Bought something good, now feel better?

On Toronto’s 2018 Buy Good Feel Good Expo


The people in the pictures at right are all of a certain age, chat happily, hold hands, scan an art display and likely will purchase some of the colourful gifts on display. Though multicultural, they are clearly not poor, or old, or visibly diseased, even if those they want to help may be. The imagery would not be out of place in a popular magazine. Which, in a way, is likely the point.This is a long post, bit stick with us. It’s about the promise of an easy way to a good way.
Shopping as psycho-therapy was long ago advocated by ex U.S. President George Bush, among others, as a cure for what ails us  and, like most placebos it works with some things… for a while. But shopping as a cure for social ills is a more recent phenomenon. It was born as a reaction to a long neo-liberal economic consensus in the mainstream, and its associated constraints, most notably reduced, or removed, social support. The Buy Good Feel Good [BGFG] expo organizers, whose event brought many passionate and sincere entrepreneurs to Toronto in May must have long pondered an appropriate title for the gathering, so the conjunction of consumerism and well-or better feeling could not have been an accident; it poses for all the need to think about a central issue: the roles, actual and potential, of business enterprise in society.
Milton Friedman, neo-liberal economic hero, argued that the only role of business is to make a profit. By implication, this leaves it to the state, whatever is ideologically left to It, to fix whatever ills arise from the single-minded pursuit of profit, of which ills history has seen many, and still does. A simple division of labour follows, we could then conclude: business creates the jobs and income to purchase whatever business creates, while the state heals any wounds that the wealth creation process generates.  But since neo-liberals oppose tax increases and almost tax itself, in principle, society’s ability to perform such a role has significantly waned. And since, too, statist solutions, such as full employment, for the ills of economic productivity,  have been discarded after the fall of centralized communism, a core challenge was posed for government: how to ensure productivity, and public well-being without increased tax-funded public service investment?
Enter at this point – a perfect option that offered social benefits without taxation to fund it.  How about if business itself does the job by incorporating in its business models social goals as well as its bottom line needs, including profit? BGFG and TorontotheBetter are both committed to the potential of this model. And since the birth of industrial capitalism there have been enterprises like Bourneville Chocolate, that have indeed incorporated moral, religious or political values in their principles and practices. However successful such enterprises may be, however, we believe that their advocates must explicitly recognize what they cannot and will not do. The Buy Good Feel Good space offers an opportunity for such to do that, but unfortunately there was little mention of it to the knowledge of this observer.
TorontotheBetter is a non-profit set up to promote the use and availability of socially progressive economic options. In this regard, then, there is common ground between the aims of  TorontotheBetter, a non-profit enterprise, and the BGFG initiative. With the greater part of developed economies still in private hands and with the goal of profit maximization leading, as always, to the depletion of much human and environmental capacity, there is clearly growing opportunity, and space, for  what has been called “business done differently.” Feelgood has become a pejorative phrase in recent years because of its implicit recognition of the gap between feeling and being, or aspiration and actuality. Scanning the range of goods and services on display at BGFG we saw enterprises that do many things that benefit various sufferers like the many impoverished peasants of Nepal and/or the environment everywhere. The problem for TorontotheBetter then, is not the good that many social enterprises do, but their relative silence about the much that they can’t, or don’t do, even if they recognize that other institutions are required for an adequate social fabric to be completed. The danger of a relentlessly positive feelgood chorus is that it will encourage complacency about remaining problems that remain un-served and,  most importantly, about  the causes of these and other societal problems.
So, for future trade expos, whose object must be  to promote use of its sponsoring enterprises, we recommend a continuous parallel narrative about the limits of the independent social  enterprise sector on the one hand and the critical importance of stable tax support for the provision of basic needs for all by the public sector on the other. In addition to their relatively piecemeal coverage of societal needs, and consequential high prices and associated class privilege of social enterprise users (patrons seems a fitting word her, for once)  – there seem to be few socially committed engineering or mining companies, for instance – silence on the need for state funding in key areas inevitably leaves them open to an accusation of more or less smug complacency in the face of real societal stress.
We call on BGFG and other initiatives like them to be upfront  about the benefits and the limitations of what they do. They will gain in credibility and commitment if they do.