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In the Perspective section of last Sunday’s Denver Post, Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote an excellent piece exploring the two competing development visions for Denver’s Union Station (Who’s on the right track with Union Station plans? What I like about this article isn’t just the informative discussion of a single issue of current significance, but rather how it focuses on one instance of a more general challenge we face: Public Entrepreneurialism.

In all of the ideological noise, the competition of those who consider government the enemy and those who consider corporations the enemy, we don’t discuss enough the shared enterprise we are in, in which both government and corporations are problematic but indispensable players. Treating the public sphere as a popular entrepreneurial challenge, with one of the issues being how best to articulate that public entrepreneurship with the private sector to maximize our welfare through the most robust and efficacious utilizations of both, is exactly what we need more of. This is a wonderful discussion of that oft-forgotten but critically essential aspect of public participation and discourse: How we can act together in productive ways to improve our social institutional landscape. Let’s hope that is the kind of conversation we have more of in the future, displacing the one we already have far too much of.

Public entrepreneurialism is a concept that can join the pantheon of entrepreneurialisms, along with commercial, political, and social entrepreneurialism. Commercial entrepreneurialism requires no elaboration: It is what is normally referred to by the term. The development and implementation of a commercial idea in pursuit of private profit is commercial entrepreneurialism, and it plays a vital role in the ongoing evolution of our social institutional landscape.

Political entrepreneurialism involves political leadership outside of the established and official political landscape, in service to fomenting fundamental political change rather than preserving or operating through the status quo. Gandhi, King, revolutionary leaders and leaders of radical political movements, are examples of political entrepreneurs. They might leverage assets, mobilize resources, and divert profits of other enterprises toward the political goal. Clearly, commercial entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of political entrepreneurialism.

And, similarly, political entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of social entrepreneurialism. Social entrepreneurialism isn’t about changing regimes or merely expanding the franchize; it is about altering the culture. Changing the political landscape may be a means to that end, but, for social entrepreneurs, it is not an end in itself. Political entrepreneurs are often also, to varying degrees, social entrepreneurs: Certainly, King was a social entrepreneur to a very large extent, and Gandhi to a lesser extent. (Gandhi’s goal was primarily political: Indian independence. King’s was primarily social: The end of racism.)

But political entrepreneurs do not need to be social entrepreneurs: Many revolutionary leaders are simply trying to topple the current political power structure and replace it with what they believe to be a preferable one, because they believe the preferable one better serves either the public interest or their own interest, or the interests of those close to them, or some distribution among these, depending on the degree to which they are acting idealistically or cynically, and selfishly or altruistically.

All three of these forms of entrepreneurialism, on average, involve a higher proportion of charismatic authority than other forms of leadership (see What is Leadership?), though rational and traditional authority may well be invoked as well.  Social and political entrepreneurship probably rely more than commercial entrepreneurship on charismatic authority (though commercial entrepreneurs are often charismatic; think Steve Jobs), if only because the rewards of the former two are less immediate and less fungible: Those who follow, or work for, a commercial entrepreneur can do so for the promise of income without being otherwise persuaded, while those who follow political and social entrepreneurs generally have to be convinced of the ideals for which they are working.

Public entrepreneurialism is something different from all of these, articulating them into a single enterprise, and doing so from or through the established power structure rather than in opposition to it. It involves the mayor who has a vision for his or her city, the governor who is focused more on long-term development than short-term indicators, the president who has a vision for the country that guides his or her policies as much as or more than the ephemeral tides of political exigency.

It also involves those who try to influence them, not to change the nature of the game, but to play the game that exists more beneficially. Commercial entrepreneurs exist on a continuum ranging from the purely profit-motivated to the socially idealistic and visionary, and political and social entrepreneurs exist on continua ranging from extreme radicalism to subtle tweaking of existing institutions. Those who occupy the ranges closer to the latter poles become more involved in public entrepreneurialism, in partnership with others who occupy the more visionary range of elected and appointed office and bureaucratic careers.

Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was less radical, less rejecting of the status quo, than Malcolm X; the American Revolutionaries less revolutionary than their French counterparts. The former were more willing to retain much and make changes mostly on the margins, moving the sophisticated package of human history along a slightly diverted trajectory rather than trying to destroy what was and replace it en masse with what they believed should be.

Public entrepreneurialism is characterized, for instance, by the vision touted by recent Denver mayoral candidate James Mejia, involving developing the river front in much the same way that San Antonia did in the latter’s creation of its famous River Walk; and by the vision espoused by now Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper during his campaign, in which he discussed a vision for Colorado that revolved around articulated roles for political, social, and commercial entrepreneurs (see A Positive Vision For Colorado).

Public entrepreneurialism can emphasize different aspects of our social institutional landscape: The economic, the cultural, the aesthetic, the charitable. It can focus on improvements in education, or in the delivery of social services, or in the production of wealth, or in the promotion of fairness and justice and human decency; but, at its best, it involves at least a little of all of these, emphasizing one more than others in each project, but pursuing projects which, taken together, emphasize all of these values.

We are indeed in a shared enterprise, one which we can participate in by “railing against the machine,” or one which we can participate in by “rallying agents of the organism.” The former is often more emotionally gratifying, assuming the role of someone external and superior to that which is. The latter is more productive and realistic, recognizing that we are indeed a part of something larger than ourselves, something that has a history and a value worth preserving and developing. Public entrepreneurialism can be bold, idealistic, even radical at times. But it is the kind of change realized through the realization that no viable change occurs that does not leverage what is to create what can be.

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We can do better. We, the people, can do better. One important step toward doing better is to ask ourselves “how,” and then commit ourselves to implementing it. There are several components to the answer to this question, but I would suggest that one crucial component is letting go of our false certainties, just as I once let go of a fallen tree I was clinging to in the rapids of The Current River in Missouri.

I was on a canoe trip with three college buddies, about 33 years ago. We were drifting down a lazy stretch of the river, holding our two canoes together, sharing a little something now used for medicinal purposes in Colorado. As we floated around a bend in the river, we hit the rapids and, at the same time, saw a tree fallen from the left bank, obstructing about two thirds of the width of the river. Jack and Andy, in the canoe on the right, were able to skirt the tree, but Ed and I, on the left, had to angle more sharply across the current, and were pushed sideways up against the fallen tree. We watched helplessly as our canoe filled with water and disappeared beneath us.

The next thing we knew, we were clinging to the tree on the other side, soaking wet, bumped and bruised by being sucked under the tree, desperately struggling against the torrential current trying to sweep us away. Neither of us could pull ourself up onto the tree trunk against that overwhelming force, and panic began to set in. Until Ed stood up. And the river was mid-thigh deep. So I stood up as well.

Mid-thigh deep rapids are not easy to stand in. The torrent still threatened to sweep us away. But we were able to stand our ground, to wade over to the small island downstream where Jack and Andy had recovered our canoe, to build a fire and warm up and dry off, and then to get back into our canoes and navigate our way downstream.

That tree trunk represents for me false certainty, the false certainty we were clinging to to avoid being swept away by a river we did not really understand. The river bed that we finally realized we can stand on, that is solid and unmoving, are the core values that never change, that are always there and on which you can always depend as the solid foundation on which to pause and reassess. People sometimes mistake the silt stirred up from those values, but carried by the current, for the river bed itself, and try to stand on it. But there is no footing on that silt. You have to plant your feet beneath it, on the core values themselves, the ones that lie even beneath the words we use to describe them, beneath ambiguity. I will refer to them as “reason” and “universal goodwill,” though these words, too, are mere approximations.

The river we are all on together is not The Current River of Missouri, but rather the forever forking river of human history. It does not flow to a single destination, but rather to an almost unlimited array of possible futures determined by the choices we make, the forks we take. Some forks rejoin others, and permit lost opportunities to be regained. Some foreclose certain other possibilities, perhaps forever. The river bed is not always comprised of reason and goodwill, but all too frequently of looser gravel, of less reliable values, sometimes even of muck so deep that there is nothing to stand on, only something to sink into. Our choices are consequential, sometimes momentous. We need to continue to improve our ability to make them wisely.

