An Access Advertising EconBrief:
Adding Entrepreneurship to Economics Makes ‘Disruptive’ Innovations Coordinative
Journalism pretends to be an objective profession. In reality, it is a subjective business. The subjective component derives from the normal limitations nature places on human perception; journalists may aspire to Olympian standards of accuracy and detachment, but they labor under the same biases as everybody else. The need to make a profit causes journalistic enterprises to cater to intellectual fads and fashions just as haute couture does when selling clothes.
The trendy business buzzword these days is “disruptive.” Ever since the Internet began revolutionizing life on the planet, technology has been occupying a bigger part of our lives. Somebody started saying “disruptive” to define new businesses that seemed to usher in noticeable changes in the status quo. When it comes to vocabulary, journalists imitate each other like parrots and chatter like magpies. Now slick magazines, websites and blogs are crawling with articles like “The 10 Most Disruptive Technologies/50 Most Disruptive Firms,” “How to Identify the Next Big Disruptive Technology” and “Which Sector Needs Disrupting the Most?”
It isn’t hard to identify disruptive firms; just picture the firms that have garnered the biggest and most recurring headlines – Apple, Amazon, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, SpaceX and such. Our job here is to ascertain whether a systematic logic unites the success of these firms and whether the term “disruptive” is economically descriptive – or not. Business writers often associate disruptive technologies with economist Joseph Schumpeter, whose work we examined in last week’s EconBrief.
This association is understandable, but unfortunate. Schumpeter’s linking of entrepreneurial progress and capitalism with technological innovation is not the general case, but only a special case. That is, it is only a small part of the reason why capitalism has been so successful. Schumpeter’s view of the forest was obscured by a few redwoods, figuratively speaking. Even worse, the term “disruptive” – like Schumpeter’s famous phrase “creative destruction” – conveys an utterly misleading impression about the impact of entrepreneurial progress and technological innovation under capitalism.
Journalists and business analysts were right in looking to economics for an understanding of technological innovation. And, as we saw last week, they certainly didn’t get much help from traditional economic theory. But they picked the wrong maverick economist to consult.
A Brief Review
Our previous EconBrief identified a serious lacuna in economic theory. No, make that multiple lacunae – certain simplifying assumptions that have alienated academic economics from reality. The pervasive use of high-level mathematics and statistical testing encouraged these assumptions because they kept economic theory tractable. Without them, economic models would not have been spare and abstract enough for mathematical and statistical purposes. In effect, the economics profession has chosen theoretical models useful for its own professional advancement but well-nigh useless for the practical benefit of the general public.
Evidence of this is supplied by the traditional indifference to entrepreneurship and innovation shown by mainstream theorists and textbooks. For contrast, we analyzed two striking exceptions to this pattern: the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter and F. A. Hayek. Schumpeter was contemptuous of the mainstream obsession with perfectly competitive equilibrium. He believed that economic development under capitalism was accomplished by a process of “creative destruction.” This did not involve small, incremental increases in output and decreases in price by perfectly competitive firms, each one of which had insignificant shares of its market. Instead, Schumpeter envisioned competition as a life-and-death struggle between large monopoly firms, each producing new products that replaced existing goods and improved consumer welfare by leaps and bounds. “Creative destruction” was a hugely disruptive process, a wholesale overturning of the status quo.
Hayek criticized mainstream theory just as strongly, but from a different angle. Hayek maintained that mainstream, textbook economic theory started out by assuming the things it should be explaining. Where did consumers and producers get the “perfect information” that traditional theory assumed was “given” to them? In effect, Hayek grumbled, it was “given” to them by the economists in their textbooks, not actually given in reality. He had the same complaint about product quality, an issue traditional theory assumed away by treating goods as homogeneous in nature. The trouble is that the vast quantity of information needed by consumers and producers isn’t available in one place; it is dispersed in fragmentary form inside billions of human brains. Only the price system, operating via a functioning free-market system, can collate and transmit this information to all market participants.
Hayek saw the true nature of equilibrium differently than did mainstream economists. The latter took their cue from mathematical economists such as 19th-century pioneer Leon Walras, who formulated equations for supply and demand curves and solved them algebraically to derive an equilibrium at which the quantity demanded and quantity supplied were equal. To Hayek, equilibrium meant that the plans human beings make in the course of living daily life turn out to be compatible, not chaotically inconsistent. That is the true Economic Problem – how to collect and transmit the dispersed information necessary to market functioning among billions of people in order to allow their plans to be mutually compatible.
