and thriving of civil society itself. Although it is true that capitalism and the profit motive have provided an extraordinary engine for productivity and economic growth, it has been civic institutions, democratic reforms, educational institutions, and the expansion of civil rights that have established or strengthened conditions that support creativity, innovation, social responsibility, and general societal cohesion — particularly in the face of a countervailing atomistic individualism and commercialistic materialism inspired by the profit motive.

This is not the narrative that the “market fundamentalist” or pro-capitalist folks appreciate or even understand. They are often blind to the antagonisms of liberty, creativity, and civil society that the profit motive has wrought.

But again, if we study the grand arc of human history, most of the greatest innovations, and the greatest evolutions in civil society itself, have been utterly divorced from the profit motive. Humans just love to create, to connect with each other and create community, and to build institutions and civic structures that support those impulses. The profit motive is tolerated because it has lead to a rapid expansion of material wealth and technological conveniences — it has facilitated creature comforts and material security. But it has also eroded society at the same time, which is why it has had to be constantly managed and constrained.

My 2 cents.


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