The river we are on is strewn with fallen trees, with obstacles that do not flow with the current but rather stand against it. These obstacles are our false certainties, our blind ideologies, fresh and alive until they fall across the stream and become something we crash against and cling to rather than admire and use for momentary guidance. Great ideas, like once noble trees lining the banks, becoming rotting trunks that we mistakenly believe mark a point that is as far as we need to go. But those who cling to them will only end up watching history pass them by, and will eventually rush to catch up or languish, because there is no life to be had clinging to a single spot, real or imagined, terrified of the river that we all must continue to navigate.

There is debris floating on the river, ideas we can hold onto and that still help us float downstream. But we must be careful to be ready to let them go when the time comes, to follow the branches of the river with the most solid of river beds, most strongly founded on reason and goodwill. Neither alone is quite enough: Goodwill without reason leads to good intentions poorly executed, which can be as harmful to humanity as malicious intentions rationally executed (i.e., “reason” without goodwill). The two must always be combined: We fare well neither atop the loose gravel of goodwill irrationally expressed, nor atop the thick muck of malice, regardless of how well or poorly executed it may be.

(This is a good place to pause, and make an important distinction between functional and substantive rationality. Functional rationality refers to pursuing a goal in a manner which most effectively achieves it, while substantive rationality refers to selecting goals which are most rational to achieve. There is a bit of a conceptual hierarchy to it, involving more proximate and more ultimate goals, and thus intermediate goals whose substantive rationality depends on how well they serve the ultimate goals beyond them. But it is important to understand that our knowledge of human irrationality, that humans do not make decisions and form opinions primarily through reason, and that recourse to rational arguments are not the best means of persuasion, refers only to functional rationality, to the fact that understanding and working with irrational congitive realities is necessary to functional rationality. It does not refer to substantive rationality, to the challenge facing each and every one of us to pursue those goals which best serve our collective welfare. We may have to appeal to cognitive frames and narratives to convince people to come on board, but we must exercise great discipline while doing so to ensure that we are inviting them aboard a sound vessel bound for a desirable destination.)

For some simple issues, goodwill is nearly enough on its own. Many civil rights issues fall into this category, such as legalizing civil unions and gay marriage. But many issues, particularly economic issues, involve complex dynamical systems, feedback loops, and numerous counterintuitive consequences to particular actions and policies. On such issues, it is critical that people let go of their ideological certainties, and agree instead to try to become part of a process which favors the best analyses, most in service to universal goodwill. There are real challenges to establishing such processes, but they are not insurmountable challenges. They are the kinds of challenges that we are most fundamentally called upon to confront affirmatively and effectively.

I have made some initial efforts in outlining how to pursue this vision, how to concretize a commitment to reason and goodwill, even in an irrational world laden with zealously defended competing interests (see, e.g., A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, and How to make a kinder and more reasonable world). I have elaborated on several of the components (see, e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). I have identified and analyzed several of the challenges involved, several of the underlying concepts and dynamics, including The Signal-To-Noise RatioIdeology v. MethodologyCollective Action (and Time Horizon) ProblemsThe Variable Malleability of Reality, and a whole series of essays on “The evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems” (see second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I am also in the processes of having a page developed dedicated to this project at

I’m asking people to join me in this effort to reach down to the most fundamental level of our shared existence, to base a movement not merely on the imperfect certainties floating on the surface of our historical stream, but on the rock-solid riverbed beneath. We can build a long-term and powerfully attractive movement based on Reason and Goodwill themselves, not expecting people to be anything other than what we are, but learning how to work with that in the ways which yield the most positive outcomes. It’s time to let our imaginations and our far-sightedness shape for us a methodology, a process, a movement whose purpose is not to triumph on this issue or that, or to win an electoral majority for this party or that, but rather to cultivate the minds and hearts and hands of all of us in ways which favor wiser and more compassionate thought and action, and wiser and more compassionate public policies. Until we consciously undertake that challenge, we have not even truly begun to realize our potential as a people.