Entrepreneurship – the Engine of Capitalism
Hayek’s work opened the door to an understanding of capitalism. We had long known that capitalism worked and socialism failed. But we could not supply a nuts-and-bolts, nitty-gritty explanation for why and how this was so. Theory is given little importance by the general public, but it is honored in the breach. The lack of a thoroughgoing theory of capitalist superiority has allowed a myth of socialist superiority to survive and even thrive despite the utter failure of socialism to prosper in practice. A disciple of Hayek and Hayek’s mentor, Ludwig von Mises, utilized the intellectual capital created by his teachers to complete their work.
Israel Kirzner was taught at New York University by Ludwig von Mises. His dissertation became an intermediate textbook on price theory, The Economic Point of View. In 1973, Kirzner synthesized the ideas of Mises and Hayek in a book called Competition and Entrepreneurship. For the first time, we had an explicit justification and explanation of the vital role played by the entrepreneur in economic life.
Heretofore, the entrepreneur had been the mystery figure of economic theory, akin to the Abominable Snowman or Bigfoot. To some, he was simply the organizer of production. To others, he was a salesman or promoter. To Schumpeter, he was an innovator who created new products using the lever of technology. Israel Kirzner took a completely different tack.
The keynote in Kirzner’s view of the entrepreneur is alertness to opportunity within a market framework. As a first approximation, the entrepreneur’s attention is fixed upon the price system. He or she is constantly searching for “value discrepancies;” that is, differences between the price(s) of input(s) and output. For example, he may observe that a, b and c can combine in production to produce D. The price of amounts of a, b and c sufficient to produce one unit of D is $5, while the entrepreneur sees (or envisions) that D will sell for $10. This act of intellectual visualization itself is what constitutes entrepreneurship in Israel Kirzner’s theory. Acting upon entrepreneurial observation requires productive activity.
There is a family resemblance between Kirzner’s concept of entrepreneurship and what is often termed “arbitrage.” But the two are far from identical. Arbitrage is loosely defined as buying and selling in different markets to profit from price differentials. Often, the same good is purchased and sold – simultaneously if possible – to reduce or even eliminate any risk of financial loss. Kirznerian entrepreneurship is far more comprehensive. Different goods may be involved, purchases need not be simultaneous or even close to it; indeed, markets for some of the goods or inputs involved may not even exist at the point of visualization! The entrepreneur may be contemplating the introduction of an entirely new good, a la Schumpeter. At the other extreme, the entrepreneur may be hoping to profit from the smallest price discrepancy in the most homogeneous good, as banks or traders do when they arbitrage away tiny price differences in stocks, bonds or foreign currencies in different exchanges.
In fact, the entrepreneur need not even be a producer or a seller at all. Consumers can and do engage in entrepreneurial activity all the time. Consumers clip and redeem coupons. They scan newspapers and online ads for sales and comparative prices. This activity is analytically indistinguishable from the activity of producers, Kirzner claims, because in both cases there is a net increase in value derived by consumers – and consumption is the end-in-view behind all economic activity.
The Consumer as Entrepreneur – A Case Study
In 1965, Samuel Rubin and a few friends were dismayed by the vanishing interest in, and availability of, silent movies. They held a small film festival for silent-movie enthusiasts and created the Society for Cinephiles. This gathering became the first classic-movie film festival. Fifty years later, Cinecon remains the oldest and most respected of this now-worldwide genre. Three years later, Steven Haynes, John Baker and John Stingley hosted a small gathering for classic-movie lovers in Columbus, Ohio. This year, Mr. Haynes died after planning the 47th meeting of the Cinevent festival, which annually attracts a few hundred dedicated lovers of silent and studio-system-era movies. In 1980, classic-movie fanatic Phil Serling began the Cinefest gathering in Syracuse, New York with a few close friends. 2015 marked the final meeting of this festival, which attracted attendees from around the world. Today the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a headline-making event featuring the latest newly found and restored rarities.
This genre of classic-movie worship was begun by consumers, not by profit-motivated producers. But these consumers nevertheless were alert to opportunity – the discrepancy in value between the movies currently available for viewing and those of the past. Prior to the digital age, older movies (particularly silent movies) were seldom screened and hard to view. Moreover, they were disintegrating rapidly and dangerous to maintain because of the fire-danger posed by nitrate film stock. Yet thanks to the efforts of these pioneering consumers, today we have multiple television channels exclusively, primarily or secondarily devoted to showing classic films, including silent movies. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) leads the way, while the Fox Channel is close behind. Over twenty thousand people attend the Turner Classic Movies Festival in Hollywood every year and TCM’s annual cruise and other promotions attract thousands more. Film preservation is a major endeavor, with new discoveries of heretofore “lost” movies occurring every year. Classic movies is big business, thanks to the dispersed entrepreneurship efforts of the scattered but determined few decades ago. The small net gains in value experienced by the silent-movie lovers in 1965 multiplied millions-fold into the consumption gains of millions worldwide today on television and in person.
