The absence of the entrepreneur in economic theory

It was a choice either to come to France and to the meeting on J.-B. Say or go to Hong Kong and to the Mt Pelerin Society meeting. With some racing across France and then an all-night flight I might have made it for the last three days, one of which was an excursion to Macau, where I have already been. So here I went, not without some regrets, but this conference has been so exceptional and I will feed off the things I learned for a long time to come.

My own presentation was on the absence of the entrepreneur in the economics of the English speaking world, a problem few notice and about which there is generally little comment or even the slightest general recognition that it matters.

• the dominance over the past century of the economics of the English speaking countries

• the absence of discussion of the entrepreneur in the economic literature written in English

• the meaning of “entrepreneur” comes from the French entreprendre which means to undertake with the word for entrepreneur in English having literally been “undertaker” which has its other more common meaning as someone who buries people for a living – a morbid connection

• interestingly as a sidelight, the German word to undertake is unternehmen and therefore the German for entrepreneur is Unternehmer but in this case with none of the morbid connectivity of English

• John Stuart Mill in 1848 was discussing the need for an English equivalent of entrepreneur and lamented that no such term existed

• Schumpeter’s notion of an entrepreneur embeds innovation

• the Kirzner version of an entrepreneur is someone who exploits opportunities others have overlooked

• the meaning that is missing with such overtones is the plain notion of an entrepreneur as a factor of production that exists along with land, labour and capital – someone who runs a business and brings the other factors together in a productive profit making enterprise

• all such entrepreneurs are almost certainly creative in their own way, some more than others, but it is the notion of the organiser of a business that is needed

• economic theory has, however determined that it must follow physics in depending on external non-human forces, such as demand or utility with human decision making almost invisible

• the use of MC=MR as the profit-maximising position is paradigmatic in that no actual human decision making is visible other than to follow the dots to the highest possible profit

• although this is the essence of the theory of the firm, what is omitted is the possibility of novelty and innovation not to mention time

• an innovative entrepreneur is inconsistent with economics-as-physics since it opens up the possibility of discontinuity

• discontinuity via innovation makes mathematically-based economics a limited approach to understanding the dynamics of economic change since the future cannot be expected to be like the past.

The one point that was underscored for me at this conference is the importance of defining capitalism as an economic system in which economic decisions are made by entrepreneurs who are defined as a self-selected group who run businesses to earn their living. They are not chosen by governments or funded by governments but live or fail based on their own capabilities in providing buyers with the things they want. If you want to distinguish a true market-based economy from amongst the many fakes that now exist, just find out who owns their businesses and how such individuals ended up running such firms.

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