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The bulk of my posts aggregate to inform A Proposal for a social movement, one which combines devising the best policy analyses in service to humanity with the best and most innovative and cognitively sophisticated messaging in order to attract an ever-widening range of the public to the agenda of Reason and Goodwill. The element that may be most novel and most powerful, however, is not this combination of the essentially familiar ingredients of policy analysis and messaging, but rather the one that can be a game changer, the one that may prove to be an irresistible force: Organizing not to change government or implement particular public policies so much as to create a simultaneously personal and social commitment to one another, by actually “walking the walk” of goodwill,  of mutual interdependence  and support, associating with “the progressive agenda” the attraction of a lived commitment to other people’s welfare.

As I wrote in The Ultimate Political Challenge, a single Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. captures the imagination and, in time, wins over the hardened hearts of much of the opposition. They both knew the power of their goodwill, of their personal commitment to it, and acted with the discipline to turn that goodwill into a social force. These two “political entrepreneurs” mobilized their “charismatic authority” in service to specific issues within a Progressive world view (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively). What we lack today are similarly compelling political entrepreneurs, mobilizing similarly dedicated charismatic authority. And the step that hasn’t yet been taken is to mobilize those forces not to address a single issue, but to address the underlying issue of being a people dedicated to reason and empathy.

Today, there are many progressives angrily striving to implement progressive policies, but too often doing so with little or no internalized, personalized, and dedicated goodwill toward fellow human beings. It is just another blind ideology in their hands, not a commitment, not something they’re willing to sacrifice for. I challenge each and every one of them –AND MYSELF– not just to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk, to be, to some small degree, a tribute to those who were willing to give their lives to humanity, by giving some portion of our own. I challenge us all to strive to be “political entrepreneurs,” to strive to invoke our own “charismatic authority,” to demonstrate that individual initiative does not have to be mobilized only in service to the accumulation of individual wealth. I challenge us all to do good by being good, and by being good, vastly increasing our credibility as advocates for public policies aligned with that spirit.

The Tea Partiers, and other extreme individualists, who have managed to rationalize an indifference to the suffering of others and a denial of the responsibilities to others that come with the blessings of good fortune, are able to dismiss Progressives as people who want to spend other people’s money against their will, because, in fact, that’s all they see. But what if they saw instead the people who organize to mentor neighborhood kids, to help out those who are facing a crisis, to counsel and assist people in need, to be what they preach we as a society should be, and only in conjunction with that lived commitment, only as an auxiliary to it, are struggling to create a government that facilitates what they are already doing every day, in every way, as a natural part of our shared existence? Can you imagine the force of such a social movement?

All reasonable people of goodwill, who want to promote reason and goodwill, need to do so on the ground, in daily life, independently of government, if they want the advance of reason and goodwill to prevail. Those who can’t summon enough commitment to model for others what reason and goodwill look and feel like need to recognize that they are no better than those they oppose, no more than a bunch of people trying to impose their will on others without being willing to live up to the demands they themselves have made. No wonder the Progressive Movement is making so little headway! Who can trust armchair altruists, who talk a good game but live lives no more noble or generous than those they condemn?

I passionately want for us to become a kinder and gentler nation, a nation of people lifting one another up, a nation aspiring to realize the potential of the human spirit. There is one clear path to that end: For all of those who want the same to commit themselves to its realization, by becoming the kinds of irresistible beacons to reason and goodwill that Gandhi and King were, that each of us can be, even if to some smaller extent. By as many of us as possible striving to do so, we will give the Progressive brand a reputation for sincere goodwill that ever fewer will be able to deny. And the future will increasingly belong to what is best and most admirable in human beings.

This is what a commitment to Progressive policies demands of us: A commitment to personal progress in service to social progress, to being as individuals what we are advocating that we become as a society. Striving to rise to that challenge is the greatest gift we could give to our children, to their children, and to ourselves.

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