Schumpeter Vs. Hayek/Kirzner: Away from Equilibrium or Towards It?
Contemporary business analysts take an ambivalent attitude toward innovation and entrepreneurship. They give lip service toward its benefits – new products and services, the benefits reaped by consumers. But they imply in no uncertain terms that these benefits carry a terrible price. Terms like “creative destruction,” with heavy emphasis placed on the second word, directly state that there is a tradeoff between consumer gains and destructive loss suffered by workers, owners of businesses driven into insolvency and even members of the general public who lose non-human resources that are somehow vaporized by the awesome power of technology. Instead of stressing the labor-saving properties of technology, commentators are more apt to refer to labor-killing innovations. No wonder, then, that journalists have turned to Schumpeter, whose apocalyptic view of capitalism was that its superior productivity would ultimately prove its undoing. With friends like Schumpeter, capitalism has grown ever more defenseless against its enemies.
Schumpeter believed that entrepreneurial innovation was both creative and destructive – creative because its products were new, destructive because they completely supplanted the replaced competing products, driving their competition from the field. In the technical sense, then, Schumpeter saw entrepreneurs as a dysequilibrating force, spearheading a movement away from one stable equilibrium position to a different one. Schumpeter himself recognized that, in practice and unlike the blackboard transitions that academic economists effect in the blink of an eye, these movements would often be wrenching. But the analysis of Kirzner, using the framework built by Hayek and Mises, leads to different conclusions.
Kirzner acknowledged the validity of Schumpeter’s form of entrepreneurship. But he recognized that it was only the exceptional case. The garden variety, everyday forms of entrepreneurship – practiced by consumers as well as producers – produce movements toward equilibrium, not away from it. This is true for two reasons. First, entrepreneurship does not lead away from equilibrium because the traditional concept of equilibrium is a myth; reality changes far too quickly for actual equilibrium ever to be reached, let alone be maintained. Second, entrepreneurship leads toward equilibrium because it enables human beings to better coordinate their plans by allowing a more efficient exchange of information. Hayek objected to the traditional economic assumption of “perfect information” because he claimed that this assumed the existence of equilibrium at the outset. Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship tells us that the so-called “disruptive” businesses of today are pushing us closer and closer to that condition of perfect information – which means we are getting closer and closer to perfectly coordinated equilibrium. Of course, we never reach this blissful state, but capitalism keeps us steadily on the move in the right direction.
What is Google, with its search-engine technology, if not the search for the economist’s informational Shangri-La of perfect information? Wikipedia, a user-created encyclopedia, is the archetype of Hayek’s model of a world in which information exists in dispersed, fragmentary form that is unified by a voluntary, beneficial market. Facebook has become a colossus by making it easy for people to provide information about themselves to others – and in the process become a kind of worldwide clearinghouse for information of all kinds. Pinterest has narrowed this same type of focus to photos, but the key is still information. Newer technology businesses like Crowd Strike, specializing in cyber intelligence and security, and the Chinese company Tencent, with its emphasis on mobile advertising, are also informational in character.
In each of these cases, entrepreneurs were alert to the market opportunities opened by technology and signaled by the low prices ushered in by the digital age. The entrepreneurial character of some of these businesses has baffled the business establishment because it has not emulated the conventional, profit-seeking model. That is usually because the initial entrepreneurs have been consumers striving to create value for their own direct use. Only later have they realized the potential for exporting the value surplus created to the rest of the world. This looks outré to most observers but it is fully consistent with Israel Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship.
Another of the unrealistic simplifying assumptions deplored by Hayek was “costless” transactions, particularly entry, exit and determination of product quality. This was another case of economists assuming what they should be proving, or at least investigating; it started out by assuming equilibrium and skipped the market process necessary to produce – or, more realistically, approach – an eventual equilibrium. The technological innovations of the last two decades that weren’t information in character were mostly directed at reducing various costs, either natural or man-made costs.
The Internet itself is a mammoth exercise in reducing the costs of transport and communication. Instead of calling in the telephone, we can now send an e-mail. By inventing smartphones, Apple has one-upped the Internet and desktop computers by making this communication mobile. In between these two inventions, of course, came cell phones – invented decades earlier but made practical when Moore’s Law eventually shrank them to pocket size. The shocking thing is how little economics had to say about any of these revolutionary human innovations – because traditional economic theory had long assumed zero transport and transactions costs. Why concern yourself with an innovation when your theory says there is no need for it in the first place?
