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The Entrepreneur as Social Hero

September 14, 2010

A couple days ago Arnold Kling reported a conversation he had with Arthur Brooks of AEI on free market evangelism. He writes:

Brooks thinks that the case for markets must be made in moral terms rather than in material terms. Young members of the cognitive elite (my term, not his) take affluence for granted, as well they might. They are focused on other values (you may recall the Russ Roberts podcast with Dan Pink, talking about autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose).

Brooks would like to reverse the usual tenor of the debate in which the opponents of capitalism make moral arguments and the defenders of capitalism make material arguments. He would like to leave the opponents of capitalism arguing for material equality in the context of a sterile, corporatist-statist economy that stifles individual creativity. He would like to have the defenders of capitalism argue that human flourishing requires allowing people to strive for and earn their success.

In the upcoming Facebook movie, several entrepreneurs will be portrayed as needy and insecure or conniving, arrogant and greedy. From what I hear, the truth value of this film is close to zero, which is unfortunate, because the real people are far more interesting than Justin Timberlake. It is telling that we live in a society that cares more about Timberlake’s success than that of the man he plays, Sean Parker. Arthur Brooks and other evangelists need to address that problem. One place to begin would be Schumpeter’s angle on the entrepreneur as someone motivated by “the joy of creating and getting things done.”

Vanity Fair has a profile of Sean Parker in which he expresses some views that might resonate with the “cognitive elite,” a class obsessed with social transformation and betterment. From VF:

There is hardly a topic—literary, political, medical, or technological—about which [Parker] cannot offer an informed and nuanced opinion in his rapid-fire patter. (Don’t get him started on Ben Franklin’s role as a media pioneer.) Most of all, he turns his knowledge and instincts toward Internet business strategy as a way, he says, of “re-architecting society. It’s technology, not business or government, that’s the real driving force behind large-scale societal shifts.

Emphasis mine. And:

To Parker, the implication is that people in his position have almost an obligation to do what they can with the tools at their disposal—software and the Internet—to free up society through disruptive technology. As he muses, it is clear that he sees entrepreneurship and invention as handmaidens of social transformation.

The entrepreneur as social liberator…the rock stars have fallen silent and grown anemic…who will inspire in their place?…I can’t get no….I can’t get no….satisfaction…uh, no, no, no…hey, hey, hey…you want social action? Start company by solving a problem. That’s what I say.


  1. Jeff Gibson permalink
    September 15, 2010 5:44 pm

    I have always marveled how a person/organization who generates employment for thousands from an idea, and generates solutions that better the life of all does not due credit.

    Human nature is to celebrate (hence celebrity) tangible accomplishments. In Rome, Nero and Commodus admired performers and gladiators of the day, even as emporerers seeking to emulate them. Rulers were in the propaganda game early, with brand-building and PR teams under ancient guises.

    Great athletes, conquerers, rulers, theocrats, performers have always garnered immortality and respect because of the tangibility of their accomplishments and glamor. If we think Hunter Gatherer, this makes sense does it not, that the strongest or most palpably talented be regarded as heroic?

    True, the inventor is still respected in the modern zeitgeist, but only when it is in the context of the “man from nowhere”. And worse yet, inventors and entrepreneurial success always is afflicted with hindsight bias of inevitability that minimizes the contribution. Upgraded standard of living is respected somewhat, think Light Bulbs, Facebook, Google, or Assembly Lines.

    But the indirect, non-tangible wake of capitalistic success is not – jobs, community, incremental improvements to initial ideas, precursors to further innovation.

    Most humans will never overcome this bias.

    Even a died-in-the wool libertarian thinker is more likely to buy a ticket to see a story of a gladiator who was once a general challenge a roman usurper emperor than they are a two hour story of a guy who build a business, employed a hundred people, had three kids, a cat, a dog, gall bladder stones, and eventually a well-attended funeral.

  2. September 15, 2010 8:54 am

    Walter E. Williams once said, “I praise lassez-faire capitalism as being the most moral and most productive system man has ever devised. Capitalism is relatively new in human history. Prior to capitalism, the way people amassed great wealth was by looting, plundering and enslaving their fellow man. Capitalism made it possible to become wealthy by serving your fellow man.”

    Myself, I am a deontological libertarian. I won’t refuse a nice utilitarian argument when it’s available, but I’m primarily a deontologist. When I argue against Obamacare, for example, it’s on the grounds that it is unconscionable to force people to buy goods against their wills, even for the sake of making health care cheaper. Should the government force us to buy Toyotas instead of Hondas so that Toyotas become cheaper? G-d forbid!

    I have a Modern Orthodox Jewish friend who detests the coercion practiced by the Israeli Rabbinate, but who nevertheless celebrates Obamacare. I – who am myself also Modern Orthodox – ask him how on earth he can distinguish between civil and religious tyranny. King James I was wise enough to know that “No Bishops, No King”, that religious freedom and civil freedom went hand-in-hand, and he told the Puritans, “You agree with kingship as much as G-d does with the Devil.” The Talmud says, “There is no free man save he who keeps the Torah,” (and it adds, “He who places the yoke of Torah upon himself, is freed from the yoke of government and worldly affairs, but he who spurns the yoke of Torah, has the yoke of government and worldly affairs placed upon him”), but I think my friend would rather have it read, “There is no free man save he who pays taxes.”

    One of my primary arguments against welfare is that not only does it encourage indolence, but it also kills the moral fiber of the general citizenry. Knowing that the government will take care of the poor, the common man stops caring. He could have a poor widow living next-door, but he’d never take the time to bake her a casserole, because he knows the government will take care of her. Were the government to get out of the welfare business, then we would all have to take care of the poor ourselves, which would strengthen the moral fiber of us all. “Wild liberty develops iron conscience. Want of liberty, by strengthening law and decorum, stupefies conscience.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Politics

    • Jeff Gibson permalink
      September 15, 2010 5:12 pm

      Smashing reply, great!

  3. September 14, 2010 7:50 pm

    Dinesh D’Souza in “The Virtues of Prosperity” describes entrepreneurs as people who lie awake at night thinking about what sucks, then go out and solve it.

    A book called “Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems” might also be relevant here.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      September 14, 2010 8:00 pm

      Ah yes! Great book. I hear the author is a very nice guy 🙂

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