The New Coasean Entrepreneur

In a recent issue of Small Business Economics (Vol. 40, Issue 2), Siri Terjesen and Ning Wang interview Ronald Coase (gated copy here). One of the topics touched on is entrepreneurship, and Coase seems to “come out” as quite a Schumpeterian. In answer to the question of what entrepreneurship is, Coase states:

Entrepreneurship involves undertaking new business initiatives, such as setting up a new firm, creating a new market, inventing a new product, experimenting a new way of marketing, retailing, or organizing the production line, and bearing the related risks. These are all novel business endeavors, their outcomes cannot possibly be known in advance. Most of these attempts may fail, but the few successful ones help to introduce fundamental changes to the economy, keeping it innovative.

Interestingly, this entrepreneur is distinct from the “entrepreneur co-ordinator” found in his groundbreaking 1937 essay “The Nature of the Firm,” who is simply a manager who supplants the price mechanism in “directing” resources.

Coase further states that (his Schumpeterian-type) entrepreneurship is important, because it:

is the fountainhead of endogenous changes in the economy, bringing about technological, institutional, and organizational innovation and creating new knowledge. Entrepreneurship drives economic evolution, determining its speed and direction.

Coase also echoes Baumol’s (1968) view that entrepreneurship is absent from economics, for which economics suffers:

[It] is unfortunate … that economics remains detached from the ordinary business of life. … economics does not have much to say about entrepreneurship.

Interestingly, Coase emphasizes that entrepreneurship is primarily of indirect importance to economists, since entrepreneurship has a “lasting impact on the economy.” Coase here goes back to the origin of his ideas, which were spurred by Hayek’s lecture series on the structure of production and the business cycle at LSE in early 1931 – when Coase was an undergraduate business student. As Coase has stated elsewhere, Hayek’s view of capital and the structure of production “absorbed” both students and faculty at LSE for months.

Coase shows how his view on this has not changed, stating that “the structure of production provides a framework to understand entrepreneurship.” In fact, states he: “any trace entrepreneurship leaves on the economy can be found in the structure of production” and it is in this sense that entrepreneurship should be considered and perhaps included in the study of economics.

I have quite a few disagreements with Coase, especially the ideological presumption on which he seems to base his view of transaction costs (which I discuss in a paper currently under review for the Journal of the History of Economic Thought), but his views on entrepreneurship as expressed in this interview is right up my alley. In fact, it dovetails very nicely with my own work on the firm as an entrepreneurial vehicle to establish new structures of production.

Though Coase in his answers repeats some of which has already been made available in articles such as the three lectures published in 1988 (Vol. 4, Issue 1), the interview is a good read. The entrepreneurship part is perhaps that which is most interesting.

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