The development of cell phones was held back for years by government regulation of telecommunications, which fought tooth and claw to prevent competition between phone companies and innovation by monopoly providers. In formal logic, the effect of government regulation is best envisioned as equivalent to the effect of a mountain range or an ocean on transportation. Alternatively, think of costs as being like taxes. Transport costs are “levied” by nature, while taxes are levied by governments. Transactions costs may be either natural or man-made. And a review of recent “disruptive” businesses shows many designed specifically to overcome either natural or man-made costs.
The entrepreneurs of Uber and Lyft observed the artificially high taxi fares created by local-government regulation in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. They envisioned lower prices and faster response-times resulting from assembling a voluntary workforce of casual drivers and independent professionals, operating free from the stranglehold of regulation. Airbnb looked at the rental market for habitation and saw the potential for achieving the same kind of economies by enlisting owners as vendors. Jeff Bezos of Amazon envisioned consumers freed from the shackles of traveling to retail stores and a supplier with transport costs lowered by economies of scale. The result has shaken the world of retail sales to its foundations. (We should note that this combines the lowering of natural transport costs and the lowering of artificial man-made sales taxes.) Driverless cars threaten an even bigger revolution in the world of transportation by overcoming the costs of human error and accidents – if they can overcome the “tax” of government regulation to achieve liftoff. Body sensors are a revolutionary innovation triggered by the consumer desire to overcome high medical costs of maintaining good health, which are an artifact of regulation. The new website Open Bazaar dubs itself “a decentralized peer-to-peer marketplace” whose goal “is to give everyone in the world the ability to directly engage in trade with each other.” In other words, it is dedicated to reducing transactions costs to the irreducible minimum.
Once again, these cost-based innovations are entrepreneur-driven. Again, some of them were pioneered by consumers rather than by the corporate or venture-capital establishment. This is exactly what we would expect, given the theory developed by Israel Kirzner.
Monopoly or Competition?
Schumpeter believed that true progress came from monopoly, not competition. He meant monopoly in the effective, substantial sense, not merely the formalistic sense of a transitory market hegemony enjoyed by the innovator. Events have clearly proven Schumpeter wrong. It is hard to find a case today that would correspond to Schumpeter’s archetype; instead, the initial innovator has been superseded by somebody else. Market leadership has been the result of performance, not entry barriers or patents or government pull. And the innovators themselves have often been “nobodies” rather than monopolists boasting war chests heavy with monopoly profits.
In 1929, Ludwig von Mises predicted a “great crash” and refused to take a position in the Austrian government for fear of association with the economic downturn he anticipated. F.A. Hayek predicted a sharp recession, pursuant to the business-cycle theory he had recently developed. Later, Hayek predicted the failure of Keynesian counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policies and the high worldwide inflation of the 1970s, coupled with the recession that followed measured taken to break the inflation.
In general, Hayek did not believe that accurate quantitative prediction of economic events was possible. At most, he felt, economic theory could offer “pattern predictions” of a more general nature. His own statements, both in economics and political philosophy, tended to support this approach.
Israel Kirzner did not “predict” the advent of the Internet or the invention of the smartphone. But the technological revolution and the businesses spearheading it conformed to the general pattern of entrepreneurship outlined in Israel Kirzner’s theory. In this sense, while this revolution came as a complete surprise to the mainstream economics profession, it can hardly have surprised Kirzner. The revolution was led by people behaving just as Kirzner hypothesized that entrepreneurs do behave.
Can the Status Quo be “Disruptive?”
Based on our analysis and Israel Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship, the business buzzword “disruptive” is misleading when applied to the cutting-edge firms and technologies of today. It is indeed true that these technologies overturn the status quo. But the status quo is hindering human progress and preventing attainment of true economic equilibrium; it is hurting people rather than helping them. If transport costs or transaction costs or taxes or regulation are hurting people – and helping at most only a minority vested interest in the process – then changing the status quo is the indicated action. “Stability” is not always good. After all, Stalin’s Soviet Union was stable. Fortunately, the Soviet Union later collapsed when that stability disintegrated.
As Israel Kirzner himself has always maintained, economics is all about making people better off. When this criterion is placed foremost, discarding the pure formalism of mainstream theory, is becomes clear that Mises, Hayek and Kirzner were right and Schumpeter was wrong. Entrepreneurship is equilibrating because it tends to better coordinate the plans made by individual human beings.
The process by which Nobel Prizes are awarded is highly secretive. The Nobel committee keeps their candidate “cards” close to their vests. Rumors have circulated, however, placing Israel Kirzner’s name on the short list of potential awardees. No man alive has done more than he to redeem the tarnished prestige of economics as a subject worth studying for its practical value to humanity.