William Baumol, who strikes me as one of the leading contenders for a Nobel in the near future, has written a surprising amount of interesting economic history. Many economic historians see innovation – the expansion of ideas and the diffusion of products containing those ideas, generally driven by entrepreneurs – as critical for growth. But we find it very difficult to see any reason why the “spirit of innovation” or the net amount of cleverness in society is varying over time. Indeed, great inventions, as undeveloped ideas, occur almost everywhere at almost all times. The steam engine of Heron of Alexandria, which was used for parlor tricks like opening temple doors and little else, is surely the most famous example of a great idea, undeveloped.
Why, then, do entrepreneurs develop ideas and cause products to diffuse widely at some times in history and not at others? Schumpeter gave five roles for an entrepreneur: introducing new products, new production methods, new markets, new supply sources or new firm and industry organizations. All of these are productive forms of entrepreneurship. Baumol points out that clever folks can also spend their time innovating new war implements, or new methods of rent seeking, or new methods of advancing in government. If incentives are such that those activities are where the very clever are able to prosper, both financially and socially, then it should be no surprise that “entrepreneurship” in this broad sense is unproductive or, worse, destructive.
History offers a great deal of support here. Despite quite a bit of productive entrepreneurship in the Middle East before the rise of Athens and Rome, the Greeks and Romans, especially the latter, are well-known for their lack of widespread diffusion of new productive innovations. Beyond the steam engine, the Romans also knew of the water wheel yet used it very little. There are countless other examples. Why? Let’s turn to Cicero: “Of all the sources of wealth, farming is the best, the most able, the most profitable, the most noble.” Earning a governorship and stripping assets was also seen as noble. What we now call productive work? Not so much. Even the freed slaves who worked as merchants had the goal of, after acquiring enough money, retiring to “domum pulchram, multum serit, multum fenerat”: a fine house, land under cultivation and short-term loans for voyages.
Baumol goes on to discuss China, where passing the imperial exam and moving into government was the easiest way to wealth, and the early middle ages of Europe, where seizing assets from neighboring towns was more profitable than expanding trade. The historical content of Baumol’s essay was greatly expanded in a book he edited alongside Joel Mokyr and David Landes called The Invention of Enterprise, which discusses the relative return to productive entrepreneurship versus other forms of entrepreneurship from Babylon up to post-war Japan.
The relative incentives for different types of “clever work” are relevant today as well. Consider Luigi Zingales’ new lecture, Does Finance Benefit Society? I can’t imagine anyone would consider Zingales hostile to the financial sector, but he nonetheless discusses in exhaustive detail the ways in which incentives push some workers in that sector toward rent-seeking and fraud rather than innovation which helps the consumer.
Final JPE copy (RePEc IDEAS). Murphy, Schleifer and Vishny have a paper, also from the JPE in 1990, on the topic of how clever people in many countries are incentivized toward rent-seeking; their work is more theoretical and empirical than historical. If you are interested in innovation and entrepreneurship, I uploaded the reading list for my PhD course on the topic here.